My Women’s Center Story: Joy Passanante

In celebration of our 40th anniversary in 2012, we asked women who’ve been touched by their association with the Women’s Center over the years to share their stories with us. We will be posting them periodically on the blog, in testimony to the countless lives we’ve influenced, and the deep and lasting friendships we’ve made, through our work. We’d love to hear your story as well. Please send it to
The University of Idaho Administration Building,
first home of the Women’s Center
Photo by Alison Meyer

It is late August or early September of 1973. I have said goodbye to my beloved students and colleagues in the rural New York high school where I taught for three years, and have been driven in a cramped yellow Opel over mountains and plains to arrive, only a week or so before, in what is to be my sight-unseen new home. I have found myself in a drizzly and disappointingly not-at-all-mountainous Moscow, Idaho, a state and town I had to find on a map so that I could understand just how far I would be living from my current home (3,000 miles, as it turns out) and from my parents and family and closest friends (2,000 miles). I am, as most “respectable” young women were in the early 70s, programmed to follow my husband wherever he secured a job, and to get pregnant with Child Number 1 (of the 2.5 that was then the national middle-class average) as soon as practical. When I weave my way through the confusion of buildings at the university and the endless corridors of the Administration Building to enter the Women’s Center for the first time, I am (nearly) literally barefoot (a carryover from my para-hippie days) and pregnant.

I was also uncharacteristically shy and at loose ends in this strange new land, feeling as if I had mysteriously been relegated to a certain role (represented best perhaps by my having been immediately invited to join the University of Idaho Faculty Wives’ Club), one that felt strange and unsettling to me, counter to my history of academic success in my own right. Alayne Pettyjohn (one of my first friends in Idaho, at that time another “faculty wife” from my husband’s department, and later one of the Center’s directors) suggested I visit the Women’s Center. And the Center was indeed an antidote to that fish-out-of-water syndrome I felt swimming up into my self-image—and to the suddenly terrifying idea of defining myself primarily in terms of being anyone’s wife.

Students relaxing in the old Women’s Center in the 1970s

Visitors to that space the Women’s Center then occupied in the Administration Building sat in a circle on all the chairs the Center could scrounge up and, for the most part, talked as a group. Although at the time I didn’t agree full-throttle with the more ardent feminists who comprised that circle, I was fascinated at what they were saying—and grateful that the university had established a safe place for them to say it in. My sluggish start at fully embracing the feminist movement was—I think now with more than a dash of irony—my good fortune. I had never felt second-class or sidelined or discriminated against because of my gender. My sense of myself, my self-esteem, had been nourished not only by my parents, but by a bevy of adoring relatives and enthusiastic teachers, who took pride in my accomplishments, created uncountable opportunities to  foster my intellectual growth and developing independence, supported me in attending my top-choice college and graduate school, and always pushed me to do my best. I had dated several kind, loving, smart men who were sensitive to the world’s issues and never denigrated or seemed to feel threatened by my gender, and I had married the best of them. I was overjoyed to be pregnant. I was glad to have changed my name from the hard-to-spell ethnic name I was born with and to be aligned with my husband through his much more straightforward name. And I was happy to have traveled across the country for my husband’s job, to stay home and be a one-woman support system for him and our child—wasn’t I?

ERAI was just beginning to make some close friends at the center when my Baby Girl Number 1, Liza Bryn, surprised me by entering the world three weeks early. So far away from family, I was not quite prepared for a fragile bundle of responsibility, as miraculous and adorable as she was, who was premature and slept very little—and for my 26-year-old husband, determined to prove himself as an assistant professor in his first teaching job, who woke up at 4 in the morning to write out and memorize his first lectures, and who worked intensely most hours of every evening and weekend. Beyond deepening my understanding of the sweeping issues I was already familiar with and felt strongly about—Roe v. Wade, battered women, the rally for Women’s Studies on campuses, equal pay for equal work, and the Equal Rights Amendment (which Idaho had ratified less than six months before my arrival but which was already threatened with rescission)—I began to have my purview widened by the Women’s Center through the personal stories of its circle and its well-stocked library. And soon, into my psyche crept more immediate concerns, which whispered to me in the form of questions: Why should men assume that they have so little responsibility for household cleaning, meal preparation, and child care? Why should anyone assume that men’s jobs should come before family needs? And soon these whispers led me down a very personal rabbit hole: Why should my husband demand I use my only free time (our daughter’s nap time) to clean house when I wanted to be a writer and longed to write instead of clean? Why was I called a “faculty wife” and treated with widespread suspicion and even some contempt when I applied for a job in my husband’s department? Why was my job in that department to teach ten classes a year (four more per year than the normal faculty load) for half the pay of the men’s? And years later, when I decided that teaching was a calling and I applied to that department again (with my husband now the department chair), after having successfully performed another job with the university at a much more equitable salary, why was it rumored (and sometimes stated to my face) that clearly the only reason I would be hired was that I was the department chair’s wife?

