A History of Feminist Activism
at Miami University, Oxford Campus


By Stephanie Abrams
American Studies, May 1993
Miami University


   At a University, education as a form of activism seems inevitable. Feminist activists at Miami University made use of the several mediums available to them in order to educate the public and each other about issues facing feminists. Using formats of panels, classes, speakers, and conferences, consciousness raising groups, and peer education, feminists spread their message through campus and Oxford's community.

   Nationally, feminists were busy trying to educate women and men about women's oppression, trying to get people to take feminist concerns seriously. Action such as the Miss America protest served an educational purpose because of extensive media coverage. The general public could learn about feminist concerns through the media. In addition, several radical feminist groups worked on the grass roots level, trying to educate the public and each other about women's oppression.

   One main way for early feminists to educate each other was through consciousness raising (CR) groups. CR groups typically consisted of about twenty women, although some were smaller , others growing quite large. These women would gather, in an attempted egalitarian style, with the purpose to "analyze male supremacy in order to dismantle it".(1) CR allowed women to discuss with each other exactly how "the personal is political ." The groups gave women a chance to find common ground for political action and to affirm each other's experiences.

   CR groups started being held in Oxford in the early seventies. In January 1972 Student article, Oxford CR groups are discussed. According to Star Olderman, a member of Oxford Women's Liberation, at the time two groups existed, each consisting of eight or nine members and meeting once a week. The article reports that the groups had existed since 1970 in Oxford. Olderman said, "I believe that these consciousness- raising groups are the way to change things because by changing the way people view themselves, they change the way people live."(2)

   In another column later that year, Elaine Werner a Miami student and member of Oxford Women's Liberation wrote "Through consciousness- raising we begin to understand ourselves and other women by looking at situations personal problems are shared by many."(3) Later, when the Women's Resource Center was opened in 1977, CR groups were organized out of the Center.

   A main criticism of consciousness raising was that it ignored women's differences (race, class) and focused on only what women had in common. (4) In a mainly white, middle class movement, CR groups had the tendency to become exclusive. However, at the beginning of a movement, it is important for those organizing to stress commonalties in order to create common ground from which to work. Miami and Oxford women used CR as a way of education each other. At a university, particularly a university like Miami, where the population is highly homogeneous, most women shared a lot in common. Still, education about women's roles was important, and was and is a large part of feminist activism at Miami University through panels, classes, and speakers.

   Discussion panels and lectures have been one of the most popular types of feminist education in Oxford. For instance, in February 1970, AWS held a "Women's Week," with the purpose to "educate the female community as to what it is to be a contemporary woman," explained Marcia Barnett, vice-president of programming. (5) During the week, with the theme "Women, be Aware," several panels were offered. One panel addressed abortion as a social and medical issue, while another addressed "Women in a World Come of Age." The Monday of that week, Katie Millett, author of Sexual Politics, came to Oxford to speak about sex as a political issue. Millett was joined by Sheila Tobias of Cornell University. Both spoke of "the Political relation ship of men to women."(6) Tobias told the crowd "The suddenness of the movement has been a result of the consciousness that the problems of women are not individual, but political in nature." (7) Millett claimed that the relationship of men to women is one of dominance and subordination. It is interesting that later that week, AWS held a Bridal Fair that included a fashion show and information on how to arrange a wedding. Clearly, AWS's only interest was not women's liberation.

   In October of 1971, YWCA sponsored a "Marathon on Sexuality." During the noon to midnight marathon , panels, speakers, discussion groups and films were organized with the intent to "encourage people to challenge the stereotyped sex roles and learn that they don't have to fulfill societal expectation as far as sexual roles are concerned" (Philosophy professor, Alison Jagger).(8) Jagger, an instrumental figure in feminist activism at the Associated Women Students' Woman's Week which 'reinforces traditional female roles." (9) Her claim to be offering an alternative shows that AWS was not yet an extremely political group, although the organization did contribute to feminist activism through education in Oxford.

