USC Women Demand an Autonomous Center

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

Christine Carr

THE UNIVERSITY of Southern California in Los Angeles seems an unlikely setting for a successful feminist struggle. But the recent demand for a women’s resource center could hardly be seen as radical when USC has no rape crisis center, no anti-rape self-defense education and no means of redress for victims of sexual harassment.

In the fall of 1986, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was barred from fraternity row following the second charge of gang rape to be filed against the fraternity that year. The fraternity was reinstated after one year, despite guilty convictions for two of its indicted members.

In the past academic year, only two rapes were reported to campus security on a campus of 30,000 students (16,700 of whom are women), just south of downtown L.A. Clinicians at the University Counseling Center insist that the low number of reported rapes is directly connected to the absence of any woman-centered support facility or advocacy center.

The glaring absence of a designated advocate for victims of sexual harassment isolates those students who are under such pressures from professors, teaching assistants or employers-leaving them with no office or counselor to tum to.

These are the most obvious elements that make USC a hostile environment for women and are of the most immediate concern to campus feminists.

A Detailed Proposal

In the fall, faculty from the Study of Women and Men in Society (SWMS) program (USC’s feminist studies program) met with other faculty members from various departments, staff members from many levels and students. Together they drafted a proposal for a women’s resource center that would serve the various needs of women in the university community.

A detailed proposal outlining the necessity for and potential of the center was submitted to Vice President of Administration Lyn Hutton and Vice Provost Robert Biller. The proposed center required a budget of $269,560 and included salaries for a director, four full-time positions, four internships for graduate students and four work-study positions for undergraduates.

One of the consistent efforts of feminist struggle has been to achieve economic independence from men. The center would be an autonomous, woman-controlled institution within the university that would provide support, education and advocacy for women. It would also serve as an umbrella for advocacy on many issues by various groups.

A second group involved with the resource-center planning committee is the Student Alliance for a Nonsexist Society (SANS), which was formed in February to provide support for feminist women and men and raise consciousness on campus. SANS members helped circulate petitions and draft letters in support of the proposed center.

On February 12, Helen Horowitz, chair of the SWMS department and acting director of the resource center, sub­ mitted almost three hundred letters of support for the center from students and faculty. Horowitz said she expected Hutton and Biller to call a meeting after the letters were submitted, but no meeting was called.

Horowitz used the annual spring football-hostess recruiting drive to call Hutton and Biller’s attention to the prevailing negative image of women at USC and to complain that no meeting had yet been called between the center’s planners and the administrators.

The Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper, noticing the administration’s reluctance to support the center, began an aggressive and insistent campaign of news, feature articles and editorials around the struggle for the center.

Rejection Brings Strong Response

During spring break Helen Horowitz received a letter from Hutton and Biller that claimed neither the money nor the space was available for the center. They suggested that an “ombudsperson” might be designated, or a “less ambitious” proposal be submitted the following fiscal year. It seemed clear that the administration hoped that by announcing their decision during spring break they could diffuse any strong response.

The resource center had the potential to become a powerful advocacy base for women’s rights in the university. The administration seemed threatened by an independent center and attempted to undercut the proposal by providing more limited services.

SANS members had already planned a rally in support of the proposed center for April, following the break. Though some members thought the rally was now futile, the few who had organized it insisted it was now necessary.

The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, and specifically its president Kathy Spillar, were especially supportive of SANS in its formative stages and in the planning of the demonstration.

Organizers purchased ads in the Daily Trojan which asked, “Is USC a major university?,” but insisted the answer was ”No. Because unlike other major universities, USC does not have a women’s resource center.”

Much in demand were the buttons printed in the traditional Trojan colors of cardinal and gold with the slogan, “A center for women, a victory for Troy.”

Spillar, Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique), Rabbi Laura Geller (the first woman rabbi to be ordained in America), a SWMS faculty member and two student senators (one male), spoke to the 250 people who gathered under rain-threatening skies to show their support USC is not an activist campus, and this kind of unity among student groups and other campus groups is extremely rare.

The crowd was a fairly even mix of women and men, students, faculty and staff who marched into the administration building to hand-deliver petitions. Lyn Hutton was, predictably, at lunch, so demonstrators lined up outside her office intending to each sign up for an appointment with Hutton to discuss the rejection of the proposed center.

The slogan-chanting crowd seemed entirely alien within the halls of USC’s administration building, as the cry “What do we want? A women’s center. When do we want it? Now!” echoed off the glazed bricks and wafted up the stairwells and down the hall to the president’s office.

Hutton’s secretaries were quite perturbed by the demonstrators and called campus security, but the guards refused to take action against the peaceful demonstrators, who then waited quietly for their tum to sign up.

More demonstrators crossed the building to Robert Biller’s office with the same intention. Biller told his secretary he would meet with a group of representatives from SANS and other demonstrators.

At the meeting with the SANS representatives, Biller hinted at a presidential “slush fund” that could be drawn upon to start up the center on a smaller scale than originally proposed. He also acknowledged that space could be found for the center–a suite of offices, rather than the independent structure originally proposed.

He then met with the resource-center planning committee and offered them $20,000), work-study contracts, office space on campus and a promise of increased funds each consecutive year, provided the center’s programming was successful.

The planning committee then met with SANS representatives, and though members of both groups were openly suspicious of the offer, the committee decided to accept it, after recognizing that the administration had maintained the upper hand. With such limited funds, there remained the possibility that the center could not provide adequate programming, and would then be denounced by the administration as unsuccessful and unnecessary.

With this in mind, the committee decided to take an accurate survey of existing campus and nearby services for women and make directories available in the fall. The most important issues for women on campus would be the focus of the center’s fall programming-anti-rape and sexual-harassment education.

