A Space for All Students
A women’s center should be addressed as part of a larger initiative for student space
The unexpected and dramatic announcement, made with no fanfare last Wednesday by Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd at a small forum hosted by the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), is a misstep for a variety of reasons. Chiefly, the women’s center seems to be a solution to an imaginary problem.
The women’s center has been alternately billed as a “social space” that might include a café, a “safe space” for those embattled with their gender and sexuality, and a “centralized space for student groups dealing with women’s issues.”
RUS and others argue that “social space” set aside for women (though not exclusively, since that wouldn’t fly with Harvard’s discrimination policies) is necessary because all-male final clubs control the vast majority of purely social space at Harvard. What they don’t take into account is that this space is privately financed. The College should not be pressured to help fix a social space gap for which it is not responsible. Of course, there’s a larger problem, too. Not nearly one-quarter of men at Harvard are final clubs members, and male non-members have even less entitlement to enter the clubs than women at the door do. This is simply to say that there is a much larger, more pressing need for general student space.
We take particular exception to the argument for “safe space”—the term implies that there is something dangerous about Harvard at large, which is false. Harvard should be, and is, committed to keeping all of its students “safe,” and a call for “safe space” has lately become little more than a buzz word with, thankfully, diminishing rhetorical impact. Women’s center advocates would better serve their cause by stressing the one legitimate role that the space could play: as a place to centralize resources for women, such as the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Still, these resources could easily be gathered together without a formal women’s center to house them. If RUS cared as much about consolidating these resources as it does about securing a new women’s center, then they would push for this step immediately instead of using it as their one valid bargaining chip.
Finally, there is the issue of office space—Providing offices for RUS, Girlspot, Athena Theater Company, the Association of Harvard Black Women, and the other clubs in the pro-women’s center camp does not a “women’s center” make. Does anyone really think that this center, as it is currently conceived, will truly be a place where many women will congregate? Rather, the far more likely outcome will be a women’s center that becomes an exclusive space for the groups that pushed for its creation. Calling such a place a “women’s center” is disingenuous.
The integration of Harvard and Radcliffe—bringing together space that was once gender-segregated—was a victory for equal rights. That women’s groups would now be calling for gender-specific space is a matter of heavy irony. And what’s being cast as a lack of space for women is really just a symptom of a larger, more pressing problem: a need for an integrated student center for all Harvard undergraduates.
Proponents of a women’s center need a collective reality check. There is limited space available on campus, and undergraduates have limited political capital in claiming portions of it. Building a women’s center means displacing worthier endeavors. And acquiescing to a separate women’s center will, sadly, be treated by the administration as an amelioration of the demand for a larger student center. Altogether, even after many years of pressing for a women’s center, the groups advocating for it still have not articulated its usefulness, other than to say that other Ivy League schools have one and, thus, Harvard should too.
Thankfully, Dean Kidd has already said that plans are “at the beginning of the ground floor of a very open process.” Better it stays that way. Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 has said that “the assignment of student space” is a “frontburner issue.” Gross can back up his words by refraining from hiring a director to oversee a women’s center and instead hiring a director to consolidate and better apportion existing student space, as well as lobby for and oversee the construction of a more important, consolidated student center. Therein, women’s groups, in the same manner as other groups, could apply for office space and hold meetings.
Nothing, and certainly not a women’s center, could be more useful to Harvard students.