Montana State University

Spring 2017

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Mountains and Minds

The face of equality June 06, 2017 by Denise Hoepfner • Published 06/06/17

For more than a quarter of a century, Betsy Danforth has worked to empower the women of Montana State University by shining a light on the issues they face in the classroom or in the office.

Sometimes she is inspired by the progress women have made; other times she is frustrated by how little has changed.
It’s this ebb and flow of progress that keeps Danforth motivated and is perhaps one reason she has stayed at the center’s helm for this long.

Another reason has to do with personal growth, certainly her own, but also those “aha moments” she witnesses firsthand when one person’s story or experience resonates with others and creates understanding.

“It’s fascinating seeing students, especially those from rural areas, exposed to diversity and new ideas and watching them grow,” said Danforth, who as the director of the MSU Women’s Center leads efforts to promote equity for women in health care, politics, opportunity and recognition.

“The whole climate around gender and diversity is evolving and growing,” Danforth said.

Under the Division of Student Success, MSU created the Women’s Center in 1982 to empower and support women students, faculty and staff and to provide and assist in creating an equitable campus environment. Danforth has been affiliated with the center nearly from its inception.

A native of the East Coast, Danforth attended high school in the melting pot of New York City. MSU English instructor and activist Jill Davis is one of her three older sisters, and she also has a brother. Danforth’s mother was a social worker, and Danforth remembers eagerly paging through her issues of the feminist magazine, Ms., in search of the “Stories for Free Children.”

Danforth’s father, a research analyst in investment banking, believed that it was important for all his children to attend college. For Danforth, this meant moving across the country to Claremont, California, where she enrolled at Pitzer College. She intended to major in sociology, like her mother, but after taking and enjoying several women’s studies courses, Danforth changed her major.

After volunteering at a women’s shelter where she worked with children who had lived their lives surrounded by violence and turmoil, Danforth decided to write her senior thesis on domestic violence.

“That had a huge impact on me—seeing families torn apart by violence and watching the women go back to these bad situations out of economic necessity and inevitably ending up back at the shelter,” she said. “Watching this cycle repeat and wondering why perpetrators continued to hurt those they love most was, and still is, the question that haunts me the most.

“I thought, ‘This is the work I want to do.’”

After graduating, Danforth spent some time in Berkeley and Oakland, California. She moved to Bozeman in 1985 to be closer to her sister, Jill, and Jill’s newborn son.

Shortly after, she began volunteering at the MSU Women’s Center, organizing the center’s lending library and re-invigorating Students Against Sexual Assault, or SASA, a student-led program that promotes awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence. While still active, SASA is now housed in MSU’s VOICE Center.

When then-director Michelle Dennis received grant funding to hire an assistant director, Danforth landed the position. Within a year, Dennis left the center and Danforth took over as interim director, and eventually was hired as director.

Other than Danforth, there are no employees at the center except for student workers, who over the years have brought with them enthusiasm, knowledge of current issues and the initiative to enact change, Danforth said.

One example of this was the re-emergence four years ago of The F-Word, a feminist discussion group that had lain dormant for several years until a student from Nashville, Tennessee, re-registered the organization and drummed up interest.

In 2000, an outreach event brought attention to MSU’s Queer Straight Alliance. Vandals tried to destroy a symbolic closet built on MSU’s Centennial Mall for National Coming Out Day. While the actions were “offensive and horrible,” Danforth said the experience brought recognition and growth to QSA, which now boasts an active and engaged membership that hosts dances and fundraisers to benefit social causes and has played an important role in the university’s diversity efforts.

Each spring, the Women’s Center pairs with the MSU Alumni Foundation to honor student leaders who have worked to promote diversity and equality and who have served as role models for their peers through the Students of Achievement awards. Past award winners have come from a range of disciplines across all MSU colleges.

In recent years, Danforth has lent her expertise to other projects that promote equity, serving on the President’s Commission on the Status of University Women, the VOICE Center’s founding board of advisers and the committee to create the women’s gender and sexuality studies minor. Her work earned her the inaugural President’s Commission on the Status of University Women Award and the Betty Coffey Award.

In 2012, the National Science Foundation awarded MSU a $3.4 million grant to implement ADVANCE Project TRACS, an initiative to broaden the participation of women faculty in STEM and underrepresented areas of social and behavioral science on the MSU campus. Every year since 2012, when MSU received the grant, the university has hired an equal number of men and women for tenure-track jobs in those fields.

“The ADVANCE grant has helped to get more women on campus, and I hope we can continue the work on that,” Danforth said. “With the president’s commission, we’re figuring out where the gaps in gender equity still exist on campus, those roles and what kind of projects really help promote equity.”

While the center’s purpose largely has remained the same through the years, topics and audiences at its educational programs—Sack Lunch Seminars, the Shannon Weatherly Memorial Lecture and Women’s History Month events—have evolved.
“Topics relevant in the past may not be relevant any longer, and new topics have emerged and moved to the forefront of the gender equity struggle, such as gender identity,” Danforth said.

Danforth said she has recently noticed an increase in student involvement and interest in the center.

“Many students are really feeling—perhaps for the first time—the need for engagement and activism,” she said. “Hopefully, the Women’s Center will be a resource that can help students express their concerns, educate themselves and their peers about the importance of equality and social justice and discover the power of their voices and actions.” ■