When I opened the Women's Center in 1986, I had a lot to answer for. One male faculty member stormed into my office a week after we opened, demanding to know why we needed a Center. Another wrote a scathing attack in the Courier.
While Dean Rick Schaefer and Vice President Garry Johnson had been very supportive, we opened the Center with an extremely small budget, a half-time director and secretary, and no office furniture. Dean Schaefer told one of the Chairs to take me to the storeroom in Morgan Hall. As we searched through cast off desks, chairs, and file cabinets, the Chair said to me, “Don’t tell anyone I helped you.” He was that worried about his image with his male colleagues.
My staff and I scrounged up furniture from everywhere. My department, English & Journalism, passed on to us a still serviceable couch and chair, along with an old copier, which, unfortunately, could only copy one page at a time. My black leather desk chair, with a huge rip right at the top, came from the Dean of Continuing Education, while the orange plastic chairs for meetings came from the Student Union via Casa Latina. Every staff meeting opened with one of the five graduate interns from College Student Personnel bringing in her latest “find.” That’s how we equipped the Center.
On the positive side, it helped us become known throughout the University; on the negative, it took up a lot of time that could have been better used, especially since we had only one semester to prove ourselves.
As we began our work, it was obvious to us why we needed a Women’s Center. Research demonstrated that faculty, parents, and students expected less of women than of men. One parent told me during New Student Orientation that he sent his son to the U of I, but that WIU was “good enough for his daughter.”
Two female students came to me with concerns about the sexist and suggestive language addressed to them by a person in authority over them. When I offered various solutions to the problem, they decided to speak first with their parents. Both reported that their mothers told them: “Men are just like that; you have to learn to put up with it.”
Faculty women didn’t have it easy either. As in the culture at large, where women earned only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, salaries were lower for women across all ranks and departments, and fewer women were being promoted. When I was hired in 1967, I was told by the Chair that since I was a “faculty wife,” I would be getting $2,000 less annually than my peers. Since salary increases are based on starting salaries, I was one of the lowest paid members of my department throughout my thirty-five year career at Western.
Low pay was bad enough, but women also were denied other kinds of professional recognition. My friend and mentor, Beth Stiffler, told me that when she was in the lab school she had applied for and earned a sabbatical but then had it taken away on the grounds that “men need it more.” In another department, a woman earned tenure, but married a man without. When he was later granted tenure, the administration took hers away.
Women of color had it even worse. Research demonstrated that students expected women to be less qualified than men, and so they evaluated women differently, especially women of color who experienced the double whammy of race. Faculty and professional staff of color also spent enormous amounts of time mentoring students of color, who often felt more comfortable with someone who looked like them.
Women in Civil Service and administrative women struggled too. The former often had patronizing or difficult bosses and little help or support as they learned on their own to use the new technology, while the latter were struggling with the real life difference between feminist theory and feminist practice as they evaluated women. Was women’s role in the family, for example, to be taken into account when they were evaluated and asked for leaves of absence, or were they to be treated “just like men”? Clearly, the man who came into my office shouting, “viva la difference” wasn’t carefully weighing all that.
In the Macomb community, wives could still legally be beaten by their own husbands, so we helped promote the Quad County Coalition against Domestic Violence. Whether it was our Women’s Health Care Weekend, co-sponsored with Beu Health Center and McDonough District Hospital, our Women’s Art Show, or our weekend program called “Understanding Racism: A Campus/Community Approach,” we worked to address the needs of the Macomb community.
Thirty years ago, when the Women’s Center started, there was plenty of work to be done to justify its existence. There still is.
Maurine Magliocco is a Professor Emerita of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.