   Oxford Women's Liberation played a large role in education in Oxford about feminist concerns during the early -mid 1970's. In March on 1971, the group presented a series of 'free- university' workshops on International Women's Day (March 8). Topics for the educational workshops included Women in the Media, Women and the War, Hallelujah the Pill, Women in Literature, Why Men Should Support Women's Liberation, Herstory of the Women's Movement in the U.S., The Family: Is It Relevant?, and Sexuality. In addition, the group presented a one act play by Myrna Lamb entitled "What Have You Done For Me Lately," which portrays a pregnant man and the dilemmas he faces. (10) Approximately 200 people attended the day's workshops. The Student reported "Oxford Women's Liberation felt that the entire day was a worthwhile educational experience for all involved and that the interest displayed by the participants showed the growing power of the Women's Liberation movement." (11) Oxford Women's Liberation was one of the earliest groups to bring the movement to Oxford and Miami.

   In March 1972, the group held a similar day of events. A national influence was obvious in the workshop topics. One was offered on guerrilla theater (a tactic used at many protests), another on consciousness raising. Sexual pilots, alternative life styles, and a workshop entitled " Gay Feminism: Ultimate Sisterhood" was offered.(12)

   Not only women's groups were holding workshops. Later that year, in April, the university held the first Affirmative Action Workshop in Ohio which was to examine hiring and pay practices. An interesting attitude was held by William Slover, who was the head of Miami's Affirmative Action Advisory Committee. "Women who feel they have been discriminated against at Miami are estimated as 'only a handful' by Slover." "The complaints we have looked into concerning women's discrimination here were the results of misunderstanding the matters were in most cases resolved after we referred the persons registering the gripe to the appropriate supervisor,' Slover explained." (13) Although the student paper did not report many complaints of sexual harassment or a "chilly climate," it is certain that these problems existed, as they do today after over twenty years of second wave feminism. Unfortunately, these issues were not seriously addressed until later years, and in 1972, Miami's feminist activism was still young.

   Instead, issues such as sexuality were addressed more frequently. In January of 1973, AWS planned a series of talks to remedy the question "How can I decide what I want for myself, or just where I belong if I don't understand those trends or alternatives around me?" (14) The series was split into four parts and shows AWS as developing a certain feminist consciousness while still presenting traditional women's roles. For instance, Part I of the series offered a discussion entitled "I am a Women, in Relation to Men." This hardly seems focused on feminist ideas. However, two other talks "To be Gay: A Message to the Straight Majority" and Sex and birth Control" do seem to address feminist concerns, although the article does not make it clear if the discussions were led with a feminist focus or not Slowly, AWS began to address issues central to feminism through educational experiences.

   On the other hand, the intentions of Oxford Women's Liberation remained clear, and more in sync with national trends. During May of 1973, the group held a conference weekend called "Woman's Free Space--Not Place." The conference, which 4300 funding from Student Senate, covered women's health through a Gynecological Self Help Clinic demonstration and talks on contraception, Women Writers, Feminism and Socialism, Men's Consciousness Raising, and Gay Women. In an opening speech, Oxford Women's Liberation asserted that "By working together and learning together we can define a new and free space in which to live. A woman' place need not be only in the home but wherever she chooses." (15) The conference closed with a Consciousness Raising session in the United Campus Ministry House. Oxford Women's Liberation, which was also involved with various feminist protests on campus, used the formats of panels and workshops to inform their activism.

   Later, in 1979, AWS was becoming a bit more political in regard to issues of women's safety. however, AWS still was not the intensely political group it is today. AWS continued to use panels and speakers as an opportunity to educate students at Miami, and in March, their annual awareness week was entitled "Men and Women: Breaking the Bonds of Tradition." The opening seminar was entitled "The New Sexuality." Other scheduled events centered around women's relationships with men,, showing that the group's focus was still not terribly political, rather centered around typical roles women played. Titles of panels included "Marriage and Career: Changing Roles at Six O'clock, and "Men: Dealing With the New Woman." Phyllis Chesler, the author of Women and Madness spoke in the middle of the week on "Modern Women and the Male Mind." AWS Awareness Week seems focused on how men and women relate, not on issues of liberation.(16)

   By 1982, activist and Assistant Professor of philosophy Linda Singer was on Miami's campus. That October, Singer presented a slide show distributed by Women Against Sexist Violence that addressed violence and pornography. "Educating students about such problems might make it easier to prevent future abuse, Singer said." (17) This was not the only time that the issue of pornography was raised on campus. Protest arose in 1987 when the Playboy "Advisor". James Petersen was scheduled to speak on campus, and again in 1991 when Christie Hefner visited. Each instance gave activists a chance to educate the Oxford community about pornography's harm to women.

