The Center for the Education of Women began a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary with a screening of short films by and about women Tuesday evening. The films were followed by a discussion with documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade, who won a 2008 Academy Award for “Freeheld.”
Speaking to the crowd gathered in the Michigan Theatre, Christina Whitman, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs, urged the generations of supporters and benefactors to solidify and expand on the CEW’s gains over the past 50 years.
When the CEW was established in 1964, it served women who had come to Ann Arbor with a spouse and were looking to start or continue their higher education. In the early 1960s, that desire came with hurdles both within and outside of the University. Admissions and hiring policies were often still explicitly gender biased, and balancing family with a professional life was difficult.
“It’s hard to take seriously in some ways the kind of views in the 1960s about women, but they were certainly very real at the time,” said Carol Hollenshead, who was CEW’s director from 1988 to 2008.
During Hollenshead’s time at the CEW, the center advised the University on policies regarding having parents as students since many women were returning to the classroom almost immediately after having children. Achieving tenure was difficult for women whose careers were interrupted by starting a family, as the time requirement for attaining tenure did not allow extended maternity leave. The University changed these policies in the 1990s, a time when few other universities were taking steps to accommodate these situations, according to Hollenshead.
But Hollenshead said those changes took much longer than she had hoped.
“If you had asked me then, in 1970, ‘Where will you be in 2013?’ I would’ve said ‘Oh, it’ll all be solved!” she said.
CEW’s current director, Gloria Thomas, said it is obvious that gains for women have not been equal across the board.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics between 1979 and 2012, white women’s earnings rose 31 percent while earnings for Black and Hispanic women only rose 20 and 13 percent, respectively. Data from the 2012 Current Population Survey showed that women with children earned less than their childless counterparts, while men with children earned significantly more than their peers.
Consequently, the CEW’s constituency has diversified tremendously since its inception when it served mostly white, middle-class women, Thomas said. Today, the CEW offers career counseling and networking help to a demographic that includes many women of color, women living in low-income situations, single parents and some men.
“There is still a need — maybe not as much need for white, middle-class women — but still a need for those who are struggling to get to where they want to be in their careers and in their education,” Thomas said.
She added that the CEW’s role today is to help those who still face barriers to higher education make sure they are not “doomed to a low-income job.” As tuition rates steadily climb, financial realities often make a college education unattainable for many women and men.
In response, the CEW gives away $300,000 per year in scholarships to “non-traditional students,” including parents, those who are transferring from community college or are not financially supported by their family.
“Not all women live the traditional lives where they come right out of high school and get their education and have 2.5 children and all that,” Thomas said.
The CEW Scholarship Program awards aid to 50 students across the three University campuses every year.
“It’s not just needing the money,” Thomas added. “It’s connecting them to a network of individuals who will support their efforts as they pursue their career interests.”
It’s that network that drew Thomas back to Ann Arbor when she took the CEW directorship in 2008. She originally started working at the Center in 1995 as a graduate student at the School of Education.
“It was, in many respects, a home away from home for me when I was a grad student here,” she said.
The CEW will continue to celebrate its semicentennial throughout the year with a conference focused on economic security and mobility for women in poverty in May and an event to bring together past and current scholarship recipients in the fall.
The center originally invited Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Color Purple,” to speak at one of the anniversary’s events, but later rescinded the invitation. The center decided Walker was “not the premium choice” for the event, according to Thomas.
The author posted a letter allegedly written by her agent that said funding was cut from her lecture due to controversial statements she made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, the University later invited Walker to speak at the biennial Zora Neale Hurston Lecture for the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, to be held in November 2014.
Walker accepted the invitation on her blog and forgave the University for the uncertain circumstances.
“I believe we have all learned something from our efforts to reach out to one another, and I believe also that — if solar flares or deeply unintelligent wars haven’t carried us off — it will be a good time,” Walker wrote.