Residents of the Bairnwick Women’s Center
The Bairnwick Women’s Center has been a staple in the campus community since its inception. Prior to 1969, Sewanee was an all male University with some of the only women being the matrons assigned to watch over the halls of young men. Once women were welcomed into this campus community, their entrance wasn’t the warmest. They fought for many necessities such as fair housing and women’s sports. A chapter of the American Association of University Women was formed in 1973 and over a decade later, in 1986, the house we know as the Bairnwick Women’s Center was formally dedicated. The Wick has become a pillar of campus culture and shows how far we have come in terms of representation and the amplification of diverse voices. Each year’s residents bring a unique set of thoughts, experiences, and goals that are meant to help shape the way that we view feminism and each other; especially in recent years, as we have dedicated our programming to intersectionality. The residents could be found in the Bairnwick House across from the BC on Mississippi—until this year.
Last year was a pretty big year for us. It was the first year no students were allowed in the house aside from the residents. It was the first year the first floor of our home and the Mary Sue Cushman room were not used as a gathering space for the greater community, and the first year our Resource Room wasn’t open to anyone who needed it. We had no idea how we were going to continue offering peer support to our campus community amidst a pandemic.
In the absence of a space that we could share with our community, we were inspired to create new methods of providing peer support. We created the Close the Resource Gap Campaign to provide free emergency contraception and pregnancy tests for those with financial need when no one could leave campus. We successfully implemented an in-person/online Sewanee Monologues, a beloved Sewanee tradition. At the end of one of the most challenging years on the Domain, we welcomed the student body back into our home to host one of our trademark events, I Heart the Female Orgasm.
Each year the Wick residents choose a theme with the goal of serving the campus community through a feminist framework that falls within it. Our theme for last year was Rising with Resilience, but this year we are living it. Just as the student body was no longer welcome in our home, now no longer are the residents.
As early as August 3rd, before any of the residents had moved into the house, the Wick suffered a flea infestation—one that we are still battling. As we moved in one by one, we lived amongst the fleas as they bit us and ran amuck all over the house. We believed that we could handle it because we are the Wick, and we could not just abandon our home. However, once all of the residents moved in, other issues started to arise all over the structure. One of our rooms on the third floor had suffered a leak from an AC machine so severe that it soaked the entire floor of the room and caused mold to grow; this leak caused one of our residents to be relocated to St. Luke’s Hall, the first of many relocations the house members would experience.
By the first day of school, we all had some sort of flea story or issue. By that night, we decided to sit down and talk in our living room, and come up with a plan on how we should move forward. We were divided, half of the house wanted to stick it out, and the other half wanted to leave; as we were debating, fleas hopped on a few of our residents, which was a deciding factor: we needed this to be fixed.
The next few days were a whirlwind. We were sent last minute emails about treatments, plans of attack, and requirements for when we could or could not be in our own home. The thing about flea treatments is that once the treatment has been administered throughout the house, you’re not allowed to be in the structure for four hours; which made a quick hug and “see you later” for our residents routine. Despite the treatment, the fleas persisted. The Friday after the first week of school, the Wick residents were housed at the Sewanee Inn for the weekend as the house underwent an extensive treatment. Friday night, as we gathered together in our hotel rooms, we realized that this was the first time we had been together, in a comfortable space, and we used this time to bond. We told stories about ourselves, each other, and what we thought about the Wick before and what we still want it to be. We developed a game plan, get back, and get busy.
That Sunday was intended to be utilized for our Peer Support training so we could finally begin to offer the resources we have promised the student body for many years. As we tried to move ourselves in (a second time) we found, yet again, that our house was still infested. The afternoon was frantic as we met, made plans, and re-made plans about where we were going to sleep that night. By the end of it we were all snuggled up together in a cabin…at the Smokehouse Lodge in Monteagle. Although the living situation was not ideal, for the next week we bonded, hard. From late night talks to early morning carpooling to sleeping five to a loft, we lived in community as best we knew how to, and just tried to keep our heads up as the world kept throwing punch after punch.
We could keep going on about the places we’ve lived this semester or the bonds we’ve formed, but what’s most important to this story is where we are at now and our goals for the Sewanee campus we signed up to provide. We still aren’t in the Wick, but separated into different residence halls across campus; living in the same matron’s suites that used to house the original “Women of Sewanee.” What this means is that we’ve lost the ability to host events in the intimacy of our home, we’ve lost the value of living together in community, and we’ve lost one of only a few safe spaces on campus for some of the most marginalized people at Sewanee, including survivors of gender- based discrimination and violence.
Although we are still in temporary housing, we are still fighting to make changes on campus. When we were finally able to have our first, real house meeting, we set two common goals: get peer support up and running, and focus on the work we can do to make the Wick a productive and helpful organization for our peers.
This year, peer support looks similar to what it has been in previous years. The on-call schedule is posted on our website and on social media. Any student is welcome to call, text, or use the chat function online to contact us for resources or peer support. We are partnering again with Peer Health Educators in providing this resource to the student body. We are still offering pregnancy tests, dental dams, lube, and condoms, however this year we have had to discontinue the distribution of Plan B due to legal concerns. (However, emergency contraception is now available for free at the Wellness Center!) Peer supporters are still on-call for crisis moments; we value confidentiality and want to help you in whatever way you need.
For years we have provided peer support to act as first responders, as campus crisis services are virtually non-existent or inconsistent. We typically have regular trainings with professionals in advocacy fields to better understand trauma responses, our own biases, as well as sexual health and Title IX resources.
Where we will fall short this year is in our ability to provide a space. A space that is non-Greek, intersectional-oriented, and not connected to administrative offices like Title IX or the Wellness Center. By living at the Wick, we have agreed to become extensions of the school’s efforts to become a more inclusive and safe environment. Although there are now professionals charged with bettering student and administrative culture, the job is not over for students to push for the changes they need to make Sewanee a hospitable environment for everyone.
The support of the Wick is the promotion of gender equity for all on campus. Without our home and without the full and active support from the administration to get our home back, the decades of effort has been harmed. The university is not holding itself up to the mission of DEI standards if they cannot keep up with physical spaces on campus that are meant for students from disenfranchised backgrounds. If our administration truly does want there to be intersectional spaces on campus, they need to invest the finances and the time to make sure these spaces are safe and livable.
Our theme for this year is Uplift and Unify. Despite our setbacks and our limitations, we want to make this year about strengthening our connections across campus. We are working behind the scenes to advocate for resources, necessities, and our fellow students; especially during a time as fragile as this one. We know our intersectional framework can lift up and enact a web of our campus’s greatest resources, but we need your continued support and activism to bring those resources center stage.
But in the meantime, allow us to reintroduce ourselves: we are the Wick, and our door is always open.