CELROY 122, 1973—The female-led grassroots movement to build a women’s center at Boston College finally came to fruition with a grand opening in the women’s bathroom on the landing outside what is now Eagle’s Nest.
After a two-year uphill battle to lay down a foundation of equality at BC, the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) opened the Women’s Center on March 8, 1973, the same day as International Women’s Day. The students attached a room number to the door and printed out brochures and pamphlets before they invited their first guest: then-University President Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J. He took the hint—and found a permanent place for the center elsewhere in McElroy Commons, where it stayed until 2015.
Now, the Women’s Center has a cozy office space in the corner of Maloney Hall—photos of the student staff members and feminist iconography plaster the walls of this empowering space on campus for female-identifying students.
“We’re a safe space on this campus,” said Maithri Harve, BC ’19. “I think it’s important because there’s still issues of gender inequality on this campus of all marginalized genders, not just women, and I think that for us being able to address all of that in an institutionalized way is super important.”
n its time, the Women’s Center has seen drastic changes on campus and accomplished much on the road to gender equality at BC. The Women’s Center was founded just three years after all undergraduate programs at the University finally became coeducational—prior to 1970, women were only allowed to enroll in the School of Education and the School of Nursing.
Despite the apparent progress, female students still faced significant challenges while attending BC, from a lack of quality living space to a shortage of women’s bathrooms.
“The business building at the time did not have a women’s bathroom in it,” Julianne Malveaux, BC ’74 and M.A. ’76, previously told The Heights. “So if you were in class and you had to relieve yourself, you had to leave the building. Rain, sleet or snow.”
In 1967, female students scheduled an open-house afternoon in their dorms, allowing women to host guests in their rooms to showcase the unbearable conditions of their housing accomodations. Gerry Mercendante, then-president of the Women’s Dorm Council, described the conditions as “barely tolerable,” according to a Heights article published at the time of the event.
“Practically none of the administrators who are responsible for recruiting and admitting girls into BC have ever seen the dorms,” Mercendante said to The Heights. “How can they talk about letting girls enroll here if they don’t know anything about the dorms?”
Without proper dormitory accommodations and usable women’s bathrooms, the ’60s brought about a student-led movement. The decade featured promising steps forward for women’s issues—such as the hiring of Ann Flynn as Assistant Dean of Students in 1967—but also frustrating steps back.
In March 1969, Mary Daly, the first woman hired in the theology department, was offered a one-year terminal contract by then-University President W. Seavey Joyce, S.J., essentially forcing her out of her position by the following year. Daly was a well-liked presence on campus, known for her progressive feminist teachings. To the surprise of herself and students on campus, she was not provided any explanation for the termination of her post. When confronted by a group of students regarding his decision to terminate Daly’s post, Joyce declined to make any “specific comments,” according to The Heights.
Daly told The Heights at the time of her firing that “in my own mind I had the objective qualifications for both promotion and tenure.”
"How can they talk about letting girls enroll here if they don't know anything about the dorms?" Julianne Malveaux, BC ’74 and M.A. ’76
Days later, 2,500 students signed a petition for Daly’s reinstatement and 1,500 marched to St. Mary’s Hall to present it to Joyce. The protest was successful, and, by late April, Daly had been rehired with tenure.
wo years after that, tensions again reached a fever pitch with the firing of Flynn—who served as both the director of housing and as the Dean of Women—by Vice President for Student Affairs James P. McIntyre. Flynn had been pushing the University for greater gender equality. In 1967, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex for educational institutions receiving federal funds. With federal investigators scheduled to arrive at BC in the fall of 1971, Flynn informed McIntyre that BC would lose $5 million in federal funds if the University was found to discriminate against women.Title IX legislation would not be passed until the following year.
Flynn’s firing was met with significant backlash. A Heights article written at the time offered an insight on the mood around campus, saying, “Mclntyre explained that the firing was ‘purely an administrative and personal matter.’ A pure administrative and personal matter is a hard phrase to come to terms with; it probably means that Jim didn’t like Ann very much.”
The University’s tumultuous relationship with female faculty and students was the catalyst for a feminist movement that drove the establishment and advancement of the Women’s Center at BC—enter WAC.
WAC occupied administrative offices on the morning of March 19, 1971 to draw attention to the unmet needs of women on campus.
With Flynn’s firing also came the elimination of her position as the Dean of Women.
Four days prior, the group had presented Joyce with a petition bearing 164 signatures demanding that the post of Dean of Women be reinstated, with Flynn at the helm. The petition also presented Joyce with a request for gender equality, one that sought 50 percent female enrollment by 1979, equal distribution in financial aid between women and men, and more female counselors. With the administration unresponsive, WAC decided to occupy two administrative offices.
