University Daily Kansan photographer Greg Sorber encountered an unidentified angry woman at the Feb. 6, 1972, meeting of the Senate Executive Committee and the February Sisters to discuss a campus day care center. Photographers had been barred from the meeting to help protect the identity of the February Sisters, who feared reprisals by the university or other law enforcement officials for their occupation of a campus building on Feb. 4. Source: University Archives.
LAWRENCE – Step back to February 1972. The feminist movement had gained national attention, MS. Magazine was about to debut, and Congress was debating an Equal Rights Amendment.
At the University of Kansas, 20 women had seized a campus building to bring about changes to benefit women. Known as the February Sisters, the women — representing faculty, staff and students — risked arrest by occupying a building to demand changes long discussed but never happening. Their action changed a campus still reeling from turbulent anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. The KU women’s action gained them a place in campus if not women’s history.
Their half-dozen demands resulted in KU becoming one of the first 50 women’s studies degree programs in the nation; the establishment of a campus child care center; full health care services for KU women and the appointment of more women administrators on campus.
Today the National Women’s Studies Association reports there are more than 650 undergraduate programs in women’s studies and 18 doctoral programs, including KU’s newly approved doctoral program in women, gender and sexuality studies.
“The women's liberation movement of the 1970s led in unanticipated directions,” said Ann Schofield, KU professor of women, gender and sexuality studies. “From its activist beginnings, women's studies today is a complex academic discipline that in addition to questions of rights and inequities also deals with questions of gender and power and studies gender in a global as well as national context.”
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the February Sisters’ occupation, KU has planned a week of activities, including a lecture by activist-scholar Angela Davis on “Feminism and Activism” at 5 p.m. Feb. 7 in 120 Budig Hall. Some of the February Sisters, who originally maintained anonymity, fearing reprisals by the university or other agencies, will speak on a panel at 7 p.m. Feb. 4 in Spencer Art Auditorium.
Forty years ago KU was a man’s campus. With the exception of a dean of women, few women served as top administrators. All academic deans were men and only about one in eight faculty were women. KU appointed the first woman to serve as a vice chancellor, Frances D. Horowitz, in 1978.
Today two KU’s three top administrators are women. Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little is the first woman to lead the university, and Barbara Atkinson serves as executive vice chancellor for the medical center campus in Kansas City, Kan. Seven of KU’s 13 academic deans are women, and nearly half of all KU faculty are women.
In response to the February Sisters, the university opened a child care center in fall 1972 for students, faculty and staff. Today the campus boasts a professionally staffed child care center constructed in 2000 that was recently expanded to accommodate nearly 300 children.
In addition to a degree program for women’s studies, the February Sisters also demanded an affirmative action plan for employees to assure equal pay for equal work and full health services to include access to birth control and counseling for women’s health needs.
None of the demands were new. All had been brought before campus officials before 1972, said Christine Leonard-Smith, one of the original February Sisters and KU alumna, now a retired technical writer. She described their sit-in as swift and effective. Within 13 hours, the women reached an accord with the administration.
Toting sleeping bags and food, the 20 women, along with four children, had secretly slipped into what then served as the East Asian Studies department building, 1332 Louisiana, after 5 p.m. on a Friday. They chain-locked all but one entry and prepared to occupy the building for a week. With phone calls and leaflets they made their demands known. Reporters arrived but were denied entry.
Throughout the night, then Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers and University Senate Executive Committee officials met elsewhere on campus with women designated by the demonstrators. By 5 a.m. Feb. 5, Chalmers and the SenEx chairman announced that they would “speed up the university’s dealings with women’s issues on campus.” A human wall of women singing in celebration protected the February Sisters from being identified as they left the building.
Within five days, the Chancellor announced the creation of an affirmative action office and his efforts to appoint a woman to direct the office. In less than three weeks, the campus health center had expanded services for women. Within a month, plans were confirmed for both a child care center and a women’s studies program.
The February Sisters followed the administration’s progress, or lack of it, throughout the 1970s — pushing to give women a place in academia.
To see a full list of events for the week’s events, visit here.