Shaped by a Crucible Experience: The CWE

Shaped by a Crucible Experience: The Center for Women at EmoryEditors’ Note: The Center for Women at Emory (CWE) occupies an important place in the recently published history of Emory, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads: The Emerging Life of Emory University, edited by Gary S. Hauk and Sally Wolff King (Bookhouse, 2010). Along with a chapter on the development of the Department of Women’s Studies and profiles of influential women faculty members, the book’s chapter on the CWE brings to prominent light the role of women at Emory in the past half century. The chapter is excerpted here with the permission of the editors.

By Ali P. Crown and Jan Gleason

 A series of controversial events involving race and gender in the late 1980s tested Emory to its core and pushed the University to a new understanding of itself as a diverse community. Having expended considerable effort in opening the path to parity in the numbers of women and minorities, Emory now was forced to find ways for them to be supported, heard, valued, and included as full members of the community. These events served as crucible experiences for Emory and led to the creation of the Center for Women at Emory. . . .

The presence of large numbers of women and minorities on campus meant that they had achieved a parity of sorts within the traditionally white, male University, but questions continued to surface about the support and processes for their full inclusion in the community.
By 1989, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) had been monitoring the progress of women at Emory for more than a decade, and that year the commission published an extensive report that raised concerns about the status of women. These concerns found expression in two major recommendations: first, that Emory hire and promote women staff and faculty with an even more vigorous affirmative-action program; and, second, that Emory develop a comprehensive leave policy to include paid parental leave for faculty and staff. The report, published in a September 1989 issue of Campus Report, included President James T. Laney’s response: “The report makes a persuasive case that the concerns of the staff of the University are not adequately heard at the highest levels of the various divisions and of the University. . . .”

Emory’s development in the 1980s had created an ambitious intellectual agenda for the University, but in September 1989 Laney pointed out some of the tensions inherent in this agenda when he addressed the faculty. “The very growth of the eighties has put strains on our community,” he said. Taking stock of Emory’s progress, Laney asked a pivotal question: “What kind of university do we want to become? . . . How do we keep Emory humane?”

In answer, he pointed to the “moral authority” in teaching, an endeavor through which “one invests in another life. . . . We want Emory to be a place of intellectual ferment, . . . where the encounter with ideas challenges our most fundamental presuppositions and makes us question our own biases. . . .”1

The Fire under the Crucible

On February 7, 1990, the front page of the Emory Wheel reported on incidents that would become the spark for the creation of the Women’s Center: “Two rapes reported on campus,” proclaimed the headline; “one student arrested.” According to the Wheel, both of the alleged rapes had occurred on Fraternity Row [now Eagle Row] on the previous Saturday at two different locations. In both cases, Chief of Police Ed Medlin said the victims were “acquainted” with their attackers, but the circumstances were different. . . . As a result of legal confidentiality requirements, additional factual details about the assaults were not made public at that time. . . .

The two rapes set off a tumult of campus activism and activity. President Laney read a statement at a subsequent press briefing announcing that a “special task force” would be appointed “to examine comprehensively the way that the abuse of alcohol and drugs, as well as violent or discriminatory behavior toward individuals and groups, work together to undermine our University community.”2

Later that month, a group of graduate students weighed in on the issue. In a letter to Laney and William H. Fox, dean of Campus Life, they reiterated the need for immediate action by the administration to “improve our common life” and pressed for the creation of a women’s center. . . . Administratively and physically independent of women’s studies, the center would meet “educational, social, political, and cultural needs” not being met through existing structures.

By early March, Laney had appointed twenty-five faculty and staff members, students, and alumni to serve on the Task Force on Security and Responsibility, chaired by Barbara A. B. “Bobbi” Patterson (then associate chaplain, later senior lecturer in religion). Charging the group to find ways to “improve security and ensure responsibility in community life by recognizing and honoring diversity,” Laney suggested eight topics for particular focus, including “sensitivity to gender and ethnic diversity.”

The task force’s report, published in the April 27, 1990, issue of Emory Report, covered a broad range of community life. One of the report’s twenty-four recommendations called for “creation of a Women’s Resource Center to address women’s concerns through social, educational, and support programs for both men and women.” The administration responded positively to many of the recommendations, including the proposal to create a women’s center. In a May 16, 1990, address to the Board of Visitors, Laney reported,

The tumult on campus this spring has suggested that the old coordinates by which we measured our life in this community are no longer adequate. . . . I have to confess that, for a long time, in my own kind of simple-minded way, I thought that numbers were what this sort of place was about. You opened the gates of admission to new students and faculty and staff, you increased the numbers of women, increased the numbers of minorities, recruited more international students—and, lo and behold, it all would come together, and you would have the new university. Not so . . . The leadership that is perceptive and visionary enough to understand the new world aborning has got to be shaped in the crucible of experiences like those that happened this spring at Emory.

Out of the Crucible

With this new personal and institutional understanding that additional support structures would be needed for the full participation of women and minorities in the Emory community, work began to create the women’s center. In a July 1990 letter, Patterson wrote to Jan Gleason, the new chair of the PCSW, suggesting that the PCSW take responsibility for creating the center and emphasizing that it not “become ‘ghettoized’ into a particular interpretive model of feminism. . . .” Thus began the PCSW’s early role in the creation of the women’s center. . . .

As a group of volunteers, however, PCSW members were concerned that they lacked expertise to carry out the responsibility of creating the center. Gleason wrote to Laney . . . to report the commission’s recommendation that the University hire a consultant to assist in the development of the center. She added that the commission was anxious to see an advisory committee appointed by the end of October.

