Time to Get Centered

Those who have spoken out against the creation of a Women’s Center have framed its establishment as a zero-sum game: if women win, everybody else loses. This attitude is unfounded, and displays a misunderstanding of advocates’ concrete reasons for supporting the Center—and confusion about what a Women’s Center really is.

The Women’s Center wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—be a replacement for a Student Center. I have never spoken to an advocate of the Women’s Center who did not also strongly believe that Harvard should found a student center—and as soon as possible. It’s particularly clear to women and others who control proportionately less student space that more space overall is a critical necessity on this campus. But a women’s center and a student center would be so different in size, aims, and funding sources that they’re anything but mutually exclusive.

Supporters of a Women’s Center believe that this is a single, achievable step toward putting social space in the hands of women and men excluded from current prominent public spaces, such as the final clubs system. This would give all undergraduates more social options. Advocates are, however, realistic: the Women’s Center was always intended to be just one facet of the response to the need for social space, not a fix-all. After all, how could one college-controlled space compete with 12 million-dollar-plus mansions?

Women’s Center advocates also believe the center will serve as a safe space. I wish that the idea of “safe space” was no longer needed, but it remains disappointingly relevant to students of all genders on campus. While Harvard as an institution may be committed to the well-being of all, it is a reality that has not yet been achieved. Three on-campus sexual assaults were reported to the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Harvard within the past week. Last year, a passer-by perpetrated a hate crime against one of our classmates. The Harvard anti-discrimination policy does not yet protect us from discrimination based on gender identity. It’s not always evident to people who do not experience it, but everyday discrimination and sex-specific challenges for women on this campus take many forms: being the only female in a physics class, facing harder choices than male peers about balancing future careers and family, having much smaller budgets for their sports teams than the comparable men’s teams, and perhaps most relevant, the fact that only one women’s group—the Radcliffe Choral Society—has office space at Harvard (and they happen to share it with the Glee Club!)

Of course, there should be more space for all groups. Harvard students are active and ambitious, but their organizations need adequate resources to flourish. The renovation of Hilles will greatly improve the lack of office space for our hard-working student groups. However, we cannot forget that women’s groups have traditionally been neglected in the partitioning of student space—perhaps because they made the move to the Yard only when Radcliffe students did, long after Harvard men’s groups had claimed their spaces. A Women’s Center, with computers and bookshelves, would give women leaders freedom from using their own dorm rooms as office space; a common practice of currently homeless organizations. Women and their allies could use the Center to network with one another, collaborate on important projects, create useful connections for future careers, and generate a forum of open debate on gender and its importance in the Harvard community. The social component of the Center is invaluable as well, because even people utterly uninvolved with student organizations would have a place to stop by between classes, grab a snack, and congregate with friends—perhaps, in the process, discovering an event or service that interests them.

Of course, in addition to centralizing resources already available, the Women’s Center can offer new services that were impossible before, due to lack of adequate space. Advocates suggest that a Director for the Center be hired in a model similar to that of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, to oversee women’s experience at Harvard, plan programming for the Center, and represent the interests of female students to the administration—all services that Radcliffe provided as little as 10 years ago, but which subsequently disappeared. Parties, art exhibits, and conferences are among the features that will find a home in the Center, initiated by students and realized with the help of this Director.

All the other schools in Harvard’s peer group have established Women’s Centers not as an empty gesture, but because they appreciate the unique challenges and contributions of the women in their communities. Harvard’s ambitious and intelligent women deserve nothing less, and it is thrilling that the Administration has recognized this and is actively seeking a Director for our Center. In the meantime, Harvard should take note: its peer institutions all managed to create both Women’s Centers and general Student Centers… so why not here, too?

Giselle Schuetz '06 is a History and Science concentrator in Mather House. She is the co-chair of the Radcliffe Union of Students. Tatiana Chaterji '08 is a Government concentrator in Kirkland House. She is the Women's Center Coordinator for the Radcliffe Union of Students.