Places , continued
A Secretary Shall Lead Them
The May 1973 Gazettes report on the sit-in of the previous month that had ended with the promise of a womens center on Penns campus makes the lead organizer, College for Women sophomore Carol Tracy, and her cohort seem awfully nice. The article goes to great lengths to emphasize how well-behaved, reasonable, and focused the women protesters wereand it was all true, sort of.
Sparked by fear over the gang rapes of two student nurses on campus, followed by rage at a suggestion by the Universitys chief of public safety that the way women dress could be to blame, the sit-in was indeed exceptional in that organizers came in with a set of concrete, actionable demands to which they stuck over days of tough negotiations, without muddying the waters with other issues or descending into empty rhetoric, Tracy says, pride still clear in her voice some three decades later.
But that had more to do with the experience that Tracy had already gained fighting for better working conditions and greater employment for women on campus, and, earlier, union organizing, than with womens innately more civilized natures, as the article seems to imply.
Tracy grew up in working-class Chester, Pennsylvania, and first came to the University in 1968, working in the city planning department and taking courses at night. There was a group of women at Penn working on employment issuesbut it didnt include support staff. I said, What about secretaries? Youve forgotten us, Tracy recalls, and joined up with Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania (WEOUP). After a while, they were happy to see an activist young woman there. And she brought to the table organizing skills that the women faculty and administrators lackedwhich, in those days, meant I could run the mimeograph machine, she says with a laugh, as well as how to get out mailings and handle publicitywhile the women faculty mentored her in the ways of the University.
Tracy was elected president of WEOUP, working on affirmative action and bringing several important tenure cases, and meeting regularly with Penn President Martin Meyerson Hon70. I was learning the art of negotiation, she says. Eventually, with the help of a scholarship and some sympathetic administratorsPeople were starting to like that a little secretary was leading this effort that included facultyshe was able to become a full-time student. Then came this awful event of gang rape on campus, she says.
As traumatic as such events are today, then fears were stoked even further by the fact that there was little reporting about rape, so rumors ran rampant. Though it may be difficult to imagine, Tracy notes, Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR) was just then forming in Philadelphia and around the country and rape was still shrouded in secrecy and shame. There were no services for rape victims, the police didnt investigate, the district attorneys office paid no attention to what was the second most serious crime, even medical institutions were hostile to victims, she says. It was a radical act to have an advocate in the hospitaland Philadelphia was the first to formalize the relationship of advocates in the emergency room, at the old PGH [Philadelphia General Hospital].
Parallel to WEOUPs employment-focused efforts, women students had also begun advocating for a womens studies program at Penn. The student rapeswhich were reported in the news media served as a flashpoint for feminists on campus, who called for a meeting with the campus security chief. The initial impetus was more fear than activism, but that changed when he told women not to wear provocative clothing, says Tracy. And there was a 16-year old freshman, Rose Weber [CW75 L96], whos now a public-interest lawyer in New York, who said, I can walk down this campus buck naked, and your job is to protect me. And the whole meetingit was like what they call a paradigm shiftthought, Hey, shes right.
A speech by feminist Robin Morgan, who came and said you have to do something about this, further galvanized the students. Later that night, there was a meeting in the basement of the Christian Association, which was then the hotbed of all radical activity. Talk turned to a sit-in and a number of possible demands were raised, but then, Tracy recalls, the woman who founded WOAR spoke up. She said, Listen, the issue on the table is rape. Why dont you stick with that?
So, we started planning [the sit-in], Tracy says. It was the tail end of all the student activism, and we fortunately learned a lot about the bad things that can happen in a sit-in. We wanted to stay focused. So we talked among ourselves about demands, and they were very concrete.
They included better lighting on campus, posting of security officers, a female at the department of public safety to work with victims issues, bus and escort services, provision of self-defense classes, and a womens center to pull all that together, Tracy says, and, by the way, we should have womens studies as well. At Tracys suggestion, the student activists brought in women faculty as well, and worked to craft something that the entire womens community could get behind.