   A different type of learning experience was created in 1985, when a women's writing workshop developed as Diane Wright's Western College Program Senior Project. The women in the workshop shared their writings and experiences and the group became a valuable locus of support for those involved. (18) After Wright graduated, she funded a journal entitled "Common Language" that allowed women a voice through creative writing. (19) Wright's activism at Miami through education was carried off this campus, and into her life following graduation, and was an interesting manifestation of her feminism.

   By the 1992-93 school year, the climate of conferences had changed dramatically and university activities provided valuable opportunities for discourse by raising and examining feminist issues. Activist took advantage of any opportunity made available. In the fall of 1992, Miami University Theatre produced a play by Wendy Wasserstein called The Heidi Chronicles The play purports to be review of the women's liberation movement and reviews typically call it a feminist drama. Sally Harrison-Pepper, a professor in the Western College Program, was the dramaturgy and organized a series of lectures. The series examined the play, it's treatment of the movement, Women in Theatre, and Women in Art. Harrison-Pepper also team taught a class entitled "Women and Theatre: The Politics of Representation" that addressed issues of women's voice in theater, among other things. The activity surrounding the production gave activists a wonderful chance to initiate discussion about feminist issues.

   Over the years, the influence of several radical feminist professors, was well as the influence of the intense student activism during the 1987-88 school year, changed the climate of feminism at Miami. S.O.A.P. held a conference in April entitled "The Politics of Sexuality: A Question of Civil Rights." Andrea Dworkin radical feminist author, anti- pornography activist, and co- writer of an ordinance that would allow women harmed by pornography to collect damages, gave the keynote address. Her speech was followed by a weekend full of panels, including "Sexual Violence", "Sexuality", "Sexual Politics and Law:, and "Activism". Women and men from groups like WHISPER (Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt) and RAPID (Revolutionaries Against Pornography's Inhumane Destruction) participated on these panels.

   Panels and workshops create an opportunity for feminists to have their views heard and argued. On a university campus, where learning is the focus, providing learning experiences for everyone on campus is a valuable form of feminist activism. This type of educational activism was frequently used at Miami, along with other forms of educational activism.

   Guest speakers are another format for education typically used on college series each year and departments bring in speakers yearly as well. Inviting feminist speakers is another important way to educate the community, feminist and otherwise, about issues of concern. Several prominent feminists have come through Oxford over the years. In the 1970's, Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics spoke at the university. In the later 70's Germaine Gree, author of The Female Eunuch Ms. Magazine, Maya Angelou, author of I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and other books and poems, Gloria Anzaldua, the lesbian chicana pet and essayist, Minnie Bruce Pratt, lesbian poet and essayist, Mary Daly, author of Gyn/Ecology and several other books and essays, and bell hooks, author of Ain't I A Woman in addition to her works were invited to celebrate 100 years of Women at Miami during the 1987-88 school year. Recently, Andrea Dworkin, Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, and Angela Davis, activist and author of Women, Race and Class in addition to other works all spoke to large crowds on Oxford's campus.

   Certainly, this is not an exhaustive list of all the feminist speakers invited impressive slate of women that have visited Miami in past had an important effect. Women developing their feminism were given a chance to hear prominent speakers on topics of interest. In addition, the rest of the campus may have become more sympathetic once a feminist of not has voiced the same concerns that women on campus were voicing. Visibility of feminism increases when women like these come and speak, which may help feminist views and ideas become more accepted in the Oxford community.

   Obviously, on a college campus, one of the best ways to educate students about issues concerning women is in the classroom. During the early years of the Women's Liberation Movement, professors began developing classes to address women's issues and experiences which had traditionally been left out of academic study. In 1971, Roy Ward, professor of Religion, developed a course title "Christianity and the Role of Women." Susan Kay, who arrived in the Political Science Department in 1973, began offering a course called "women in Politics." In 1975, when Karen Maitland- Schilling arrived as the first woman professor in the Psychology department, she began developing courses about Women in Psychology. Judith deLuce was offering courses about women in Classics. As Kay describes it, courses began "spouting " up around campus, without any collaboration on the part of instructors or the institution.(20)

   For these feminists and pro-feminists, creating courses focusing on women was and is an important form of activism. Most had been involved and interested in women's studies on their own, by doing independent reading and research. In addition, these faculty were not products of a women's studies program, because programs as such did not exist until the early- mid 1970's. At the time when women's studies courses at Miami were being built, feminism as we know them today were newly developing. Also, the faculty building the courses were relatively junior in the university hierarchy, many recently arrived from graduate study. To make it even more difficult, often times the women developing women's studies courses were the only women in their respective departments.

