Written by Director, Abby Palko
The short answer is: an important one! But the long answer is more interesting.
We have two primary modes of engaging with students on Grounds: through the direct services we offer, like counseling, and in our engaged scholarship, which includes 8 different academic internships. Despite the name on the building, men are involved in both of these areas. The counseling expertise in the Women’s Center can be utilized by men on Grounds, whether they are seeking counseling directly with us or a referral to a community-based resource that might better meet their needs. We encourage any young man on Grounds who needs counseling to either come here or to contact us for a referral outside the Women’s Center. We also have men on our internship teams, working alongside the women who come to the Women’s Center to advocate for gender justice. And one of our programs, the Men’s Leadership Project, is directly focused on engaging men in explorations of healthy masculinity. MLP pairs UVA men with boys from an area middle school in a Big Brother-Little Brother relationship. This provides the Littles with guided opportunities to explore the meanings of masculinity in our culture and the Bigs with moments assume a leadership role through the mentoring relationship.
MLP is, for me, a perfect illustration of the philosophical position men occupy in a women’s center. As many others have very persuasively argued, the inequities that women face will only be corrected with the involvement of women and men. And even when these inequities seem to solely target women, they often have a negative impact on men as well. We react to men who choose to take on primary care-giving responsibilities differently than we respond to women who make that same choice. In its totality, the wage gap still disadvantages women, but there are demographic segments where men disproportionately suffer from lack of economic opportunities. Women are still typically permitted a wider range of gender and emotional expression (with important exceptions, like anger and ambition) than men are. Girls’ toys are much more inclusive now; boys’ haven’t caught up yet (though there’s movement on this front. Even the delineation I just provided invokes the gender binary which would force us all in to either category or the other, which influences all of us. The Women’s Center recognizes that all of these issues are problematic for a society that aims to support the fullest flourishing of all of its members. And so men play an important role as allies and co-activists in this work.
So why call it a Women’s Center? When I’m asked this question, I usually ask the person posing it, “does it matter that the word ‘women’ is in our name?” Typically, they have a reason that it does, and most of those (very valid) reasons have at their bedrock a reflection of the current gender inequities that trouble our society. I’m concerned with working to undo those problems so that people don’t think something called the Women’s Center couldn’t possibly have anything to offer men. “Women’s” in our name is an important signifier of multiple social realities but not an indication that men have no place in the space. Just as it isn’t only women who are affected by body image issues or who benefit from mentoring opportunities to explore what it means to be a woman in today’s world or who suffer the impact of sexual assault, it isn’t only women who are served by the Women’s Center: the Women’s Center also benefits the men who are concerned about body image, who want to explore healthy models of masculinity, who know that sexual assault impacts everyone. Men are welcome at the Women’s Center as seekers of our services and as allies in the work to bring about gender justice on Grounds and across the world.