Women’s Center?: Doing More For Gender Equality

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(Liya Rechtman)– In recent months, the Amherst College administration has spent hundreds of hours (and maybe a couple thousand dollars) on the construction of spaces physically conducive to a more sexually respectful campus culture, including a new Women’s Center. The center is meant to be a place where access to resources regarding gender, sexuality, sexual respect and feminism can be found. How then, do we dare to limit its audience only to women and not give it a name with a broader reach? Not only is calling this room a Women’s Center simply a divisive misnomer, it is also counterproductive to the end goal of sexual respect.

We have moved past the “just say no” age of sexual respect and acknowledge that any information of how-to-not-be-raped is actually victim blaming, which places the onus of alleviating sexual assault on victims. We know that everyone needs to be active bystanders against rape culture, not just women or self-identified feminists. Further, it is important for us to remember that not just women are the targets of rape culture or sexual assault. While less frequent, men are also potential victims of sexual assault and harassment and there are notably fewer resources open to them nationally, although they still face obstacles and threats similar to female-bodied victims. Moreover, the center is being conceived of as a place where gender and sexuality will be discussed more broadly than a narrow focus on sexual assault; gender and sexuality include dialogue about masculinity and male body culture alongside the analogous conversations surrounding specifically gynocentric issues. Yet the Women’s Center alienates men interested in these issues before they even walk through the door.

Feminism as a movement has historically been plagued by an inability to form coalitions. The Women’s Liberation Movement, the organization now called the National Organization for Women (NOW), actively sought to rid lesbians from its ranks in the 1960s and 70s. NOW’s president, Betty Freidan famously referred to lesbians as the “lavender menace” and explicitly banned from the mainstream of the feminist movement on the basis that their very presence would be detrimental to the cause. Even today many feminists are markedly trans*phobic, pointing to the highly problematic “women are born, not made” argument. In calling the feminist center on campus the Women’s Center, we again silence and limit access to the groups most marginalized and in need of resources, in particular trans* and non-binary folk. Instead of breaking down barriers and shattering glass ceilings, we re-binarize space.

We do have other options. If the center is meant to house Women of Amherst, the Gender Justice Collaborative, the Peer Advocates for Sexual Respect and other, future feminist, gyno- or andro-centric campus groups, there are a plethora of other schools we can look to for innovative nomenclature. Where Occidental College has the Center for Gender Equity, Central Washington University is home to the Center for Student Empowerment. Lots of schools support centers with permutations of the name Feminist Union and Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (more potential names here).

Changing the name of the center is not difficult. We still have time before the official sign goes up and the stationary is printed. I urge you to consider the aforementioned great harm a Women’s Center would do to the Amherst College campus community and work with me to alter the course of exclusion on which the center is now set.

So here’s to a new name and a #constantLyevolving center!

<3 Liya