Catharine R. Stimpson's closing remarks at BCRW 20th anniversary dinner, 1993

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After Dinner Comments Barnard Women's Center Dinner Friday, April 23, 1993 Catharine R. Stimpson


Tonight, we are in a mood to party. We are proud of the Barnard Women's Center. We are confident and enthusiastic about its future. We want the Center to be as courageous as Sojourner Truth, as wise as Margaret Mead and Mirra Komarovsky, as wealthy as Queen Elizabeth (either the First or the Second will do), and as spunky as Nancy Drew.

I have no desire to dampen the spirits of this crowd, to seem to be a pedantic party-pooper. Nevertheless, I wish to begin by evoking a figure from history, one of the great writers in world literature, Christine de Pisan. In l389, she was an Italian woman living in France. Her father, spurning the conventional wisdom about girls, had educated her. Her ‘mother had been. a more obsequious.servant of convention. Her mother, Christine later said, had wanted to keep her "busy with spinning and silly girlishness, following the common custom of women." In l389, Christine was also young, 25 years old, but she was a widow, grieving a beloved husband, with 3 little children.

This single parent made a radical, fateful choice: to support herself and the 3 children by her pen. She became the first professional woman writer in Europe. In 1405, she wrote something

wonderful, The Book of the City of Ladies, a defense of women and

CRS3 like. It was due for a long consciousness—raising session with Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. The City of Ladies had lost the militancy of Minerva and the poetry of Sappho. In brief, The City of Ladies had to do more for women.

An assistant.professor of English, with.dark.and tousled hair, I was one of the restless. So were many of the people at this party. Not all of us, of course, had dark and tousled hair. The president of the City of Ladies on the Heights, Dr. Martha E. Peterson, took note of the clamorings and.appointed a Task Force on Barnard and the Educated Woman. Its seventeen members included trustees, faculty, students, alumnae, and administrators. I‘was the "Chairman," yes, the "Chairman." In April, 1971, we issued our report. Christine de Pisan would, I believe, have guffawed at the prose, but Christine would also, I believe, have been a Task Force member. "Our most general suggestion," the Task Force stated primly and firmly, "is that Barnard create and support a Women's Center with research library, competent director, adequate staff, and close connections to the college and to the life of undergraduates."

In May, 1971, President Peterson accepted this suggestion. She selected an Executive Committee and a part-time Acting Director, that tousled assistant professor of English. I served for a year. Jane Gould, who gave the Center its identity, began her invaluable tenure in 1972. Temma Kaplan, who urged us to see the differences among women and to work against the differences that harm us all,

followed Jane. Now Leslie J. Calman, whom I remember as a guitar-

CRS5 Committee. There was to be background music before the program began, provided by a woman musician. The event was a panel of 8 men, including William McGill, then the President of the City of Men. They would address the.question, "Male Chauvinism at Columbia: Does It Exist?" some notes from a planning meeting for the event read laconically, "Never before have so many men had so many previous engagements." Not surprisingly, some turmoil accompanied the bustle within 101. Not everyone found the Center within the City of Ladies on the Heights either necessary or a place of absolute reason, rectitude, and justice. An example: at the October 1971 Executive Committee gathering, Pat Graham reported about a planning meeting for a project that the Center was urging the Seven Sister colleges to undertake—--more specifically, a roster of women scholars. The minutes note, "Schools not represented were Smith (which didn't feel it was sufficiently important to come) and Wellesley (which may be going coed)." Not everyone approved of our first brochure and logo. Striking though the graphics were, they had been designed by a man. Not everyone thought that the Center should have a permanent director. Some people feared that a permanent director would violate democratic principles. Moreover, they groused, a permanent director might use the Center and its vast resources for self-aggrandizing purposes. In the Spring of 1972, some students got angry about their role in the Center's governing structure and, with great legitimacy, about the role of women in color in the

Center's activities. The City of Ladies on the Heights was then the

CRS7 Committee meeting was going on. The room was so full of people that Myra could not get in. So she stood in the doorway and gave us an armful of papers, the nucleus of the Center's archives and library. I think, too, with great gratitude, of Elly Elliott, urging that the income of a bequest from Helen Rogers Reid be devoted to the Center, the nucleus of our financial stability. In part, too, the crowned ladies of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice must have realized that the Center wanted to be of use, in

ways great and small. Between September, 1971 and June, 1972, the

wfledgling Center answered 261 letters of inquiry. quote from

one of them, dated December, 1971, from a woman from Canada. She said that she was trying to bring feminist insights to Canada and was planning some seminars. Her advertising slogan, she fantasized, was to be , "SEE LIVE WOMEN LIBERATIONISTSII THEY WALK AND TALK AND ANSWER QUESTIONS!" She went on, "I have just looked over your ‘Women's Center brochure; great. be possible to have copies of the syllabi of the courses, especially your course, the History of women in late Roman Empire, and the two courses on history of ‘women in America? I sort of wish I were going to college now, don't you? Still, we can appreciate what is being done, and help it along, too. The Women's Center looks like a marvelous thing; and the women's colleges should take the lead in this. I congratulate you."

In that first year, the Center started its tradition of bringing ever more diverse voices to the City of ladies on the

Heights. It sponsored speakers: Sharon Avery, a founder of the

CRS9 which we now label, so undramatically, Second Wave Feminism. All of us, men and women, who swam and dove in this wave wanted nothing less than the victory of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice.

This victory is not yet at hand. For many women, especially the poorer among us, it is not even close to hand. Yet, think of what the crowned Ladies of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice see when they look at higher education in the United States alone. The Center in the City of Ladies on the Heights is but one of nearly 70 in the United States and Canada. There are women's studies courses in over 2/3rds of our universities; nearly 1/2 of our 4-year colleges; about 1/4 of our 2-year institutions. Altogether, about 2000 colleges and universities have some sort of a women's studies curriculum. Overt discrimination is illegal. So is sexual harassment. Hiring is more equitable. Between l972 and 1989, the proportion of women who were assistant professors grew from 24% of the professoriate to over 38%. Wellesley is still a women's college, but its president during the 1980s, Nan Keohane, became the first woman president of Duke University. More women and entering colleges and universities. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of Native American women increased 30%; of Asian American women 99%; of African-American women 16%; of Hispanic women 73%; of white women 15%. In 1986, women became the majority of the earners of bachelor's and master's degrees.

.At the end of The Book of the Cities of Ladieg, Christine addresses Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. "My most honored ladies,"

she writes, ". . .our City is entirely finished and completed, where