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Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

I got up this morning to write about the racism and Islamophobia all over social media.  I wanted to write about how hard it is to even log into Facebook and decide whether to unfriend people so I don’t have to see their hatred and disgust for other human beings.  I wanted to write about how sad it is to see groups of people lumped together because of a few bad eggs and what a horrible practice that is.  I wanted to write about how the Republican candidates are encouraging this kind of hatred, from Ben Carson suggesting that student protests about racism are “infantile” to Marco Rubio correlating Islam with Nazism.

I wanted to write about how institutional sexism and internalized sexism has been recently present and painful in my work life, a place I often think is a “safe” place for an open exchange of ideas and for social justice work.

But before writing all that, I checked my email and found this letter from the former Chairs of the Women’s Center Committee of the National Women’s Studies Association on my listserve.  I post it because I was on the forefront of the battle in the 90s to locate a space for Women’s Centers to be heard and to have a professional home.  University Women’s Centers have long struggled to find a professional home.  Some of us come out of Student Affairs graduate programs and feel connected to organizations like NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) and ACPA (American College Personnel Association).  These organizations, however, are broad in scope, and while they can be committed to social justice, they are not necessarily feminist professional organizations.  Many Women’s Center directors were connected to NAWE (National Association of Women Educators).  Some of us, like me, came out of Master’s programs in Women’s Studies and wanted to take theory into practice, but wanted to stay connected to our academic feminist roots by being connected to an organization like NWSA.

When NAWE folded, the Women’s Center Caucus at NWSA was growing and we were holding a vibrant and engaging pre-conference that allowed for a space for us to spend a day together sharing our work.  Then we out grew our space and started to demand more.  The battle to get to the table was difficult and painful.  That Women’s Studies faculty would be so reluctant to have feminist activists and professionals supporting their work seemed ludicrous.  But with political savvy we were able to garner enough support from faculty on the Governing Council who understood the power in a relationship between Women’s Studies and Women’s Centers.  The Women’s Center committee was at the forefront of doing work to dismantle racism and challenge white privilege early on in the organization.   But apparently there is something else at work within NWSA.  Somehow the powers that be are threatened by the voices of the women who run campus Women’s Centers.  This I wonder about as I see institutions dismantling Women’s Centers one by one.  For example, the UMaine Women’s Center Director position has not been filled since the founding director, Sharon Barker, retired last July.

The two co-chairs of the Women’s Center Committee have resigned today with this letter to the Governing Council.  It makes me sad for all the hard work we did in the late 90s/early 2000’s and disappointed for the so-called feminist organization NWSA in a time when we need to be coming together to dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism and transphobia.  What is Women’s Studies if not the one discipline on the fringes and borders asking questions of the institution?

To the Governing Council of the National Women’s Studies Association,
We, Gina Helfrich and Adale Sholock, co-chairs of the NWSA Women’s Centers Committee, hereby resign from our position, effective immediately. We do so with heavy hearts and after years of good faith engagement and efforts to help the NWSA Governing Council leadership hear the concerns and needs of the Women’s Centers Community. 
With the recent GC vote to remove all formal representation of Women’s Centers professionals from the NWSA Governing Council, we believe that NWSA leadership has clearly exhibited a failure to fully grapple with the issues of classism inherent in the organization. The loss of the GC seat is a symbolic culmination of years of marginalization of Women’s Centers professionals by the executive and board leadership of NWSA. 
While NWSA brands itself as home for all practitioners of feminism and women’s studies scholars and activists, years of neglect of the Women’s Centers professional community’s needs and ongoing marginalization of Women’s Centers professionals within the organization show that NWSA is in truth primarily devoted to the professional development of women’s and gender studies faculty and graduate students, having little time for—or interest in—sustaining and supporting on-the-ground practitioners like Women’s Centers professionals.
NWSA has failed to center the work of Women’s Centers professionals, the front line practitioners of feminism in the academy and so often those who carry the burden of translating women’s and gender theory into action for and alongside students. Instead of providing a welcoming and sustaining home for Women’s Centers professionals, NWSA has repeatedly marginalized Women’s Centers professionals, their research, their work, and their needs. 
Women’s Centers professionals were not consulted in the Strategic Planning process undertaken by NWSA in 2015. The fact that at the June GC meeting we were not notified that the Strategic Plan included removal of Women’s Centers seats on the Governing Council until less than 30 minutes prior to the conclusion of the meeting was both instructive and symptomatic. The both of us experienced an unwelcoming climate in Governing Council meetings, where we felt strongly that our voices were typically perceived as taking up too much space with complaints. No Women’s Centers professionals have been asked by the President to participate in the main conference planning committee for many years. Any time concerns have been raised about these ongoing issues, NWSA leadership has exhorted Women’s Centers professionals to “submit more proposals” to the main conference. NWSA leadership holds up the Pre-Conference as the definitive exhibit of support given to Women’s Centers professionals by NWSA as an organization despite constant annual reminders that the Women’s Centers Pre-Conference does not pay for itself and the Women’s Centers community needs to get more Women’s Center staff to pay the cost of NWSA membership, the Pre-Conference registration fee, and typically the main conference registration fee, as well.
The Women’s Centers professional community currently faces a host of pressing issues, such as the nationwide crisis of sexual assault on college campuses, the high turnover of Women’s Center professionals leading to a constant leadership vacuum, and the targeting of administrators and staff on college campuses who lack the protections of tenure or the social capital of faculty positions. Despite these many opportunities for NWSA to display leadership and to center these crucial feminist concerns in the organization, NWSA frequently and consistently fails to center Women’s Center professionals in its rhetoric, in the narrative it tells of the organization, in its internal initiatives, and in its planning and goal-setting processes. The irony of this failure in the midst of organizing an NWSA conference themed around “Precarity” is not lost on us.
Three of the past four NWSA Women’s Centers Committee co-chairs have left the profession while holding their position, including the both of us. One of the two WCC Pre-Conference co-chairs for 2015 also left the profession, and the other was fired from her job for taking a stand to support her students who were protesting the whitewashing of a campus mural. The Women’s Centers professional community has many urgent needs to be addressed, and a continued uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of NWSA leadership only adds to their significant burdens.
We hope that our resignation will serve as a wake-up call to this organization and prompt a re-examination of what it means to truly live out feminist principles within a feminist organization.
Gina Helfrich, Ph.D. and Adale Sholock, Ph.D.
I stand with my sisters on this issue while struggling to understand if NWSA is even a place for someone like me anymore.  Maybe it is time we re-visit inventing our own organization or finding a home that accepts who we are as feminist activists and administrators in our own precarious place.



About thefeministcritic

Feminist, student affairs professional, actor, director, writer, yoga teacher, lover of dogs and cats, vintage trailers and an amazing cook named Jeff.

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my feminist praxis

critical reflections on my feminist praxis: activism, motherhood, and life

The Feminist Critic

Providing weekly critiques of theatre, film, books, politics and pop culture from a feminist perspective.

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