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Women’s rights action, activism in Dunn Meadow commonplace

By Molly Johnson

A time when there was no childcare system on campus, no policy to deal with maternity leave and no domestic abuse or rape shelter in Bloomington.

It was a time of isolation —but it was also a time of action.

In 1977, Jean Robinson came to IU as the coordinator of the women’s studies department. The fledgling program had only been around for four years and it didn’t yet offer degree options.

“Getting courses about women taught on campus was a real struggle,” Robinson said.
But set up in a national era of social progressiveness, protest and women’s liberation, the office in Memorial Hall became much more than a typical academic

“It kind of became a place for both students and faculty who were interested in the women’s movement to gather,” Robinson said. “In some ways it was pretty radical.”

The department, along with a feminist bookstore in Bloomington and the recently established Office of Women’s Affairs, quickly created a small network for the women students and faculty who wanted to make changes in the campus climate, she said.

“The offices were a place to gather and Dunn Meadow became the place to protest those issues, to be confrontational about the controversies,” Robinson said.

During the late ’70s and into the ’80s, IU women protested both for and against abortion policies, spoke out against sexual assault and harassment, and demanded a sense of security on a campus that had seen far too many assaults and rapes.

In 1988, a group of students erected a rape crisis shantytown in Dunn Meadow to comment on lack of safety. They set up tent-like structures plastered with signs about rape and camped out for days.

“The number of people who spent the night was very small. It was more about the messages they were displaying,” said former Dean of Students Richard McKaig. “This was ‘we have as much of a right to be out late at night and not be afraid of rape as you do.’”

The shantytown and other acts of insistence resulted in the creation of the Sexual Assault Crisis Service, where counselors would be on call 24 hours a day to assist assault victims, according to an article from the Herald-Times in August 1988.

Former member of IU-Bloomington Women’s Collective Ruth Walker was quoted in the article saying, “Embarrassing the University by erecting a shanty in Dunn Meadow has worked, bureaucracies don’t do anything unless they’re forced to.”

Robinson said there was a very effective coalition between women students and faculty in place as the campus safety issue gained momentum in the ’80s.

 Women’s Wheels, a campus transportation service for women, was started because of the coalition, in addition to the rape crisis line run through IU’s Counseling and Psychological Services, she said.

In 1998, Robinson became dean of the Office of Women’s Affairs and began working alongside then assistant dean of the office, Carol McCord.

“The role of the office at that time was to work for and with women on campus to identify barriers to campus opportunities and work to overcome them,” McCord said.
By the late ’90s, women’s issues on campus had changed quite dramatically.

“In the late ’70s, feminism was really alive and we really achieved a lot, from more women getting promoted to students feeling like they had more control over their lives,” Robinson said. “But when I became dean feminism wasn’t as visible.”

The office was still dealing with cases of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, but the tone was much different.

“It’s more subtle which is good and bad news,” McCord said. “When it’s so subtle that you can’t prove it, it’s harder to help
These quiet injustices that became the norm in the ’90s still dominate the gender scene today.
“There’s a lot of reasons why you would look around and think we don’t need this office,” McCord said. “But clearly we’re not past our problems yet. That glass ceiling is still around.”
McCord said there has still never been a female IU president, a female dean for the School of Education or for the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Within the last 20 years that I’ve been here I’ve known all of the women deans on this campus,” McCord said. “That’s scary to me.”

Bias, stereotypes and sexism are harder to articulate today, and in combination with the term ‘feminist‘ taking on a very negative societal connotation, McCord said.

She said she thinks there has been a backsliding in women’s progress. There’s been a transformation from a women’s culture in the ’70s of solidarity and sisterhood, she said, to a culture where women are encouraged to not speak up and not stand up for one another.

“To protest as a group you have to be solid as a group,” McCord said.

The one demonstration that has seemed to withstand the test of time has been Take Back the Night — yearly domestic abuse rallies that have taken place in Dunn Meadow for more than 10 years. However, attendance through the years has waned significantly, she said.

“The sexual assault issue should be made better because there are more women on campus, but it’s not,” McCord said. “Women still feel ashamed and embarrassed to bring up sexual assault.”

Though challenges still remain, the unity of campus women during turbulent years and the existence of a space where thought could be turned into action have had an immeasurable effect.

“I do think the world is a better place for women now than it was 30 years ago,” Robinson said.

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