30 years ago, 200 Penn women—faculty, staff and students—took over College Hall Room 200 and refused to budge. They had gathered in response to a series of sexual assaults on and around campus.
Out of that four-day protest was born the Penn Women’s Center, one of the oldest university women’s centers in the nation.
The Current sat down with Center Director Elena DiLapi (SW’77) to wish the organization happy anniversary and to reflect on how her concern for the individual has helped further women’s causes on a broader, more institutional level.
Q. What do you do in your position?
A. I’m trained as a social worker, I’m an alum of the Penn School of Social Work. When I came here, the Women’s Center was in disarray, there had been some controversy about my predecessor. The programs had basically stopped. I rebuilt the program very much based on my professional training as a social worker, of really understanding individuals within larger social systems.
Q. Other than being a woman yourself, why are you passionate about doing this type of work?
A. I’ve always been involved in community [work]. …As a youth and community studies major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook…[I] worked with some youth boards in figuring out what are the adolescent needs in the community and how to help systems develop and meet those needs…
When I came to the School of Social Work…social activism was a little bit more prevalent but certainly not to the level that it is today. I was concerned about education and community education and through my studies really began to focus on educational processes for empowerment.
The other thing that happened was I came out as a feminist. I wasn’t really a feminist before that, part of it was my own homophobia. When I was at Stony Brook there was a women’s center but I believed everybody there was a lesbian and I definitely wasn’t one of them, which I am as it turns out. But at that point my homophobia took over so I stayed away from feminism…
During my first and second year of graduate school was the bicentennial summer… A friend of mine [told me about] this place called the Bicentennial Women’s Center. I went in there and introduced myself and the woman who was director there was Carol Tracy, who used to be director of the Penn Women’s Center. Carol really introduced me to feminism.
Q. So you’ve spent decades at the Women’s Center, have things changed?
A. When I first took the job, I thought what a great opportunity to do healthy sexuality stuff for women, how empowering to help women feel good about themselves. And then people said, No, Ellie, there’s a lot of safety issues. It turned out that the origins of the women’s center as a rape crisis center continued. We dealt with developing expertise around safety. That sort of got me into the issue of safety but looking at it both from individual advocacy, an individual who might have been raped and how do we support her, to then looking in terms of my role as director, of institutional advocacy.
Q. What kind of participation do men have at the women’s center?
A. In terms of the policy work, the committees that I sat on and sit on are men and women. Men have come as victims and survivors. Men come as supporters of women who have been victimized. Part of it is doing the same kind of process with men, of kind of the individual issues that they experience and then connecting that with some larger issues.
Men have been increasingly engaged in stopping rape. Men are critical in the stop of violence against women since men are the primary perpetrators. But beyond that, the culture of sexism that men are privileged by is one that men need to be involved in dismantling because they need to understand that their privilege really isn’t a privilege, it’s unearned.
Q. What is the next set of challenges for the Women’s Center?
A. One of the things I said when I came here was that I want to work myself out of a job but I haven’t because unfortunately women are still being hurt. There still is this whole issue of violence against women…
I think one of the challenges is the perception that we’ve come a long way, baby, and still there’s so far to go. There have been advances and we’re still not satisfied… There’s a sense that there are some women who have made it so is the structure that sexist? It’s more difficult in terms of subtleties.
Q. Are there needs that are specific to Penn women?
A. Part of the needs that are specific to Penn women have to do with the fact that we live in Penn’s culture. The configuration over the years of Locust Walk, for example, has been a problem for women and people of color. When I first got here this whole thing was all frats. There were a group of people who held a sit-in at [former Penn President Sheldon] Hackney’s office, saying the only safe place on campus is [his] office. The question of diversifying Locust Walk was raised and it has been responded to, I’m happy to say.
I don’t think it’s by accident that we are the first Ivy to have a woman as president. There has been a community here of strong feminists who really created a community here for women. They said we have a right to be here and we want to be involved in what’s going on.
Originally published on April 17, 2003