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Searching for Community

The Women's Center Debate

By Maggie S. Tucker

For the last 19 years, activists have been asking Harvard and Radcliffe to create a women's center on campus.

And for 19 years, Harvard and Radcliffe have found ways to say "no."

Little has changed in the interim. In 1971, students first called for a women's center, saying first called for a women's center, saying that the dispersal of women through the river houses had left women on campus without a sense of community. Eight years later, students circulated a petition that said "there can be no doubt that women need a place of their own, a supportive environment where women can escape the peculiar tension which pervades academic and social life at Harvard/Radcliffe."

From time to time over these years, Harvard or Radcliffe has provided temporary facilities, but students have consistently called those provisions inadequate. Now, student activists are again circulating a petition, to stress "the necessity of instituting a fully-staffed and funded Women's Center at Harvard/Radcliffe."

Harvard is really behind the times," says Sheila M. Allen '93, who noted that every other Ivy League school already has a women's center. "It's really not that radical or earthshaking an idea," she says.

As before, students say the single room currently used by the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) as a center for women's issues is woefully inadequate. They say that the room, located on the top floor of Agassiz House in Radcliffe Yard, is too small, inconveniently located and inaccessible. Meanwhile, even that facility's existence is in jeopardy. Based on what Radcliffe president Linda S. Wilson has said about her plans for reorganizing Agassiz House, students expect to lose what space they have there, and to be left only with the use of the Lyman Common Room. Although that common room, which has a capacity of 200 people, would be adequate for receptions or meetings, students say, it would simply not provide them with the office space, facilities or independence they need.

Ironically, students say that Wilson--the logical advocate for a women's center--has proven one of its most formidable obstacles in the administration.

Wilson has consistently failed to support a women's center: When students met with her last month, she discouraged them from doing any fundraising for a center.

She also said she would take charge of planning of meeting of the women's center task force, which the students had proposed. They say she has still not done so.

"Right now, Linda Wilson is more a hindrance than a help," says Davida F. McDonald '92, president of the Women's Alliance.

For instance, according to Jill H. Casid, a firs-year graduate student, Harvard deans have said they are willing to support the center, but have balked at taking a strong stand on the proposal because they don't want to step on Wilson's toes.

We've been stonewalled," said Casid. "The problem is that she says nominally that she is supportive of looking into the question, but then she just keeps deferring everything."

Some students say they just wish Wilson would make up her mind and take some kind of public stand on the issue.

"The main obstruction has been her vagueness: she hasn't said `no,' and she certainly hasn't said yes,'" said Maria DeGuzman, a fourth-year graduate student. "It's kind of a miasma."

"I think Wilson needs to see strong student support for the issue," said Sophie A Volpp '85. "I'm hoping that we will be able to convince her."

In an interview with the Crimson, Wilson would not say flat out whether she supported or opposed the creation of a women's center. Wilson would only go so far as to say that the issues behind the students' proposals--mainly the need for a stronger women's community--are significant.

"I think they are too important to give an immediate, off-the-cuff, superficial response to," says Wilson.

The Proposal

The women's center that student activists are now proposing would be a multi-room facility, preferably located in or near Harvard Yard, and staffed by a professional. They say such a center could provided a new forum for discussing issues of gender and society, as well as centralize informational and support services for women.

"It would pull the women's community here together," said Serena Y. Volpp '92, co-president of RUS, "It would create a larger women's community." But Volpp stressed that a center would be more than just "a supportive social environment."

"It would perform a broad-based educational service, and a base for advocacy and social change," Volpp said.

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