A Center of Their Own
The Alice Drum Women’s Center Celebrates 20 Years of Embracing Issues
It all started, as Alice Drum remembers, because they wanted a room of their own. In 1991, Drum, who was then a vice president in student affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, saw the frustration that some of her female students experienced when trying to hold on-campus meetings. “They would normally schedule a regular place, but sometimes that place was usurped,” Drum said.
Soon she heard several students talking about creating a women-centric space on campus. While Drum sympathized, she also realized it wasn’t simply up to her to make it happen. “I felt that the students had to want it and understand why they wanted it,” she said.
That spring, one of her students, Nancy Markoe ’92, approached Drum about an internship. Markoe had been involved with the Franklin & Marshall Sexual Awareness Task Force, which was charged with, among other things, determining if there was sufficient student support to create a women’s center.
“I had a great experience at F&M,” Markoe said, “but it was not exempt from the sexism, racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation that were part of college life, and still are. A key goal of the center was to promote equality and encourage open dialogue.” The center needed to be a place where “both women and men were welcome” to focus on issues identified chiefly as women’s issues.
The students’ interest coincided with a time when women’s issues were garnering national attention, said Jennifer Matthews ’94. “It really did have to do with the stars aligning for us in the sense that not only were things happening on campus, but they were happening in Pennsylvania and they were happening on the national scene to make women’s issues central. When you picked up a Newsweek or a Time, women’s issues were being discussed.”
Matthews was eager to join forces with Markoe to get behind this movement. “We were a team,” Matthews said, “but Nancy was the brains behind the center.”
Once the initiative received a green light from F&M President Richard Kneedler ’65, Drum created an internship for Markoe to develop a proposal to create what would become the F&M Women’s Center the following year.
For her internship, Markoe wanted to research how women’s centers at other colleges and universities worked. Drum leased a car for Markoe to use. When Markoe came to her office to discuss the itinerary, Drum handed her the car keys.
“What I didn’t know is that Nancy was from New York City and that she didn’t drive,” Drum said. With the help of public transportation and her then-boyfriend (also a member of the Women’s Center Steering Committee) who did drive, Markoe traveled to women’s centers on 12 campuses and developed a description of what a women’s center at F&M might look like.
“I would make an appointment and interview a director or student leader whenever possible. But I would also find a time to go in unannounced and see how comfortable it was,” Markoe said. “Did students hang out there? Was this the kind of place F&M students could feel welcome? The centers were very different, but they were all open to anyone, men and women. They were spaces that were meant to be lived in.”
That research helped the Steering Committee draft the proposal for the establishment of a center that “is committed to equality and equity for women on the campus and in the community.” The committee, co-chaired by Markoe and Matthews, presented the proposal on May 12, 1992. The center’s mission statement read, in part: “The center provides programs that educate the campus about women’s contributions to society, serves as an advocate for the needs and concerns of women, offers referrals to other campus and community services, provides resource materials about women’s issues, sponsors support programs for women on campus, and empowers students to work for a future free of sexism.”
The next step was to find a location. “Space on campuses is often very precious,” Drum said. “I was walking around searching for rooms, and discovered that the pottery studio in the basement of Steinman College Center was very little used.” Luckily it also had what the center needed: a space for a library and meeting room, a lounge, a small kitchen and an office for the director.
The center did not open until after Markoe graduated, but she was instrumental in seeing through her goal of creating “a safe space in every way, somewhere that unpopular ideas and dissent were allowed to bubble up.”
Matthews enjoyed the journey to get to the center’s establishment. There were some bumpy points along the way, including some negative commentary in The College Reporter, but she feels that made the outcome more fulfilling. “If you don’t have roadblocks, then you’re not doing anything worthwhile,” she said. “You have to have roadblocks in order to keep up the momentum. But thank the Lord we had roadblocks, because otherwise we would have been irrelevant.”
Honoring the Past, Embracing the Present
The center, which was renamed the Alice Drum Women’s Center in 2008, has evolved alongside the gender issues on campus and in the larger world. It now hosts three subgroups: VOX, the Planned Parenthood student organization that promotes safe sex and healthy women’s sexuality; SAVE (Sexual Assault Violence Education), whose members plan the “Take Back the Night” march; and IWOC (International Women’s Outreach Committee).
Beth Graybill, the current director, said her goal is to broaden the center’s reach to attract a broader spectrum of students. “We’re contributing to the larger intellectual life of the campus, not just within the Women’s Center, but more broadly,” Graybill said. One of the most successful ongoing initiatives is the Friday Discussion, held every Friday at noon during the academic year.
One piece of the anniversary celebration is a research project about the center’s history. The findings will be compiled in a brochure to be released this fall. Elizabeth Murray ’13 and Elaine Kohler ’13 are conducting the research with Graybill, who is also a professor of women’s and gender studies, through the Hackman Summer Scholars Program, which provides stipends for faculty- mentored research projects.
Murray, Kohler and Graybill’s research focuses on the concept of “centering women,” Murray said. “A ‘center woman’ is someone who works behind the scenes to make big changes in the community. It was a big thing in second- and first-wave feminism, and we wanted to see if the women involved in the creation of the Women’s Center in 1992 were these kinds of women.”
Murray, who interviewed participants to create oral histories, collected archival materials and helped write the brochure, especially enjoyed interviewing those people who were there at the beginning. “It sounds corny, but there’s something so inspiring about talking to someone who has experienced the same frustrations you have and who helped create a place that has been so important to your college career. I’m in a sorority, and I have friends in all kinds of circles on campus, and I still get people who say, ‘You work at the Women’s Center? Do you guys burn your bras down there? What about the Men’s Center?’ Creating the Women’s Center was so important because it created a space where people could question and be questioned.”
The center continues to grow and evolve, according to Graybill, and it remains an important gathering place. “Young women today are free to be smart and high-achieving but are also expected to be slim, drop-dead gorgeous, and sexy but not slutty,” she said. “The pressures for women on campus can be intense, and the Alice Drum Women’s Center is a place to challenge assumptions, air opinions and talk oneself into a new way of seeing the world.”
Murray said her work at the Women’s Center certainly challenged some of her expectations when she first entered college, and has helped shape who she is today. “Working as a part of the Women’s Center team has completely influenced who I am,” she said. “It has taught me that labels aren’t important, and that you don’t have to confine yourself to the stereotypes that society or your friends think you have to be. The center and my friends there have showed me how important it is to discuss these sorts of social influences, and how they impact gender roles.”
The Friday Discussion at the Women’s Center has been an engaging part of its existence from the beginning. Some of the topics addressed last year were:
- Avoiding “Shots, Shots, Shots”: Keeping Safe in Party Environments
- Strong Enough Sisterhood?: Cattiness & Women as Frenemies
- Bros, Wimps and Masculinity: What Does it Mean to be a Man?
- Friends WITHOUT Benefits: Can Women and Men Be “Just Friends”? • Men Eat Meat & Women Eat Chocolate: Gender and Food
- Femicide: The Worldwide Value of Women
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