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Women's Commission Turns 40

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Wanda Mitchell

It was 1972.  Shirley Chisholm was making history as the first African American woman to run for president. The Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, commonly known as Title IX, became law. For the first time, women were officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon. And at UNH, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women was established.

When Kate Hanson, professor of community leadership in the Thompson School of Applied Science, was on the Women’s Commission, the first president’s commission at UNH, in the late 1970s, the group was committed to redefining the roles of women at UNH.

“There was much to change,” Hanson says. “Only two or three full professors were women; there were no women on the PAT Council; there was no daycare center, no SHARPP, and little discussion about why these were important.  Much of our time was spent both educating and advocating.”

Professor Emeritus Mara Witzling joined the commission in 1980 and served for three years during a time she describes as a “chilly” climate on campus.

“Sexual harassment was rampant and normalized,” Witzling says. “At that time, members of the commission participated in and helped to organize Take Back the Night marches to protest violence against women. It felt very out there to do so. In those days we were not accompanied by male allies, and it was scary to walk by the fraternities.”

Pay equity was an issue; work done by the Women’s Commission helped establish that, in fact, women faculty members were receiving less pay than their male counterparts, Witzling says.

“Ultimately all women faculty were given a $500 addition to their base pay for two consecutive years,” Witzling says. “In those days, it seemed that staff positions also were hampered by an inherent sexism – jobs women held, and were channeled into, were traditionally underpaid compared to those held by men.”

Since its origin, the Women’s Commission has helped secure a policy on sexist language, and another on sexual harassment. It has worked toward equal pay for women and equal consideration for tenure and mobility.

The commission also has spent time educating the university community on issues relating to recruitment, hiring, and retention of women faculty, and on promoting development of the Women's Studies Program, and the inclusion of a scholarship of women into the curriculum.

Dawn Zitney

Dawn Zitney was not yet born when the President’s Commission on the Status of Women was created on Feb. 15, 1972. And still, the issues Zitney helped address as a member of the commission from 2006 through 2012 remained nearly the same: sexism, equality, and education and advocacy.

“The majority of staff and students at UNH are women but the economic climate for women is anything but equitable. UNH students will graduate with, on average, $30,000 in student loan debt-- this is particularly challenging for our female students as they will enter a workforce that still pays men more than women,” says Zitney, the communication coordinator for Health Services.

“Pay equity is uniquely important for our female staff members because many of us also are taking care of elderly parents or are single mothers. The Women’s Commission is instrumental in keeping these unique concerns on the table when we talk about equity at UNH,” Zitney adds.

Recent initiatives undertaken by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women include advocating for expanded workplace flexibility, working to secure more on-campus child care, initiating an effort to implement a universitywide consensual relationship policy and launching programs for first-year students that focus on safety in intimate relationships.

Jane Stapleton was a member of the Women’s Commission in the early 1990s. From 1995 until 2000, she was the paid coordinator of the program.

“I think many of the issues are still the same although the Women’s Commission has brought them more to light,” says Stapleton, an instructor in the women’s studies program. “Childcare, for example. The reality is that affordable and accessible childcare for faculty, staff and students is very pressing. It impacts the work they can do as well as impacting their partners and their families.”

The consensual relationship policy was under consideration when Stapleton was on the commission as was the issue of salary equity, which she notes has gotten more complicated in some areas because of outsourcing.

She praises the commission’s authoring of “The Retention Handbook,” to provide guidance to women faculty as they moved up the academic ladder, as one of the commission’s best achievements.

“I can’t tell you the number of women who are full, assistant or associate faculty compared to men but my guess is it's still pretty disproportional,” Stapleton says. “I don’t think we have gender equity on campus. I think there are people in 2012 who think women have made it. While there have been strides, there is still a long way to go.” [editor’s note: In 1971, four women were full professors compared to 52 today. Back then, a little more than 11 percent of all professor positions were held by women. Today that number is about 36 percent.]

Wanda Mitchell, vice provost for faculty development and inclusive excellence, says the women who have served on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women throughout the years are owed a debt of gratitude.

“Those visionaries knew that it was imperative for them to promote change for women who often found themselves overwhelmed and exhausted by an educational system in 1972 that was uninterested in hearing their concerns or entertaining their ideas for change.  If they didn’t who would have?” Mitchell says.

“Our Women’s Commission has educated the campus and individuals throughout the Granite State on issues that are important to women, knowing that if these ‘so-called’ women issues are not addressed, they will have a devastating impact on the entire campus.  Family medical leave, child care, and flex-time are not only women’s issues. They impact men also.”

Adds Hanson, “I remain grateful for the gift of working with these amazing women who taught me so much about organizing, dedication, social change and perseverance.  UNH owes them all a great deal.”

The Women’s Commission will host its annual luncheon and awards presentation March 21 from 12:15 to 2 p.m. in Huddleston Hall. Nominations for 2012 Women’s Commission Awards are being accepted through Feb. 29, 2012. Nominate Now.

For more information on the Women’s Commission, visit www.unh.edu/womens-commission/  

Kate Hanson (left) of the Thompson School was one of the women recognized at the 15th Annual Women's Commission awards ceremony. Others include Chris Evans, associate professor of Natural Resources; Elizabethe Plante, director of SHARPP, Ellen Riiska and Christine Pereira, student awards; and Dale Valena and Mylinda Woodward, University Museum.