Nestled in the verdant hills of Southwest Ohio a cluster of turn-of-the-century red brick and limestone buildings stands loosely at attention across a sprawling quad. Cars and sidewalks seem almost to have sprung up piecemeal in and around the former campus of the Western College for Women. Before it was incorporated into the body of Miami University in 1973, for over a century Western College for Women was an internationally recognized liberal arts college, a haven for women’s rights and women’s education, and the setting of some of Oxford’s richest and resonant histories.
Equidistant from both the Indiana and Kentucky borders, Oxford, Ohio was an ideally positioned refuge for runaway slaves on their way to urban centers like Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. In 1853, Mount Holyoke Women’s College appropriated three hundred and fifty acres of land, land that had once been the ancestral home of the Miami Native American Tribe before 1818. In relation to the East Coast women’s institutions on which it was modeled, it was truly a Western Female Seminary. When Old Miami closed its doors in 1873, the women’s college remained open. In 1964, over one thousand young volunteer from across the country, ninety percent of whom were white, reported to their largely black activist organizers on Western College’s leafy campus. The Freedom Summer was an awakening for small towns across the country,
beginning in Oxford, Ohio.
Western College had always been a self-contained institution with a reputation for challenging barriers, but the Freedom Summer had made the name Western College and the town of Oxford synonymous with activism. In 1974 when Western College for Women was finally incorporated into the body of Miami University, Western Campus remained a resource for women and a hub of local student activism. Peabody Hall, the first building ever constructed for Western Female Seminary, was the first site of the Miami University Women’s Resource Center and a meeting place for feminist groups on campus. One such organization, the Oxford-Miami Chapter of the National Organization for Women, brought integral change and awareness to Miami’s campus and the Oxford community. Members saw themselves as an extension of the larger women’s movement, a second wave of feminist activism that was sweeping the nation, as well as representatives of the values and goals of the National Organization for Women.
When Western College for Women became part of Miami University in 1973 it became clear that it was not only the sprawling Western campus that would now become integrated into Miami’s main campus, but women as well. Within the Office of Student Affairs a position was created for the “Dean of Women” who would oversee a division of student affairs related to women’s concerns. This position was later changed to a position in the Provost’s office entitled “Women and Minority Affairs.” The year that Western College became part of Miami University, an informal committee was created under University President Phillip Shriver to observe the roles and needs of women and minority students on campus. The resulting study, entitled the “Engel Report” after the project’s director Alan Engel, documented the need for a space for women to find solidarity and plan their activism. In 1966 space was offered in Peabody Hall on Western Campus for the first Women’s Resource Center. Those who staffed the Center eventually became Miami’s first trained rape crisis counselors. They collaborated on projects like Take Back the Night with the Miami-Oxford NOW chapter and facilitated meetings for feminist student organizations like the Association of Women Students.
Then in 1981 President Paul Pearson replaced President Shriver, and with him came a series of governmentally enforced budget cuts to the university. He eliminated the Women’s Resource Center as well as the McGuffey Laboratory School and Montessori School. Neither institution was able to find the proper aid to remain open, even though prominent universities like Yale and Brown were known for having lab schools. Universities across the country were developing Women’s Studies and women’s centers. However, “He [President Pearson] had significant money cuts he had to make that were required by the state legislature, and he could preserve much of the other things at the university untouched…” said Klosterman. “So what, so you have children and women…It was a fast and seemingly easy way to make the cuts he had to make without everybody throughout the university up in arms.”
Almost immediately began talk of revitalizing the center. Dr. Klosterman was integral in throwing the weight of the Oxford and Butler County NOWs behind the reestablishment of a Women’s Resource Center on campus. “I wrote multiple letters to the President,” Klosterman said of her response to the closing of the Women’s Resource Center. However, letters were the least of her efforts. Klosterman helped begin, and eventually presided over a Women’s Resource Advisory Committee whose goal it was to resurrect and provide continual financial support from the University for a Women’s Resource Center. Klosterman proposed the creation of a council or advisory committee presided over by each of the Vice Presidents of the University, as well as other faculty and representatives from NOW. Klosterman herself was President of the committee. “What we wanted was for every Vice President… to have to put up the money to pay for the director and the center itself—the budget,” said Klosterman. “Our thinking was that it would not be a big enough budget in each vice president’s bailiwick to chop it when budget cuts came again, and they would have to have the approval of the other four Vice Presidents. They couldn’t do it singularly.” In essence, the council operated like a board of trustees. They set the directive for the Center as well as protected it from budget cuts.
