History on the Hill: the Women’s Center

The Tufts Women's Center pictured on Feb. 3, 2018. Julia McDowell / The Tufts Daily

The Women’s Center first received funding from the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate in December 1972, with the goal of creating an intentional atmosphere addressing matters of specific concern to women, according to the Center’s website. The student group was given a space in the basement of Miller Hall, shared with the Tufts University Abortion Action Coalition. The Center’s first official workshop and discussion, titled  “Women and their Bodies,” took place in March 1972.

Since then, its mission has evolved to consider equality on a much broader scale, with goals that prioritize recognizing the damages of the gender binary as well as breaking down the patriarchy.

According to Jessica Mitzner, the interim program administrator of the Women’s Center, the Center today is meant to be a place open to people of all genders who want to explore and discuss women’s experiences and the role of gender in peoples’ lives. 

“The Women’s Center is a space for education, dialogue and community. We work to create events and programming that will help all of us get more informed about issues related to gender, especially as it intersects with other forms of identity, and we aim for our programming to create opportunities for all of us to discuss the way these issues impact our lives,” Mitzner said. 

Women’s Center intern Kira Lauring said in an email to the Daily that she sees the modern role of the Center as to “provide a physical, central, brave space on campus to facilitate and engage with conversations regarding gender oppression and patriarchy, as it relates power and other forms of oppression. And to support students who may be struggling with the effects of these real issues in their everyday lives.”

The Women’s Center’s creation is particularly significant at Tufts University because while women were first admitted to Tufts in 1892, they were matriculated to Jackson College, the on-campus women’s college associated with Tufts, beginning in 1910. Jackson College was fully integrated with Tufts University in 1980, but Jackson College appeared on women’s diplomas until 2002. 

The Women’s Center predates the merging of Jackson College and Tufts University: It has been a part of the Tufts campus since 1972. From the start, the Women’s Center has sought to “create an atmosphere that is intentional, supportive, and intellectually rich,” according to its website. 

There was a brief period in 1973 when the group running the Center disbanded, but it was started again later in the year. Throughout 1974 and 1975, the Women’s Center programming flourished, with initiatives like the first Women’s Film Festival, the founding of The Rape Collective, and the publishing of the feminist literary magazine Out of the Ashes in spring 1975. 

An external grant helped the Women’s Center expand perception of women’s roles on campus, fueling the establishment of the first Women’s Week and coordinating the Women’s Center Conference in Amherst in spring 1977.

However, the Women’s Center faced setbacks when a fire forced a relocation to Bendetson Hall in April 1977, with a counseling room for the Center in Miner Hall. Budget cuts from the TCU Senate in 1978 resulted in minimal pay for the Center’s Health and Sexuality Counselor Linda Luz-Alterman. 

In 1979, the Women’s Center received funding from TCU Senate to hire a new part-time coordinator. The additional funding allowed for the creation of new programming between 1979 and 1980, including the first “Take Back the Night” march, the Women Centered publication and the Women in Wilderness Leadership Training Project. 

The Women’s Center received more outside support, namely four two-year grants, which gave the Center over $1,000,000 in funding, from the Department of Justice in the fall of 1999. With these grants, the Center established the Campus Violence Prevention Project, which has worked toward coordinating services for victims of violence. More recent history of the Center includes the start of a student-run crisis hotline, Student Sexual Assault Response Assistance, and the launch of Vagina Monologues, both in 2001

The Women’s Center has seen many changes in staff since its start as a small student group. The Center was first able to hire staff in 1974, recruiting Gail Koplow, a feminist therapist, as coordinator. Ruth Shapshay, a public health nurse, and Karen Edlund, a health and sexuality counselor, were also on staff.

Peggy Barrett was hired as the health and sexuality counselor in 1979 and transitioned to Women’s Center director and administrator of women’s, gender and sexuality studies in 1985. Barnett left the Center in 2006 to become the Director of Community Awareness and Prevention Programs at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center

Following the long tenures by Peggy Barnett and successor Steph Gauchel, K. Martinez became director of the Center in 2017. They created P.O.C. Circle as a community space for people of color to build coalitions and solidarity. Martinez left in 2018 to act as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Mazzoni Center. They were recently dismissed from this position, prompting protest. 

Hope Freeman is currently the interim Women’s Center director, in addition to being director of the LGBT Center.

“I volunteered to support the Women’s Center as interim director because the initial search for a Women’s Center Director failed last summer,” Freeman said in an email to the Daily. “I was supported by [the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs] because we wanted to make sure that the Women’s Center constituents knew that they were supported by placing someone directly in the center.”

Today, the Women’s Center hosts a variety of events throughout the year. These include P.O.C. Circle, Dinner and a Movie and Lunch & Learn. Last year saw the founding of Comic Relief, a comedy collective intended to highlight the works of people of color. All upcoming events are listed on the Women’s Center Facebook Page.

Today, the mission of the Women’s Center has expanded to “investigate gender at the intersections of other identities such as race, sexuality, class, and citizenship status.” 

“By centering the experiences of women of color, trans women, nonbinary femmes, and nonbinary folx this allows for a more inclusive space with more diverse conversations and programming,” Freeman said. 

Freeman notes that while women’s centers in general have served varying roles, they have typically catered to the experiences of heterosexual, cisgender white women. Programming at Tufts aims to change this. 

According to Lauring, “intentional changes” following Martinez’s arrival helped to make the Women’s Center “more focused on a lens of justice that focused on the experiences of people with non-dominant racial, sexual, gender, etc. identities.”

While Lauring had not been to the Women’s Center before Martinez’s arrival, she said the programming offered related to her “lived experiences as a queer Asian American person.” Lauring attributes the Women’s Center to her being able to “find a community with people who were also drawn in in that way,” Lauring said. 

Additionally, the Women’s Center hosts a symposium on gender and culture each year. The annual symposium features an array of work, ranging from essays and presentations, to workshops, visual and performance art and works in progress. The topic of the First Annual Women’s Center Symposium, in 2010, was “Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance with Feminism.” Most recently the topic was “Divisions/Redivisions of Labor,” focusing on how identity impacts the work we do. The 2018 topic was “Metaphors of the Body.”

The Women’s Center is ultimately a “space for the entire Tufts community,” Mitzner said. Staff at the Center help to support students through programming as well as providing a space to gather.

“All in all, Women’s Centers are places where community is created and empowerment grows through an intersectional feminist lens; whether it is coupled with an academic department, headquarters for student activism, a place to talk about institutionalized sexism, or even for students to just decompress about their day and what they have experienced in classes,” Freeman said. 

Today, the Women’s Center aims to act as a multipurpose space for students, whether for organized discussions, spontaneous conversations or study sessions.

“This is where I feel Tufts Women’s Center is now. It is a space open to all genders and identities where students are able to talk about topics and issues broadly related to the experiences of women,” Freeman said.

Lauring echoed Freeman’s sentiments, stating that time she has spent in the Women’s Center has broadened her outlook in multifaceted ways.

“It’s a place where I’m always learning new things that change my perspective on the world and how I relate to other people! It’s been an integral and foundational part of my time at Tufts. I really felt lost before I found the Center community,” Lauring said.


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