The Next Forty Years

Janet Jakobsen, longtime director of Barnard’s Center for Research on Women, has heard all about the supposed demise of the women’s movement. Over the past decade or so, she has read countless media reports about the movement’s failure to connect with a younger generation of women—as well as endless pronouncements that feminism is basically dead. But, as Jakobsen made clear to the crowd of hundreds of feminist scholars, activists, and supporters that gathered at Barnard this fall, she’s not buying it.

“It’s quite clear that feminism is alive and well—and, perhaps most importantly, relevant today,” declared Jakobsen, as she kicked off a two-day conference, “Activism and the Academy: Celebrating 40 Years of Feminist Scholarship and Action,” marking the 40th anniversary of the BCRW’s founding.

On one hand, the event was a chance to honor BCRW’s groundbreaking contributions to the women’s movement. Not only was it the first research center at an American college or university focused on women’s issues, but since its founding in 1971, it has sought to serve as a bridge between feminist scholars and activists, and has maintained a staunch commitment to its original mission, as spelled out in the Center’s charter statement, of ensuring that “women can live and work in dignity, autonomy, and equality.”

In part, that has meant helping to focus attention on the obstacles to true gender equality. Indeed, the Center’s first public event, held in Barnard’s gym in January 1972, raised the question of sexism on the neighboring Columbia University campus with a forum on “Male Chauvinism at Columbia: Does it Exist?” In the decades since, the Center has sponsored countless other conferences and events covering everything from the politics of sexuality to women, work, and family. It has also produced a steady stream of papers and publications offering sophisticated analysis of the distinct challenges women in the United States and abroad continue to face and has helped stimulate discussions about the need for effective social and political reforms.

The September 23–24 conference, however, wasn’t just about celebrating the Center’s past. As Jakobsen noted in her opening remarks, the BCRW today is every bit as committed to strengthening the connections between feminist scholarship and activism. That effort, she added, is more urgent than ever in light of the mounting attacks on women’s reproductive rights, not to mention the global economic and environmental crises and the proliferation of wars—all of which, she said, have made it plain that new approaches for promoting economic and social justice are imperative and that “feminist ideas and feminist action could not be more important.”

Many of the speakers and panelists featured at the conference echoed that view. Indeed, in her keynote address, South African feminist author and activist Mamphela Ramphele confessed that she’s more alarmed than ever about the state of the world, especially as political discourse in the United States continues to devolve. “When I listen to the political debates, I am terrified,” said Ramphele. A former chancellor at the University of Cape Town, Ramphele has seen the dramatic reforms social movements can bring. Yet despite the fact that racial and gender equality are now enshrined in South Africa’s constitution, she noted that sexual assaults against South African women have reached epidemic proportions and that violence against both men and women has continued to spread. “We are a country at war with itself,” declared Ramphele, who told the audience that in her view there’s only one real solution. Social transformation—including embedding the values of gender equality and moving from a consumer-driven society to one focused on the needs of people—has to come from the ground up, and women have to step up and help lead the way. “We have an historic mission to be transformative agents,” she said adding that that’s no less true for women in the United States. “Women in the U.S. don’t want to risk the comforts by challenging the status quo, [but] if you don’t rock the boat, the boat is going to sink.”

Ramphele and other speakers and panelists at the conference praised BCRW for its long-standing commitment to developing and refining feminist scholarship on social problems, and to building a new generation of women leaders. Moreover, they lauded the Center’s ongoing partnerships with a broad range of organizations working to bring about positive social change. One example: the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has been leading a campaign to improve pay and working conditions for thousands of U.S. nannies and housekeepers and was one of four BCRW partner groups featured on a September 23 panel entitled “Expanding Feminism: Collaborations for Social Justice.”

As host to the first national domestic workers conference three years ago, the Center played a valuable role in helping the NDWA build what has become a thriving national movement, said Ai-Jen Poo, NDWA executive director. To wit: She noted that last year New York became the first state in the country to pass a law guaranteeing overtime pay and other benefits to domestic workers and that efforts to pass similar legislation have recently been gaining ground in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states.

“I’m really excited because we’re in this breakthrough moment,” said Poo.

Likewise, panelist Ana Oliveira, who heads the New York Women’s Foundation, said Barnard’s Center has been an important ally in its efforts to help build economic security for low-income women, as well as a generous partner to many of the organizations the foundation supports. “We want to thank Barnard for being such an activist thought leader in New York City,” said Oliveira, who added that collaboration between academic institutions and social activists has become even more critical in the face of the growing economic crisis. “The question is what can we do collectively to accelerate solutions,” said Oliveira. “We’ve got to quicken the midwifery of the new.”

Building on that theme, journalist Laura Flanders ’85 led a Saturday afternoon panel on how activists can best leverage research and other scholarly work produced at universities to advance the fight for social change. As one example, panelist Jamia Wilson of the Women’s Media Center noted that last year the American Psychological Association produced a new study on the harm caused by sexualization of girls in the media—and said the WMC had used that research to launch a new campaign, called SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action Rebellion Knowledge), to challenge the ways girls are routinely objectified in movies, television programs, music videos, and advertising. “It gave us a platform to create the SPARK movement,” said Wilson.

Also on the program were sessions on feminist literature and on recent efforts by feminist librarians to better archive and document women’s history, as well as a discussion of campus activism around the country, highlighting the recent protests against tuition increases and budget cuts at the University of California and a successful union organizing drive for workers at Chicago’s Loyola University.

In addition, the program included panels that highlighted the growing power of feminist activism abroad, ranging from the fight for gender equality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the struggle by feminist academics and activists in Mexico to protect land rights for indigenous people.

In the year ahead, BCRW director Jakobsen said that one of the Center’s top priorities will be its new transnational project. As part of that, she noted that the Center has already launched a partnership with the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town, and has recently established a new faculty fellows program to help lead the effort to build new ties between BCRW and other feminist research centers around the world.

The Center is also considering a new program to help fund investigative reporting on a wide range of gender equality issues. Moreover, Jakobsen hopes to do more with new media to highlight the work that the Center and its partners are doing in the fight to end discrimination against women and bring positive social change.

In the four decades since the Center launched, there has definitely been real progress, said Jakobsen, who points to the Equal Pay Act of 2008 along with tougher rape and domestic violence laws as just a few examples. But, it’s clear that the fight for true gender equality still has a long way to go. “We’re talking about a very complex social system,” she said, noting that even at supposedly liberal publications like The New Yorker the vast majority of writers are white and male and that women are still underrepresented in government. “We’re still stuck at around 17 to 18 percent of elected officials,” sighed Jakobsen.

While much remains to be done, the good news, she added, is that the Center has plenty of eager young allies. Indeed, based on the enthusiasm and interest she saw at the 40th anniversary conference, she’s convinced that a whole new generation of women, who understand the stakes, have now taken up the struggle for women’s rights. Attendees included students from campuses across the country and Canada, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California; that group contributed a good portion of the more than 1,300 tweets posted during the event.

“There’s a real energy behind this,” affirmed Jakobsen. “The vibrancy and youth of the [participants] surprised even me.”

- by Susan Hansen


Watch a video about the BCRW and its initiatives on