Save the Women's Research Institute!
This morning I awoke to the terrible news that Brigham Young University had decided to shut down the Women’s Research Institute. This is a personal tragedy for me, one that I am deeply grieving.
I have written before about how lonely and isolated I felt as a young feminist at BYU. But that was before I found the Women’s Research Institute (WRI). I was in my junior year when I discovered that a Women’s Studies minor even existed at BYU and was housed in the WRI. I eagerly changed my minor in music to women’s studies and never looked back.
I took every class I could sign up for: Women’s Studies 101, The International Political Economy of Women, Women’s Lit, Women in Music, Sociology of Gender. These classes saved my college experience and had a profound impact on who I am today.
As I became more entrenched in the Women’s Studies minor, I started making connections with the teachers and eventually I was hired as a research assistant. That job took me in and out of the WRI office on a daily basis. There I met women who embodied Emmeline B. Well’s belief in”thinking women.” It was the staff of the WRI and its affiliated faculty that proved through their example that I could be a thinking woman and a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Almost three years ago I got a request from the Women’s Research Institute asking me to share my experience as a Women’s Studies minor and as an employee of the WRI. Unfortunately that letter came the day I gave birth to my oldest child and it got pushed aside as I fumbled through the first couple of months of motherhood. I deeply regret that missed opportunity. But today, I will endeavor to share what the Women’s Research Institute has meant in my life.
I do not exaggerate when I say that the WRI has affected every aspect of my life, both while I attended BYU and since I left the university. It was the professors affiliated with the WRI who opened my mind and allowed me to think critically about really difficult things. The director of the Women’s Research Institute took time to individually counsel me about my career and pointed me in the right direction after the disappointment of not getting into grad school. And then when I was working in the domestic violence field, it was the things that I learned as a research assistant that paved the way for me to frequently lecture to professionals and students about the effect of domestic violence on women worldwide.
Of more eternal significance, it was the lessons I learned in my women’s studies classes that influenced my ideas of marriage and motherhood. I have a happy marriage because I was taught gender theory and was looking for equal partnership. I love being a mother because my teachers not only validated motherhood as a feminist choice but provided models of how to be a mother without losing one’s self. I am still a faithful, temple-recommend holding member of the church because my teachers acknowledged the painful and problematic aspects of our doctrine and provided me with enough satisfactory answers to stay. And they were able to do this because of the safety and support of the Women’s Research Institute.
No where else on BYU campus were topics such as female sexuality, the exploitation of women and feminism safe to broach. The WRI was a haven of academic freedom, largely due to contributing over half of their operating budget themselves. But the WRI was not just concerned with academic pursuits; they actively strived to make every lecture, film, and colloquia a matter of conscience, social justice and faith. This was their foundation.
In the press release, BYU says that they are trying to streamline their programs and there are other campus entities that address women’s issues. It is true that the Women’s Resource Center is specifically interested in issues that affect the female population at BYU. But they address them by offering activities like “Risk Free” Speed Dating.
While the contributions to BYU that the WRC and the Faculty Women’s Association make are important, the academic rigor and vitality that the WRI provides in the field of women’s studies is irreplaceable. For ten years the Women’s Research Institute has been studying the lives of women in a small town in Mali, and offering micro-finance opportunities to the women there. The WRI has published groundbreaking studies on peace and violence, specifically studying women’s perspective. And it was the Women’s Research Institute that almost single-handedly financed the WomanStats project when no other department on campus wanted much to do with the it. This project has since become the most comprehensive compilation of information on the status of women in the world. WomanStats is beginning to have a profound impact not only in the academic community but also where this information can do the most good, in government. Just recently, some of the contributors to this project were asked to testify before Congress. This project, and the many others that the Women’s Research Institute have undertaken are a credit to BYU and something they should be very proud of.
It is for this reason that it is so hard for me to understand why Brigham Young University is taking this action, one that no other university in the nation has done in the twenty years that records have been kept! I understand the argument that having a separate institution for women’s studies further bastardizes the study of women because it keeps it isolated from the rest of academia. And perhaps this is what BYU is trying to do, mainstream women’s studies. But I fear that this is a premature action. Women and their needs have not been equally mainstreamed into American society, the Academy or the structure of the church. The WRI was the one lone beacon demanding that BYU, academia, the church and the world take notice of the needs and issues of women.
I don’t presume to know why BYU has decided on this course of action. In a time when good PR for Mormonism is hard to come by, shutting down a symbol of social progress and equality seems to be a very bad idea. But I would hate for the genuine frustration over the elimination of the Women’s Research Institute to turn into a conversation on how BYU/the Mormon Church are trying to silence women. While there may be some validity to that argument, I don’t believe it is productive.
Here are some actions I do think are worthwhile:
- Join the Facebook group “Save BYU’s Women’s Research Institute”.
- If you live in Utah, attend “Save BYU’s Women’s Research Institute” and Parity’s rally on Thursday evening from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in room 270 of the SWKT.
- If not write a letter to President Samuelson and tell him how you feel about this decision.
- Or write a letter to the Academic Vice-President, John Tanner whose office has been in charge of this decision. His email is: john_tannerATbyuDOTedu
- Write a letter to the editor of BYU’s Daily Universe.
- Call BYU’s Alumni association and threaten to withhold further financial contributions.
- Send a letter to the First Presidency. Yes, it will get sent back to your Stake President but at least leaders will begin to see that members are concerned about their decisions regarding gender.
- Talk to anybody who will listen. Talk to ward members, family members, friends, media. The more public outrage over this decision the more chance we have of saving the Women’s Research Institute.
If these measures fail and the Women’s Research Institute closes its doors on January 1, 2010 then we need to keep BYU honest. We the alumni of BYU and the tithe-payers who keep this institution running need to demand that they live up to their word of “significantly expand[ing] resources for research and creative activities pertaining to women.”
This is an opportunity to show BYU, the leaders of the church and the outside world that yes, gender is important. This is an opportunity to demand that women have place and a voice in our religious institutions. Let’s not waste this opportunity.