Archive for Sunday, February 3, 2002

February Sisters plan celebration to honor 1972 demonstration on behalf of KU women

February 3, 2002


Mary Coral makes no apologies for helping take over a Kansas University building to raise awareness of women's issues.

After all, she said, the 1972 demonstration yielded big results, including the establishment of Hilltop Daycare and a women's studies program at KU.

"We only asked for what the university was supposed to be doing anyway," Coral said. "They were just dragging their heels."

This month, the women who participated in the historic occupation dubbed the "February Sisters" will celebrate the event's 30th anniversary with several activities, including a speech by Robin Morgan, the feminist poet and author who sparked KU women to become activists in February 1972.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw many anti-war and civil rights demonstrations at KU. Behind the scenes, several women's groups were lobbying administrators on other issues, including campus child care, a women's studies program, better pay and jobs for women and better health care including the availability of birth control.

But it wasn't until Morgan came to campus Feb. 2, 1972, that the groups decided to take overt action. After her speech, a group of campus women told Morgan about their concerns.

The takeover

"She said, 'Well, what are you doing about it?'" recalled Caroljean Brune, now business manager for the KU School of Education. "We thought about it 24 hours and said, 'Yeah, what are we doing?'"

So the group decided to protest by taking over the East Asian Studies Building on campus, then near Corbin Hall. It was selected because a group member had a key.

At 6 p.m. Feb. 4, between 20 and 30 women mostly students, but some staff members and Coral, whose husband was a professor entered the building. They brought enough food for one or two weeks and walkie-talkies, in case police cut the phone lines into the building.

While in the building, the women decided they needed a name. Someone suggested the "February Sisters."

The women contacted Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers Jr., who reportedly was playing bridge at his residence and at first didn't believe the women were occupying the building.

During the next 13 hours, the women met with administrators about their demands. After several separate meetings, Chalmers agreed to establish a child care facility and a women's studies program.

'Very empowering'

Christine Smith, who then worked at Watson Library and was on the negotiating team, said university officials seemed ready to accept the demands because of previous lobbying attempts by women's groups.

But she said they also wanted to end the standoff quickly to avoid bad publicity.

"It was a very, very empowering situation," said Smith, who lives in Lawrence. "Throughout my life, I've known how (people in) power work they're petty and human just like everybody else."

Though the February Sisters made major steps for women's rights, they say there is still work to be done.

For example, Coral, who works at First Step House in Lawrence, said a KU report indicated women aren't paid as much as their male counterparts.

Brune said the women's studies department has no full-time faculty members. Its eight faculty share appointments with other departments.

Christine Robinson, a graduate student in women's studies who's helping organize the reunion events, said the women's studies department still struggles to gain legitimacy on campus.

She starts each semester by asking students what their family and friends thought of them taking a women's studies course. Many say they've heard negative comments.

"Many people still feel threatened with women's studies," she said. "They're concerned that women will be empowered by it that they'll become 'feminazis,' to use that Rush Limbaugh term."

And with issues such as sexual harassment and rape still prevalent in society, Robinson said it's up to her generation to carry on the tradition started by the February Sisters.

"They are our foremothers," Robinson said. "We feel incredible gratitude toward them for their courage and their vision."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.