The Emory Women’s Center, as its director is quick to point out, cannot be all things to all women.

But in the ten years since the center opened its doors in a trailer behind Dobbs University Center, that hasn’t stopped it from trying.

“Looking back, I don’t know where ten years have gone,” says Director Ali P. Crown. “But I know I could not have done it by myself. Every year, we have reached new people, and there are many who use the Women’s Center regularly. About four thousand people now attend our events or use our services on an annual basis. That’s a lot for two women in a trailer to be taking care of. I don’t know how we do it, but we have to, so we do. The Women’s Center is so much bigger than me, so much more important than one person.”

As the center’s first and only director, Crown has taken sixteen hundred square feet and an assistant and, from these modest beginnings, spun a wide web of support and community for Emory women, from faculty to freshmen and secretaries to senior staff. One of the most notable aspects of the Emory Women’s Center is that it seeks to serve not only female students, but all women on campus, making it both a backdrop for scholarly exploration and a community resource. With a wide-ranging mission to provide services and educational programs, advocate for women throughout the University, promote social and professional equality, and serve as “a forum for women’s cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, intellectual, and social life,” the trailer has become a hub of feminine energy. The Women’s Center marked its tenth anniversary with a gala celebration in December–both a milestone to be savored, and an opportunity to take stock.

“The Emory Women’s Center has secured for women at Emory a locus of activity and a haven for thought and respite,” says University President William M. Chace. “I am inspired by its past, but I am more interested in opening up its future than in idolizing its achievements. For such a place, the years that will really count are in the future.”

Women whose institutional memories reach back to the 1960s and ’70s recall that there were scant resources available for the minority gender on campus. During “Conversations with Six Notable Emory Women,” a panel discussion hosted last fall by the Women’s Center in observance of its tenth anniversary, Director of Educational Studies Eleanor Main (left) remembered coming to Emory in 1969 as an assistant professor of political science, one of six women on the entire College faculty. Women students were heavily outnumbered, too, as Emory College had been coed only since 1953. The Women’s Caucus, a small group of faculty, staff, and graduate students that met informally over weekly brown bag lunches in the early 1970s, discussed myriad issues including child care, pay equity, safety, and equal access to University resources–restrooms, for instance. Some buildings had only one ladies’ room, tucked away in a remote corner of an upper floor.

In 1976, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) was established by President Sanford S. Atwood, a year before James T. Laney took the University’s helm. It has served as an influential advisory body to the president ever since and helped advance women at the University on many fronts. But the going was sometimes painfully slow. When Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, came to Emory some eight years later, the Women’s Center, the Institute for Women’s Studies, and the Clifton Childcare Center–now vital resources for many Emory women–had yet to materialize. Fivush was one of only four new female faculty members hired in 1984. In her first departmental meeting, she looked around to find she was one of two women in a room of twenty men. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ ” she says.

Although the idea of a place just for women had been discussed among PCSW members and administrators for some time, it was ultimately concern for the safety of Emory women that served as the catalyst for the creation of the Emory Women’s Center. During one weekend in January 1990, two date rapes were committed by male students on the Emory campus, shocking the community. President Laney swiftly formed a Task Force on Security and Responsibility to study the shortcomings of campus security and recommend solutions. The task force suggested establishing a “safe space,” among other measures.

At that time, Crown had been at Emory for more than a decade, serving as associate director for executive education and special assistant to the dean at Goizueta Business School, as well as holding posts in the law and medical schools. She also had been a member of the President’s Commission since 1980. “Ever since I arrived on campus I’ve been rabble-rousing for women,” says Crown, who was named director of the Women’s Center in 1991 following a national search.

“Because I am the first director,” Crown says, “it has been not just my responsibility but my privilege to set the tone and culture for the center.”

During her first semester in the fall of 2001, graduate student Andy Lowry (left) was walking through the parking lot behind the Dobbs University Center, frustrated, dejected, and seriously considering leaving Emory and going back home to Chicago. Out of the blue, she happened upon the Emory Women’s Center, which she had never noticed before. Lowry walked in and met Crown, who invited Lowry into her office to talk. At that moment, Lowry says, her Emory experience took a turn for the better.

