My friend Margaret called me on a Monday night last October to tell me that the Sarah Doyle House had been torn down that afternoon. She and I belong to a small and very fortunate group of women who are former directors and coordinators of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center. Like my colleagues, I not only had a relationship with the center’s constituency; I was intimately acquainted with the building itself. The news of its demolition, although no surprise, disturbed me deeply.
The women’s center had moved a year and a half before to a larger, newly renovated building in a more central location on Benevolent Street—a step up in some ways. But to me the spirit of Sarah Doyle remained solidly rooted between Thayer and Brown, at 185 Meeting Street, right across from the Pembroke campus. Once a private residence, the building had been left to the University by one Mary H. Parsons on the condition that it be used for the benefit of women. The building was first used by the University in 1966 as the home of the Pembroke Alumnae Association. By the time I arrived in 1989, it was a tall, distinguished, and quirky stucco house shadowed by the hulking biomed building behind it, a brave holdout from an earlier time.
Now I felt as if an an old friend had passed away. I remember how her narrow corridors protected the hushed conversations and poignant moments of personal discovery. The front alcove housed the staffers’ written journals, which documented thirty years of political and social change for women at Brown. I can still picture individual women sitting on the stool, hunching over the large black book of unlined pages, writing what felt like urgent correspondence to the next “staffer” who would replace her in the schedule. Directly across from the alcove was the Sarah Doyle Gallery, which was opened in the 1970s to promote female artists. I remember a protest staged outside the gallery one Commencement weekend. A graduating senior showing her work in the gallery had felt censored by the staff when we’d asked her to voluntarily take down the provocative photos she had hung there of women scantily clad in black leather. It was one example of the many tensions within a movement that has been stretched and pulled to include many voices.
Halfway up the front stairs you entered the living room, which contained many of those voices over the years. The long, narrow windows looked out onto Meeting Street, offering a snapshot of Pembroke Hall, where women were first allowed to enroll at Brown at the turn of the last century. The view made that living room the perfect place for political strategizing, for companionship, for intimate intellectual debate with such academic idols as the writer bell hooks.
Then there was the musty basement, which served as a makeshift darkroom for those members who sought to represent women through myriad lenses, and the lower-level crawl space you could reach only by ducking through a four-foot door under the stairs. The cramped space once held an exhibit of art by an undergraduate who saw in its tiny size a metaphor for the status of female artists. It was also rumored that students in the early 1980s spray-painted signs down there condemning the behavior of young mayor Buddy Cianci.
The bathrooms at the Sarah Doyle House were cavernous and provided spaces for a diaper change (I speak from experience). I once was startled to discover several tiny pink plastic fetuses atop the toilet tank and the broad porcelain sink, left by an irate right-to-lifer who wanted to make sure his visit to the house was remembered. He had, he said, a right to use our women’s center because he was advocating for the rights of unborn girls.
At the top of the stairs was the periodicals room, a small space with saggy, corduroy-covered chairs and ivy-laced windows. I remember lingering there over cutting-edge women’s journals and whimsical newspapers. Back issues were stored behind cleverly hinged shelves. My favorite rooms, though, were the director’s office and the library, which were both on the second floor. The library housed more than 2,000 books, as well as the senior theses of women’s studies concentrators who had long since graduated. The many windows of the director’s office let in a shower of natural light. It was here that my colleagues and I shared with students, male and female, many powerful and moving conversations, many moments of intellectual challenge and personal struggle.
I know that this old building shared with the larger women’s movement a complicated history, one that has included elements of racism, classism, and homophobia, and I hope that any history that’s written about the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center will be honest and complete.
But for all its faults, the center remains an important part of our history at Brown. I am comforted that many of its earlier functions and resources exist at the “new” center, which is also a lovely former residence. However, now that I’m in my forties I appreciate how an old building can connect us to history in a way that a new space, despite its strengths, simply cannot. I remain proudly faithful to the memories of the Meeting Street Sarah Doyle Women’s Center. I honor its sense of time and place, purpose and design, grace and wisdom. Allowing it to slip by in silence would make the demolition of a building a loss of so much more.
Gigi Hansen-DiBello was director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center from 1989 to 1995. She is a founding faculty member of the CVS Highlander Charter School in Providence.