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The Realization of a Seven-Year Dream
On March 22, 1975, a day after the first Equal Rights Amendment parade in Florida's state capital, a small group of women known as Women Unlimited founded the Women's Center in downtown Gainesville, Florida. Feminist foremother, Judith Brown, played an essential role in securing the facility (WomaNews April 1976).
Altogether, Women Unlimited, operated as an umbrella organization housing three main organizations: the Women's Center; WomaNews, a monthly newsprint; and Womanstore, a feminist bookstore. Breakthrough, an alternative counseling service, rented space with Women Unlimited's organizations.
During the open house event that celebrated the birth of the Women's Center, a slide presentation voiced the founding of the Center as "the realization of a seven-year dream for Gainesville women" (Gainesville Sun July 1975). This seven year vision no doubt dates back to the writing of "The Florida Paper," in which Judith Brown criticized all-female communes for not being
"self-consciously arranged to serve political as well as personal needs. They are not a temporary stopping off place for women who need to re-evaluate their lives. They are no sanctuary from destructive male-female encounters. They are no base for female liberation work."6
In regards to the separatist aspect of the institution, Brown speaks extensively about the importance of a sexually-segregated space for women to participate in democracy. After all, before the founding of the Women's Center, women had few places to organize in public.
Seven years later, the Women's Center would be the place at which women felt at "home in organizing" as an all female space based on the consensus model, which necessitated women's political participation. In addition, the Women's Center would serve as a "place where one slackens the pace at the crossroads, and takes a chance to rest."5 Thus, the Women's Center operated as a space for women to write and obey their own rules, or simply rest, rather than submit to the governance of the male class or endure "destructive" interaction with men.
Upon founding the Women's Center, members immediately established its structure and leadership. By October of 1975, WomaNews published three pages of "Structural Guidelines." The following newsletter announced three new positions that the Steering Committee formed in an effort to "legitimize leadership" and the Center. The committee unanimously elected Rosalie Miller as the director and task leader, Linda Basham as the maintenance leader, and Charlotte Hunter as the financial affairs officer (WomaNews Nov. 1975). The establishment of rules and leaders also ensured that the "Tyranny of Structurelessness" that existed within less successful feminist institutions around the nation, would not dictate the Center's future. 9
The Women's Center also became a place for women's community. Rosalie Miller, original co-founder of the institution, speaks about its function in this regard:
The reason that we started the Women's Center was because we realized that there were all of these different groups of women around Gainesville, but they didn't have much interaction between them. So we started the Women's Center in part to facilitate more collaboration and cooperation.
Not surprisingly, however, participants experienced the Women's Center in different ways as its newfound existence allowed for interpretation. To some, the Women's Center was the "intellectual hub" of the movement and a "meeting forum for organizing after hours," while for others it was a type of lesbian "clubhouse" for meeting, dating, and selling books. Overall, members perceived the Women's Center as both a base for mobilizing political action and a space for creating and enjoying a lesbian feminist community.
During the height of the movement, the Women's Center brought activist and former UF student, Rita Mae Brown to Gainesville for the Southeastern Women's Health Conference, the most impressive event of the decade, which was mainly coordinated by women from the Gainesville Women's Health Center. In the wake of the exhilarating wave immediately following the successful health conference, one woman wrote, "Within Gainesville, a new cohesiveness has developed between the different feminist organizations as a result of the conference, and there has been increased communication between the groups" (WomaNews May 1976).
Prior to the conference, most members of the Center hoped that they could create a separate self-sufficient world within the Center. Now after the conference, with the air still buzzing with yesterday's synergy, Women Unlimited believed without a doubt that such a women's community was possible.
Five months later in October of 1976, women relocated the Center to a larger and more expensive building as part of this revolutionary vision after Libertas, a local women's group consisting of five members: Bonnie Coates, Gerry Green, Carol Bradshaw, Barbara Canning, and Grace Fordyce, bought a two-story building on 12 Northwest Eighth Street and leased it to the Women's Center (WomaNews Oct. 1976).
One Libertas member commented on her investment in the Women's Center saying: "I wanted a central place for the movement that we could call our own, where we could have an economic and power base." Soon volunteers were consumed with raising funds to keep the Center open as the cost for running the new building tripled (WomaNews March 1977).
In June of 1977, members secured a federal work grant known as the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) in order to cover the new costly edifice and compensate three new leaders for their public service to the Center: Kayanna Pace, Charlotte Hunter, and Janette Friel. With the $33,000, the center planned to expand their services and provide employment opportunities for Gainesville women, especially housewives (WomaNews June 1977).
Women's new space in the political community disturbed right-wing conservatives who cringed while reading the widely-circulated feminist publication, WomaNews. A columnist for the newsprint, spoke about their reaction to the publication, saying, "The right-wing did not like their tax-payers money going to promote lesbianism and witchcraft."
As a result, conservatives pressured the Alachua County Commission and the Department of Labor to cease funding to the Women's Center, claiming Women Unlimited had violated grant requirements by publishing WomaNews. A local feminist spoke of this right-wing counter movement:
When we got the CETA grant... of course we publicized it with delight. As Linda [a local feminist] predicted, that's when they [right-wing members of the community] saw their opening. They harassed the Labor Department in Atlanta until a woman agent was sent down to investigate us for alleged misuse of government funds... This fight over the CETA monies was enraging, mystifying, time consuming, frustrating, exhausting.... and when it was finally over I certainly felt totally drained and defeated. I put on as good a face as I could and did what I could to rouse the troops [new members of the Women's Center] taking over, but then I resigned...
After six months, two investigations, one review, and unrelenting pressure from conservatives, the County Commission cut funding to Women Unlimited before the case reached Washington D.C. Women Umlimited filed for an injunction in order to appeal the Commission's decision, noting that they had passed two prior investigations and claiming that the County Commission had denied them the right to a trial (WomaNews Dec. 1977).
Their hopes for continued funding and for expanding the Women's Center ended, however, when Circuit Court Judge John Murphree denied the request. The Women's Center closed soon after the decision and the movement's momentum began to wane.