Shutting Out Women's Centers

Women's studies scholars object to professional association's new stance on representation from women's centers workers.

November 20, 2015

Women’s studies scholars objected Thursday to the elimination of a designated board seat for women’s centers professionals within the National Women’s Studies Association. That’s after two leaders within the organization resigned over the change, which they called elitist and tone-deaf.

Women’s centers are places on or near many campuses where women can seek out a variety of services and mentorship, and many provide a supportive environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. To many women’s studies scholars, they represent the on-the-ground work of the discipline. But they’re not academic units, and aren’t necessarily directed by faculty members. And some say that's been a source of tension within the women's studies association, whose Governing Council voted earlier this week to approve changes to bylaws that eliminate formal representation of women's centers professionals on the board.

“While [the association] brands itself as home for all practitioners of feminism and women's studies scholars and activists, years of neglect of the women’s centers professional community's needs and ongoing marginalization of women’s centers professionals within the organization show that [the association] is in truth primarily devoted to the professional development of women's and gender studies faculty and graduate students, having little time for -- or interest in -- sustaining and supporting on-the-ground practitioners like women’s centers professionals,” Gina Helfrich and Adale Sholock wrote in an open resignation letter to the Governing Council.

Helfrich is a former director of the Harvard College Women’s Center and co-founder of recruitHER, a consulting and recruitment firm focused on women in tech. Sholock is former director of the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center at Vanderbilt University and an adjunct professor of women's studies at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Both women were until this week co-chairs of the association’s Women’s Centers Committee, which supports and studies women's centers.

Their resignations were effective immediately and, they said, followed a series of slights toward women’s centers that had already prompted the midterm departure of a previous committee chair. Helfrich and Sholock said that women’s centers professionals hadn’t been consulted in this year’s strategic planning process, which resulted in the elimination of the designated women’s centers seat on the women's studies association Governing Council, for example. The council also had been "unwelcoming" at meetings and was generally unreceptive to complaints or suggestions, other than to say women's centers professionals should write more paper proposals for conferences and recruit more dues-paying members from their ranks, they said.

The association “has failed to center the work of women's centers professionals, the frontline 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,” Helfrich and Sholock wrote. “Instead of providing a welcoming and sustaining home for women's centers professionals, [the association] has repeatedly marginalized women's centers professionals, their research, their work and their needs.”

The timing of the decision is especially poor, they added, given that centers face "a host of pressing issues, such as the nationwide crisis of sexual assault on college campuses, the high turnover of women's center professionals leading to a constant leadership vacuum, and the targeting of administrators and staff on college campuses who lack the protections of tenure or the social capital of faculty positions." 

Allison Kimmich, executive director of the women’s studies association, said that the changes in question were the result of a significant restructuring of the organization’s bylaws after a yearlong strategic planning process, rather than any kind of political slight.

“In order to make Governing Council seats more open and flexible for all [association] members to stand for election, the planning committee decided to replace representative seats with member-at-large seats,” she said.

Kimmich said the association remains “deeply committed to providing continued support and professional development opportunities for women's center members of the organization.” 

On Friday, she also countered some of the claims in the resignation letter, saying that the strategic planning committee did contain a women's centers representative:  former association president, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. Kimmich also said she had communicated with one of the former women's center committee chairs over the proposed changes to the bylaws.

But Helfrich -- who in turn Friday objected to Kimmich's account -- and Sholock said the move shows the “classism” inherent in the organization, and a number of other scholars cheered them on Thursday, including in a women’s studies Listserv.

“Thank you for your service, courage and integrity,” wrote Jessica Birch, a lecturer in writing at Case Western Reserve University. “I agree with your concerns, and regret the necessity of your decision; this action on the part of [the association] exacerbates my concerns about the classism, neoliberal safety seeking and rejection of activist principles that are becoming endemic to [women’s and gender studies] in the academy."

Sholock said via email that while the member-at-large seats are open to anyone, voting members of the association are mostly professors who are more likely to elect fellow faculty members over women's center staff members -- even though an increasing number of women's center administrators have doctorates and lots of experience.

Helfrich said representation is important because women's and gender centers have been threatened and closed on a number of campuses over the last five years. While the women's studies association has had several clear opportunities to address these issues, she said, leaders have "simply failed to bring women's center professionals into the leadership and planning process for these initiatives."


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