Video of Lee Sennich courtesy of the Rockland Woman Leaders Hall of Fame hosted by Center for Safety & Change.
TRIGGER WARNING: this video includes a description of domestic violence.
The Women’s Center was first established in 1974, around the time that women across the country first started to attend college in large numbers. Originally the center helped support women as they entered the largely male academic world, but as the college atmosphere changed so did our mission. Today the Women’s Center still works for gender equality and we’ve expanded our mission to serve the entire campus, men and women. We welcome EVERYONE to come learn more about gender equality and social justice. We provide a place to meet and socialize, get confidential support, and become an active leader! Our goal is to ensure our campus a safe and welcoming place for all students.
Lynne Farrow’s account of the founding of the Ramapo College Women’s Center:
Gloria Steinem, Second Wave Feminist Activist, speaking at Ramapo College in 1980.
Lynne Farrow is a key player in the founding of the Ramapo College Women’s Center and the first professor at Ramapo College to teach “Women in Contemporary Society”. She was Ramapo’s youngest professor when she began teaching this class in 1972 at the age of 24. This course was required for all returning adult female students, and it ultimately had the effect of radicalizing a generation of returning female students through feminist epistemology. Lynne later recalled that the tremendously successful returning adult women’s program really put Ramapo College on the map as an institution which prioritized women’s educational experiences.
The scholarly field of Women’s Studies was just beginning to emerge. At that time, Lynne’s M.A. from Goddard College was the terminal degree in women’s studies, and feminist texts such as Sexual Politics were just beginning to be published. Lynne had previously taught a similar class focused on women’s experiences at the New School, and was very interested in the newly emerging field of women’s studies. One of the moments that inspired Lynne to teach in this field was when she met Alice Paul, a prominent suffragist and the original author of the Equal Rights Amendment. Alice and Lynne shared a conversation over a plate of veggies, where they spoke about Alice’s hunger strikes and the difficult struggle for women’s suffrage. During her time at Ramapo Lynne was also a member of the Rockland County feminist group which published the feminist journal “Aurora” for several years. One of her associates from the Rockland County Feminists was Phyllis Frank.
As her semesters at Ramapo progressed, Lynne began collecting resources for the women in her class. One folder of resources turned into several folders, and slowly an entire file cabinet started to fill up. She began to provide information and referrals to her students and members of the college community. Several of Lynne’s students took on internship positions and assisted in gathering local and national women’s resources. This was incredibly significant work during the early 70’s, when there was no publicized information for resources that we take for granted today including services for domestic violence, sexual assault, divorce, sexual harassment, childcare, women’s shelters, access to abortion, and reproductive healthcare.
As demand for these resources grew, Lynne decided that there needed to be a space on campus where women could come for resources, support, and consciousness raising. No longer content working out of a filing cabinet in her office, Lynne decided to create such a space. The walls between the offices of three faculty members (Lynne, Ros Petchesky and Jackie (last name unknown, artist)), were torn down with the help of nighttime maintenance staff to create the Women’s Center. Chairs and couches from the Student Center were “reappropriated” to this space, and the Women’s Center was born. The Women’s Center was housed within the Human Environment school until the late 70’s (possibly in room D101), when it relocated to the space next to the Fishbowl where it remains today. Although the space for the Women’s Center was created in 1972, it was not a recognized campus office until 1974 when Lynne secured funding for a part time director and an operating budget. The office was also partially staffed by student volunteers and interns. Faculty members were also heavily involved in the Women’s Center, including founding faculty member Dr. Carole Campana who joined the College as a professor of Psychology in 1971.
Lee Sennish honored at the 2010 Women’s Center Reunion by Laura Gunn, ’11.
The first Director of the Women’s Center, Lee Sennish, was hired in 1974. Right from the start the Women’s Center was utilized by many different groups. There were several consciousness-raising groups, a Lamaze group for activist mothers, a lesbian women’s group, and many returning adult women who sought to put into practice the theory that they learned in Lynne’s class. Lynne later recalled that the Women’s Center also served as a place for people who saw themselves as outsiders in the community. She viewed these people as kindred spirits of the Women’s Center and sought to create a space where everyone could feel welcome. The early Women’s Center also had an association with an anarchist cafeteria worker who provided students with food at wholesale cost.
Domestic violence and sexual harassment were two of the most prominent issues that the early Women’s Center dealt with. As the first Women’s Center in Bergen County, the center received many calls from women in abusive relationships seeking information about battered women’s shelters and medical treatment. The Women’s Center also played a role in a 1983 sex-bias suit when a group met to share their experiences as women at the college. Several women in the group came to came to realize that they had each experienced sexual harassment from an assistant vice president. One of the women in that meeting later sued the assistant vice president for sex discrimination and harassment which prevented her from getting tenure. After 6 days of trial in Federal court a settlement was reached for $230,000. Lynne recalls that this experience illustrated for her that the personal truly is political, and that the power of women coming together to share their truth is a powerful experience that can be used to effect change.
-As told by Lynne Farrow, January 2010
A Remembrance of Lee Sennish (1927-2018):
The Women’s Center could not exist as it does today without Lee’s vision, contagious passion, and love of sisterhood. She was a fierce advocate for civil rights who raised feminist consciousness daily, and raised hell when needed.
Long after she retired Lee continued to support the mission of the Women’s Center with her mentorship and an annual scholarship, and even in her late 80’s Lee came to the College to support student events. Her fierce sense of humor and keen insight will be missed, but her legacy will continue for many generations to come.
-By Kat McGee, ’06
Famous speakers hosted by the Women’s Center throughout the years include:
- Robin Morgan
- Gloria Steinem
- Coretta Scott King
- Florence Howe
- Vivian Gornick
- Grace Paley
- Audre Lorde
- Charlotte Bunch
- Rita Mae Brown
- Flo Kennedy
- Ellen Willis
- Doroth Dinnerstein
- Bella Abzug
- Chris Wiliamson
- Lt. Dan Choi
- Jean Kilbourne
- Sarah Weddington
- Kate Bornstein
The 2010 Women’s Center Reunion. Coverage from the Ramapo Magazine, Summer 2010.