“Personally, I feel that the Women’s Center is the main reason I came back to Emory for a second semester,” she says. “I really felt that I wasn’t receiving the kind of support I was looking for and was not finding a community of women who could address what I wanted to talk about–the low level of feminist activism on campus, and the lack of diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. I literally found the Women’s Center by mistake, and Ali was there and free and able to talk, which was great.”

Lowry had stumbled into a place generally humming with activity. Crown and her staff have worked hard to make the trailer a comfortable, useful space for the women who come there, from the extensive three-thousand-volume library to the bathroom, adorned with female empowerment posters and health news. The Nursing Nest, a cozy room with soft chairs and a dim lamp, was designed for nursing mothers who work or study at Emory. Free consultation with a counselor is offered weekly, and a massage therapist periodically sets up shop as well. Even the narrow hallway has become a historical display, lined with dozens of photos documenting the center’s triumphs and the progress of Emory women. Many women, like Lowry, simply wander in, curious or just looking to talk.

“The Women’s Center is a very relaxing place,” says Marisa Picheny, a senior who does work-study in the center, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Michelle Picheny ’00C. “There’s always music playing and candles going, it smells nice, and it’s bright and very friendly. Everyone who comes in seems to feel very comfortable there.”

Relaxing it may be, but the Women’s Center is also a nexus of feminist activism. The center offers a range of programs devoted to empowering women, protecting them from violence, and achieving gender equity in the workplace and the larger community.

“There is no typical day at Emory Women’s Center,” says Jenny Williams (left), special programs assistant. “Sometimes it’s very quiet. More typically, it’s fairly bustling–we have anywhere from two to four student workers and volunteers in and out, people coming in to check out books or wanting a tour, a nursing mother, the phones ringing, and perhaps we have a few massages scheduled as well. Other days, the traffic is incredible. And then someone walks in the door in crisis–a woman getting the runaround when trying to find out about prenatal care, or with a professional crisis, or with a friend desperately needing treatment for an eating disorder. We stop whatever we’re doing to help these women with whatever they need.”

A highlight of the Women’s Center year is the observance of National Women’s History Month in March, a tradition since 1993. Featured speakers have included the authors of the landmark book Our Bodies, Ourselves; noted feminist author Naomi Wolf; and Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier. In 1994, largely due to the success of Emory’s events, Crown was asked to chair the Georgia Women’s History Month Committee, an initiative of then-Governor Zell Miller.

Another of the center’s oldest programs, established in 1993, is also one of its most successful: Healthy Women 2000, a monthly lunchtime series of talks on women’s health issues. The annual Mary Lynn Morgan Lecture on women in the health professions, begun in 2000, also brings distinguished scholars to speak on women’s health, many of whom hail from Emory’s own health and science departments. Morgan graduated from the Emory University School of Dentistry in 1943 and was the second woman to become a member of the Board of Trustees in 1974.

In other ongoing efforts, the Women’s Center’s biannual newsletter, Women’s News and Narratives, has received increasing acclaim since 1993. A reading and lecture series features female writers of genre fiction. The Sexual Assault Consortium, created in 1993, meets at the center regularly to keep tabs on women’s safety. And two recent programs, “Unsung Heroines” and “Telling Our Stories,” were created to spotlight ordinary Emory women who are making extraordinary contributions to the life of the University and the Atlanta community.

While most of the action at the Women’s Center has a decidedly feminist bent, seeking to empower women on all social, political, economic, and professional fronts–Crown herself has never denied her own feminist agenda–she also wants all women, regardless of their views, to feel welcome there. But she acknowledges the center may not appeal to everyone. “You don’t have to say, ‘I’m a feminist, so I’ll go to the Women’s Center,’ or, ‘I’m not, so I won’t,’ ” Crown says. “Some women who come here identify as feminist and some don’t. But we do feel like the center overall has a feminist identity.”

