On any given day, the Margaret Cheney Room, a lounge designated exclusively for female students at MIT, is peacefully quiet. In this hidden campus gem, flyers are plastered on the walls, with topics ranging from UROPs to body image. Posters proclaim Martha Stewart-esque guidelines: “Exercise every day.” “Learn to Prioritize.” “Avoid people who are complainers or who stress you out.” “Relax.” Beds, puzzles, a piano, showers — the room has everything for the exhausted female student to relax.
“I always see a lot of surprised faces when a student is seeing the room for the first time; they cannot believe the space exists and often say they wish they had heard about it sooner,” said Alicia E. Erwin, Assistant Director of Student Activities.
A place to “just be”
Established in 1882, the Cheney Room continues to welcome MIT women to its space in Building 10 more than a century later. There is no “typical” student found in the Cheney room. Some say they come every day. Some take a nap. Some take a shower. Some say they definitely wouldn’t take a shower here. Except during popular events such as the lunches for freshmen women during the semester and for all female undergraduates during finals week, the room is rarely loud or crowded. One or two women can be found there in the morning, late at night, on the weekend, or even over Thanksgiving break, as if students take turns watching over the adored space.
Erwin is perhaps one of the Cheney room’s biggest fans: “I love that this room exists at MIT!”
“My hope is that all of the students that use the space find it inviting and comfortable, and that they want to keep coming back to make use of it,” she added.
She’s not the only one with these sentiments. “We at Community Wellness at MIT Medical work hard to ensure all of our community gets the opportunity to recharge. The Cheney Room is the perfect space for that,” said Kate McCarthy, Program Director for Violence Prevention & Response.
When asked about their use of the room, students tended to request not to be named. They argue that the room is a private space, and that their anonymity should be respected.
According to Erwin, “I think the students who use the space see it is as a safe place where they can escape for a few moments or even a couple of hours.”
Undergraduate women are not the only users of the Cheney Room — the space also has a loyal following among graduate students. Blanche Staton, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education, helps to organize monthly lunches for the Graduate Women’s Group there. These lunches have been going on for 13 years.
“The Cheney Room has provided a warm, welcoming space, a place where there is no question about belonging for the graduate women who go there, because it is theirs. It is a place where they can relax and unwind, and just ‘be,’” Staton said.
About 50 graduate students take advantage of the lunches and, more importantly (according to Staton), take the time to interact with other Institute women.
“They share interests, information, ideas, experiences and concerns. There is always a delightful buzz in the room, and the space offers a natural and safe forum for the expression of sensitive issues and questions,” she said.
Along with providing students an area to unwind, the room hosts events for a variety of organizations, including the Society for Women in Mathematics and Student Support Services.
Other colleges’ women’s centers welcome men, too
Other colleges in the area host their own women’s centers. Boston University’s Women’s Resource Center is one of the nation’s few student-run women’s centers. It offers one main room with a smaller conference room for students to relax, hold meetings, do homework, or otherwise pass the time. Both men and women are allowed in the center, but Kaitlyn Clericuzio, a BU student, says it is a “non-judgmental space” where students can feel free to “openly talk about sexuality and pretty much anything.”
According to the center’s website, it is “for women and people that care about women.”
The BU center also offers a library with gender studies books that students can check out. The current BU center was opened in October 2008, after students lobbied to “create their own space,” Clericuzio says.
Harvard, too, has its own center: the Harvard College Women’s Center opened in September 2006. But Harvard has had a variety of such centers since 1971 and is also open to men and women, according to its website (http://hcwc.fas.harvard.edu).
For years, students have asked why a similar space does not exist exclusively for men. Some give the Title IX argument — referring to a federal statute on equal gender treatment — saying that both genders should have access to the same types of facilities. On the other hand, the room is also not available to professors and postdocs — it’s intended to be a comfortable place for students to relax.
According to MIT’s McCarthy, having a space designated for women only is critical. “The Cheney Room has a special significance to me. Although many universities have dedicated women’s centers, the Cheney Room offers MIT women a small but significant part of a women’s center. A women’s-only space sends a message to any survivor of sexual violence that MIT takes this issue seriously and that we understand the importance of a safe and secure place for women to have access to on campus,” she said.
A room as old as MIT’s Cambridge campus
The Cheney Room’s namesake, Margaret Swan Cheney, class of 1882, was a student of the first woman to graduate from MIT, Ellen Swallow Richards, class of 1873. According to a 2005 article in Technology Review, back when the MIT campus was in Boston, Richards, along with a group of women, lobbied for a private lounge area exclusively for women. After Cheney died in 1882, the room was named in her memory. Cheney’s family donated $500 for the room’s establishment that year.
When MIT moved to Cambridge in 1916, the MIT Women’s Association raised $8,000 to move the Cheney room along with the Institute. The room was established in building 10, serving all of MIT’s women — who constituted only 1 percent of the student population at the time.
Today, the room is managed by the Student Activities Office (SAO) and the Campus Activities Complex, and continues to see changes. A card access reader used to enter the room was recently installed, and new emergency buttons connect students directly to MIT Police. Mattresses were removed from the study room’s beds because the space was not “zoned by Cambridge to have bed facilities,” according to Erwin.
Security is a high priority for the space, and students are advised to use the facilities in moderation. Last spring, a student cross-registered with MIT and Harvard set up camp in the room for about a month, using it as her sole living space. Erwin made an attempt to identify resources or contacts for the woman. “Unfortunately, these conversations were a bit more of a challenge and we brought in the MIT Police for support and guidance,” Erwin said.
The student re-connected with her family and eventually moved out. Erwin says the long-term inhabitant obtained the code using correct procedures for the Cheney room by contacting the SAO.
“This is another reason why we moved forward with installing the card access reader — with this the system will automatically stop someone’s access once their MIT ID is no longer valid,” Erwin said. Right now, a female student with the room’s code or with an MIT ID registered with the SAO may access the room. The former code punch system is planned to be phased out before the end of next semester.
On Monday and Tuesday, the Student Activities Office will be hosting its biannual women’s finals week lunches in the rooms. Women in the MIT community interested in gaining access to the Cheney room are encouraged to email Erwin (firstname.lastname@example.org) or stop by the SAO (W20-549).