Judy Pehrson, director of the Alice Drum Women's Center at Franklin & Marshall College, had an honest question for her fellow members of the College's committee on the 40th anniversary of coeducation last spring.
"I sort of said, off the top of my head, why don't we have Gloria Steinem come to campus?" Pehrson says. "The reaction was something like, 'Oh, she'll never come.'"
Steinem answered Pehrson's question with a resounding "yes." The feminist activist, author and co-founder of New York Magazine will speak on March 27 at 2 p.m. in the Barshinger Center for Musical Arts as keynoter for the Central Pennsylvania Consortium's Annual Women's Studies Conference.
Steinem's visit is just the latest in a series of big events to help the College celebrate the 40th anniversary of coeducation, and the Women's Center has been at the center of many of the festivities. Established in 1992, the center helps to encourage dialogue on women's and gender issues and promotes equality and mutual respect on campus.
Pehrson has been busy this week with International Women's Week, which includes a series of activities planned around International Women's Day on March 8. Leymah Gbowee, executive director of the Women's Peace and Security Network Africa, was the keynote speaker for this week's Common Hour. Another highlight of the week was "Tea and Tattoos," an evening during which South Asian students demonstrated the art of mehendi (temporary henna tattoos).
But the heartbeat of the Women's Center is the Friday lunchtime discussions, which have been drawing a combination of students, faculty members and professional staff for nearly two decades. The student-run discussions touch on a variety of women's and social issues, and draw between 35 and 60 people.
"We've talked about some pretty edgy topics, and people are free to say what's on their mind," says Pehrson, who notes that topics this semester have ranged from the legalization of prostitution to sexual harassment. "We've always stressed being civil, and I can't remember a time when a discussion got out of control.
"People tell me the Women's Center is a safe place where they feel they can express themselves. I learn a lot, and faculty and professional staff learn a lot, about what students are thinking. Nobody is grading in here. We're nonjudgmental, because that's the way it's set up to be."
Pehrson says the discussions continue to be successful because they are student-led. Students select the topics, do background research, then moderate the discussions. "We offer a lot of opportunity to lead, from planning and running noon discussions to planning and implementing major events such as Take Back the Night," Pehrson says.
Pehrson, who became active in the women's rights movement as a student at the University of Michigan, worked to implement Pennsylvania's Equal Rights Amendment as director of information and education for the Pennsylvania Commission for Women. As someone who has seen the women's rights movement evolve over time, she was particularly excited to host author and poet Robin Morgan and author Ariel Levy last fall for a discussion on intergenerational feminism.
"Ariel and Robin had never sat down and had that conversation publicly before," Pehrson says of the well-attended event in the Roschel Performing Arts Center in October. "I loved the idea of a young feminist and veteran feminist sitting down and talking, literally interviewing each other about their lives and where women have been, where they are now and where they are going. It was fascinating."
For more information upcoming events and activities at the Women's Center, including its College Connections program that encourages high school students to continue their education in college, visit the center's newly updated Web site.