Content warning: The following article includes mentions of rape, sexual violence, and murder, and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
In the early ‘70s, news of sexual assault on campus traveled in the forms of rumors and whispers.
“No one could confirm what was really happening,” Carol Tracy (C ‘76) says. “Because of the rumor mill, we didn’t know if there was one [assault] in Houston Hall or five.”
Before 1973, no woman on Penn’s campus was thinking about safety, or at least no woman that Tracy knew. But when the stories of sexual assault around campus began circulating, this changed.
From Tracy’s perspective, the rumors were largely ignored by Penn’s administration, contributing to a climate of fear for women on campus. When two nursing students were gang–raped in the SEPTA station at 34th and Chestnut streets in March of 1973, a group of Penn students decided they could no longer ignore the problem.
Tracy had been previously involved in feminist activism at Penn. She came to Penn as a secretary in 1968, taking night classes until she was able to enroll as a full–time student. Throughout that time, she was focused on a union movement for secretaries. But in 1973, her activism focus shifted to sexual harassment.
In April of that year, students and community members organized a sit–in at College Hall that would eventually lead to the founding of the Penn Women’s Center. The PWC still exists, offering a community space for gender equity on Penn’s campus, Director Elisa Foster says. Fifty years after the sit–in, their mission remains the same, even if the faces who are leading it have changed.
1973 was the height of the second–wave feminist movement, when equality for women was at the forefront of social activism. The Equal Pay Act was passed in the previous decade, prohibiting sex–based discrimination. Title IX had been enacted the year before, ending Penn’s gender–segregated honor societies. In January of that year, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, protecting abortion rights.
“With Title IX, people weren’t even thinking about sexual harassment,” Tracy says. While the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, and Roe v. Wade were legal victories, “sexual assault and domestic violence was the one issue that didn’t come from legislators but from grassroots movements.”
This grassroots organizing approach is what fueled the sit–in at College Hall. Efforts to start a Women’s Studies program at Penn were well underway, and students began to consider the best way to handle the assault rumors on campus. Survivors weren’t the ones to come forward; rather, it was students worried about it happening to them.
The students had previously met with the director of public safety to learn more about what was going on and how to stay safe. In the meeting, he offered them advice: Don’t wear provocative clothing.
“My response was, ‘I should be able to walk down Locust Walk buck naked and it’s still your job to protect me,” Rose Weber (C ‘75, L ‘96) says. “That meeting was the real catalyst that just got us mad enough that we decided we needed to sit–in.”
A few days after the meeting, Robin Morgan, radical feminist and author of Sisterhood is Powerful, came to give a campus talk by invitation from the English department. “She said, ‘You absolutely have to do something. This can’t go on,” Tracy recalls.
So students gathered in the Christian Association basement to make a plan. “Any story about the development of the Women’s Center has to take the CA into account,” former CA intern Betsy Sandel says. Later renamed Concern through Action, the anti–war movement had just ended, and the CA had been “the place for everything” throughout the protests. The students returned there to plan.
Their decision: a sit–in, one of the first all–women sit–ins on a college campus, and among the most influential.
“This was truly a collective moment,” Tracy says. “Students and community members worked really closely together to create a safe space for women on campus.”
Former Psychiatry and History professor Caroll Smith–Rosenberg and Tracy were the key negotiators, sitting around a table in College Hall with the president, provost, dean of students, and several other administrators.
They presented the group’s list of demands, which included better lighting on campus, a bus service, alarms in bathrooms, staffing of a senior–level policewoman to support assault survivors, the right to bring their dogs to class, and of course, the Women’s Center.
As they negotiated, over 200 students and community members occupied College Hall. “We just congregated. It was a huge number of people,” Sandel says. “And it wasn’t just all women. There were lots of male faculty and male students too, but mostly women, just congregated in the hallways.”
The group was careful not to violate open expression guidelines. They lined the hallways, ensuring they didn’t prevent anyone from entering the building or getting to their classes. Local restaurants provided food, and they slept in sleeping bags on the floor for four days.