   All these factors led to most established professors and university personnel to not take the courses seriously. At that time, it was also difficult to get feminist research and developing ideas to be considered as legitimate work. According to Jo Heimsch of Academic Affairs, Women's Studies "have had in the past, the reputation of being a softer study; that these issues aren't important so there fore it wouldn't matter how many books you wrote, how much research you had done it wouldn't be as important as some other issue, because this was a non- relevant field, in some people's minds." (21) Because of all these impediments, developing courses, teaching them, having them respected was a true struggle. The struggle many of these professors had to face fostered a community of people involved and interested in women's and feminist issues.

   According to Judith de Luce, professor of Classics who has been at Miami since 1974, by 1975 a group of women was meeting regularly, sharing ideas and support talking about the status of women on campus. This group developed into AWFS (Association of Women Faculty and Staff). The group met a need that was not being filled elsewhere. "Many women really needed to be talking with other professional women. You might have one woman in an entire department who would fell very isolated because there weren't any other women in the department."(22)

   However, deLuce says, "There was a terrible schism that took place. I remember we met over in the old 1809 Room to organize ourselves, and part of the group really wanted to organize to do things. We wanted to be very open and up front about a political agenda and to effect some real change at Miami." (23) Another group was looking for more of a way to meet women outside of their departments, and wanted the group to create a social outlet for professional women.

   In addition, another tension existed because the group was originally Association for Women Faculty and Administrative Staff, and "a number of powerful women on campus did not join because they thought the organization was elitist."(24) The group became slowly more political and a few years ago, they changed their constitution to allow any woman employed in the University membership. AWFS holds brown bag lunches and speakers. Although AWFS was and is not an intensely political group, in the earlier days, it provided some supports that did not exist elsewhere.

   AWFS also created dialogue in reference to issues of equality in pay, hiring and promotion practices. In response, President Phillip Shriver commissioned a report in 1976 to study the problems of women and racial and ethnic minorities at the University. Mary Sohgen, of English, chaired the Committee to Review the Status of Women. Published February 1, 1977, the _Report of the Committees to Review the Status of Women and Racial/Ethnic Minorities at Miami University revealed pay inequities, as well as questionable hiring and promotion practices. (25) Recommendations included improved career counseling for women, higher value placed on women's sports, a day care center, improved promotion, tenure, and salary practices, and improved administrative leadership.

   The commission showed growing attention to issues concerning women on campus, in contrast to a few years earlier. In January of 1975, the Student reported "Accompanying the rising consciousness levels at Miami are an increasing amount of courses devoted to women's studies. Plans to offer a women's studies major through the Greater Cincinnati Consortium of Colleges and Universities are currently being considered, but with little enthusiasm officially on Miami's part." "Prof. Judith Fryer (Director of American Studies said... "The consortium called and said Miami should send a representative because it is the wealthiest school in the program. I let the administration know about it, and I was told that there is no interest in women's studies at Miami.'"(26) .

   Apparently, the administration was a bit hasty in its judgment. In October of 1977, the University Council approved the proposal for a transcript notation of Women's Studies students. The proposal, presented by the Women's Studies Advisory Council (WSAC), required students to complete eighteen hours of WSAC approved courses in addition to their major study.(27) The 1978-79 school year became the first full year a Women's Studies program was available to students as a designated certificate with transcript notations. That year, Women's Studies offered fifteen courses with a total enrollment of 739 students. According to another Student article, the first organized women's studies program was offered at the University of California at San Francisco in 1971, so Miami was a little slow getting started. (28) Obviously, the programs high enrollment shows the interest for the program existed in Oxford. Women's studies provided an opportunity for women to study their own experiences, and to receive support from professors for their feminism. In addition, the program provided an outlet for faculty feminism.

