On Jan. 15, 1992, a package arrived at then-Northwestern president Arnold Weber’s office. At the time, The Daily Northwestern reported that Weber received a “thick envelope with suspicious materials” at his office in the Rebecca Crown Center, and the Cook County Bomb Squad promptly arrived to evacuate the building.
The bomb squad then determined the package was not a threat, but the insides seemed stranger than fiction: a naked Ken doll with its hands and feet bound, head covered with a condom and neck tied up by a tampon covered in fake blood. According to a statement put out by Weber that July, there were also tampons that had been taped together and painted red “to signify explosives,” attached to a watch face wired to the circuit board of a Sony Walkman. It was accompanied by an unsigned note that said: “Keep protecting rapists and no one will be able to protect you.”
June Terpstra, the former (and founding) director of the Women’s Center, remembers this episode of Northwestern history vividly – it’s part of the reason she left the university after seven years of running the center. At the time, she says, sexual assault was a “hot topic.” Activists had been leading marches and organizing in response to a string of sexual assaults in fraternity houses. That past November, bathroom graffiti in Norris and the library had accused a male student of rape, and later messages called on women to similarly name their assaulters.
After the fake bomb threat, a federal postal inspector came to campus, and the atmosphere changed. Almost at once, being associated with feminism became incriminating, and activism an admission of guilt. According to a story in The New York Times on the incident, the postal inspector said he questioned, fingerprinted and photographed individuals who were “vocal on issues of interest to women.” Apparently, this included anyone who had written feminist editorials or been cited as sources in stories on feminist issues in The Daily, leaders of campus feminist organizations and suspected artists of feminist bathroom graffiti. He even said he investigated victims of sexual assault.
Student activists protested in front of the president’s office, waving signs like “fingerprint rapists, not activists.” They wrote open letters published in The Daily. They even called on the American Civil Liberties Union to supervise the situation, saying that monitoring activists violated their free speech rights. But the sender of the fake bomb was never found, and Terpstra resigned from her position shortly after, citing a multitude of reasons including external pressures from the administration and stress.
An open letter signed by 23 NU students ran in The Daily’s Feb. 11 issue, titled “Weber’s investigation intimidates, silences.”
“As Northwestern students, we are concerned about the hostile environment that exists for women on this campus,” it read. “We believe that the sending of a ‘threatening’ package to your office, as well as the bathroom graffiti calling upon women to name their assaulters, are indications that many women view the official channels within which they are intended to voice their concerns as inadequate.”
As the head of the Women’s Center, Terpstra had been fighting to change this environment. The building provided a space for activists to organize against sexual assault and for victims to seek counseling. Its staff held fireside chats for fraternities and sororities about sexual violence and put on education programs.
Thirty years later, the Women’s Center still stands on the corner of Foster Street and Sheridan Road, albeit on a markedly different campus. Times have changed – ”feminist” has become an identity to be worn proudly on T-shirts and claimed regardless of gender. It’s now a movement that is sometimes criticized for centering personal choice narratives over collective liberation. The Women’s Center, though, did feminism before it was sexy. From its inception in 1986, the programming was decidedly radical. Terpstra was determined to focus on serving systemically marginalized women and bringing topics of race, sexual orientation and class to the forefront.
Today, however, the future role of the center remains unclear. After longtime director Renee Redd retired this past January, three full-time staff members remain: interim director & director of programs Alecia Wartowski, associate director Njoki Kamau and counselor Sara Walz. Programming is changing, too. At the end of September, the Office of the Provost announced its decision to transfer counseling at the Women’s Center to Counseling and Psychological Services by Winter Quarter 2017. Oversight of the center has also been transferred to Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Jabbar Bennett, who is leading the search for a new director. The announcement has been met with anger and confusion over social media and in emails to the center and the provosts. Clearly, for many at Northwestern, the Women’s Center is still considered an important resource for otherwise alienated staff, faculty and students.
In the decade before there was a Women’s Center, Northwestern had something known as the interdisciplinary “Program on Women,” which began in 1971. The program mainly served a role as an academic building – first on Emerson Street, then Sheridan Road (but not its current location) and finally on Noyes Street – where women faculty presided over their selected courses. It was far from a large program, however, says Ellen Wright, distinguished senior lecturer emerita at the Cook Family Writing Program. Before Weinberg created a Women’s Studies major in 1993, there were few classes in the subject. Wright even remembers telling her students to wrap their Women’s Studies books in brown paper to hide their covers, which were considered “scandalous” at the time. “We felt we were asking for something pretty revolutionary,” she says.
