BCRW @ 50

Center Origins

The Beginnings

The Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) was founded in 1971 as the Women’s Center of Barnard College. At a time when the second wave feminist movement was growing and gaining momentum on the national scale, students, faculty and staff at Barnard were invested in bringing this movement to campus. There was a growing concern about the lack of women writers and academics within the curriculum at Barnard, as well as resources for women’s scholarship. Annett Baxter’s course offered in 1966 titled, “History of Women in America,” was one of the few exceptions, and eventually made history as the first women’s studies course offered in the country. 

A task force made up of students, faculty, staff, and alumnae worked together in 1970-71 to write a report on why they strongly believed in the creation of a women’s research center at Barnard. Invoking Barnard’s history as a women’s college, they argued that “because of its history, its staff, and its location, Barnard is particularly suited for becoming a national center for the study of women and their interests." With a strong focus on opportunities for women, especially post-college, the focus of the center was initially envisioned as a way to support Barnard alumnae re-enter the workforce in a patriarchal world. 

In June of 1971, the Barnard Women’s Center officially opened its doors. Originally housed in the very small 101 Barnard Hall, office space quickly became a recurring issue as the Center grew and expanded over time. The goals of the Center, outlined in its original 1971 charter, outline the necessity of providing a space like the Women’s Center:

The realization of a purpose long shared by many in the Barnard community, the Center’s underlying aim is to assure that women can live and work in dignity, autonomy, and equality. Acknowledging that the broad needs and aspirations of women are often unrecognized or inadequately defined by the society at large, the Barnard Women’s Center is dedicated to addressing those needs through the various groups it serves: students, faculty, administrators, alumnae, and women in the larger community.

This mission statement shaped the structure and content of the Center’s programming throughout its 50 year history.

The first Director of the Center was Catharine Stimpson, who served as Acting Director for the first year. In that year, the Center hosted a wide variety of programs. Their first public program on January 13th, 1972 was “Male Chauvinism at Columbia: Does it Exist?”, a panel discussion with 8 men, including then-Columbia President McGill and Barnard Anthropology Professor Clive Kessler. Stimpson later noted, “Some notes from a planning meeting for the event read laconically, ‘Never before have so many men had so many previous engagements.’” Other events held in the first year were: a poetry reading that featured 8 women poets, including June Jordan ‘57; a film about abortion by Amalie Rothschild, which took place during the struggle over the New York State abortion law; and an event with Jeannette Rankin, American Feminist, pacifist, and the first women ever to serve in Congress. 

At the end of the Center’s first year in June, Stimpson wrote a Year-End Report in which she outlined the needs of the Center that they had discovered in the first year, among them a permanent director that could devote more time and energy to the Center. She also described the Center’s organization: 

The office has had four jobs: 1 - to run small programs on its own; 2 - to assess other programs and to raise money for them and their administrators; 3 - to assure potential donors to the Center, be they private persons, public agencies, or foundations, that the Center is a stable, coherent place; and 4 - to coordinate the publicity about the Center and its multiple activities and its relationship to the College as a whole. The Center should be a nucleus, around which other programs orbit. 

This description sheds light on the Center’s beginnings, as well as its relationship to the Women’s Counseling Project, which began with support from the Women’s Center. Funding for the Women’s Counseling Project—as well as many other programs in the first year—was provided by a grant from the Exxon Corporation. Stimpson also clearly demonstrated an understanding of the Center’s position in the larger Barnard community, stating: “The Center is a part of a college; it should do those things a college can best do. Yet, its programs should be of use to women outside the college itself and apart from an academic community as such.” This emphasizes the Women’s Center’s dedication to impacting the lives of women beyond Barnard’s gates, and interacting with the community of women in New York City. 

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