A centre of their own

It began as a class project. When Annalea Sordi, a 2003 sociology graduate, started at the University of Calgary in 1998, the Women’s Collective and Resource Centre was open and active.


It closed in 1999.


Three years later, when a class presented the opportunity, Sordi and classmates Karoline Kemp and Angela Sheppard decided to try and reinvent a centre to serve as a safe and educational space for women. Their professor, Fiona Nelson, offered her full support. The Campus Women’s Resource Centre committee is trying to establish what would be the U of C’s third women’s centre.


Julie Kearns, senior instructor in the Faculty of Continuing Educ-ation, was the director of Student Services in the mid-1970s. Under her guidance, Student Services housed a women’s centre. Once Student Services moved to MacEwan Hall, around 1988, they no longer had space for a women’s centre. Few, if any, documents regarding this first women’s centre remain.


A new group soon formed, lobbying for a Women’s Collective and Resource Centre. By March 1990, they had received the necessary space and a small grant from the Students’ Union. This centre opened in 1990.


After being shipped around MacEwan Hall and finally being relegated to a basement closet in Earth Sciences, the Women’s Collective and Resource Centre closed in 1999.


The reasons included a perceived lack of participation from the campus community (not surprising, given the centre’s less-than-obvious location), a series of funding problems, namely the disappearance of off-campus granting bodies, and on-campus resistance to an innovative research project which the local chapter of the Status of Women Committee had funded.


Despite these issues during the last years of the Women’s Collective and Resource Centre, students who used it still have positive memories of it.


Tereasa Maillie, a current undergraduate student, went there looking for advice and support for an on-campus issue in 1998.


“I wasn’t looking for counselling, or therapy,” says Maillie. “I needed good advice, and that was a [place] where I could get it.


“I only went in there twice, but it does stick in my mind that this was a good resource,” she adds. “It’s unfortunate that young women that are coming up now in this university have no access to anything like that.”


Today, Kearns emphasizes that while the situation for women on campus has improved, many issues remain that a women’s centre could help address.


“It takes a lot of work to remind people of gender issues and diversity issues,” she explains. “It takes a lot of awareness of things that we accept or take for granted.


“I was at a recent meeting where we were going over statistics and identifying current issues,” she adds. “[They were] the same issues that we identified in the Blair Report [in 1978].”


Many young women on campus still face barriers of abuse, harrassment and an increased likelihood of poverty, while female faculty members face specific issues of their own, including the classic family-versus-career dichotomy.


The group of women working to establish a CWRC have a vision. Desiree Kopp, who will graduate in December, heads the CWRC committee until then. Services Kopp would like to see the centre provide, in addition to a safe space for women, include a meeting place for women to get involved with their campus, a referral service, information on programs and resources available to women and a resource library.


Beyond this, the CWRC committee envisions a first-year mentor program for incoming female students and a parent-locator program where students with children could leave the CWRC as a contact for their child’s school or daycare. In the event of an emergency, the CWRC would have the parent’s schedule and could come get the parent from class. This service is offered successfully by the women’s centres at the University of Lethbridge and at Ryerson University.


However, she cautions, as does Nelson, Head of the Department of Women’s Studies, that the centre is limited by the funding and space it would have.


Despite common misconceptions that a women’s centre would exclude men or be man-hating, no such sentiments are expressed by its proponents.


“Men benefit by living in a culture that is devoted to equality and humanity and justice and fairness,” explains Nelson. “Men might not be afraid walking across campus at night, but is that all that matters, that ‘I’ve got mine?’ We’re talking about basic human equality, which benefits everybody.”


“It’s not a men-bashing centre,” explains Maillie. “I love men, I’m married. My husband is more of a feminist than I am, and he’s just horrified we don’t have [a women’s centre] on campus.”


“It would be great to have a meeting space so that the Academic Women’s Association would have a place to meet,” notes Nelson.


Hermina Joldersma, Advisor to the President on Women’s Issues, faces a similar challenge. Though she has a three-year appointment and the formidable task of working for all women on campus, she has no place to store her files and her committee, the President’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, scrambles to find meeting rooms. When asked if she believes the U of C needs a women’s centre, Joldersma responds, “Yes, I do.”


On Tue., Oct. 21, 2003 the Students’ Legislative Council voted in favour of pursuing a women’s centre. They identified a room in MacEwan Student Centre that presently houses the Students’ Union Conferences and Events office as a potential space. Conferences and Events will be moving, and Gavin Preston, SU Vice-President of Operations and Finance, indicates the CWRC could be a candidate for that room.


“It’s kind of a boardroom,” says Preston. “Could that be used as a women’s centre? That was kind of the vote. Are you in favour of having a women’s centre? We want to see more on this.”


He also poses the question, “what would a women’s centre do?”


“The question is unfair,” suggests Nelson. “What a women’s centre would do is 100 per cent contingent on the space and resources that would be available, so we can’t answer that question ahead of time.


“There are various resources and services that are available to women, but not in a consistent and accessible way,” she continues. “A women’s centre ideally would offer some of those services, gather some of those resources and offer information about other resources available to women.”


There are many services for women in Calgary, each directed at one aspect of women’s concerns. However, Joldersma and Kearns believe a CWRC shouldn’t be burdened with all the problems facing women. Instead, it should be carefully planned to focus on education, networking and information distribution.


But what of these problems facing women? Opponents of the CWRC have argued that the struggle for a women’s centre is extraneous, because women are equal to men.


“Women’s and men’s experience both of the physical space and the psycho-emotional space on campus are completely different,” Nelson states.


Negative psycho-emotional experiences include in-class silencing, which research shows occurs more often to women than to men, and can have drastic effects on personal comfort, GPA and the sense of ownership of one’s education.


“A women’s centre is both an actual and a symbolic attempt to mitigate some of those factors,” Nelson says.


The question now becomes, why not a CWRC?

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