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Office of the First Lady

"Supporting Meaningful Alternatives to Living with Violence: Alpha Chi Omega and Middle Way House"

Alpha Chi Omegas Founders Day dinner
AXO House
Bloomington, Indiana
October 10, 2009

Welcome

Good evening! I’m honored to be invited to take part in your celebration tonight. Alpha Chi Omega has a long and distinguished history, emerging along with other sororities as women’s involvement in higher education took root in the second half of the 19th century. Sororities have played an essential role in supporting women as they became permanent parts of the academy, providing a sense of community and empowerment not always found elsewhere. Here at IU, Alpha Chi has been playing that role for over 87 years, and I congratulate all of you on maintaining the fine traditions of your sorority since its founding.

I want to especially thank Sue Talbot for inviting me to be with you tonight, and my thanks also go to the members of the Executive Committee and everyone who has come back to be part of tonight’s dinner.

Generational Changes

One of the best things about my role as first lady is being able to meet and talk with students. My memories of my own college days are still so clear that I can’t believe it’s been over 30 years since I graduated. Being with you tonight, like my times with other students, is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what has changed in women’s lives since I was your age, and of course what has changed since my mother’s time, my grandmother’s time, and throughout history.

I have spent some time researching the lives of the IU first ladies who came before me, and it’s fascinating to learn about the ways in which their lives were very different from my own, and the ways in which they are not. Margaret Wylie, IU first first lady, is a particular case in point. Happily enmeshed in eastern Pennsylvania when her husband was hired to lead Indiana College, Margaret Ritchie Wylie reluctantly moved her family of nine children to Bloomington in 1829, which then had a population of about 400 citizens. The streets were red clay that became rivers of mud in the rain. Two buildings—a classroom building and a professor’s house—comprised Indiana College. Margaret’s husband, Andrew, came as both president and professor of moral philosophy, bringing the faculty to three instructors. The College enrolled 40 young men.

Margaret Wylie bore three more children here in Bloomington, delivering her twelfth and last baby at the age of 44. After the family had been in Bloomington for eight years, President Wylie had a fine brick mansion built at what is now the corner of Lincoln and Second Street. Even with her gracious new house, Mrs. Wylie was still not reconciled to living in Bloomington. Nevertheless, she served in the traditional capacity of first ladies, as a substitute mother to male students who were far from home and a hostess to members of the college and community. The Wylie’s parlor was a gathering place for university, community, and church business.

The roles of hostess, university ambassador, presidential confidant, community member and parent are very familiar to presidential spouses today, and they certainly characterize a great deal of my life, although without the twelve children and a pregnancy at age 44! But of course so much has changed since that time. Today, increasing numbers of presidential spouses have independent careers and lives outside the university, which was not the case in Margaret Wylie’s time. Even Charlotte Lowe Bryan, first lady of IU 100 years ago and an academic in her own right, had no formal role in the institution beyond that of being William Lowe Bryan’s wife. In 1922, the year your Alpha Mu chapter was founded, IU appointed its first female full professors, bringing the complement of women faculty to 8%.

Today women comprise about a third of the faculty, and over half the student body. Now women are themselves university presidents and there are first gentlemen. Last year’s presidential election was historic not only because we elected our first African-American president but also because he ran against the first woman competing to head the ticket of a major political party. And I was particularly pleased to see that about a third of the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prizes were women, including two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. 1

Change comes bit by bit, and only through the undaunted persistence of generation after generation, who look around them at the results of their foremothers’ and forefathers’ efforts to push boundaries and break glass ceilings, and say “not enough yet.” I remember being told as a college sophomore, in 1974, that it was easy for our generation to see so much progress, so much opportunity, that we would become complacent. Fortunately, many of us were not complacent, and as I stand here tonight and say the same to you—effectively, don’t rest on your mother’s laurels—I am acutely aware that you are not either.

I am continually struck, as is my husband Michael, by the intelligence and energy of the current generation of college students, and your ceaseless commitment to innovation—technical and economic, and also social and political. Many credit Barack Obama for reinventing political campaigns because of his use of social and other media, but really, it was all of you that reinvented it; he was just going to where you all are. Recently, Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva.org, spoke on campus, and as I listened to her I felt so optimistic about how your generation is tackling serious problems, using the tools of your time and a degree of wisdom and insight that I’m not sure my generation always had.

Confronting the Challenges

I am so glad to see this, because the problems and issues of today’s world, compared to those of the one in which I came of age, are so much more complex, and it seems so much more is at stake. And some problems that we have long lived with and tried to deal with are still with us, and remain just as intractable and just as important to address. For all the wonderful progress made in the lives of women in terms of economic opportunity, legal standing, healthcare, and on and on, women are still subjected to lives of abject poverty, ill health, and horrific abuse.

We have only to read the news from the nation of Guinea in West Africa just last week to see an example of this, but while the abuse there was a particularly extreme example, it is a problem faced everywhere, in every community and every socio-economic, racial, and ethnic class. Indeed, an entire issue of the New York Times Magazine last month was devoted to the issue of violence against women, which the authors of the main article, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, called THE humanitarian issue of the 21st century, in the way that slavery was the issue of the 19th and totalitarianism of the 20th.

It is not an accident that in many cases countries with high rates of domestic and other violence against women are also suffering economically, experiencing high rates of child and infant mortality, and low rates of education and employment. Women in these countries are effectively crippled in their ability to participate in the economic life of their communities and, in many cases, even to be good mothers to their children. Ending violence against women is not the only solution to these terrible problems but it is surely a fundamental part of the solution.

