women's centers

Women’s Centers: What They Do and How You Can Help Preserve Them

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Amber Hathaway

I am a physics graduate student, campus organizer, aspiring horror writer, crafter, and amateur genealogist from Maine

Campus women’s centers*, once a hallmark of institutional support for women on campus, are at risk. Some have already been disbanded and with budget cuts to public education looming on the horizon, surviving programs may soon suffer a similar fate unless we take action to reinstate and preserve them.

Women’s centers emerged on college campuses beginning in the 1960s to provide institutional support to women students and faculty. At the time, women were a minority on most campuses. For some colleges, the matter of admitting women students had been a contentious battle and that animosity did not evaporate when these institutions became coeducational. Women’s role in society was changing, and few campuses were prepared to accommodate this.

One major issue that many early women’s centers focused on was promoting educational opportunities for married women. While work-life balance remains an issue for contemporary American women, at the time there were far fewer supports in place for married women, especially women with young children, who wanted to further their education. Women’s centers were often able to provide some level of assistance to women transitioning back into the academic climate. As institutions have changed, these centers have evolved to address the shifting needs of women (and folks of all gender identities) on campus.

The Women’s Resource Center (WRC) at the University of Maine serves as a good example of the types of services that women’s centers have historically offered. The WRC was founded in 1991 to promote and maintain a positive and supportive climate for women at UMaine and to connect with women’s groups across the state. Over the years, its services included providing information about reproductive and sexual health care, confidential counseling for survivors of rape and sexual assault, programming to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM, workshops on salary negotiation, and networking opportunities for women faculty. The WRC also partnered with the Multicultural Center and LGBTQ groups as well as other groups representing the needs of marginalized communities to examine the intersection of gender with other facets of identity. The physical space doubled as a repository for materials on and for women and as a place where women’s groups could meet and feminist events could be held. The WRC director also served as the advisor for the campus feminist organization, the Student Women’s Association (SWA), providing mentoring and support for the group’s initiatives.

The WRC’s fate follows the trajectory of numerous programs devoted to women and other minority groups on campuses across the country. Shortly after the long term director retired, the WRC was quietly eliminated over the summer and the space reallocated to another group.

Members of the UMaine community were dismayed by the school’s decision to eliminate the WRC, as it took away important resources that many on campus and in the larger community had relied on. Aside from the girls’ STEM initiative, the programs that the WRC offered have not been picked up by other groups. The Safe Campus Project, the division of the WRC which offered support to survivors of rape and sexual assault, was dismantled shortly before the WRC defunding. The University has since created the Office for Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention, but it is more in place to ensure that UMaine is Title IX compliant than to meet the needs of survivors on campus. With the recent implementation of the mandated reporting policy, widely criticized by students and faculty alike, survivors are left with few people they can talk to if they do not want to report their assault.

The Student Women’s Association at UMaine has been campaigning to get the WRC reinstated. What we want is a safe space for women and people of all genders on campus. Services we hope it will offer include free menstrual hygiene products to folks on campus who cannot afford them, reproductive and sexual health information, and confidential counseling for survivors of rape and sexual assault. Members of SWA have been working with administrators to get the space and resources we need for the center, but we still have a long battle ahead.

What can you do to help your local women’s center? If your local college or alma mater currently has a women’s center, keep an eye on what’s happening with the center. Get in touch with the director and find out how you can be notified if there are any proposed budget cuts or changes to the program.

If a program has already been eliminated, provide support for its reinstatement. This can include relatively small measures like signing a petition (the UMaine WRC has a petition here) or spreading the word on social media. If you have a media platform, use it. Campuses don’t want to be perceived as unsupportive to women, so the more publicity you can draw to their choice to eliminate the center, the more pressure they will feel to reinstate it. Given the current administration, women’s centers and centers for other minorities are needed now as much as ever.

*Note: many contemporary centers also offer support to people who do not identify as women and some have changed their institutional names to reflect that. I use the term “women’s center” as a historical term to encompass all centers which have placed emphasis on the needs of women on campus.