Safe Places , continued

Carol Tracy: “We are not complaining as much as demanding.”

A Secretary Shall Lead Them

The May 1973 Gazette’s report on the sit-in of the previous month that had ended with the promise of a women’s center on Penn’s 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 were—and 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 University’s 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 women’s 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 issues—but it didn’t include support staff. “I said, ‘What about secretaries? You’ve 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 lacked—“which, 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 publicity—while 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 Hon’70. “I was learning the art of negotiation,” she says. Eventually, with the help of a scholarship and some sympathetic administrators—“People were starting to like that a little secretary was leading this effort that included faculty”—she 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 didn’t investigate, the district attorney’s 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 hospital—and Philadelphia was the first to formalize the relationship of advocates in the emergency room, at the old PGH [Philadelphia General Hospital].”

Parallel to WEOUP’s employment-focused efforts, women students had also begun advocating for a women’s studies program at Penn. The student rapes—which 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 [CW’75 L’96], who’s 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 meeting—it was like what they call a paradigm shift—thought, ‘Hey, she’s 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 don’t 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 women’s center to pull all that together,” Tracy says, “and, by the way, we should have women’s studies as well.” At Tracy’s suggestion, the student activists brought in women faculty as well, and worked to craft something that the “entire women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s center.”

Not that every woman on campus saw that as reason for celebration. “There’s an assumption that in the 1970s every woman on campus was a feminist—which 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 older—25 when she went to school full-time—and “a lot of young women didn’t 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 wasn’t nearly as much division in the ranks.”

However, for women with a feminist agenda, “a women’s 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-segregation—in student organizations, for example—sometimes worked to the detriment of women, Tracy says. While they had held leadership positions in their own organizations, women in leadership fell off after men’s and women’s groups were merged. As director of the women’s 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 it’s wonderful.” There is a greater female presence, and—from the president on down—more women in leadership and faculty positions, “though still not at the level it should be.”

Another welcome development is the proliferation of women’s studies courses for young women, “and occasionally young men,” with an interest in feminist issues. “That’s part of the refuge of a women’s center and women’s 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 issues—everything 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 hasn’t changed, is the behavior of men in the area of sexual assault,” she adds. “We’ve changed laws and changed public opinion, but it still happens. It’s still happening on that campus.”

Tracy teaches a women’s 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 women’s center—and 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 it’s still there, and that’s why it’s so critical to have a women’s center.”

Tracy’s 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 adversarial—but not hostile—during negotiations. “I think that’s why I’ve been successful,” she says. “In negotiations with Penn or the police commissioner, when there are practices that needed to be changed—just put it on the table and [don’t] attack them personally.”

While directing the women’s 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 Goode’s Commission on Women for two years before becoming director of the Women’s 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 activism—we had the Vietnam War and the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. I think there was an optimism that we could change things. I don’t think we were complaining as much as we were demanding—and being remarkably successful in a lot of the demands.”

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