The Center for Women at Emory

Shaped by a Crucible Experience

By Ali P. Crown
Founding Director, Center for Women
Jan Gleason
Executive Director, University Marketing

A series of controversial events involving race and gender in the late 1990s 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 fully 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.

On February 7, 1990, the front page of the Emory Wheel reported on incidents which sparked the creation of the Women's Center: "Two rapes reported on campus," proclaimed the headline; "one student arrested." Both of the alleged rapes had occurred on Fraternity Row (now Eagle Row) on the previous Saturday at different locations. The report set off a tumult of campus activism and activity. President [James] 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."

In a letter to Laney and William H. Fox, dean of campus life, a group of graduate students reiterated the need for immediate action by the administration to "improve our common life," and pressed for the creation of a women's center. The students underscored the need for "more alternative social spaces to accommodate the diverse needs and interests of our community," and they envisioned a women's center "as a locus for information, dialogue, and learning for all members of the Emory community."

"Recognizing and Honoring Diversity"

By early March, Laney had appointed twenty-five faculty members, staff members, students, and alumni to serve on the Task Force on Security and Responsibility, chaired by then associate chaplain "Bobbi" Patterson. 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." In July 1990, 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."

In November 1990 issue of the Emory Wheel, the undergraduate student group CHOICES presented a petition with six hundred seventy-two 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 and asking that the center 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.

As the spring semester unfolded, progress on the center gained speed. In February, Laney appointed an advisory committee, chaired by Ali P. Crown. The advisory committee developed a mission statement that envisioned the center as a resource for 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."

Modest Trailer Becomes Cozy Haven

After nearly another year of planning, study, and a national search, the Emory Women's Center opened in September 1992. President Laney appointed Crown as its first director. A 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 visitors found themselves transformed by its warm, comfortable ambience. Women's poster art filled the walls. The trailer housed two offices, a library, a spacious meeting room, a kitchen, and a small "quiet room," which eventually served many purposes, including use as a lactation space. Students and staff at the center worked with University archivists to create a wall of photos that told the story of significant events in the lives of Emory women, predominantly since the College had become coeducational. Though not appealing on the outside, and by no means majestic within, the trailer became a haven for students, faculty, and staff.

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. The center itself 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.