Arts & Humanities

Carolina Women’s Center panel discussion examines the history of women’s movement

“Past, Present and Future: Women’s Organizations’ Roles on Campus and in Communities,” a 2017 Carolina Seminar event recorded for broadcast on WUNC-FM’s show The State of Things, was part of the Carolina Women’s Center’s yearlong celebration of its 20th anniversary.

A table of panelists sit in front of a WUNC logo
Carolina Womenís Centerís celebration of its 20th anniversary. Taping of panel discussion for WUNC. October 11, 2017 at the Friday Center. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

What defines feminism? Who gets included in the women’s movement? How can the movement become more visionary and less reactive?

These were just some of the questions addressed by six panelists and moderator Frank Stasio at “Past, Present and Future: Women’s Organizations’ Roles on Campus and in Communities,” a 2017 Carolina Seminar event at the Friday Center on Oct. 11. The lively discussion, also recorded for broadcast on WUNC-FM’s show The State of Things hosted by Stasio, was part of the Carolina Women’s Center’s yearlong celebration of its 20th anniversary.

“You didn’t know you were coming to a party, did you?” CWC Director Gloria Thomas asked the audience of 200, mostly women, before the discussion began. Thomas recalled that the center grew from a student group called the Women’s Issues Network and the establishment of a 21-member task force on women by then-Chancellor Paul Hardin in 1995. Based on the task force’s recommendations, a women’s center opened on campus in 1997.

“We’re still here, and we’re still at it, and we’re still needed,” Thomas said.

Grassroots to professional

The history of the Carolina Women’s Center roughly parallels an important stage in the women’s movement, called “institutionalization” by panelist Lisa Levenstein, associate professor of history at UNC-Greensboro. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s protested against the system, demanding equality. Volunteers and nonprofits like rape crisis centers kept the movement going in the late 1970s and 1980s.

But by the 1990s, feminism had become part of the system, Levenstein said, with the establishment of women’s medical clinics, women’s legal services and women’s centers on university campuses.

“When people began to be able to do feminist work for pay, to somehow make a living on it, that was a distinct shift,” she said. “It’s a tremendous gift to be able to do this, but you’re answering to someone who’s giving you that money, and you see the limitations that imposes on you.”

Panelist Saira Estrada finds her job as Latinx Services Specialist for the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence “very rewarding,” she said, and just as demanding as her volunteer work. “The job never ends. It doesn’t matter if you’re paid or not. The work is so intertwined with your life that it’s not a movement. It becomes life.”

For panelist Naomi Folami Randolph, executive director of Women AdvaNCe in Raleigh, the participation of so many volunteers in the Women’s March on Washington in January was inspiring, but not the way to build a movement.

“We have to be collectively a bit more visionary,” she said. “For the past 20 years, the movement has been very reactionary. To succeed, it has to be a space where you’re not responding all the time.”

Growth at colleges

At Carolina, the CWC has grown from a part-time director to a full-time director with a staff and several established programs for students, faculty and staff. (See timeline, below) Likewise, the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, which began 30 years ago as a small program with no permanent faculty, became a department in 2014 and now boasts a broadly interdisciplinary faculty of nine.

But not every university in the state has made such progress. Panelist Paige Meltzer, director of the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University, founded her center just five years ago.

“My analysis of the movement now is a little one-sided,” admitted D’atra Jackson, Ignite NC’s higher education campaign coordinator for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). HBCUs are often so financially strapped that it’s difficult for them to add majors that don’t specifically lead to a profession. “It’s difficult to have women’s and gender studies majors. Only two of the HBCUs [in the nation] have them,” she said.

Sophomore Kennedy Bridges has been active in the women’s movement, women’s and gender studies and the women’s center at Carolina. Bridges participated in One Act active bystander training and worked as an intern for the ERA-NC Alliance through the CWC’s Moxie program, a selective program that connects scholarship and hands-on learning.

Her women’s and gender studies classes have had “a huge impact” on her. “They changed what I understood feminism to be and my part in it,” Bridges said. Now she is eager to go into politics to influence social change. “I’m ready to go to the legislature and tell them why ERA needed to happen 100 years ago.”

The State of Things recording of the panel discussion, broadcast Oct. 16, is available online.