The Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) brings scholars and activists together through its working groups, public events, publications, and multimedia projects to advance intersectional social justice feminist analyses and to promote social transformation. BCRW is committed to vibrant and engaged research, pedagogy, art, and activism, supporting the work of scholars and activists to create new knowledge and to challenge and refine how we understand the world around us.
Since its founding in 1971, the BCRW has cultivated collaborative and accountable relationships with community organizations, activists, and cultural workers in New York City, across the US, and transnationally. In honor of BCRW’s 50th anniversary in 2021, this project seeks to explore the Center’s history and commitment to critical feminist engagement with the academy and the world. Through close study of the BCRW Collection housed in the Barnard College Archives, this Scalar project aims to celebrate—as well as critique—BCRW’s 50 years.
The Barnard Center for Research on Women 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. A “Task Force on Barnard and the Educated Woman” was created in 1970, and in 1971 they published a report outlining the need for a Women’s Center. In this report, they argued that feminism was part of Barnard’s history: "Our name itself honors a president of Columbia University for his belief in full educational opportunities for women and his efforts to achieve them." This is referring, of course, to Frederick A.P. Barnard, for whom Barnard College is named, the president of Columbia University who pushed for coeducation at the University until his death in 1889, the same year that Barnard College was founded. Drawing on this, the report 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." But what does it mean to evoke Frederick A.P. Barnard’s name in this way when he enslaved Black people prior to his time as Columbia’s 10th president? What kind of feminism are we lifting up if we claim Barnard as a feminist name?
Indeed, while the Women’s Center’s early years did include moments of feminist inquiry that are still useful and isightful in the present moment, the archives show the struggle that the Center has had around its aspirations and intentions in the feminist movment. In its first few years, the Women’s Center had strong ties to the office of Career Development, and many of its programs and pamphlets gave information and support to alumnae seeking to reenter the workforce. Inevitably, this meant that the Center was primarily concerned with issues that affected middle class white women. There is documentation of students in 1972 expressing their disappointment and anger at the lack of women of color represented in the Center’s activities.
A Note on COVID-19 and its Impact on this Project
In March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City in earnest and shut down the country, BCRW staff were on the precipice of beginning work on an oral history project for the 50th anniversary. These plans were quickly stalled, as we began to adjust to our new reality working from home spread out across the boroughs of New York City and in New Jersey. We knew that any interviews we conducted during the pandemic would, in addition to being poor quality and logistically complicated over Zoom, be colored by the global anxiety and precarity we were all feeling in that moment.
As the reality of the pandemic set in, we shifted our focus for the 50th anniversary to an online, archival experience. With our staff all working from home, and our student Research Assistants in a multitude of time zones around the world, this meant that we began to rely heavily on the Barnard College Archives Digital Collections. In addition to their impressive physical archival collection, the Barnard College Archives has an extensive digital archive. In 2018-2019, the Barnard Archives and BCRW partnered to digitize over 300 cassette audio tape recordings of the Scholar and Feminist Conference, held annually by the BCRW. These tapes, from 1975-1996, are comprised of recordings of the conference and its many prominent (as well as lesser-known) speakers and attendees, including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Barbara Ehrenreich, Silvia Federici, Kate Millett, Barbara Kruger, Cherríe Moraga, Sharon Olds, Donna Haraway, and Bella Abzug. This work was funded by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk grant. Throughout this project, you will be able to hear select clips from these audio tapes. The full audio tapes are available in the Barnard Archives’ online collection.
We are incredibly grateful to the Barnard Archives for the ease with which we were able to transition to performing digital archival research. However, it should be noted that while the digital archives are extensive and impressive, not everything in BCRW’s archival collection has been digitized. In the summer of 2019, BCRW Staff and student Research Assistants were able to conduct foundation archival research for this project in person in the Barnard Archives’ reading room, but the pandemic had an impact on our ability to return to the physical archives to revisit, scan, and photograph certain materials. Because of this, we have been somewhat limited by the contents of the digital archive, which, while extensive, is very topheavy in its materials from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. More recent materials from the 2000s and 2010s, are less featured in the archives website (although they are, of course, able to be found in the digital archives of our website). We have done our best in this project to create a balance of archival engagement across the five decades of BCRW’s history.
How to Read this Scalar Book
This Scalar book is organized around BCRW’s main locations of feminist inquiry over the course of the Center’s 50 years. We have designated these categories as follows: Abolition Feminism, Reproductive Justice, Women’s Art and Women’s Writing, Academic Feminism and Women’s Studies, the Politics and Ethics of Care, and Work and Economic Justice, Queer and Trans Politics, Housing Justice, and Black Feminism.
Some of these topics are still featured in the forefront of BCRW’s programming, research, and publications. Others were once incredibly important to the Center and the feminist movement as a whole, but are now memories of political moments of the past. How did we get to where we are today? What throughlines survived, and which topics have been relegated to the archives? This project aims to explore the history and genealogy of BCRW through engaging with archival materials. With Scalar's platform, anyone has the option of navigating this project however they choose. You are welcome to move from topic to topic in a linear fashion, or jump around and read about the topics that interest you most.
This Scalar Project is the product of many weeks and months of research and writing by BCRW staff and Research Assistants, spearheaded by Eve Marie Kausch ‘18, Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, and Alex Volgyesi ‘22, BCRW Research Assistant. Thanks also to the other BCRW staff members, Research Assistants, and affiliates who contributed their knowledge and time to help craft this project into its final iteration:
Asha Futterman ‘21
Tapiwa Gambura '24
Em He ‘21
Sophie Kreitzberg '19
Kayla LeGrand ‘22
We would like to extend a special thanks to Martha Tenney and Barnard Archives student staff, as well as Alicia Peaker, Taylor Faires '19, and Ana Lam '20 from the Digital Humanities Center for their support throughout the creation of this project.