But women at Northwestern wanted more than just an academic program. Associate director Njoki Kamau says that the program started receiving many calls from people asking for services that a research program was not equipped to provide.
As a Black woman and former student herself, Kamau had felt the lack of a support system firsthand. When she was a Kellogg School of Management graduate student, the Women’s Center did not exist yet, and there were no resources for survivors. “There wasn’t any counseling for us,” she says. “If you were assaulted or in an abusive relationship, there really wasn’t any place to go on campus.”
Terpstra was recruited by Women’s Studies faculty to develop programming in those areas. She came to the center with a master’s degree in sociology and a background of working with women victims of domestic violence and sexual assault at an Evanston battered women’s shelter. She says these experiences were crucial in informing her approach to focusing the center’s mission to deal with the most marginalized groups among women, even though she is a white woman.
Her politics were another qualification for the job. As a self-described socialist and anarchist, she rejects the label feminist because of the term’s “racist and capitalist history” and ties to imperialism, she says, while still advocating for women in multiple ways. While Terpstra’s beliefs played a role in her recruitment for the director position, it also acted as a barrier between her and some of the other, more moderate faculty. Terpstra says she was explicitly told by several women faculty that she would not last. Initially, they also told her that she did not wear the “right clothes” or come from the “right university,” and reminded her that she did not have a Ph.D., she says.
Despite this tension, Terpstra did not waiver. She went full speed ahead, hiring women counselors and staff members from different backgrounds, making sure they could relate to students’ variety of experiences and identities. This included Marva Butler-White, a Black woman from the YWCA, as the first counselor, and Kamau as associate director in 1991.
Most of all, Terpstra wanted the center to actively address current issues that affected Northwestern’s women. “We’d sit down in a circle and see what was going on on campus and how to problem solve as best as we could,” she says.
Debriefings were only a small part of what went on at the Women’s Center. The fliers from the 80s and 90s, tucked away in University Archives’ collections, hint at the range of the programming. Hand-lettered signs advertise seminars ranging from “friends raping friends” to “‘Tis the season: New ways of understanding and coping with holiday stress.” It was a center that both encouraged women to attend a movie titled Lesbionage and brought in controversial speakers like the Black communist activist Angela Davis.
Perhaps some of the most thoroughly impactful programming at the center was the Campus Climate Project. The project was a guerrilla theater special put on by Northwestern students that used pop-up theater – both invited and unwanted – at student events to act out dramatic versions of racist, sexist, homophobic and classist experiences they’d had on campus. Afterward, social workers would lead discussions with the audience strategizing how to combat discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.
“We were doing amazing and powerful work, some of the earliest work in post-traumatic counseling for women who had been sexually assaulted and domestic violence situations,” Terpstra says.
But in the midst of these programs, Terpstra began to doubt that Northwestern was the best space for her to participate in radical feminist work. Some men faculty had been very supportive, she says. But the Women’s Center was often the object of outside scrutiny and feminism the butt of jokes. A 1987 Daily editorial titled “Who’s insensitive, you dumb broad?” joked that men on campus thought that Women’s Center was “like a women’s lounge, only bigger” and that Women’s Studies offered classes in baking cookies and shining kitchen floors. The Women’s Center submitted a sexual harassment complaint to the dean of students, who then met with Daily editors, but the damage had already been done.
Following the fake bomb threat and subsequent investigation, Terpstra again questioned how safe she felt at Northwestern. For what she calls “a complex set of reasons,” she left the position in 1993.
To this day, the Women’s Center has not forgotten its radical roots. It partners with other Northwestern departments and outside organizations, like the YWCA of Evanston/North Shore, to combat issues like violence against women and the wage gap. It provides a meeting space for student groups such as QNU (a group of female and nonbinary queer students), College Feminists and more. It also puts on events and programs for women, like its salary negotiation workshop for graduate students, staff and faculty.