   However, a formal program was difficult to establish. In order to allow the program to begin, the proposal stated that Women's studies would require no additional resources (money, staff, equipment). As Schilling remembers, "The program was constituted devoted to women's and approved in the College of Arts and Sciences initially with the commitment that no new resources would be required, which in retrospect seems like a very foolish kind of commitment to make... I think it was...in that kind of context -of asking permission and trying to move the institution in some more progressive directions."

   The Women's Studies (WMS) Program continued to grow, and in December 1980, under coordination of Rebecca Lukens, of the Department of English, and deLuce, WMS became a minor. It is also interesting to note that at this point in time, WMS was paralleling fairly accurately national activity. In the 1981-82 annual report, deLuce wrote, "In keeping with the theme of the 1981 annual meeting of the National Women's Studies Association and the growing concern that women's studies has not addressed adequately the concerns of women generally excluded from the traditional college curriculum, Women's Studies presented a two day program, "Black Women: A Symposium.'" (30) It was during theses years that criticism began arising that the Women's movement was exclusive, focusing on needs of white, middle-class women. It is encouraging to see that even on a mainly middle-class, white campus, issues of diversity were thorough as some would have liked, for the symposium lasted only two days. However, a class entitled "Writing the History of Black Women in America" was offered by Mary Kupiec Cayton through WMS, the Honors Program, and the History department in 1988 and 1989. The spring semester of 1990, Western College Program offered a course entitled "Gender, Race, and Class: Perspectives on Oppression, Power, and Liberation." Taught by Gail Della-Piana, Enid LaGesse, Chriss Wolfe, and a visiting professor, the class required students to, "Focus on the parallels and intersections of gender, race, and class with the perspectives." (31) In addition, during recent years, several invited feminist speakers have addressed concerns of racial and ethnic minority women.

   Enrollment in WMS steadily increased throughout the years, and at the end of the 1991-92 school year, twenty people graduate with minors in May, and course enrollment was high. Ann Fuehrer, the current director of WMS talks about the program. "The focus is primarily on the curriculum, but it's also on increasing the representation and retention of women faculty and ending discrimination in the classroom that silences or creates a chilly classroom climate for women studies has done (it) has been one of the sites for understanding that what happens in the classroom is not separate from what happens in the rest of our lives... so that the women studies classes and program moves outside of the classroom as well...in terms of programming, it terms of activism and support for student change ... so many of the most active feminist faculty and students on campus are in some way is important for at least most of the feminists I know."(32)

   It is interesting that Fuehrer points out the inseparability of academics and activism. What Fuehrer , as it is for many other women on campus. When Fuehrer talks about a chilly climate, it may be hard to think about what kind of atmosphere women have had to face in universities in the past, and what we still have to face. One particularly offensive tradition was fondly practiced at the beginning of each year. Orientation was held in Millett Hall for first year students and to get from East quad (here first year residence halls are located) to Millett, the students had to walk down Tallawanda Ave., where several upper class residence halls and fraternity houses are located. Upperclassmen would come out, lining the street, and rate the young women walking by, who were unable to avoid this atrocity. Finally, first year orientation was moved to a place where the gauntlet could be avoided. (33) However, the administration let this occur for years, and it shows what kind of environment women students were and are subjected to. The general atmosphere only adds to the importance of a WMS program as well as other supports.

   The Women's Resource Center was one such system of support offered to women students, faculty, staff, and community members. In 1973, the Western Planning Committee received a proposal for a regional women's center. The center was not funded, but the ideas remained in the community. In 1973-74, Shriver commissioned an informal committee to study the role of women at Miami, that later was formalized as the Engle committee.(34)

   When ideas rose again concerning a center, the intention was to establish a center independent of the University, allowing for political activism. A lack funds forced women to turn to the University for support. According to Susan Kay, the Women's Resource Center consisted of a room in the Campus Ministry Center on Campus Avenue (1975). "We, in fact, did not want the university to be involved. We thought we could maintain political independence and that we could be a real women's center and not have to compromise and be middle of the road and nice if we did it with no university funding."(35) However, by the mid-seventies, women's centers had already been established elsewhere, so it was difficult to get grants from agencies interested in funding pilot centers. Instead, Millie Seltzer, Professor in the Scripps Gerontology Institute and at the time an Associate Provost, convinced the administration to fund the center, as a women's resource center, not a center for political action, and was a compromise, but the women needed funding for a reliable location, staffing, etc.(36)

