BCRW @ 50

Work and Economic Justice

When Barnard faculty and administrative colleagues came together in 1971 to found the Women’s Center, as BCRW was known in its early years, they were particularly concerned about the potential for advanced study and professional training in the lives of Barnard students and alumnae. The 1971 brochure that announced the Center’s founding and laid out its ambitions presents a constellation of overlapping concerns—the serious underrepresentation of women in the professoriate, the structural and personal obstacles impeding professional advancement of educated women, and the need for practical interventions to support Barnard students and alumnae as they sought to enter or advance in the the world of work. If concerns about “work” at the Center initially appeared primarily as a reflection upon the potential career aspirations of Barnard women, it would not be long before the critical analysis of work and a wide range of ancillary and related concerns—all of the conditions and policies that make work possible—became a regular topic of discussion and debate.

The first efforts were somewhat generalist and grounded in a model that assumed “women” meant white, middle- or upper-class, professional women. As Jane Gould, the Center’s first director, describes it in her 1997 memoir, Juggling: A Memoir of Work, Family, and Feminism, the inaugural conference sponsored by the Women’s Center in 1972 included workshops on “emancipated lifestyles” (which asked questions about how work and life and relationships might fit together in a feminist key), on the still-pressing question of “Who takes care of the children?”, and a solitary workshop addressing the contemporaneous strike going on across the street at Columbia by women working as maids at the University. (Gould noted with some chagrin in her memoir that this last panel was the only one at the conference that included women of color as panelists and the only panel that addressed race and class explicitly.)

Projects devoted to curating materials on women’s work became the earliest publications of the Women’s Center: three book-length bibliographical guides bearing the collective title Women’s Work and Women’s Studies (1971, 1972, 1973-1974) sought to compile all the relevant scholarship produced on a wide range of themes and topics—and explicitly categorized this scholarship as itself a meaningful form of “women’s work.” By the mid-1970s, the explosion in publications across disciplines made this sort of bibliographical project unmanageable. The volumes nonetheless collected citations of a wide array of scholarly works on the socio-economic consequences of sex roles, mechanisms for challenging these deleterious effects, and the frictions and tensions created by social institutions and policies that pitted domestic and family life against the demands of the market economy. Moreover, the existence of these three volumes testifies to the Center’s early commitment to highlighting intellectual work as work.

The archive preserves materials that document the recursive nature of many discussions about work and economic justice in the Center’s programming over the decades. An early paper from 1974, “The Economics of Sex Differentials,” presented at the inaugural Scholar and Feminist Conference by Cynthia Lloyd (Economics, Barnard) and Beth Niemi (Economics, Rutgers at Newark), laid out the reigning arguments to account for (what was then called) sex differences in work trajectories—and therefore in earnings. The arguments are familiar, residing on a continuum whose extreme poles are “individual choice” and “structural inequality.” Lloyd and Niemi remained agnostic on the question of how the sex differences that had historically disadvantaged women in the work force and therefore diminished women’s economic equality in the family and society as a whole might best be mitigated. As they noted in their short paper, the conditions affecting women’s economic status were simultaneously material, cultural, and ideological—and therefore difficult to disrupt without sustained remediation across these distinct but overlapping domains.

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