It was a novel way to operate within a larger institution. The whole purpose of communal administration, “…was to avoid the patriarchal, hierarchical notion of, ‘Whose in charge here?’” Naturally, it incurred resistance. The President following Dr. Pearson, President
Paul Risser, was extremely reluctant to accept administration by committee. According to Klosterman, “At one point he said…to me ‘I don’t like this arrangement. In fact, I think it’s terrible because you’ve got this council that sets the agenda…and if something goes really badly wrong here, whose head comes off?’” Of course, this was exactly the purpose; shared responsibility and shared consequences. One of the benefits of involving each of the Vice Presidents was it would ensure their continual support. Having equal stake would encourage them and their staff to utilize and offer exposure for the Center and its programs. The efficiency of the Women’s Resource Center Advisory Committee became too apparent to discredit. “At the end of the year at our last meeting, it was summer time, he said, ‘You know how I felt about this, but now that I see how it functions I really, really admire the way it works and I wish more places in the institution would consider a structure like this,’” Said Klosterman of President Risser. “Which was a lot for him to say, as President.”
One of the greatest obstacles facing the newly chartered Miami-Oxford NOW was the lack of awareness of women’s issues and the need for women’s resources within the Oxford
community and Miami administration. Butler County NOW had brought the first wave of programming and support for women, especially in cases of sexual and interpersonal violence and abuse. According to McQueen, “All the agencies in this county that help women,” from Dove House domestic violence shelter to the local rape crisis hotline, “all started with Butler County NOW.” However, due to University transportation policies students could not access these community resources. At the national level, women were actively discussing issues such as marital rape and domestic violence, both inside and outside the home. They challenged the notion that women were somehow accountable for abuse based on their behavior, dress, or previous romantic history.
The Miami Student ran a twelve part series discussing the epidemic of sexual assault on Miami’s campus and the efforts of organizations like Oxford-Miami NOW to provide resources and support for survivors. It seemed the community was at a crossroads on the issue. Some saw it as the unspoken, preventable problem. On March 30th the Student ran a piece called “Avoiding the potential rape” in which then Oxford Police Officer Danny O’Malley of the crime prevention department suggested that rape was simply an uncomfortable reality for women, one that they should be “psychologically prepared for.” His advice in the case of assault was to, “talk to him,
throw up on him or comply with him until you get a chance to flee.” He also suggested that a woman tell her potential attacker that, “she has a venereal disease.” The Middletown Paper reported on October 26, 1979 that Danny O’Malley, Miami University’s sitting assistant director of the safety and security department, stated that as of January 1st, 1979 “we have not had a reported rape, attempted rape or sexual battery.” On the other hand, the Student’s final expose on the prevalence of sexual violence in Oxford stated that “…resident assistants and sorority pledge trainers,” those who interacted closely with students on a daily basis, “have been known to warn women that more than 200 rapes have occurred here in a semester.” Complacency, lack of awareness, and the University’s closed-door policy on information relating to the pervasiveness of sexual assault finally led to an outpouring of frustration and protest.
On October 29, 1979 Miami-Oxford NOW held its first Take Back the Night event. Over two hundred Oxford men and women gathered with candles and flashlights to march in
solidarity with victims and survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence. Volunteers laid glow in the dark tape on locations across campus and Oxford proper where victims had been raped or assaulted. Local Cincinnati activist and folk-singer, Therese Edell, wrote and performed an original song to commemorate the march and for demonstrators to sing as they made their way from across campus. We are women in full sight. We are women taking back the night. The protest even made its way onto the UPI wires, distributing news of the success of the Miami-Oxford’s Take Back the Night event to news outlets across the country.