   In 1977, then, the Women's Resource Center was located in Peabody Hall on Western Campus, and a program coordinator, Linda Ade-Ritter, of what was then known as Home Economics, was hired with a start up budget of $7,000. According to a Center newsletter, the goals were "1. To provide a support system which facilitates the affirmation and development of the self- concept of women. 2. To establish programs for education and career development relating to changing life patterns. 3. To provide counseling services for all with emphasis on changing roles and life choices. 4. To meet with and learn from others on an informal basis. 5. To provide a resource library and referral service relevant to women's concerns. 6. To stimulate exploration and research about women's attitudes, interests, and needs."(37)

   The WRC offered counseling, a drop in Center, programs, a newsletter, resource and referral services, as well as collected information for Project TIPP. In 1979-80 the center moved to MacMillan Hall, and according to the review report, "The Center's level of support in 1979-80 was the best in its history at Miami... a more central location on campus with an atmosphere favorable to WRC services was greeted by the staff with enthusiasm."(38) During this year, the WRC coordinator became a full-time position and the center was also provided with a graduate assistant and a work study student.

   The next year, however, the center faced some unwelcome changes. The location was moved to Warfield Hall, the counseling position was eliminated, and Ade-Ritter changed to part-time. 1981- 82 was the center's last year of existence, because of funding cuts. However, the WRC 1981-82 Annual Report said that a half time position was maintained to carry on some of the functions of the WRC.

   It was not until the sit-ins of 1988 that the topic of a Women's Center was addressed again. Included in the protesters demands was a women's center. The Report of the President's Commission on Improvement of the Status of Women Faculty, Staff, and Students (May 1, 1989), that stemmed from the protests, recommended that the University establish a women's center. (39) Thus, began the development of the current Women's center that will have been in operation two years in July, 1993.

   The director, Julia Sterkovsky, sees the center's main goal as the empowerment of women students, faculty, staff, and community members. Located in the basement of MacMillan Hall, the center is staffed full time by Sterkovsky and Julie Egeland, work study students, and several volunteers. It is interesting to not that Sterkovsky was brought to Miami specifically to coordinate the Women's Center. This is different from the past when professors and graduate students already in Oxford were hired. Another positive change is that the center's budget of $80,000 is a far cry from the $7,000 the first center was given.

   Sterkovsky says, "I think we are in the center, definitely, in terms of that we are functioning as a way of connecting people, mostly women, who are interested in empowering women... We do function as a center, a central point where connections can be made and go out, kind of like the center of a web."(40) The center offers resources, ideas, connections, and support to people who are interested in projects. It also functions as a community meeting room. Because women on campus had to work so hard to get the center here, it is well appreciated and used by students, faculty, and staff.

   Often, the Women's Center is a site for seminars and talks. One group that presents at these learning experiences is W.I.S.E. (Women's Issues Student Educators). Part of Miami University's peer education system, WISE has existed since 1988. Jane Geottsch, of the Office of Student Leadership, advises the group of students who give presentations and facilitate discussion for other student groups and in residence halls. The group is not feminist by definition, however, several members and their presentation topics are feminists. Programs include: "Dating Dynamics-When Does 'No" Mean 'No'?", a program on acquaintance rape, "Can't You Take a Joke?- The Hassles of Sexual Harassment", "The Media Made Me Do It", which discusses media images of women and the effects on women, "The Turanny of Thinness", which examines eating disorders, and "I'm Not a Feminist But...". which asks "What is feminism, and why has it gotten such a bad rap?".(41) The group does important work educating their peers about women's issues that affect both women and men.

   Any student or faculty group whose purpose is to support women, feminists, and pro-feminists, or educate the entire community about issues affecting women is valuable. This is particularly true in an institution that has been traditionally male dominated. These groups give feminists activists the support and understanding they need in order to continue activism, and in many cases, serve as an important form of activism in and of themselves.


Contents | Acknowledgments | Introduction | Women's Safety| Images of Women | Education | Conclusion | Endnotes

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