Although in those early days, the Women’s Center had organized specified time and provided space and leadership for consciousness-raising groups to meet at specified times in the evenings, consciousnesses were being raised all day and in a variety of ways—some inside, some outside the Center. I soon began to grapple with the fact that not only did I need my consciousness raised, but my husband—and many of the men we knew—needed theirs raised, too.  Center-folk were good listeners, and I continued to visit the Center regularly and chat with those warm and sometimes righteous-angry folks who were becoming my friends. Happily, Baby Liza was welcomed into the Center, where I nursed her as I chatted with community members and students, as I did three years later with Baby Emily. Everyone–including me—celebrated the fact that I had had girls!

Adrienne Rich

Three significant things stand out in my mind about my budding experience with the budding Women’s Center (when the Center and I were introduced, I was 26, and it was 1):  First, the Center’s library introduced me to a cornucopia of women writers—from Kate Chopin and Gloria Steinem to Adrienne Rich and Maya Angelou—several of whom I had not heard in spite of the fact that I had attended an all-women’s college for two years. And little by little, inspired by these smart, sassy, and stirring pioneers, I found time to write and to spread the word of women’s experiences, though I did so through fiction and poetry.  This burgeoning collection of feminist publications also helped give me the confidence to send my own writing to national magazines for publication. Second, the Center invited me to give my very first public reading of my work. I remember how nervous I was that first reading—and how wonderfully crowded the room was—but most of all, I remember how I felt after the applause died down and the people who came to talk and congratulate me had left: absolutely terrific about myself. And the third thing that stands out as an invaluable gift from the Women’s Center is my work on the Rural Women’s History Project.

In 1974 through 1975, Corky Bush, assistant dean of student services, had received from the then-called Association of the Humanities in Idaho a grant to fund an interesting project, the Rural Women’s History Project, and someone (perhaps Corky herself) invited me to participate. A diverse group of women joined together to travel around Idaho to interview rural women, then write dramatic scenes about their lives (in composite), then travel to other communities to present the scenes and lead discussions about them. Most of those in our group of lay travelers/playwrights/actors/discussion-leaders continued to play a role in forging my identity and my memories: my ongoing friend Charlene Olsson, who was then new in town and did not consider herself a feminist; the quirky, charming Lenore Garwood; Lillie Hermann, a Genesee rancher/political activist, who drove us, intrepidly, often in snow, to those unfathomably remote and miniature Idaho towns;  and the woman whose name I can’t recall, though I often conjure up several sentences and phrases she said, including, “When I was a young girl, I spent many sunsets singing on haystacks.” (I believe I incorporated some of her words into skits); the gently charismatic Isabel Miller, who is still an inspiration and a beautiful role model for me. Fascinating women (colleagues and interviewees), exciting teamwork, an opportunity for me to write in an untried form and to share information that might be useful as well as enlightening to people in the form of art—what a journey for me!

I have continued over these 39 years to journey with the Women’s Center through programs, events, celebrations, and the good people it attracts. And I like to think that my early connections with the Women’s Center have influenced the most significant persons in my life. As I worked through personal issues with my husband, and he read and taught Adrienne Rich and Julia Ward Howe, began to study and teach gender roles in literature and culture, and became a specialist in 19th century women’s literature, he became a feminist himself. And on our 20th anniversary (22 years ago now), gazing out from our Orcas Island hotel balcony at the sunset-gilded ripples of Puget Sound and the ships gliding into the harbor, I decided to commemorate our hard-won good fortune together by changing my name back to the ethnic name of my birth—it was my husband’s idea. The babies the folks in the Women’s Center welcomed decades ago grew up with strong spirits and a keen sense of righteousness. They both teach in college; in addition, one is a researcher, the other an actor. They are both feminists. Of course, this is not the end of our story—our story, as in mine, my family’s, the UI Women’s Center’s, and women’s everywhere. Three cheers for our past! A zillion more for our future!