One of its signature programs is Change Makers, which recruits staff and faculty members to discuss diversity and inclusion on campus. Facilitators help members build skillsets to become more sensitive to issues of privilege and combat microaggressions in their classrooms and offices. “Change Makers has brought on that sustained conversation that now gets into the heart of how oppression is linked,” Kamau says. “This asks you to risk and share a part of yourself.”
But before this Fall Quarter, the center’s most visible programming for students was its free, holistic, feminist and long-term therapy. It offered students 52 free sessions, an alternative to the short-term counseling services at CAPS. However, in September, administrators cut it.
The university announced changes at the center with little fanfare: just the subject line “Women’s Center Update.” In an email sent to the Women’s Center listserv on Sept. 27, Provost Daniel Linzer and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Jabbar Bennett told the student body that in light of the 30th anniversary of the center, the administration had a chance to “recommit to its women-centered focus.”
Based on a report compiled by The Office of Change Management the previous spring, the Office of the Provost announced the formal search for a new director, building renovations (which were completed over the summer) and the “integration” of counseling services with Counseling and Psychological Services. The email cited the need to provide increased access to counseling services to students through moving the single clinician providing counseling from the center to CAPS.
The email did not stir up much reaction until the following days. On the morning of the 28th, North by Northwestern broke the story that counseling was being eliminated at the Women’s Center, and SESP sophomore Liz Diamond wrote an op-ed saying that the center’s counseling had changed her life. A Tumblr site called “Save NU Women’s Center Counseling” popped up, featuring input from current students and alumni who had benefitted from its services. Concerned parties wrote emails to the Women’s Center with their comments. The community was outraged.
When the email from Linzer and Bennett cited “input from students” as part of their evaluation method for the center, SESP junior Tiffany Wong was taken aback. The previous spring, Wong was a member of a focus group of a handful of students who, she says, were primarily incentivized by Starbucks gift cards to speak on the value of the Women’s Center. Only three undergraduate students participated, and Wong says while women in her group, including herself, had interacted with the center, none had formally used its counseling services.
“I read the part about student input,” she says, “and I was surprised and unhappy because it reminded me of last year with the Black House. It was kind of similar timing, early fall, and it similarly felt like an infringement on people’s right to be in a place and get services they’ve always been getting.”
SESP junior Sydni White says she was prompted to write out her concerns because of the value of the assistance she has received at the Women’s Center. White says though her counselor herself was a white woman, she was adept at recognizing the power differentials between White and herself and acknowledged her experiences as a Black woman at the university. This positive experience stood in stark contrast to the disappointment she felt with her interaction with CAPS. “I think CAPS is more associated on this campus with immediate crisis intervention and quick fixes,” she says, “where the Women’s Center focuses on a longer-term relationship.”
Students who used the Women’s Center counseling have said that it’s not an experience that can just be moved into the Searle Health Center. Ariana Hammersmith, a SESP junior who wrote a widely circulated op-ed in The Daily on the change, says the streamlining of counseling bothers her whether or not she could keep her same counselor. The physical space of the center itself had become comfortable and familiar to her.
“I feel like the people there support not just my right to access mental health care, but my right to access birth control and all these things,” she says. “It’s a lot more comprehensive beyond just mental health care, which is why it’s really important to have counseling there.”
White finds it ironic that Northwestern President Morton Schapiro has touted the use of safe spaces in light of the changes to the Women’s Center. Schapiro waded into the debate surrounding safe spaces on campus when he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this past January about the importance of safe spaces for marginalized students. Later, in this convocation speech for new students, Schapiro said those who mock the use of safe spaces do so from places of segregated privilege, which “drives him nuts.”
But, to White, the Women’s Center changes seem out of line with this ethos. “The university doesn’t recognize that they are taking away the safe space,” White says. “You can’t use these empty words. You need to have action.”
The email sent in September said that programming would “continue to evolve” as part of the evaluation process, but none of the current staff have commented on future plans. The Office of Change Management’s report remains classified. Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin declined to comment on the changes, deferring instead to Bennett as the new overseer of the center. In an email, Bennett said that there were no other further announcements to be made, and that there might be updates in the weeks ahead. None were made public by the time of publication.
For now, counseling still happens in rooms on the second floor of the newly renovated building at 2000 Sheridan Rd. The 2016-2017 Change Makers program kicked off in late October, and the center is still promoting women-focused programming in partnership with other departments. Come Winter Quarter, though, the Women’s Center’s future is unclear.