Women’s Center board looks to broaden appeal

As part of their outreach  efforts, the Women’s Center sponsored a roundtable at Toad’s.
As part of their outreach efforts, the Women’s Center sponsored a roundtable at Toad’s. Photo by Ariel Doctoroff.

Two years ago, the walls of the Yale Women’s Center bore paintings of female genitalia.

The artwork, abstract representations board members made of their own vaginas, was meant to welcome visitors to the Women’s Center, said Isabel Polon ’11, a former political action coordinator for the center.

“What’s more inviting than a vagina?” she said.

While the images were taken down within the next year in anticipation of ceiling renovations at the center, the absence of such decorations today also reflects a new tone at the Women’s Center.

During its tenure two years ago, the Women’s Center board said it would sue the Zeta Psi fraternity for an allegedly misogynist prank. Though the Center never went to court, its reaction to the Zeta incident raised tensions with the administration and with some members of the student body who disagreed with their approach, said Presca Ahn ’10, a former fellowship coordinator for the Center.

This year’s board, however, has made an effort to reach out to other campus groups — including other fraternities — to broaden their base of support. Madeline Johnson ’10, special events coordinator for the Center, said that although collaboration has always been a part of the Women’s Center’s purpose, the current board has brought it to the forefront of their efforts.

“Collaborating is an act of mobilization. I don’t really see that as a change,” she said. “I think, for me, the tagline [for this year’s board] is ‘Feminism is Friendly.’”

‘ROCK AND ROLL’ FEMINISM

The 2007-’08 Women’s Center board took a “rock and roll” approach to the Center’s mission, said Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’10, former political action coordinator of the board. Citing concerts, all-girls naked parties and contentious debates, Olivarius-McAllister said that given her board’s activities and activism, they were “unembarrassed warriors for women.”

“I think we were a much more confrontational and also, for lack of a better word, wild board,” she said.

In January 2008, when members of the Zeta Psi fraternity took a photo of pledges holding a sign that read “We Love Yale Sluts” in front of the Women’s Center, the Center’s board members threatened legal action against Zeta Psi. The Center went on to push for policy reforms at the University level, producing a 26-page report calling for the overhaul of Yale’s sexual harassment education and stricter oversight of fraternities.

“Some of the actions the center took were polarizing,” Polon, then the center’s political action coordinator, told the News at the time. “But they gave the Women’s Center leverage and brought issues to public discourse that otherwise were not talked about.”

While the Women’s Center board was conscious that many students disagreed with their actions, Olivarius-McAllister said the center stayed true to its principles.

“It takes a lot of energy and emotion and focus to sustain that kind of fight — the kind of fight that we had with Zeta Psi and the University,” she said. “Not everybody can have that.”

Olivarius-McAllister added that as a result of the incident, dialogue about women’s issues increased on campus, as did participation in Women’s Center events. Whether students were saying good things or bad, they were talking about the Women’s Center, she said.

“Our numbers swelled in terms of new members,” she said. “The whole thing was like a big membership drive.”

THE CHANGING FACE OF FEMINISM

After the Zeta Psi incident, the following year, the Center built new bridges with the administration by taking Melanie Boyd, director of undergraduate studies for the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, as a faculty adviser.

“Melanie is a power base of knowledge on how the institution works. She facilitates a very positive relationship with the institution and tells us who to talk to,” said Kathleen Powers ’10, current political action coordinator for the Women’s Center.

And over the past year, the board of the Women’s Center has strived to make the Center more accessible and welcoming to different groups on campus, said Rachel Achs ’11, the public relations coordinator of the center. The board reached out to groups that previously did not collaborate with the Center, including fraternities, sororities and cultural houses, among other segments of the Yale population.

In December, for example, the Center co-sponsored a sexuality discussion at Toad’s Place with Sigma Phi Epsilon and Pi Beta Phi, and more recently the Center co-hosted a dance party with female DJs at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. The Center also made an effort to contact communities of faith, asking them to join in a debate on virginity. In the wake of the fall’s “Preseason Scouting Report,” an anonymous, widely circulated e-mail that ranked the physical attractiveness of 53 members of the freshman class, the Women’s Center hosted the forum “A Conversation about Sex at Yale” in collaboration with women’s athletic teams, sororities and cultural houses.

“It’s definitely been a goal this year to expand our audience,” Achs said. “It’s a goal every year.”

In addition to expanding its base to groups that were not previously included in the Women’s Center constituency, the Center has also increased the diversity of its student board internally. In the last few years, the board had been primarily white, while this year’s board has three women of color. Rhiana Gunn-Wright ’11, the constituency coordinator of the Women’s Center, called it a “tenor change.” Previously she had felt uncomfortable in the center, said Gunn-Wright, who is black.

“I don’t want the Women’s Center to be a place where people don’t come in because of their color or their income or because they don’t identify as a feminist,” Gunn-Wright said, adding, “Brown women come in here now.”

FEMINISM AS PREMISE OR PLATFORM

A look further back in the history of the Women’s Center, which was founded in 1970, reveals that the oscillation between boards’ personalities over time is not a new phenomenon.

For example, in 2003-’04, the Women’s Center had a heated discussion about whether or not to allow the group “Men Can Stop Rape,” a men’s group that uses workshops and training to prevent sexual violence against women, into the Women’s Center as a residence group. The following board took pains to combat the negative image the Center had developed as a result of this conflict, said Maggie Doherty ’07, constituency coordinator for the center in 2005.

“I remember that we were coping with the fallout of [the] discussion from the previous year,” she said in an e-mail. “My board in 2004-2005 and in the following year aimed to make the Women’s Center more accessible and appealing to men.”

The current board’s efforts to reach out similarly to other student groups show some signs of success: In an informal poll of a dozen seniors, eight said they view the Women’s Center positively this year, two view it negatively and two have no opinion. Six thought the center had become more active over their time at Yale, and six said they saw no change.

But while upperclassmen generally viewed the Center as welcoming or benign, some freshmen said they were not aware of the group’s presence on campus.

“I definitely feel the center is a positive influence, but I wish they were more visible,” said Ahmed Abdullah ’11.

Of 15 freshmen polled, 11 said they had no opinion or did not feel informed enough to make an opinion about the Women’s Center on campus this year.

“I haven’t heard anything bad or anything booming,” Megan Leslie ’13 said.

Even as the current board seeks to broaden the image of the Women’s Center, board members were reluctant to characterize their actions as moderate or conciliatory. Achs said that in addition to increasing student involvement and engagement, activism and advocacy are important aspects of the work the Center does as well.

“It’s so important to be popular in the sense that we want to have people support what we do,” Achs said. “But at a certain point, what we do is more important than being popular. Now that we’ve done this, it’s time to mobilize.”

Alice Buttrick ’10, public relations coordinator on the Women’s Center last year, said the overall mission of the Women’s Center transcends the tone set by the individual boards. Fundamentally, she said, the center “should provide a place for people to work together towards feminist goals.”

“I think it is a false dichotomy to say that we are moderate and past boards have been radical,” Powers added. “I don’t think feminism is ever moderate.”

Olivarius-McAllister, however, said she does not consider calling oneself a feminist a radical stance in itself.

“Feminism is a premise,” she said “but an incomplete one.”

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