Thirty years later, Vanderbilt's Margaret Cuninggim Center continues to support women on campus.
by Merrill Farnsworth
photography by Steve Green
In the 1970s, gender equity was a generation-defining issue in America.
Women marched on Washington, staged hunger strikes and raised their fists in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, with feminists such as Gloria Steinem leading the charge.
In the microcosm of academe, the debate over a woman’s worth was no less intense. At Vanderbilt, few women held supervisory staff positions, and there were only a handful of female senior faculty members. The women’s center had not yet been established, and university-sponsored child care was not available for the children of employees and students. Male students received preferential treatment in the enrollment process, with women comprising less than half of the undergraduate population. Gender-related programs and curricula were practically non-existent, and there were no women’s varsity sports teams.
Spurred by the passage of the provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, then-Chancellor Alexander Heard appointed a commission to investigate the treatment of female faculty, staff and students at Vanderbilt.
The four-year study resulted in the publication of Women at Vanderbilt: Report of the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women 1972-1976, which recommended a host of changes.
Three decades later, things look very different in America and at Vanderbilt. Female students outnumber males in the College of Arts and Science, medical school, nursing school and Peabody College. With the exception of the engineering school, the ratio of women to men is nearly equal in the remaining schools.
The Women’s and Gender Studies program has been going strong for two decades and currently offers a major and a minor, an honors program and a graduate certificate. Vanderbilt’s nine women’s varsity sports teams are perennial conference and national leaders, with last year’s bowling team garnering the university’s first-ever NCAA title in any sport. Vanderbilt now has three child care centers, with more planned as the campus grows. And the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center, established in 1978, provides a multitude of programs and services for staff, faculty, students and women in the greater Nashville community.
We’ve come a long way, baby, as the saying goes. Or have we? Kacy Silverstein, co-director of Project Safe at the women’s center, believes that although gender equity has made great strides both nationally and in the academic community, the battle isn’t over. “We still struggle with issues of equity related to gender, race and socioeconomic status,” she said.
The women’s center continues to address the issues faced by Vanderbilt’s community of women, including pay parity, harassment in the workplace and domestic abuse. “My hope is that the women’s center at Vanderbilt offers a safe environment for men and women struggling with issues of gender, and keeps in awareness the reality that we have not yet established equity between women and men,” Silverstein said.
Former lecturer in sociology Nancy Ransom was the founding director of the women’s center in 1978. At the time, most universities established women’s centers as an outgrowth of women’s studies programs. Since Vanderbilt didn’t yet have such a program, no one was sure how the center would function on campus.
“My husband asked me what this women’s center was going to be about, and I had to admit that I didn’t know,” Ransom said. “All I knew was what the commission had recommended, and that was to create a place for women to gather and share their interests and concerns in their own space. Except for the sororities, there weren’t such places on campus.”
In 2008, the role of the women’s center is much better defined. It now provides programs focusing on two distinct areas: Project Safe, which provides education and support services for people affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, rape and stalking; and Gender Matters, which includes lectures, workshops and other programming aimed at increasing awareness on gender-related issues at Vanderbilt and in the greater Nashville community.
“We receive more and more requests for services from women in the Nashville community, and we work closely with community service providers and agencies,” Linda Manning, the current director of the women’s center, said. “For several years we have provided major training programs for advocates and mental health professionals in the Nashville and Middle Tennessee communities.”
Project Safe was launched in 2000 with a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women. The program provides emotional support, crisis intervention and legal and medical advocacy for survivors of violence, including date rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment in the workplace and stalking. It is open to all faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the surrounding community. During the 2006-07 academic year, more than 50 incidents were reported to Project Safe, a majority of them by Vanderbilt’s own community members.
Project Safe co-director Vicky Basra, as well as Manning and Silverstein, provides crisis intervention and advocacy for victims and their families.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting a never-ending war,” Basra said. “I may not be able to end violence against women in my lifetime, but if I can help just one woman truly feel that the violence they experienced is not her fault, I will have achieved part of my dream of leaving this world a better place for my children.”
Other current women’s center programs reflect the center’s original mission – to make Vanderbilt a more inclusive and supportive work environment for women.
The Gender Matters program hosts lectures, workshops and other programming aimed at increasing awareness of gender-related issues in the realms of political engagement, economic empowerment, women’s health and women in the traditionally male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.
The Women in Academe series led by Stacy Nunnally, director of Gender Matters programming, is aimed at helping female graduate students in the STEM disciplines – especially women considering a career in higher education – to build a support network.
“Several graduate students came to me and said that through this series they’ve realized there were other women going through the same experiences, obstacles and successes that they were,” Nunnally said. “These women had felt alone and isolated, like they were the only ones struggling with certain issues. Now they realize all of these women are experiencing similar issues.”
Another Gender Matters program is VandyMoms, through which working mothers on campus may find support, advice and encouragement. The twice-monthly gatherings feature everything from guest speakers on topics such as feng shui, creative writing and money management, to lunches out where the moms gather to listen and learn from one other.
“The most helpful thing to me is the feeling that there are other women all over campus facing the same things I face every day,” said Amy Kendall, a lab manager in the Department of Biological Sciences. “Being a working mom has been the single most difficult thing I have ever done, and I couldn’t do it without the support and friendship of the VandyMoms.”
Misa Culley, editor of the women’s center newsletter Women’s VU, organizes VandyMoms meetings with Kendall. The gatherings take place the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
“The best thing about VandyMoms is the camaraderie we’ve built over the last five years,” Culley said. “We share experiences, we laugh, we sometimes cry – but we always have fun.”
Gender Matters programming also includes research – through a partnership with the Tennessee Economic Council on Women – on the economic issues and challenges facing women in the greater Nashville area, according to Nunnally.
“We also work with Planned Parenthood and student health to provide free condoms, information on HPV and resources for pregnancy and reproductive choice,” she said.
For some, the term “feminist” brings up the notion of a radical – even man-hating – activist. But that’s not the case at Vanderbilt’s women’s center.
“We are truly an inclusive center,” Nunnally said. “We have men who work with us and attend events. And we have women who attend our events and work with us who don’t necessarily identify themselves as feminists.”
Sophomore political science major Thomas Rosen is among the men who’ve chosen to advance the women’s center’s mission through Men Promoting a Solution to Sexual Violence.
“I encourage men indirectly affected by sexual violence to contact Project Safe to learn how to help a friend,” Rosen said. “All information is completely confidential.”
Though times have changed since its founding, the women’s center hasn’t forgotten the core issues on which it was founded, according to Silverstein.
“We do programming every January to talk about Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to privacy. We raise awareness each spring about pay inequity, and we focus attention on how policies and legislation impact women’s lives.
“The struggle may look a little different as we move through the generations, (but) the women’s center has evolved to meet the needs of the community.”
Did you know?
The women's center is named for Margaret Cuninggim (1914-1986), the last person to serve as dean of women and the first woman to serve as dean of student services.
For a complete list of the women's center's programs and events, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/WomensCenter.
Merrill Farnsworth, a Nashville-based freelance writer and mother of three, has been a feminist since the first grade, when her teacher told her she was not allowed to play football in a dress.