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Sisters Act

February 4, 1972


On the evening of Friday, February 4, 1972, members of a women’s rights advocacy group at the University of Kansas known as the February Sisters occupied the East Asian Studies building located at 1322 Louisiana Street. They defined their purpose as a “means of obtaining the resources to meet the pressing needs of women.” Thirty women stayed in the building for 13 hours, leaving only after the KU administration agreed to give them an audience and when they felt they had made their point publicly.

The February Sisters issued a list of six demands during the occupation which included many of the things today’s female students (and male ones, for that matter), now take for granted. The first stipulation called for an Affirmative Action negotiating team that would meet regularly with University officials. This group would include February Sisters Elizabeth Schultz, Francis Horowitz, Beatrice Wright, Marilyn Stokstad, Katherine Gide, and Mary Maher. There would also be one representative from the Dean of Women’s Office, five students, and three Civil Service workers chosen by the February Sisters.

Next up on the list of demands was a free day care center paid for by KU with a steering committed comprised of women appointed by the February Sisters. Third, the Sisters insisted that a woman should be selected to fill the currently vacant vice-chancellorship of Academic Affairs. Suggested candidates included Horowitz, Schultz, Wright, and Stokstad, as well as Marion Kay and Juliet Shaffer. Included in this demand was that a woman should be added to the Financial Aid administration, and that an administrator should be appointed to vigorously recruit female high school graduates who, the Sisters pointed out, outnumbered males by five hundred in Kansas.

In their fourth demand, the Sisters wanted an end to unfair employment practices that used Civil Service as a means to freeze women’s wages and foster disparities between male and female salaries. This violation of federal directives, they hastened to point out, jeopardized $800,000 in federal funding coming into KU.

Finally, the Sisters sought creation of an autonomous Women’s Studies Department “controlled and chiefly taught by women;” and the establishment of a women’s health program that would include free pap smears, pelvic exams, free access to birth control, a competent resident gynecologist, a counseling service for women especially regarding birth control, venereal disease, and “special women’s problems.”

In the fall semester of 1971, only three women’s studies courses were offered at KU: Speech 119, “The Rhetoric of Women’s Rights;” a course on “Women in Contemporary Culture;” and a course called “Topics and Problems of Women.” KU administrators seemed to be dragging their feet in filing an Affirmative Action program as required by federal law. Many women at KU were becoming perturbed, particularly regarding the crucial issues of health care and childcare. Several days before the occupation, feminist and women’s rights advocate Robin Morgan spoke at KU encouraging women to take action and not wait for bureaucrats to do something they should have already done. The speech had an incendiary affect on the February Sisters, and they immediately began a plan of action.

Around 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of February 4th, 30 women and four children went to designated locations near the East Asian Studies building. One woman agreed to wait inside the building until everyone inside had left at which time she called in the “security committee,” a picked team of women who entered the building and began chaining the doors shut. At that point, the rest of the women and children arrived with food and sleeping bags and came in via a back basement door.

The occupiers had planned to sleep on the top floor, but as the evening unfolded, no one slept. One infant was sent home and phone lines became clogged. One participant later described the situation as a “paramilitary atmosphere.” Several male students came to the building upon hearing of the incident. These were individuals of the “panty raid” variety who told the women they had come because they heard some snakes were loose in the building. Reporters were soon on site as well, with cameras aimed in the windows.

The University Senate Executive Committee (SenEx) called an emergency meeting and began discussing the February Sisters’ demands via telephone around 10 p.m. At 1 a.m., five of the Sisters came out for a meeting with SenEx representatives and KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers. Around 6 a.m., six women returned to the building, and shortly before 8 a.m., the February Sisters agreed that they had made their point, that action on their demands had been generated, and they quit the occupation. Associate Professor of Classics Elizabeth Banks said that the most important event of the evening had been establishing lines of communication between the women and the administration. The SenEx issued a statement expressing its concern for equal opportunity for women, and noted that it could “neither condone nor ignore” the actions of the February Sisters.

Chancellor Chalmers, by now beleaguered by the turbulence of the times, said that action had already begun on many of the Sisters’ demands. Chalmers pointed out that a plan to implement an Affirmative Action policy was being developed; that the administration had made a proposal to “a federal funding agency” for assistance in providing day care; and a search committee for the Academic Affairs position had several women candidates. He also said that a study had been done on the disparities in financial aid between men and women and none had been found. Finally, he pointed out that women’s health services already had been expanded, and he pledged more aid “when funds became available.”

On the evening of Sunday, February 6th, the Student Executive Committee (StudEx) held a meeting in the Governor’s Room of the Kansas Union during which consideration was given to the February Sisters’ call for establishment of a cooperative child care center and the funding necessary to support it.

StudEx also approved a motion to bar photographers from the meeting while the February Sisters were in attendance. As the meeting adjourned, a UDK photographer named Greg Sorber tried to snap some shots as the meeting adjourned. Instead, he found himself attacked by numerous Sisters, one of whom observed that she did not wish to have her stipend from her father cut off, which could happen if he knew she was an activist on campus. These altercations notwithstanding, Sorber did end up with one memorable photograph that made it onto the front page of the Kansan the following morning.

In the weeks to come, SenEx would agree to begin a study of what the proposed day care center would cost. The February Sisters’ representatives pointed out that money from an emergency fund to meet some of their demands, like the $300 a month they were asking for a day care coordinator, would have to be put in the University’s permanent budget. Other issues, such as a woman’s voice on the Board of Watkins Hospital and the utilization of a graduate student in gynecology until a doctor could be found, were also discussed. One of the problems, several of the Sisters pointed out, was that the local Planned Parenthood office had closed due to an overload of cases.

As the 1970s progressed, the February Sisters saw their efforts begin to bear fruit. A Women’s Studies program was implemented in 1973, and many of their health related concerns ultimately were addressed. The February Sisters remained largely anonymous for many years, but interest in them from the succeeding generation revitalized the movement.

KU graduate students Carly Hayden-Foster, Sharon Sullivan, and Christine Robinson founded the February Sisters Association, a registered campus organization, in the fall of 2000. The FSA is “dedicated to sponsoring educational events for the University of Kansas and the wider community on topics that particularly affect women.” A forum is held every year to discuss relevant issues of concern to women. Their group’s cordless phone program, which collects and donates cordless phones (for the 911 function) to women who want them, is an example of the types of work FSA continues to provide KU and the Lawrence community. In 2001, students from Central Junior High School in Lawrence filmed a documentary on the Sisters as part of a school project. Their efforts won a state film competition, advancing them to the national level.

What began as impatience with an unfair system has become something of a tradition and a boon to KU.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: University Daily Kansan, 7, 8 February 1972; Christine Leonard Papers, Spencer Research Library, PP 315; interview with Barry Bunch of the University of Kansas Archive, 7 May 2002; interview, Chanette Kirby, 9 May 2002; http://www.geocities.com/febsisters/index.html]