In 1870, renowned founder and leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, delivered her famous “Our Girls” speech before the students and faculty of Miami University. Her brother in law, Robert Brewster Stanton, was a renowned abolitionist, President of the University, and earned less per anum than his sister in law did from a single speaking engagement at a small liberal arts college in southwest Ohio. By the end of WWII, the momentum that had produced the Nineteenth Amendment allowing women access to the franchise had died away. The post-war boom and the pervasiveness of companionate marriages had relegated women back into the private sphere. In 1963 Betty Friedan published her bestseller The Feminine Mystique, which, although problematic in today’s terms, shocked the American public by arguing that a woman did not find fulfillment and satisfaction purely in the home. A year later the Civil Rights act, which protected against employee discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and nation of origin reinvigorated the women’s movement and produced a second wave of feminist activism. All of America had seen the images on television—the abuse of black bodies, the fog of tear gas against the Birmingham skyline. Three dead boys unearthed in a construction site and dubbed the “Mississippi Three.” Civil injustice blared out of every screen and radio wire. If African Americans in the Jim Crow South could make strides toward political and social liberation from the constraints of the past, certainly so could women.
The National Organization for Women was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1966 at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women. Their purpose was to reinforce Title VII of the hard-won Civil Rights Act. The suffragettes of the 19th and 20th centuries had fought largely for access to the franchise, although they were also involved in various social welfare causes. Second wave feminism was concerned not only with preserving the accomplishments of the past, but in taking strides toward the elimination of the sexist language, the wage gap, the policing of women’s bodies and domestic and interpersonal violence, and most of all the passing of legislation. Their ultimate goal was the creation of laws that promoted and protected the rights of women in the work place, at the ballot box and within their personal lives. These hopes would culminate in one major piece of legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment Act.
Before long, regional and local chapters of the National Organization for Women were springing up across the country. The first local NOW chapter was chartered in Hamilton, Ohio in 1973 as Butler County NOW. It began as a consciousness-raising group for a few women interested in learning more about the larger women’s movement. Butler County NOW quickly grew into an accomplished and active chapter. They formed the first battered women’s shelter in the state of Ohio, now an affiliate of the Hamilton YWCA, promoted local women business owners, pressured local media outlets for coverage of women’s issues, established the first rape crisis hotline and counseling center in Butler County, and participated in national NOW conferences.
According to Joanne McQueen, founding member of both the Butler County and Miami-Oxford NOW chapters, living and operating in small-town Ohio did not diffuse their ties to their parent organization, National NOW, or to the women’s movement as a whole. “I felt like I was part of the women’s movement in this country, a national women’s movement, and I was doing my part through Butler County NOW.” They were a part of the momentum of the nation as well as a welcome disruption. “It was happening all over the country, and it was being covered by the media so also we had power…I remember thinking, i don’t know if I was contacting a newspaper or a radio station, but all I had to say was my name and that i was from Butler County NOW and boy they paid attention. I think they were afraid, afraid that we might boycott them or pick at them, or write letters to the editor about them, but we had power for a while as all these changes were being made in the country.”
In 1979 the University tentatively introduced the first Women’s Studies program, in keeping with other major universities across the country. Students formed women’s interest groups mirroring the goals and structure of organizations like NOW, the most active of which was the Association of Women Students, known as F-Word in its current manifestation. However, Oxford students still lacked access to Butler County NOW. The university did not provide public transport between Oxford and Fairfield or Hamilton, leaving students with no way to engage with the larger local or national feminist community. The University also lacked rape crisis referral or counseling services for students. Doctors at McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital in Oxford had never been instructed in how to properly administer a rape kit. Economic downturn and the closure of the local General Electric plant had resulted in Butler County having the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Ohio. Something had to be done.
Two of the original members from the Butler County chapter, local business owner Joanne McQueen and Dr. Kathy McMahon-Klosterman, professor of educational psychology at Miami University, recognized the opportunity to open an Oxford chapter. They had already embraced the challenge of establishing one chapter and used their administrative skill and experience to charter a second. According to McMahon-Klosterman, “We knew what we wanted to do. The rest was just agenda setting.” The first meeting of the Miami-Oxford NOW was held early in 1979 in the basement of the Campus Ministry Building. The goals and values of the new chapter were in keeping those of Butler County and National NOW organizations. However, as an affiliate of the university, Miami-Oxford NOW members were tasked with addressing both larger, theoretical issues of women’s equality as well as serving the needs of the student body.