June 5, 2017
By Susan B. Marine, Gina Helfrich & Liam Randhawa
Women’s and gender centers are lively places, replete with the energy of budding student activists, faculty seeking a safe haven for addressing institutionalized sexism, and student affairs professionals interested in learning more about how gender functions in their particular campus climate. I was fortunate to serve as a women’s center director on a college campus for six years, and during my time there, I became really interested in better understanding how women’s center professionals were becoming more gender inclusive. I was surrounded by others doing this work who had become increasingly convinced that in order to do the real work of feminist revolution, we’d need to find a way to bring the voices and ideas of people of all genders to that table. This wasn’t in any sense because we felt that women-only spaces had ‘failed,’ per se, but rather that they had outlived its usefulness in a world where people of other minoritized genders, such as trans* and non-binary folks, had an equally compelling stake in gender liberation. Our work then was informed by a desire to figure out how the process of making women’s and gender centers more inclusive was going—what were the advantages to doing so, alongside the challenges? How were programs and services being adapted to be more responsive to the diverse needs of all members of the campus community, and what were women’s and gender professionals doing to engage everyone in feminist social change? Our sense was that this was both a promising practice, full of possibility, and that there may be some who would resist its benefits or would feel it de-centered (cisgender) women in an unproductive way. We found both, in our study, and also heard real and ongoing concerns about the stressors facing women’s and gender center staff—doing more with less. We continue to laud our colleagues in the women’s and gender center world. Through this project, naming these challenges, we stand with them, and maintain they are the true change agents of higher education.
Women’s and gender centers have provided a home for feminist activism, education, and empowerment on the college campus since the 1970s. Recently, some women’s and gender centers have undertaken practices of gender inclusion—expanding their missions and programming to include cisgender men and trans* people of all genders. This exploratory study sought to document these practices and to give voice to the challenges and benefits that centers derive from including those who do not identify as women in their work. Twenty professional staff at campus-based women’s and gender centers were interviewed for this study. Participants described how they are enacting gender inclusivity and named the benefits of bringing people of all genders into the work of advancing gender equity on campus, such as increased numbers of students actively participating in the center’s work and broadening the dialogue on women’s issues. Challenges included an ongoing need to protect women’s space for empowerment and the stress of an increased workload due to expanded programming. Overall, participants were positively inclined toward gender inclusion and felt it represented new and exciting possibilities for coalitional awareness and change on campus.
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