“A lot of my research is connected to feminist activism,” says Lowry, who is working toward a Ph.D. in women’s studies and focusing on reproductive health in African American women. “The farther you go in higher education, there tends to be a split between your scholarly studies and then what you do in terms of activism. For me, they are much more intertwined, and my involvement in the Women’s Center really helps me to maintain that.”

Psychology professor Fivush agrees that the center provides a lively counterpart to the scholarly pursuits of many female students and faculty. An integral part of the center’s mission is to enrich the academic life of Emory women by providing fertile ground for feminist thought and intellectual exchange. As director of the Institute for Women’s Studies from 1996 to 1999, Fivush looked to the Women’s Center to help bridge the gaps between disciplines and interests.

“The center was a remarkable resource for creating and promoting joint projects, speakers, and workshops for graduate students,” she says. “It was very much a critical part of my ability to direct a really integrated Institute for Women’s Studies.”

One of Crown’s constant priorities has been to address concerns about the safety of women on campus. In the center’s early days, she recruited Lieutenant Cheryl Elliott (left) of the Emory Police Department to teach self-protection and help develop Life 101, a practical seminar for college women.

Elliott has been with the Emory police since 1991, when she came as a single mother with two young children and a determination to be successful in a traditionally male arena. The Women’s Center and the Clifton Childcare Center’s flexible hours, she told listeners during “Conversations,” helped her get on her feet.

“When you have a four-year-old and you work seven to seven, it’s hard to find good care,” she says. “For me to be able to work and know they were well taken care of . . . I truly think it allowed me to be able to concentrate on being a good police officer.”

Elliott has continued to help women at Emory feel safe, by serving on the Sexual Assault Consortium, teaching workshops, and advocating for women at various levels of the law enforcement system. Last year, she received the Women’s Center “Unsung Heroine” award.

Although Crown reports directly to the office of the provost, Emory’s chief academic officer, the Women’s Center has ties to nearly every division of the University and sponsors programs with about fifty other campus groups each year. With lean financial resources, a small space, and a staff of two, Crown’s skillful relationship-building is not just smart strategy but economic necessity. Crown and the Women’s Center board continue to hope to see the center gain additional staff and move from the trailer to a more permanent space.

In the center’s ten years of service, “there are success stories, and there are disappointments,” Crown says. “One of our successes is that we have become one of the top five women’s centers in the nation, and we are often called upon to help others get off the ground.

“But our biggest disappointment remains the same, and that’s our lack of infrastructure. We just have not been able to acquire the resources we need, and it’s a constant issue. We need suitable permanent space and additional staff. These things have remained constant, while our daily activity has grown.”

The Women’s Center has been a bright spot in her time at Emory, says Jan Gleason (left), associate vice president of public affairs and a longtime member of the board of directors, who shared insights about her life and career during the popular “Telling Our Stories” program last fall. Afterward, she says, several listeners contacted her to thank her for inspiring them.

“It’s just a great way for women across campus to connect with each other,” Gleason says. “It’s not like we are all radical feminists or anything, it’s about building relationships, and I’ve gotten to know so many faculty and students and people I would not otherwise have met working on center projects.”

And that, says Crown, is what the Women’s Center is all about.

“The academy is historically a male institution, and it takes a lot to change a culture,” she says. “Women can feel isolated. It is so important for them to connect, to be recognized and for their voices to be heard. And no single group at Emory is any more important than another. We probably have the largest group of people with diverse needs to serve of any resource on this campus, and that’s a challenge. You just have to try to bridge as many of the gaps as you can.”

Crown is winding down a typical October afternoon in the trailer: the Indigo Girls on the stereo, counseling going on in the Nursing Nest, a graduate student thumbing through books in the library, and plans on the computer screen for the center’s tenth anniversary gala. The phone rings, and Crown’s face lights up as she takes a moment to catch up with a former student who just called to say hello. The Women’s Center may consist of two women in a trailer that could be rolled away tomorrow, but for those at Emory who have come to rely on it, it would leave an indelible imprint behind.



© 2003 Emory University