But as I mentioned earlier there is not a country in the world, not a community, not a university, that doesn’t have rates of violence against women that are simply unacceptably high. Based on Department of Justice statistics, it is estimated that in the U.S., two in four women will be sexually assaulted, and one in four raped during their lifetimes. Twenty to twenty-five percent of female college students will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus. Fully half of homeless women are fleeing abusive home environments. On average of more than three women are murdered by their partners every day, and usually when they are trying to leave. In Michigan, my home state, it is estimated that 75% of the women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends.

We simply cannot enjoy all the benefits of a civil society and of vibrant and productive communities if violence of any kind and certainly violence against women and children, goes unaddressed.

Supporting Middle Way House

I realize I am speaking to the converted here, knowing that ending domestic violence in the lives of women and children is Alpha Chi Omega’s national philanthropy, and has been for nearly 20 years. And your chapter is one of our Pillars in the New Wings Partnership! On behalf of everyone at Middle Way House, thank you from the bottoms of our hearts, not only for the contributions that come from the Domestic Violence Awareness Luminary Project but also for your caring spirits. I know how much it means to the women who are served by Middle Way, because a few of them have told me. And Middle Way cannot do its life-saving work without your support.

My own path to Middle Way House began shortly after I moved here in 2005, but I have to tell you that I didn’t arrive in Bloomington with domestic violence as an agenda, despite being fundamentally concerned about it as a social issue and having been supportive of the program in Ann Arbor.

But something happened to me when I met the Middle Way House staff and learned about the organization and the women they serve. Seeing the sheer force of their commitment to helping women take their first, then second, then third and many more steps toward independence, coupled with what I learned about this highly innovative, visionary organization helped me discover the depth of my own concern and my own commitment to doing whatever I could to reduce the impact of domestic violence, at least here in this community.

I had a moment of real insight, realizing how fortunate I’ve been to have experienced, directly and indirectly, the blessings of stable, healthy relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children. I know just how essential this experience is to my own sense of optimism and confidence in the world around me, to my ability to learn and grow, to my basic ability to be a successful, productive member of society. And for too many women and children, their experience is just the opposite.

As the mother of six children, I also see an inter-generational parallel between this work and why I felt called to my role there. Domestic violence itself is an inter-generational issue—as much as it’s critical to provide a safe haven and resources for a woman fleeing violence, it is that much more important for her children to see her taking those courageous steps towards independence and self-sufficiency, because it increases the likelihood that they will break the cycle of violence. Role models matter!

And of course, programs like Middle Way matter deeply. Nationally, the rate at which women return to an abusive relationship following a shelter stay is 55-70%. At Middle Way House, that rate is 18-33%, and for women staying in the shelter for three weeks or more, it drops to between 2 and 18%. You should be proud that the organization you support is making such a difference in the lives of women in south central Indiana!

Middle Way and New Wings Update

Let me take a few minutes to update you on what Middle Way is doing and on the New Wings project on South Washington.

You are probably aware of Middle Way’s innovative programs; not just emergency shelter but longer-term transitional housing; not just rape crisis support but legal advocacy throughout the court proceedings that can often follow; not just child care while women get back on their feet but two social enterprises that employ women and give them skills to become independent. These programs are knit together into a continuum of services and built on an empowerment approach, helping women to develop and use their own strengths in addressing their needs and building their confidence, while ensuring they get the support, guidance, referrals, and constant reinforcement they need to rebuild their lives.

Middle Way also devotes a significant part of its resources to programs for children, which we call Breaking the Cycle of Violence, in which staff address social, emotional, linguistic, cognitive and motor development so each child can thrive despite witnessing or experiencing violence in the home.

And Middle Way may well be the nation’s first green domestic violence agency, through its plans for the New Wings building on South Washington. Part of this comes through the use of solar heating and other environmentally friendly building and management techniques. It also comes from creating a local food system, using rooftop gardens and edible landscaping and including a community kitchen in the renovated part of the building to provide space for women to develop their own food products, and for Foodworks, Middle Way’s catering business. Middle Way also runs Confidential Document Destruction, which collects confidential material, shreds, bales and recycles it, now with a new state of the art truck!

How many of you have been down south Washington recently? The new building is going up! Starting about a year ago, we began renovating the historic Coca-Cola bottling plant by restoring the original terrazzo floor and glass block and masonry walls. In November of ‘08 we installed solar panels on the roof, which now are providing all of the heating for the building and eventually will heat all of the building’s water. This summer we poured the cement slab, in the last month the steel and the framing have gone up. You can see the outlines of what will become Middle Way’s new home next year.

Conclusion

In closing, it’s certainly appropriate to thank you again for all you’ve done to make this project a reality for the women and families of Middle Way House. But I’m going to let one of the women who has been served by Middle Way speak for herself:

I came to Middle Way House lost, terrified, feeling unworthy of the air I was
breathing . . . In my darkest hour I was met with so much more than shelter. I was given comfort, support, refuge . . . I met people with a passion for their work; people with hearts so pure and strong. How many times did I come to them devastated or furious or ready to give up? . . . .

I was handled as though I were a rare and wilting rose. They refused to allow a single petal to fall. I have been helped back to my feet and I am ready to face life and an uncertain future head on. Thank you to everyone at Middle Way House with the most sincere and humble thanks I have ever owed.”

Thank you for inviting me tonight, and for continuing to reinforce my optimism about the future.

Source Notes

  1. Two days after First Lady Laurie McRobbie delivered this speech, Indiana University& rsquo;s Elinor Ostrom, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. She was the first woman to win the prize in economics, which has been awarded since 1969.