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Student activism changed the face of academia

Jan 3 2012

In 1971, less than six percent of professors were women and only nine women held tenure at Stanford University. Three students dared to question, “Where were the women’s voices on Stanford’s campus and in academia as a whole?” Finding the answer to that question changed their lives, as well as the face of the Stanford campus. These students banded together to create an institute that they hoped would change the world. Nearly forty years later, you are reading this article published from that same Institute.

From insight to action

In 1972, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business appointed Myra Strober as their first female professor. Local press about Strober ignited. She was a rarity: a woman economist doing research on women. The press caught the attention of Cynthia Russell, an anthropology undergraduate taking a cross-cultural courseabout women. The issues raised in the class prompted Russell to hold informal meet-upswith other students. She sought toraise awareness of the research that was being done by Stanford faculty about the changing roles of women. The students discussed how they could connect and support faculty engaged in women’s research and held the first forums for faculty to discuss their work.

In the winter of 1973, Susan Heck took Strober’s course, Women in the Workforce. The course opened her eyes to gender inequalities. A first-year doctoral student in the School of Education, Heck took a research assistantship with Strober and spent the summer of 1973 buried in the archives of the Stanford library researching U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Heck was incited as she uncovered large-scale institutionalized occupational gender segregation and wage differentials. She could not believe the statistics were not common knowledge. “Before, I had the notion, as many white educated people did, that you just try and you would succeed. If you don’t, it’s an individual short falling, not necessarily systemic,” recalled Heck of her research. “[I became] more and more aware of the institutional barriers [facing women]. It wasn’t right.” Heck began to transform these insights into action. “There needed to be a place on campus where women could do research that has a gender component,” recalled Heck. “To say these are the facts, the inequities. To bring people together and do research and then disseminate it.”

By the spring of 1973, Heck joined Russell in the efforts to create a center devoted to supporting interdisciplinary research on women. At the same time, Beth Garfield, an undergraduate running for student body president, included the idea of establishing an institute for women’s studiesin her successful campaign.

Creating a coalition

Working together, the three students formulated a proposal for the institute and presented it to the Provost. They were encouraged to continue their work and were informed they would need a faculty sponsor for the project to be seriously considered.

Starting with Russell, each of the students independently approached Strober about serving in that key role. Initially Strober laughed at the idea and turned each student’s request down; she explained in a Winter 2007 Imprint, “Assistant professors don’t start research centers.” The students protested, “But there’s no one else who will start one. You have to do it.” Strober eventually agreed.

Gathering support

Strober and the founding students sought ways to bring attention to and expand academic research on women’s issues while, at the same time, obtain the necessary support for their proposal.“We weren’t intentionally breaking rules. It was just what had to be done,” recalled Heck, “They told us you had to get faculty to join, so we put flyers in faculty boxes. We went around on bikes, posted flyers in dorms, gave talks on women’s issues.”

Their first objective was to gain support across the campus. Their efforts began with the expansion of the lecture series organized by Strober and coordinated by Heck and Russell. The series served many objectives, from featuring faculty engaged in gender research to bringing together faculty who were often isolated in their research interests. It also served to bring interested women faculty to the Stanford campus.

In addition to convening and supporting gender scholars, the lecture series also exposed the Stanford and local communitiesto little-known research on women’s issues. While such lectures fill Stanford’s events calendar today, at the time these were groundbreaking. Women were thrilled that these topics were being discussed in public – and at Stanford! Heck remembers,“The more we got into it, the more we realized it was like throwing stone into a lake. It made a splash; the ripples go out and out. It permeated every piece of our lives.”

With campus interest gaining momentum, Strober and the founding students set out to gain institutional support for the center. Strober and the students held their first meeting with a small but supportive group of faculty: Jim March from the School of Education, Eleanor Maccoby from Psychology, Elizabeth Cohen from Sociology, and Leah Kaplan, the Dean of Women. As a result of the meeting, they established the first Policy Board and an official name: Center for Research on Women (CROW). The students then applied for and received a small “student project” grant to develop the center, operating in the old firehouse with one desk and a phone.

Strober and the student founders sought administrative support for CROW from the President and Provost and their wives, as well as from some influential male Deans. An early feminist trailblazer, first lady Jing Lyman, was instrumental in helping the nascent center thrive.

Toobtain funding and administrative approval for CROW, Strober and Russell, with the support of senior faculty members Eleanor Maccoby and Jim March, wrote grant proposals to obtain seed funding.  In October 1974, they received the first series of grants for planning and implementation from several foundations, including the Ford Foundation. Strober became CROW’s founding faculty Director, and Russell served as Administrator.

Establishing a presence

With the award from the Ford Foundation, CROW was officially recognized and moved to Stanford’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research operating out of Polya Hall and overseen by Dean of Research, Fred Crawford.

Garfield recalled, “some tried to dismiss us as a merely student organization.” They got push back, but CROW was buttressed by networks of interest and support from men and women across campus, alumni, and community members.

In her forthcoming book, Grandma Is A Feminist Economist: A Memoir, Strober remembers the formal launch of the CROW. “The occasion is actually more historic than we know at the time. Eventually there will be more than 100 Centers for Research on Women in the U.S., but in 1974 Stanford and Wellesley College are the first two.”

In 1979 CROW was given a home in historic Serra House, former university President David Star Jordan’s retirement home, where it continues to be housed today.

The future

By the late 1970s, the three founding students moved on to their respective careers. They left behind a legacy of institutional change. In forthcoming Gender News articles, each of these trailblazers will be profiled.

 When asked to look back on the evolution of the Institute, Garfield remarked, “It’s an exciting thing in life to have an idea and be a part of watching it really grow into something. To watch it change, reassemble itself and redefine itself over the years—it’s amazing. I honestly never dreamed it would become what it has.That it would have the kind of faculty support that it does. That it has the kind of reputation or call that it does.That it would become such a preeminent organization.It went way beyond our expectations.”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.