Recording the history of women at Penn

The Penn Women's Center's Voices of Change project aims to make 40 videos for the project

· April 10, 2014, 5:56 pm   ·  Updated April 11, 2014, 1:58 am

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Penn women are making a difference, and the Penn Women’s Center is making videos to commemorate the way these women have shaped or experienced the University.

As part of the Penn Women’s Center’s Voices of Change project, President Amy Gutmann discussed her experiences as a woman at Penn in a video released yesterday. The project consists of a growing set of video interviews of a wide range of Penn women. Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush, Vice Provost for University Life Valerie Swain-Cade McCoullum and Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project Carol Tracy are three people featured in the 11 videos which have been uploaded so far.

The project began as part of the Women Center’s 40th anniversary celebrations, but it will be ongoing as the Center hopes to collect a total of 40 videos, explained Women’s Center Director Felicity Paxton.

The interviews are done by Paxton and Jessica Mertz, director of the Voices of Change project, in collaboration with VPUL. The women in the videos are asked questions about their own personal history as women at Penn, focusing on their interaction with the Women’s Center, Mertz said.

The stories are “incredibly inspiring,” Paxton said “and on a personal level very moving,” she added.

The project is about “teaching students a history they don’t necessarily feel connected to,” Mertz said. “We need to hear about what got us to this point,” she added.

The Women’s Center was established in 1974 after over 200 women protested on campus in 1973 after the University failed to respond to a sequence of five rapes over the course of three days.

Several of the interviews have been with women from the original sit-in . One thing which stood out in particular for Mertz was “hearing how much it felt like a fight for them,” she said. The work of the Women’s Center is “now professionalized and institutionalized,” she explained, adding that the videos highlight ideas that “I think we don’t talk enough about.”

Interviews with women talking about their experiences as students at Penn “have been the most moving” for Mertz. They bring “an opportunity to hear that this was a home for them,” she explained.

Professor of English and 1996 College graduate Salamishah Tillet, who contributed one of the interviews that is currently on YouTube , said she hopes the project means “that people will understand the long history of the Penn Women’s Center.”

“I am so honored that I was and am a part of this history,” she added, explaining that the Women’s Center was a “valuable resource” for her.

For Paxton, discussing the Women’s Center’s history is about a “journey from those earlier narratives to where we are now.”

The project aims to collect a very diverse range of interviews, Mertz said. They will be interviewing women across the student body, the staff and the faculty, she said, adding that they have made an effort to present a range of generational experiences.

The project has “hands down been my favorite part of my job this year,” Paxton said.

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