From the beginning, there was general agreement by the University on lighting and other safety-related issues, she recalls. The sticking point was the womens center, both the question of What is this thing going to look like? and how it would be funded.
The sit-in continued while budget issues were negotiated. Late one night, Tracy received word that a woman was urging that the protesters take to the streets with a cat-o-nine tails and hunt down the rapists. It was dragging on too long, by then, and the situation was close to getting out of control, Tracy says. She relayed this information to the University VP across the table, who [until then] thought I was the most radical member of the group, and we concluded that discussion with us getting a staffed womens center.
Not that every woman on campus saw that as reason for celebration. Theres an assumption that in the 1970s every woman on campus was a feministwhich was not the case, Tracy says. Contrasting her own situation to that of the majority of women undergraduates of her time, she notes that she was older25 when she went to school full-timeand a lot of young women didnt want to hear about issues like rape on campus. There was much more solidarity among black students, for example, since there were so few of them, and there wasnt nearly as much division in the ranks.
However, for women with a feminist agenda, a womens center was absolutely critical, she says. By the time of the protest, women were free of many of the restrictions of earlier days, but inequities remained, especially at the graduate and professional school level. For undergraduates, ironically, the demise of sex-segregationin student organizations, for examplesometimes worked to the detriment of women, Tracy says. While they had held leadership positions in their own organizations, women in leadership fell off after mens and womens groups were merged. As director of the womens center in 1978-85, Tracy developed a program for women students to learn leadership skills.
(Tracy was also the whistleblower in the alleged gang rape of a Penn student that took place at Alpha Tau Omega fraternity in 1982, which she believes was grievously mishandled by the University, tarnishing its reputation.)
Today, she says, for the most part overt forms of discrimination in leadership and admissions are gone, and its wonderful. There is a greater female presence, andfrom the president on downmore women in leadership and faculty positions, though still not at the level it should be.
Another welcome development is the proliferation of womens studies courses for young women, and occasionally young men, with an interest in feminist issues. Thats part of the refuge of a womens center and womens studies program. It was almost impossible in those days to study anything about women. Literature was all the dead white males; labor-force participation, economic issueseverything was just very male.
One area in which women still receive inequitable treatment is student athletics, says Tracy, who brought a Title IX complaint against Penn that was settled in 1996. Another troubling issue, which really hasnt changed, is the behavior of men in the area of sexual assault, she adds. Weve changed laws and changed public opinion, but it still happens. Its still happening on that campus.
Tracy teaches a womens studies course at Penn, Law and Social Policy on Sexuality and Reproduction, in which she warns students that they will cover some difficult and controversial subjects, which might bring up some personal issues for them, particularly when I discuss violence against women. She invites anyone with a problem to come to her and she will make sure they get to the womens centerand in each class, she says, there have been one or two kids who have had a very serious assault or violence issue that happened to them while they were at Penn. So its still there, and thats why its so critical to have a womens center.
Tracys history of activism at Penn has helped shape the rest of her career, she says. Besides continuing to work on the issues that occupied her as a student, she emphasizes how the experience confirmed for her the importance of collaboration and the value of being adversarialbut not hostileduring negotiations. I think thats why Ive been successful, she says. In negotiations with Penn or the police commissioner, when there are practices that needed to be changedjust put it on the table and [dont] attack them personally.
While directing the womens center, Tracy earned a law degree at Temple University. After leaving the center, she worked as a city solicitor and in private practice, and then ran Mayor Wilson Goodes Commission on Women for two years before becoming director of the Womens Law Project in 1990, which she describes as her dream job.
Of her experience at good old Penn, she says, It was a time of social activismwe had the Vietnam War and the peace movement, the womens movement, and the civil rights movement. I think there was an optimism that we could change things. I dont think we were complaining as much as we were demandingand being remarkably successful in a lot of the demands.