As the community became clearer about its vision, it also grew impatient with the slow pace of creating the center. . . . [In November 1990] the undergraduate student group CHOICES presented a petition with 672 signatures to Secretary of the University Thomas Bertrand, demanding that a committee to create the center be named immediately. Later that month, Bertrand received another missive, from the PCSW Faculty Concerns Committee, signed by thirty-one women and men, also expressing urgency. Having gathered input at a series of open forums, they observed,

A women’s center could provide a focal point for addressing ongoing problems, such as violence, in a way that is neither fragmented nor simply reactive. Of equal importance is the center’s ability to enrich the campus’s intellectual and social life. Attentiveness to women’s cultural, aesthetic, intellectual, and social contributions could be greatly expanded by a women’s center. Finally, such a center could provide a context for Emory’s women to find resources they need because of the peculiar problems they face in the academy and in the world as women.

The letter went on to say that the center should include all of the constituencies of women on campus; provide a central meeting place for women with diverse interests; develop programs in diverse areas, including those focused on health; house a library and resource center; and welcome men. Consensus was clearly developing about a model for a center that would best serve the entire community. . . .

As the spring semester unfolded, progress on the center gained speed. In February 1991, Laney appointed an advisory committee, chaired by Ali P. Crown, associate director of executive programs in the business school. . . . The advisory committee, charged with studying and formally recommending a model for a women’s center, included undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty, and ex officio members representing the president’s office, the PCSW, the Task Force on Security and Responsibility, and the Division of Campus Life.

Maria Luisa “Papusa” Molina, director of the Women’s Resource and Action Center at the University of Iowa, visited campus on February 21 and led a retreat for the PCSW and the advisory committee. She noted that a women’s center, in order to be effective, must be structured and developed to profit from and promote positive relationships with the central administration and other women’s constituencies. . . . The committee envisioned the center as a resource for services and programs to support women throughout the University, as an advocate for “the full participation of women in the community,” as a promoter of freedom and openness, and as “a forum for women’s cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, intellectual, and social life.”

The Center Opens

After nearly another year of planning, study, and a national search, the Emory Women’s Center opened in September 1992. President Laney appointed Ali P. Crown as its first director. The origin of the Emory Women’s Center, traced to the two 1990 campus date rapes, mirrored the origins of many women’s centers. . . . Frequently, a rape or a legal action by a woman faculty member was the catalyst for a center’s creation. Centers were often established to raise awareness about the need for equity and safety and to help women see that the power of their numbers could lead to institutional change. By 1990, there were several hundred women’s centers on college campuses in the United States. Today, there are more than 500, and new ones continue to be established. . . .

Because Emory’s center was designed to represent a wide constituency and a variety of issues, the early plan called for the director to report to the president’s office. But the center’s initial physical location was less than presidential. A September 28, 1992, Wheel headline announced, “Center opens to empower Emory women”; it was accompanied by a photo of a trailer that would become the center’s home, delivered on a flatbed truck and set down behind the Dobbs University Center loading dock, where it remained for the next twelve years. . . .

Inside the front door of the trailer, however, visitors found themselves transformed by its warm, comfortable ambience. . . . Though not appealing on the outside, and by no means majestic within, the trailer became a haven for students, faculty, and staff. . . .

During its first twelve years, its full-time staff included the director and a succession of support persons—almost all of whom were recent Emory College graduates taking a hiatus between college and graduate school. While this was an ideal mentoring model, the practical side of this arrangement, based in slim resources, meant that in the center’s first fourteen years, eleven women filled this support position before the center obtained funding for a second career-track person, who eventually became an assistant director for programs. This long-awaited growth of the staff occurred simultaneously with the center’s 2004 move to newly renovated space on the third floor of Cox Hall, in the hub of the campus. . . .

As the women’s center developed a full complement of programs, it provided a formal mechanism to support women and to let their voices be heard. Emory was listening to those voices and began creating programs and resources in response. But needs change over time, and the center needed to continue evolving. One early feature, however, remained constant: the center did not duplicate services offered elsewhere on campus. Instead, it worked in partnership with other resources to strengthen everybody. Early programs emphasized safety, for example, and the center worked with the director of sexual assault services, also a fairly new position, and the Coalition against Rape at Emory (CARE), a student group, to develop strong resources. When it became clear that graduate students, post docs, and staff had no place but bathroom stalls to pump their breasts for infant feeding, the center adapted its quiet room into a lactation space. When nursing moms entered, they put a sign on the doorknob identifying the room as the “nursing nest.” For many years, it was the only dedicated lactation space on campus and was in constant use. . . .

When Emory developed a new vision statement in 2004 and a strategic plan in 2005 to execute that vision, the Long-Term Planning Committee of the center’s advisory board developed a new strategic plan for the center in 2006. The goals and initiatives of the center’s strategic plan were focused to state explicitly its contributions to one of Emory’s overarching goals: to create a community-engaging society. The plan was informed by the University’s Vision Statement but reflected the board’s particular passion for women, stating, “During the next decade, the Center for Women at Emory will become a change agent for the University so that women are fully integrated as equal participants in all aspects of University life.”

After sixteen years of center leadership, Crown retired in August 2008, and Dona Yarbrough, director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center at Tufts University, was named the new director. Ambitious plans are in place to ensure that women will be heard and that a welcoming community that addresses women’s concerns thrives for generations of women who have yet to arrive at Emory. 3


1 Campus Report, October 9, 1989, 11.

2 Campus Report, February 12, 1990, 3.

3 Acknowledgments: The authors wish to thank the dedicated and caring staff of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, for their assistance in locating original source materials for this article. Portions of this essay first appeared in the Fall 2007 Women’s News & Narratives.