Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
June 5, 1998

A role for everyone at the women's center

by Anne Dolan

If your perception of a feminist is a middle class, bra- burning radical, that's OK. But Pam Thomas would like you to give it another look. In fact, she'd like you to really open the doors.

"For this generation we're raising now, I hope feminism can be self-defined," said Thomas, who became director of ISU's Margaret Sloss Women's Center in January. "So far, we've let the media, we've let others define it for us.

"Feminism doesn't mean you have to shave your head, though some of us do," she added, laughing as she touched her hand to her closely cropped hair.

Thomas' self-definition of feminism is being woman-centered. She said the single largest way she does that is recognizing how women communicate and not trying to fit it to more traditional, male ways of doing things. Feminism is not male bashing, she is quick to add.

"One of my roommates is a 70-year-old man (her father) and the other is a 17-year-old boy (the youngest of her three children). Their humanity and gender is important to me," she said.

Two aspirations Thomas has for the women's center is to involve men in more of its programs and improve the visibility of the center on campus.

"What we do here is linked to all the colleges, but it seems a lot of people have misperceptions -- or no idea -- about what we do," she said.

Thomas said the women's center doesn't want to duplicate what already is succeeding on campus, but she said it does have a role in linking units and promoting what she terms "cross- fertilization of ideas."

She cited the Women in Science and Engineering Program's successful mentoring of female students and a useful program on sexual harassment in the College of Engineering as efforts that need to happen in other campus departments and offices.

Thomas said she's trying to find the balance between inviting more men to participate at the center and maintaining a feeling of a safe place at the Sloss House for women.

"In women's issues, we sometimes get short-sighted, but we need to bring men into the dialogue," she said. "We definitely want men in the programming, but with the presence of men, is that 'safe' feeling still possible?"

Court liaison to grad student

Des Moines native Thomas arrived at Iowa State from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (near Columbus), where she served for two years as assistant dean of students and director of multicultural affairs. Kenyon is a small, liberal arts college and Thomas said she was a generalist there. Students turned to her for answers about everything from financial aid to the academic process, she said. The experience compelled her to become a master collaborator -- once she learned "I can't know everything!"

Her leap into higher education came in 1991 as a part-time instructor at her alma mater, Central College, in Pella. In 1993, she was named the school's first coordinator of multicultural student support, in addition to her teaching duties in the sociology/anthropology department. She coordinated support services for inter-national and multicultural students, advised student groups and taught diversity workshops on campus. She also helped complete a salary equity study among faculty members, one of her strongest lessons, she said, in "moving a bureaucracy."

A big chunk of Thomas' career was in social service and social justice work in Des Moines. She was a court liaison at the Family Violence Center for women seeking relief, in the courts, from domestic abuse. She assisted with programming and helped set up minority youth workshops at the Des Moines YWCA. She served as assistant director and financial manager of Urban Dreams in Des Moines. She directed the OSACS Women's Center in Des Moines. She developed and coordinated adult education workshops on career development at Drake University's Career Planning Center for Women. And in the middle of all that, the single mother completed her master's degree in public administration at Drake University on a full-time fellowship.

"I had been doing all kinds of programming, but it hit me that to really help women, I needed to learn how to run some of these programs and be comfortable with public policy work," Thomas said. "I heard about this fellowship program, but you had to be a full-time student to apply for it."

She applied, got it and went to class non-stop for 18 months.

Women warriors

Her move to higher education is one she thought hard about, Thomas said.

"I was committed to helping people survive," she said, "and yes, I asked myself 'Am I selling out?'

"But I realized I was helping under-represented people make it through the college system. That is survival," she said.

And women at Iowa State are working their way through much more than academic hoops, Thomas noted.

"When you get in touch with what some of our young women survive -- the violence -- you need to deal with that. These things happen here and these women need to be supported."

Thomas said the task doesn't alarm her.

"I'm not here alone. I'm here on the shoulders of many women warriors."

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