As Tracy and Smith–Rosenberg continued negotiations, the dean of students received a note requesting their permission to rent College Hall 200, which had been the protest hotspot of the anti–war movement. He was surprised, telling Tracy that protests usually don’t rent the room. “Well, I'm sorry,” Tracy recalls Smith–Rosenberg responding. “Women are overly socialized, and we're just going to stay until this is over.”
When Friday rolled around, the College Hall security guards were under the impression that the protestors would pack up and go home for the weekend. “By late afternoon, they realized we were really and truly going to stay as long as it took, and they basically caved,” Weber says.
Negotiations were straightforward. Every demand was met, much to the organizers’ surprise. In fact, Weber never expected the Women’s Center to become a reality—it was a throwaway demand, designed to be something they were willing to give up during negotiations.
“It was pretty clear the University had to do something,” Sandel says. “There was serious fear and danger, plus a public relations crisis.”
Getting the center off the ground was a “process,” according to Weber, but a process that moved quickly. Housed in Logan Hall (since renamed Claudia Cohen Hall), the PWC became a place for women to connect with each other and engage in activist work.
They also developed educational opportunities, including the Free Women’s School, a ‘courses without credit’ program offering women from Penn and the greater Philadelphia area an education in “areas not usually offered in the college curriculum,” Sandel says.
By 1975, the Free Women’s School was in full swing, with classes and workshops offering students opportunities to learn skills from other women and explore issues related to their own experiences, plus feminist theory and politics. Courses offered in the 1975 brochure included auto mechanics, medical self–help, feminist child–rearing, and witchcraft.
One day, Weber was walking her dog Emma (who now attended class with her) on 34th and Chestnut streets. Emma was never on leash, and she got spooked and ran away. “I found her at the center,” Weber says. “That’s how much time we were spending there. It was a really great place to hang out, organize, and get stuff done.”
In 1977, Tracy became the PWC’s director, working towards a law degree from Temple University at night. She obtained grants to set up leadership development training and implemented mentorship programs with faculty and staff.
Throughout her seven years as director, sexual harassment remained the top issue impacting women on campus. She talked to approximately 50 women about assault over this time period, “some of it obnoxious, some of it criminal,” she says.
“It was perpetrated by the same people,” she says. “I heard the same story about the same SOB of a tenured professor from six or seven people.”
In February 1983, progress against sexual assault on campus faced a major setback. Six Alpha Tau Omega brothers gang raped a Penn student who was attending one of their parties. The fraternity was temporarily suspended, but the perpetrators were never charged. The story sparked protests around campus and made national headlines.
Tracy publicly called out then–President Sheldon Hackney for his mishandling of the case. “It almost cost me my job, but the University mishandled an ugly situation, and I felt it was my responsibility to call out the administration for how they handled it,” she says.
Tracy left the PWC in 1984 to pursue her goal of practicing women’s rights law. In 1990, she achieved her “dream job” of executive director of the Women’s Law Project. She credits the 1973 sit–in as the catalyst for her interest. “If you’re going to start making recommendations on how the law should change, you’ve got to know what the law looks like,” she explains.
Ellie DiLapi (SP2 ‘77) took over the directorship in 1985. She was the Center’s longest standing director, serving until 2006. In the summer following her graduation, she was given a field placement at the PWC. She now recalls her time there as her first introduction to feminism.
Newly emboldened, DiLapi continued her women’s advocacy work, taking on a second–year field placement at the Women’s Health Concerns Committee, an organization devoted to increasing women’s involvement in their healthcare decisions, and then working in Planned Parenthood’s education department. When she saw the opening for the directorship at the PWC, she immediately applied.
She was in a meeting with Hackney and Provost Thomas Ehrlich when they offered her the job. “This seems like an exciting opportunity, but I want to be clear that you’re hiring me as an advocate for women, which I assume means there may be times when we’re in conflict,” DiLapi recalls telling them. “I want to be clear that we can talk through those conflicts, and communications will be open to resolve issues.”
This mindset defined DiLapi’s approach to leading the department. The director who preceded her held the position for less than a year. The center lacked a cohesive program, and the women’s community was divided as a result. DiLapi’s challenge as director was to rebuild the program, while staying true to the center’s mission of being responsive to women’s concerns. And for her, this meant looking at the needs of all women.
