Penn Women’s Center celebrates 40 years

Penn Women's Center

In 1973, second-wave feminism was in full force. The Supreme Court struck down most state restrictions on abortion in the landmark case Roe v. Wade, and the Gloria Steinem-founded Ms. magazine had just celebrated its inaugural year on newsstands.

At Penn, the atmosphere was no different.

The feminist community at Penn staged a sit-in at College Hall, lasting four days and garnering nearly 200 participants. Among the protesters’ requests were rape counselors, alarms in restrooms, a campus shuttle service, extra lighting throughout campus, and self-defense classes.

The group also requested an on-campus space for women. The University honored that request, and this year is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Penn Women’s Center (PWC) in collaboration with Penn’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program, which also gained institutional momentum as a result of the College Hall protest.

“The sit-in really did unite women of different classes and different professional backgrounds on campus,” says PWC Director Felicity “Litty” Paxton. “When you look around Penn’s campus now, I think what a lot of people have no idea about is that many [campus features] have a history that relates 40 years back to that sit-in.”

Building off of history
The first space designated to the Center was Logan Hall (now known as Claudia Cohen Hall). In 1977, it moved to Houston Hall, and in 2006, it moved to its current home at 3643 Locust Walk, a renovated former fraternity house.

“That was a very significant move, to move from a very squished space to a building that felt like it was truly the Women’s Center’s building,” Paxton says. “Penn is really big. What a lot of the resource centers here—the LGBT Center, Kelly Writers House, Civic House—try to do is make this big institution feel more manageable, more cozy. We get that the physical space matters.”

Sticking true to its roots, today’s Center continues to serve as a resource for survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence. But Paxton says it has evolved to offer even more services under its umbrella.

“For years it was seen mostly as a counseling center—a place you go when something goes wrong related to gender,” Paxton says. “And that was a very necessary part of its history, and it’s still a necessary part of the work we do here, to be a safety net for folks. But we also have to create momentum and good energy.”

A large part of the way the PWC aims to accomplish that is through Penn Violence Prevention programming, which consists of campus-wide media campaigns, interactive games, educational workshops, and programming for faculty, staff, and students.

“We want to find ways to give students the short version of the longer story of what these [sexual-violence] issues are, how they play out on a college campus, and how they can support their friends,” Paxton says.

Today, Paxton says the “most fun” and professionally challenging part of working at the Center is finding new ways to promote gender equity—a goal that has remained a chief priority for the PWC since its inception.

“We have gender equity when it comes to sheer numbers of undergraduates enrolling at Penn. We’re nowhere near where we were in 1973,” Paxton says. “But when we look at women being represented in places like government and media, women are notable by their absence rather than their presence. So at the [PWC] we’re [trying to] engage Penn students—tomorrow’s leaders. We want that equity that we have among students to be visible in the real world.”

Celebrating past, present, & future
As part of the Center’s 40th anniversary, PWC has planned a series of events to recognize the work that has been accomplished since 1973, with hopes of bolstering its alumni network.

The anniversary programming will include collaborating with Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies on a conference from Feb. 27-28, 2014, highlighting the academic work of current Penn faculty and students who are studying women’s issues. There will also be an art exhibit in the PWC living room with work by female artists from Penn’s art collection.

In addition to the Center’s first-ever Homecoming reception, PWC will be hosting a year-end gala dinner in May. PWC is also launching an ongoing documentary-like compilation of interviews with faculty, staff, students, and alumni—in the same vein as PBS’s “MAKERS: Women Who Make America.” Each celebration is aimed to contribute to the Center’s commitment to inclusivity.

“The message is that this is a space that folks can call home,” Paxton says. “I want this to be a place that celebrates women and the broader sense of what it takes to be a woman—not just the problems that can come along with it.”

Originally published on September 12, 2013