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The Penn Women's Center, located at 3643 Locust Walk, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its creation. The center, founded after a sit-in by University women, is dedicated to combatting acts of violence against women. [Ari Friedman/DP File Photo]

Strings of T-shirts hang on clotheslines around the exterior of the Penn Women's Center. Adorned with slogans condemning violence toward women, they flap peacefully in the wind.

It is the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Penn Women's Center -- a commemoration of the 1973 sit-in by a group of University women to demand better services for females on campus.

"This day is to pay tribute to the 200 women that sat here and said this institution can do better," says Ellie DiLapi, director of the Women's Center.

The shirts demonstrate the continued dedication of the center since its inception to combat violence against women. They are a part of the annual clothesline project and the Take Back the Night event, aiming to increase awareness of sexual violence on campus and celebrate the survivors of violence.

College freshman Niva Kramek, a member of Penn for Choice -- a group that works with the Women's Center -- was out on the walk handing out flyers.

"We want to let people know we're here," she says. "That they can come in any time for anything, even if it's just to chat or have a cup of coffee."

Throughout the day, women have come to the center to sit down, have some food and commemorate the historic sit-in.

One of the first women's centers in the country, and the first to offer services to victims of sexual violence, the Penn Women's Center offers counseling, educational, academic and a variety of other programs and has had an impact locally, nationally and even internationally.

The center has led to "much more of a women's voice on campus," says Gloria Gay, associate director at the center. She credits the center for helping to open doors for women on campus, leading to several female deans and the first female president of the Ivy League.

"If this sit-in didn't happen, all of these wouldn't have happened."

Indeed, 30 years ago Penn's campus felt very different.

In April 1973, following the rape of five women on campus in the span of three days, the Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania staged a sit-in at College Hall to demand the establishment of a women's center, as well as self-defense classes, better lighting and security, hiring more female security officers and gynecologists, extension of bus services, expansion of University policy for rape victims and the publication of crime statistics in The Daily Pennsylvanian.

After four days, they won.

Microbiology Professor Helen Davies, then an associate professor, participated in the 1973 sit-in. What struck her most about it, she said, was the participation of women from all strata of the University -- from students and faculty to cleaning women and dining hall workers.

"It was a universal women's response that this was outrageous," she says.

"Lots of wonderful men wanted to help," she continues. "We asked them to bring us coffee."

This, she says, was truly a women's sit-in.

"It was very clean and very polite -- we didn't make a lot of noise, and when someone walked by, we'd lift our feet," she says. "But we were adamant that we weren't going to move."

The sit-in drew a plethora of media attention, which, in turn, prompted the administration to take action.

In October 1973, the Penn Women's Center was officially opened.

But while the demands were met, there was still much left to be changed when DiLapi was appointed director of the Women's Center in 1985. Sitting on the porch of the women's center, located squarely in the middle of Locust Walk, DiLapi remembers a time when the atmosphere felt intimidating for many women on campus.

"Locust Walk used to be all fraternities," she says. "The men would sit outside the frats and rate women as they walked down the walk... fraternities were also the scene of a lot of harassment." Many women, she says, were forced to seek alternative, and sometimes unsafe, routes in order to avoid the Walk.

In response to this, there was a call to diversify Locust Walk -- many frats were kicked off campus and University buildings opened up in their place. The women's center was moved from Houston Hall to its current location -- a former fraternity.

Today, DiLapi notes, the Walk feels completely different -- diverse and welcoming.

And the women's center "is committed to making anyone feel comfortable to come in," DiLapi adds. "The center is utilized by people of all different political, racial backgrounds."

It has also widely served men.

"You do things good for women, and they happen for men, too," she says.

"The women's center saved my life," says Nursing doctoral student Erme Maula, who utilized the center as an undergraduate as well. "It was a safe place to address things I couldn't talk about anywhere else."

As a graduate student, Maula continues to utilize the services at the center, but is also giving back to other women as a sexual health educator.

Recently, she conducted a safe-sex workshop at the center. "The center provided a safe space to talk about these issues," she says, adding that "we handed out dildos and condoms -- it was very hands-on."

Even today, as the center has evolved and expanded in many ways, DiLapi laments that "unfortunately, the issue of violence against women still continues."

This is particularly troubling, as it creates a barrier to education, she adds.

"Women should be able to come here and not worry about sexual violence or harassment," DiLapi says. "Our role is to support women and help them heal."

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