Throughout her tenure, DiLapi focused on increasing the intersectional nature of the PWC’s services. She was involved in the development of Penn’s Eagerly Awaited Radical Lesbians, an organization that held semesterly dinners and gave queer students a space to connect with each other.
“The Penn Women’s Center played a really important role in promoting lesbian visibility that has not been acknowledged by the University,” DiLapi says. “And as an out lesbian and a social worker, I understand the importance of visibility in building community, which is why I advised the vice provost of the importance of creating an LGBTQ center on campus.”
When an international student was murdered in her apartment over 1985 Thanksgiving break, DiLapi also came to realize that the PWC had a key role to play in supporting international students. The center worked with the organization International Women at Penn to learn about and address the unique challenges and barriers that impact international women’s safety.
“Here, it is often said that if you’re in trouble, you should call the police,” DiLapi says. “For a number of international students, that wouldn’t have been a good idea in their countries given the police role in other countries.” When building Penn’s institutional response to sexual violence, she prioritized creating a cultural framework that would equip international students with the knowledge they need to stay safe. She also helped connect them with American students who hosted them over breaks, helping to ensure there were no women left alone on campus.
In 1996, the PWC hit another milestone—it moved into the Theta Xi fraternity house. The move was a direct result of the Diversify Locust Walk movement, which criticized frat culture on campus. Students held a demonstration in Hackney’s office, calling on the University to address the lack of safety along Locust Walk due to fraternity presence.
“There was so much disgusting behavior from the frats that lined Locust Walk. Guys would be hanging out holding up signs rating women as they walked by,” DiLapi says. “Taking over their building right at the center of campus was a huge accomplishment for us.”
When Judith Rodin assumed the Penn presidency in 1994, becoming the first female president of an Ivy League, activists anticipated a spike in misogyny. And they were right: When Rodin came out of College Hall to deliver a comment during one of her first Hey Days as president, men in the crowd started shouting, “Judy, show us your breasts” (though they didn’t use the word breast), DiLapi recalls.
“It was appalling. You had an established scholar, an established administrator, and men in the crowd felt it was appropriate to treat her like an object,” DiLapi says.
The women’s groups that ran out of the PWC were committed to ensuring this behavior never happened again. Before the following Hey Day, they created and distributed pledge cards for students to sign. “The students did it entirely on their own, and it was so great to see them taking initiative to spread the word and mobilize the community to stop sexist behaviors,” DiLapi says.
Today, the PWC remains devoted to “providing a safe space to breathe, where you feel comfortable,” current Director Elisa Foster says. Programming remains devoted to student wellness, including craft programs, movie nights, and weekly teas. The center also continues to serve as a confidential resource, offering counseling and a supportive environment to survivors of interpersonal violence.
“We want to provide a supportive space to validate folks’ experiences and help them navigate whatever experience they had and the resources that are available to help,” Foster says.
The PWC remains committed to preventing interpersonal violence on campus, and has even helped new advocacy groups develop. Penn Violence Prevention—Penn’s home for prevention of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking on campus—was born out of the PWC’s work.
PVP aims to “help students feel safe and healthy in their relationships by equipping them with tools to prevent violence from happening,” Director Elise Scioscia says. When former PWC Associate Director Jessica Mertz obtained a large grant opportunity for interpersonal violence prevention work, PVP work started as an entity within the PWC.
In 2014, funding permitted PVP to become its own standalone resource for preventing sexual assault on Penn’s campus. It continues to offer customized workshops and presentations about relationships and consent, sponsor Penn events, and provide confidential support to students impacted by sexual violence.
Though PVP is no longer housed in the PWC, their work remains intertwined. The two organizations frequently bounce ideas off each other, offer shared programming opportunities and co–host trainings and events.
“I’m a big believer in physical space as being important for symbolic space,” Scioscia says. “People of all genders need a space where they feel comfortable and can get the support they need, during both good times and bad.”
The PWC has also become a home for gender activist groups on campus. The Penn Association for Gender Equity runs out of the PWC, serving as the umbrella advocacy group for feminists and professional women. It acts as a liaison between the PWC and Penn administration and offer a variety of programming, including the gender equity first–year orientation program PennGenEq.