Though the administration’s concessions may seem small when compared to the original demands of the proposal, the success in achieving those concessions demonstrates the power of organizing different groups around a single issue. A mass action that unites so many representatives of the campus can inflict a great deal of pressure on a reluctant administration.

Problems Remain

But despite their concessions, the administrators still maintained that services demanded by the center-planning committee were already offered by various agencies within the university. Clearly, they did not want an autonomous, woman-controlled center to advocate and coalesce the demands being made by different groups.

For example, a resource center could begin to determine how widespread sexual harassment is and offer a designated supportive place to report harassment. The burden of support now falls mainly on an overloaded Counseling Center, where the staff is overburdened already with walk-in and regular counseling appointments.

USC also offers little in the way of self-defense education for women. University security does not provide anti-rape self-defense programs. There is a self-defense class offered by the physical education department, but it is not specifically for women and does not teach students how to protect themselves in a potential date-rape situation or what to do if they become the victims of rape.

The burden of support for USC women increasingly slips through the existing structures of deans and counselors: and falls on women instructors, especially SWMS faculty.

Betty Friedan, a part-time instructor at USC, said women come to her during her office hours to tell her they are being abused by their husbands or harassed by professors. They come to her because they know she will be sympathetic; they come to her because they have nowhere else to go.

Women comprise only 16 percent of the faculty at USC, and at the professor level, they make an average of $20,000 a year less than their male counterparts. It is safe to make the generalization that women are primarily associated with the “soft sciences” and humanities, while men tend to dominate the higher-paid “real sciences” and mathematical fields.

Women instructors at USC have created a tight, active community that is constantly working on new ways to reach out to the graduate and undergraduate women in their departments, as mentors for graduate students and role models for undergraduates who find it hard to identify in a male-dominated university.

But the extensive involvement of women professors can undermine their scholarly work, and therefore can endanger their chance at achieving tenure. Women faculty members insist that until USC hires more women professors, strengthens the SWMS program and establishes the women’s resource center, women students will find it difficult in the unsupportive campus environment.

Adverse Trends

Though USC appears more overtly sexist than most universities, the extraordinarily adverse environment is indicative of national trends for women in higher education.

Women are the majority of American college students and earn one-third of the doctorates awarded each year. But only one-fifth of the full-time instructor positions in the country are held by women, and a New York Times study concluded that women are consistently discriminated against in regards to salary, promotion and tenure.

There is a new class of non-tenured instructors emerging in American universities, a disproportionate number of whom are women. National statistics indicate that more than half of the instructor-level positions held by women are not on the tenure track.

Women at private universities like USC are confronted with a seemingly conspiratorial silence on salaries. ”If you don’t know comparable worth, how can you fight for it?,” said one assistant professor at USC.

Though this woman’s position was on the tenure track, she explained one insidious way the public silence on salaries can actively work against women. “They can offer you a humiliating salary. Publicly, they will claim they wanted you, and offered you a contract. This can be an effective tool in getting rid of people.”

But the initial success of the struggle for the women’s center is an encouraging sign for feminists and sympathizers at USC. Support ranged from the Gay and Lesbian Assembly of Student Services, the Black Student Union, the Hispanic Women’s Network, and Students for Peace and Justice to the Student Senate, Concerned Faculty, the director of the Neurobiology program, and many other faculty and staff members.

Though most of these student groups plan events and social activities for their members, they often lack the means to provide extensive but essential support programs.

For example, the Gay and Lesbian Assembly of Student Services offers support groups, and organizes events and social activities for their members. However, USC’s anti-discrimination pol­ icy does not specifically protect gays from harassment, so GLASS members say their position at use can sometimes seem extraordinarily vulnerable and isolated.

The resource center has the potential to become a powerful voice, acting as a check on the often overtly racist, sexist and homophobic elements on campus.

“Corporate Feminists”

Despite the extensive support for the center among men and women students, faculty and staff, there remains a core of indifferent students who claim immunity from the issues raised and advocated by the center’s supporters.

Many women at USC appear to have accepted their places in a “man’s world,” as represented by the university. Some take their place as objects, accepted within the structure; others take their place as complete outsiders, affecting disdain and ignoring feminist attempts at claiming power within the university.

Though some apathy is inevitable when looking, for support for any struggle, the women at USC who remained apathetic to the struggle for the center are worth mentioning because of the pattern that many will inevitably follow.

An editorial in the Daily Trojan identified these women as the “languid heiresses” of the women’s movement. They inherited the achievements of the most recent women’s movement of the 1970s without ever acknowledging their sisters’ struggles; they are content to remain ignorant of women’s history and women’s historic struggle for a voice in society.

They’ll say, “I’m not a feminist, but….” They fully expect to get prestigious jobs that pay well enough to keep them in upper-middle-class comfort, never expecting discrimination at any level, dismissing as hysteria the very idea of the glass ceiling and the statistic that women make only 62 cents of every dollar earned by men.

These women graduate into “corporate feminism,” an oxymoronic term similar to “military intelligence.” Lyn Hutton, one of the administrators who initially rejected the proposed center may be used as an example.

She is a woman of considerable power within the university, but she will not acknowledge the movement’s contribution to her own power and will not support the struggle for women’s rights, not even such a limited demand as the resource center.

Corporate feminists are insensitive to the struggles of their sisters and will side with the existing power rather than help to empower those who have been denied power. In this pattern, the corporate feminist does not risk her own power, and she reassures those above her in the hierarchy that she is not threatening to them.

The success of the struggle around the women’s center at USC taught many newly active students that real gains could be won through struggle. The unification of various elements around the campus created a feminist voice that could not be ignored. The creation and expansion of the center will ensure that there is adequate voice for women in the university.

September-October 1988, ATC 16

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *