Where the head meets the heart

Where the head meets the heart

By Sharon Rolenc

For 30 years the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women has been a place where women’s passions and interests intersect with research and scholarship, where ideas cultivate action. Sharon Doherty, director, and Sia Vang ’05, program coordinator, reflect on its history and expansive approach to feminism.

Can you share some of the Center’s history? Who was Abigail Quigley McCarthy?

Doherty: In the ’80s, student activists advocated for a resource center around feminist issues, and a faculty group advocated for support for research and scholarship around emerging work in women’s studies. In the St. Kate’s way, we put these two things together.  Unlike other colleges and universities, our Center for Women falls under Academic Affairs because we are interested in research and scholarship as well as leadership development and community building.

Catherine Lupori, an English professor at the time, stepped forward as the Center’s founding director. A champion of women’s education, Catherine was instrumental in creating our Women’s Studies minor and a major that is offered through ACTC (Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities).  She spearheaded naming the center after Abigail Quigley McCarthy ’36.

Abigail was a high profile alumna, an outspoken political wife (of Eugene McCarthy) in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and an influential writer throughout her life. Catherine saw Abigail as a leader of the tenets we hold dear at St. Kate’s — Abigail connected Catholics with other faiths, she did racial justice and feminist work within the church and in Washington. Abigail had this holistic approach to how the world should change — she was a progressive Catholic feminist.

We clearly identify as a feminist part of the University. But we have an expansive view of supporting women that has to do with people’s whole identities and interests, which I believe is consistent with the legacies of these two women.

About that support, how does the Center serve the community?

Vang: I have this running theme of how I work with everybody: don’t leave your life at the door. So if they are coming in here to ask us a question about scholarships that we offer, or are just curious about what the heck this space is, they leave with this additional kernel of knowledge and a sense of community and family that they can turn to. 

And I don’t just share the Center, I share the whole University with students. They came here for a reason. They are looking for an answer, and it is my job, my goal and my purpose to help them find it even if it’s not in the center. There’s a financial aid office. There’s academic advising. It’s so powerful when students get to know about those spaces and what’s available to them.

Anybody from any walk of life comes through here. I think Abigail would be really proud that there are so many different women who have come through this space and become great leaders in their careers and their communities.

And she’d be proud of our interfaith work, knowing that so many of our Muslim students call this place their second home. They are here in the morning even before I come in. They are here in the evenings, in between classes, and they pray in this space throughout the day. In fact, their favorite spot is actually next to Abigail’s private collection of books. They are making friends here beyond their own networks.

We see this space as a kind of Grand Central Station. Every day brings somebody new, and so many new ideas. One of our mottos is: we build knowledge; we link ideas to actions; and bring people together.

What kinds of services do you provide?

Vang: We have a monthly brown-bag lunch where presenters talk about the research or community work they’re doing. Often it is a work in progress, so this opportunity to be in conversation with attendees helps progress their work further. We started with faculty presenters, but expanded the roster to include students, staff and alumnae, as well as local and national community leaders.

Our numerous scholarships and awards certainly draw our students, and often serve as a first introduction to the space. Some scholarships and grants are unique to the Women’s Center. I love that our “Opportunities and Initiatives Grant” supports students at all levels of our university. We just recently awarded one to an MBA student. It is such a great way for students who have an idea they want to explore and need a little bit of funding to take that next step — and expand their leadership.

Doherty: Another one unique to us is the Judith Gorman Krieger Scholarship. How many colleges and universities would build a scholarship around generosity? And that’s because this deceased alumna was such a generous person and her classmates wanted to honor that generosity.

Again, these are examples of our expansive view on feminism, that idea of bringing the head and heart together. You’ll see it in the scholarships. You see it in our research and creative work award, and our best paper in women’s studies award. We find ways to nurture and recognize how our community is approaching the mission for women.

So it’s not always predictable what form women’s leadership — or what form support for justice — will take place here. We pride ourselves on being responsive to the interests, to the wants, needs and creativity of the people we serve right here, right now.

The two of you have worked closely together for over a decade. How has this relationship benefited the community you serve?

Doherty: I believe Sia is the best community builder that I have ever worked with.

Vang: She tells me this everyday, and it took a while for me to accept it because I am not a traditional community organizer. I think it goes back to my experiences of having been a student here and recognizing the missed opportunities. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have the full-scale road map of what it takes to be a successful student. 

But Sharon took a chance on me fresh out of college. She recognized something in me that I didn’t even know. I was involved, I was a leader on and off campus, and I was taking trips out of state to find out what kind of justice issues were happening across the country. Formalizing that experience in my role here has helped me grow and shape, and be intentional about the work that I do to serve our students. I also think it does the Center justice to have someone who can be here for a length of time and build on relationships.

Doherty: We’ve learned a whole lot from working together — how to support people’s leadership and creativity, but also not to look away from the hard things. I think that when people see us together that helps them, too. Our ethnic and sexual orientation identities are different, and students who are in here know that’s a challenge for a lot of people in our world. We fiercely protect our ability to be ourselves and encourage those who come into the Center to do the same.

We don’t expect to have the same strengths. We both have a great appreciation for the fact that we bring different things to the table.

Vang: That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Sharon, especially when thinking about who I’ll hire as our student worker. What other skills and talents is that student worker going to bring to our community?

The Center is nearly 30 years old, what are you hoping for the next 30 years?

Doherty: We hope that it’s flexible. We hope that it remains a little unpredictable. That we have basic principles people can recognize, and that we stay true to the CSJ belief — to respond to the needs of the time. We also hope the Center continues to play the important role as advocate. That we continue to sometimes poke at the institution — and inspire students, staff and faculty to create change and evolve our thinking around women’s issues.

Vang: In that role as advocates, we go against the grain as far as seeking credit for the work, and we’re okay with that. One of my proudest achievements is with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) I advise. We saw a need for an all-women swim session in the Butler Center pool because of the Muslim faith’s modesty practice. There is general open pool time, but it’s available to both sexes. I had a Muslim student who graduated and during her entire time here she couldn’t use the pool because of her faith.

So I turned her story into an initiative. I brought it up to the MSA group and they worked with Student Senate, in collaboration with the representatives from Butler Center, to develop a trial run. Our all-women swim sessions have been an on-going two-year dialogue. We’re not quite there yet, and don’t know if it’s going to be permanent. I do a lot of coaching behind the scenes, so I am never recognized at the meetings, but I don’t need that visibility. I want the students to know I have their back, but they need to step up and take on challenges that are important to them.

This story contextualizes our commitment to the journey and the process. We’re in it for the long haul, and find so much joy in seeing it from the beginning to where it can progress.

Why do we need a Center for Women at a Women’s College?

Doherty: Somebody needs to be watching. There’s great work being done across the University to advance the mission of a women’s education. But it’s good to have some people who are thinking about being a catalyst around both content and community.

St. Kate’s is great because we’ve had generations of women’s leadership, we’ve had the CSJs setting the tone for what this place means. Why do you think the connection of head and heart work so well here? It’s because of the standpoint of the people who created it.

Look at the number of women CEOs and elected officials. We’ve made great progress, but there’s still a ways to go. We need the brilliance of leadership from all people in this world. St. Kate’s is developing more women to make those contributions.

Sharon Doherty (right) and Sia Vang ’05 have been colleagues and friends for over a decade.

Sharon Doherty (right) and Sia Vang ’05 have been colleagues and friends for over a decade.

Photo by Rebecca Zenefski, By Rebecca Studios

Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women

Location: 230 Coeur de Catherine
Office Hours: 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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Learn more about the woman behind the Center in Abigail's Story.

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