However, PAGE Chair Gad Raganas (C ‘24) cited underfunding and understaffing as challenges that prevent PAGE from fully benefiting from its partnership with the PWC. Often, it hosts its events at the LGBT Center because the PWC cannot afford the work–study students necessary to keep the building open as late.
“PAGE is always in support of increased funding and support of the PWC and other cultural resource centers on campus,” he says.
Nonetheless, many Penn students continue to take advantage of this support offered by the PWC. For PWC Program Assistant Laura Arellano–Velazquez (C ‘25), the need to get involved was a given, even before she got to Penn. She even wrote her “Why Penn” essay on the PWC.
“I grew up in a sexist Mexican household—It was always ‘You clean up after your father. You clean up after your brother,’” she says. “So I’ve always been very passionate about breaking gender norms. When I learned there was an actual center, I knew I needed to get involved.”
When Laura saw the center was hiring her freshman year, she seized the opportunity. As a program assistant, she works the center’s front desk, helps out with events, and ensures the PWC community can thrive. “Everyone calls the PWC very peaceful, a very safe space,” she says. “The most important thing we can do for our students is just offer a place where they feel like they can come relax, where they have a community.”
The PWC celebrated its 50th anniversary in November of this year. As administrators move forward, the focus remains on both honoring its past and thinking about how to progress.
The 50th anniversary celebration kicked off earlier this month with a homecoming celebration to honor alumni and other PWC leaders who helped develop the center into what it is today. The reception also marked the unveiling of a new archival display, depicting key moments in the center’s history.
The milestone also signifies the importance of preserving the center’s history. The PWC is working in conjunction with the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Department to digitize its archives and make them accessible to the wider community. They are also continuing the oral history project that started when the center turned 40, ensuring voices of the PWC are captured. A video featuring alumni and current PWC students, faculty, and staff will be unveiled at a culminating ceremony May 2024.
“This is also our moment to reflect on what we should be doing next and what the needs of the community are right now,” Foster emphasizes. “I’m really excited to work with our team to figure out what the future holds.”
One key focus of these discussions is “what it means to be a Women’s Center in 2023,” Foster says. She emphasizes that her goal is to foster an environment that is supportive of all students, regardless of gender identity.
And these conversations are happening. Formerly the Penn Consortium of Undergraduate Women, PAGE changed its name in 2015 in an effort to be more gender inclusive. Gad says conversations about a PWC name change are also in the works.
“We’ve seen a lot of issues where people use one position to try and negate the fact that they ignore the oppression of other groups,” Gad says. “Feminism shouldn’t be used to justify orders such as racism, colonialism, or TERFism. The name change takes intersectionality into account.”
The gender pay gap has barely closed over the past two decades; women make 82 cents for every dollar made by men, a miniscule increase from 80 cents in 2002. Women also remain underrepresented in many professional spaces, including academia and the senior ranks of corporate companies.
The very issue that sparked the sit–in also continues to manifest today. College–aged women are at an elevated risk for sexual violence, and more than 25% of female students report experiencing sexual violence on campus.
Nationally, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. This means that more than two–thirds go unreported. “There's still that underlying sense of public shame in ‘What did you do to make that happen?’” Tracy says. “Women and LGBTQ students need a place where they can come and feel safe, and talk to people with similar experiences.”
The overturn of Roe v. Wade last year, a ruling that happened to be made the same year as the center’s founding, is indicative of a backwards slide in progress. Twenty states have banned or limited abortions since Roe was overturned in 2022, stripping women of their right to medical care and bodily autonomy. Though abortion up to 23 weeks remains a right in Pennsylvania, the lack of federal protection contributes to fear and uncertainty. The PWC remains committed to partnering with and supporting Penn students and groups fighting for reproductive rights.
“I was fighting for abortion rights before Roe v. Wade,” Weber says. “Who would’ve frickin’ thought that we’d be fighting the same battles 50 years later? It’s a shame that we still need women’s centers, but it shows that the struggle continues.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary, and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: 3535 Market Street, Mezzanine Level (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm Monday-Friday), 12-5pm Wednesdays & 12-5pm Fridays located in Penn Women’s Center (3643 Locust Walk), Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.