Taking matters into their own hands, female students at BC began to organize the Women’s Center without administrative aid. A December 1971 advertisement in The Heights encouraged all BC women to attend “an organizational meeting” for the Women’s Center on Dec. 7.
Two years later, WAC converted a women’s bathroom into the Women’s Center.
espite the ruckus that ensued between female students and the BC administration in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Women’s Center currently has a cooperative and strong relationship with the administration today.
For 30 years, the Women’s Center operated solely as a student-run organization. It wasn’t until 2003 that an administrator came into the picture—further driving home necessary services and support the Women’s Center provides to female-identifying students.
Katie Dalton, BC ’03 and M.A. ’07, is the current director for the Women’s Center. For her, the mission of the Women’s Center is preserved in its rich, complex history and continues on with the work that she and other Women’s Center employees do today.
“I think what we really strive to do is to preserve those entrepreneurial and activists roots of this space,” Dalton said.
“[Dalton] is super great,” said Harve. “She’s super supportive of anything. Like any ideas that we might have, she’ll sit down with us and talk it through and she’ll try to do everything in her power to make it happen. For me, she’s been more than just a boss. Like talking about my job search and things like that, it’s always something that I can go to her for assistance.”
Although the Women Center’s goal is “to empower of female-identified students,” according to Dalton, the space is welcome to those of all genders. Upon entry, there’s always a smiling face of a student employee there to offer tea, candy, or a comfy couch to relax—a respite from the stress of college life.
Beyond providing a space for students to chat or hang out, a majority of Women’s Center programming is dedicated to sexual assault prevention and response. Bystander Intervention with Stand Up BC is a key player in the Women’s Center sexual assault prevention programming. Approximately 10 years ago, the Women’s Center began to pilot Bystander Intervention. Today, Bystander Intervention training is administered in the fall to all first-year students by members of the Bystander Intervention student staff.
On the response end, the Women’s Center developed the BC Sexual Assault Network (SANet)—trained staff, faculty, and graduate students to connect those affected by sexual assault or sexual violence to their next resources. Dubbed the CARE Team, survivors can access the 24-hour SANet hotline or walk into the Women’s Center office during all hours of operation. Still, sexual assault response and prevention are just two of the many issues that the Women’s Center strives to address.
“On the flip side of that, we also want it to be known that we’re not medicalizing women’s issues to like this narrow, kind of slice of an individual’s experience,” Dalton said. “So we do a lot around intersectional feminism.”
Portraying intersectional feminism comes in a number forms, according to Dalton. From tracing back the traditional beauty standards to colonial roots to exploring the crossroads between Catholicism and feminism, the Women’s Center aims to be inclusive. Most recently, the Women’s Center hosted an event to discuss Surviving R. Kelly, the striking documentary in which women accused American singer-songwriter R. Kelly of sexual assault.
ne of the most important aspects of the Women’s Center is its staff, namely its 10 student members—the true essence of the organization that grounds the Women’s Center in its grassroots origins.
“It’s really the students that are, I like to say, the lifeblood of this space,” Dalton said.
One such staff member is Julia Barrett, MCAS ’19. In Barrett’s eyes, the administrative side of the Women’s Center—including director Dalton—really focuses on making sure all of the Women’s Center initiatives are led by students. With the help of student volunteers outside the Women’s Center, the student staff members follow through with their initiatives.
In just one recent initiative, Amirah Orozco, MCAS ’19, partnered with other students to supply all female and gender neutral bathrooms with free menstruation supplies. For students struggling to afford pads and tampons, Orozco and her partners make sure the supplies they need are freely available.
“It's really the students that are, I like to say, the lifeblood of this space." Katie Dalton, BC '03 and M.A. '07
As a senior, Barrett has seen more and more younger students coming into the Women’s Center with impressive knowledge on women’s issues—giving her hope for the future of the Women’s Center even after she graduates. As someone who helps run Bystander Intervention, Barrett is especially impressed with the freshmen and sophomores who have interviewed to be a part of the program—she says that something about them is just “awesome,” making her excited for future generations of feminists to take over the Women’s Center.
“So I’m really excited about just, like, younger and younger generations coming in and taking charge,” Barrett said. “Someone that has interviewed with us … [was] talking about the different waves of feminism … And I think the Women’s Center, similarly, is going to have to morph, just like how different waves of feminism have morphed, into what it will actually need to be.”
Featured Image from Heights Archives