Where do Women’s Centers fit?

by Heather Shea Gasser

Campus-based women’s centers hold a special place in my heart. The five+ years I spent as the Director of the University of Idaho Women’s Center, as you may have read on my personal blog, were incredibly transformative for me as a feminist, as a student affairs educator, and as an activist. Now as a scholar and doctoral student in a higher education program, I keep going back to the tensions I experienced in the women’s center as I consider my emerging research interests. Somewhere in the long list of the potential topics are the questions: What is the continuing role of women’s centers as organizations within institutions of higher education? Where do women’s centers fit?

I bring this topic to the #SAfeminist blog today because the professional association home to women’s centers since the 1990s (thank you to Juli Parker for the history), the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), just removed all formal representation of women’s center professionals from their governing council. The co-chairs of the Women’s Center Committee have resigned and submitted this open letter to the NWSA governing council. InsideHigherEd.com carried the news story today.

In the letter, former co-chairs, Dr. Gina Helfrich and Dr. Adale Sholock state “NWSA has failed to center the work of Women’s Centers professionals, the front line practitioners of feminism in the academy and so often those who carry the burden of translating women’s and gender theory into action for and alongside students. Instead of providing a welcoming and sustaining home for Women’s Centers professionals, NWSA has repeatedly marginalized Women’s Centers professionals, their research, their work, and their needs.”

While the director of the Women’s Center at Idaho, I attended three NWSA conferences and got connected to other people (as you do at conferences) who do this important work on college and university campuses. In other words, I found my people. While I was not intimately involved in the organization by any means, I admired and learned what it meant to be a women’s center director at the WCC pre-conference and certainly felt deep support among the other participants. I found those who, like me, were struggling with institutional structures that inhibited our ability to create equitable feminist social change. I connected with some directors who had for a long time been committed to reflective practice and scholarship and balanced the roles of researcher and professional. I learned a great deal from other women’s center professionals on what it was to be a feminist and a women’s center director—personally, politically, and, professionally within higher education.

During my short involvement with NWSA, I also heard stories about and directly witnessed what Helfrich and Sholock describe. As I learned more about the organization and the deeply imbedded power structures rooted in academic privilege and credentials (which I had witnessed on my own campus), the more I withdrew from opportunities to become more deeply involved. Instead, I reinvested my time in my professional home, ACPA, which was and continues to be better resource for me as a feminist student affairs educator and scholar. While the WCC Pre-conference experience was absolutely fabulous, beyond listening to deeply intelligent academic papers about interesting topics, I found little help for the larger institutional challenges I was facing around supervision, assessment, and student development within NWSA as a whole. I found all of these resources and more at ACPA. I also found an organization that, while it doesn’t always get it right, is deeply committed to social justice.

This is probably what is most troubling about the marginalization and neglect of women’s centers in NWSA. NWSA is a self-proclaimed feminist organization comprised of people who study structural inequality and intersectionality. How does an organization come to terms with those seemingly incongruences? As Susan Marine stated during an exchange on Twitter, “Marginality of WCs nothing new but especially sad to see in feminist spaces.”

And so, I am writing today on this topic because I am worried about the future of women’s centers as spaces and I am worried about the professionals who run them. What does this move by NWSA do to the women’s center staff who find the WCC in NWSA their primary opportunity to reconnect with the network of colleagues across the country who are leading campus-based women’s centers? We all desperately need a community of support for the deeply challenging work of being, as Sarah Ahmed in her book On Being Included, a “diversity worker” or a “Feminist Killjoy” (ironically, Sarah Ahmed was the keynote speaker for this year’s NWSA).

So what to do? For some who have joint appointments in Women’s Studies, joining another organization is not an option. But for those whose work is about working for and alongside college students, I would like to suggest that you consider reforming your support networks within ACPA. For the reasons already stated, women’s centers would find a strong professional home within ACPA and within its existing structure, including the Commission for Social Justice Educators, the Coalition of Women’s Identities, the Coalition of Men and Masculinities, and the Coalition of LGBT Awareness. Organizationally, it matters very little where you report on your campus. ACPA is NOT JUST a professional home for student affairs. It is a place for higher education administrators, faculty members, professionals in academic affairs, chief diversity officers, and women’s center professionals.

Please join us for our annual convention in March in Montréal, Quebec. We have a pre-convention workshop already scheduled that is right up your alley.

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3 thoughts on “Where do Women’s Centers fit?

  1. Thank you for your support, Heather, and the interesting, thoughtful response you offer here. Gina and I both contend that Women’s Center professionals routinely do not see opportunities for leadership with NWSA and that their move toward Member at Large positions, while theoretically open to everyone, will not result in Women’s Center professionals running for office. Your experience is shared widely.

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