Forty years of feminism at Penn today

The Women's Center and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies program will celebrate their 40th anniversary at a two-day conference starting today

· February 26, 2014, 12:40 pm   ·  Updated February 27, 2014, 2:15 pm

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Carol Tracy remembers winning a major victory for women at Penn 40 years ago.

For four straight days, she led a group of over 200 women at a sit-in in the President’s Office at College Hall in 1973. The women were protesting the University’s lack of response to the rape of five women over the course of three days.

Tracy was one of the lead negotiators with then-Penn President Martin Meyerson in finding a suitable resolution where Penn women could finally feel safe on campus.

Ultimately, these discussions led to the creation of the Penn Women’s Center and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program a year later.

“We won and we won big,” Tracy said.

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Today, the Women’s Center and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program are celebrating their 40th anniversary at a two-day conference, which will address the issues women still face in modern society.

The conference will consist of a sequence of panel discussions and workshops. Keynote speaker Jessica Valenti, named as one of the 100 most inspiring women by The Guardian in 2011, will be speaking this evening.

Many of the activists who led rallies for women at Penn in the 1970s, including Tracy, who is now the executive director of the Women’s Law Project, are returning to share their activist experiences at the conference.

GSWS director Christine Poggi outlined the necessity of recognizing “the courageous work [the activists] did,” because these women addressed “struggles that are [still] ongoing,” such as sexual assault. One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college.

Peggy Sanday, Penn’s first female tenured Anthropology professor, will be speaking on the “Activism Against Sexual Violence at Penn” panel today. She outlined the importance of bringing women together at the conference.

For Sanday, the Women’s Center provided the first opportunity for her to speak about her experiences closely escaping rape when she was 14 years old.

After being threatened by a group of men on a basketball court, “I ran and never told anyone until the environment was such that I could,” Sanday said. That time came when she was a professor at Penn.

“The value that I saw in the Women’s Center was a voice for equality,” she said, “a voice for rape-free sexuality.” The Center is “a haven for women,” she added. “It’s a wonderful presence for Penn to have.”

Sanday also emphasized the importance of feminism on campus today, citing the need for continued change as “the fact of the matter is the one in five still stands.”

“Campus is not a safe place,” she said, specifically noting that issues like acquaintance rape are problems college women still face.

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This is the first year GSWS and the Women’s Center are collaborating to celebrate their shared anniversary. Women’s Center Director Felicity Paxton said this is the chance for them “to really tell this story” of their shared history. It’s “about the connectedness of women’s lives,” Paxton said.

While for some, modern feminism is all about the individual, the conference will look back to a time of “immense collaboration,” where students, staff and faculty protested together, to celebrate an “earlier, more connected vision,” she explained.

The conference’s panels and workshops will address discussions ranging from the history of feminism to wider conversations about women’s relationship with race, literature and religion.

The conference has also “opened ... up in some new ways,” Poggi said. Following from GSWS’s 35th anniversary conference, this will be the first time graduate students will be participating in the panels. Poggi hopes that Valenti’s talk will encourage undergraduate presence, she said.

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Forty years after the protests, women will fill the center of campus again - this time, to recognize past successes while still moving forward.

It’s a “really uplifting historical trajectory,” Paxton said.

However, “there’s still a lot to be done for women, Paxton said, noting that women still face the problems of pay inequity and employer control of health plans, which can restrict their decisions regarding birth control.

She is excited to witness the “inevitable energizing,” which will come from the conference.

Tracy, who became director of the Women’s Center in 1977, feels that the era of protesting has died down. “That sense of what can be accomplished is a bit missing today,” she said.

During the sit-ins, “we looked to ourselves for solutions,” she explained, outlining how the protest presented a series of concrete demands, which included the creation of a Women’s Center and a Women’s Studies program, in a way “which hasn’t been replicated since.”

Tracy, who will be speaking on two of the panels, said she is looking forward to the conference. “It’s very important to me,” she said. “My life changed here, who I am and what I do all developed here.”

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