Feminism in action

"I love helping students explore leadership."

Jane Olsen finds feminist synergy in conservative St. Cloud

Jane Olsen has a knack for feminist activism in conservative surroundings.

At 24, as a graduate student, Olsen joined the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the battleground state of Illinois. She was not living in the more progressive Chicago area, but in Springfield, not far from the hometown of anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly.

“There was intense opposition to ratification in Illinois,” Olsen recalled. But she and her fellow activists were undeterred.

“We chained ourselves to the Senate chamber and stayed there four days,” Olsen said. “It was feminism in action-complicated and messy, but amazing, powerful and life-changing.”

Three decades later, Olsen is still doing feminist work in a conservative area: She has been the director of the Women’s Center at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) since 1989, the year of its founding.

When she sought the job, Olsen knew little of Minnesota beyond its liberal reputation. She soon learned the state is far from monolithic.

“Many times I was surprised by what people would say right out loud,” Olsen said. In the early days, she said, she also was “surprised and appalled” by the extent of sexual harassment on campus.

“But we had allies,” she emphasized. “There were both men and women in every corner of campus who supported the work.”

“When [feminists] have a place to connect, there’s a synergy,” she added. “We found that at SCSU.”

Beyond the cliché

From the start, the Women’s Center has emphasized issues of interest and concern to women of color, recent immigrants and other often-marginalized groups. Olsen and other stakeholders were determined that “the cliché of a white, middle-class Women’s Center would not happen,” she said.

Groups growing out of the Women’s Center include Today’s Women Alliance-founded by a Liberian student-which focuses on leadership development of women of color on campus. Its members serve as mentors for high school and middle school students in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. In 2004, the alliance won a three-year grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

Helping young women succeed in higher education and in life-essentially, helping them attain self-sufficiency-is Olsen’s passion. It was sparked when she was a young woman herself, recently out of college and working at a battered women’s shelter in Illinois.

“I learned how important it is for women to be economically self-sufficient,” Olsen said. “It was one of the top barriers to women leaving and not returning to the batterer. Back then, women made 62 cents to every dollar made by a man. How in the world could women be expected to support themselves and their children?

“But having money offers additional choices-and I saw that firsthand in the hundreds of women I worked with.”Olsen still vividly remembers a woman whose jaw was wired shut because of her husband’s violence-a sight that “outraged and stunned” her. Years later, the woman killed her husband and was incarcerated for many years.

“Justice was not served,” Olsen said.

Dream job

After the shelter job, Olsen directed a network for single parents and displaced homemakers. The goal: women’s economic self-sufficiency. A few years later, someone gave her the notice for the SCSU Women’s Center job posting.

“This truly is my dream job,” Olsen said she thought at the time.

Among the new center’s first initiatives: “Women on Wednesday” (WOW), which is still going strong 23 years later. “It began as an old-fashioned brown-bag lunch at the Women’s Center,” Olsen said. “Fortunately, we outgrew that space.”

WOW is organized around themes. The fall 2012 series-“Creating Solutions: The War on Women Must Stop”-touched on reproductive health care, marriage equality and voter ID proposals. For another series, “Young Women Speak Out,” only women under 30 were invited as presenters.

A highlight for Olsen was helping to bring feminist activist Angela Davis to speak on campus in 2009 as part of a Women’s History Month collaboration. The 1,000-seat auditorium was packed. But what especially excited Olsen was the interaction she observed between Davis and the students.

“I thought: ‘This is why my job is so cool,’ ” Olsen said.

Olsen’s sons, now 21 and 17, grew up alongside the Women’s Center. While she’s justly proud of the center’s accomplishments, she will tell you she’s equally proud of the “beautiful and challenging work” of child-raising-and of learning “the real meaning of labor” by bringing the two 9-pounders into the world via natural childbirth.

In her free time, Olsen hikes, kayaks and reads for both edification and escapism. “The best escapist fiction I’ve read recently is ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett,” she said. “I can’t imagine an imagination like that-and I relished the relationship question posed between teacher and student.”

At 54, Olsen “can’t see leaving higher education” and “can’t imagine not working with women,” she said. “I love helping students explore leadership.”