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Penn History

This exhibit was created in August 2006 by University Archives Summer Research Fellow Seth S. Tannenbaum, an undergraduate at Vassar College

In the early years of its existence the Women’s Undergraduate Assembly operated much like the Houston Club, planning social events and gatherings. Once it became the Women’s Student Government Association (WSGA) in 1928, it became an organization much like the Undergraduate Council. The goal of the WSGA was unity and individual responsibility among Penn’s female students. In order to achieve these goals, the WSGA was granted the power to discipline students in cases referred to it by a Dean, so long as the Student Court, the judicial branch of the WSGA, kept the Dean informed on the progress of the case. The WSGA also had executive and legislative powers over Penn’s female students.

The WSGA divided all women students into small groups, each of which elected a representative to sit on a board with other representatives. The chair and secretary of this board served on the WSGA executive board along with the presidents of each class of women at Penn, the presidents of both the Women’s Athletic Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association and the four elected officers of the WSGA: President, Vice-President, Sectary and Treasurer. In order to run for office in the WSGA, a student had to first be nominated by presenting ten signatures from eligible voters to the WSGA executive committee. Each candidate also had to have been an active member of the WSGA for at least six months prior to the election. The candidates for President and Vice-President had to be seniors. Active Members of the WSGA were one of the two types of members of the WSGA. Active Members, as opposed to Associate Members, had paid the WSGA’s annual fee (the annual fee was $1 when the WSGA came into existence in 1928). Active Members were permitted to vote in elections as well as have their voices heard during WSGA meetings, Associate Members were only permitted to do the later. All members of the WSGA were subject to the decisions of the WSGA regardless of their membership status.

Much like the Undergraduate Council, in order to amend the constitution of the WSGA, a two-thirds majority vote was needed. Unlike the Undergraduate Council, however, the amendment did not need to be approved by the Provost, but rather by the members of the faculty who served on the Faculty and Student Committee of the WSGA. This was not the only duty of the Faculty and Student Committee; it was also responsible for devising the rules and regulations under which the WSGA functioned.

The Faculty and Student Committee certainly was an important part of the WSGA, but it may not have been the most mportant and powerful sub-section of the WSGA. That title might well have belonged to the Student Court. The Student Court was composed of the Advisor of Women (who was not a student!) and a number of appointed female students. Its prevue was student discipline and honor system violation cases referred to it by the Dean under whose jurisdiction the case had initially fallen. The Student Court determined the punishment for the student in question while providing the Dean who referred the case with repeated updates on the status of the case.

Much like the Houston Club, the WSGA, while certainly serving as a democratic institution, did not offer its democratic process to all women students at Penn. Those students who did not want to pay, or could not afford to pay, the WSGA’s annual fee could not vote. Unlike the Houston Club, however, those who did not pay the fee were far from ignored; they were welcomed to voice their opinions during WSGA meetings.

Like the Undergraduate Council, the WSGA was far from an independent organization. It could not choose which disciplinary cases were to be heard and it could not pass amendments on its own. There certainly were aspects of the WSGA which reveal how students could shape their lives at the University, but there were also a number of aspects which demonstrate the University’s faculty and administration’s power to limit student opportunities to control their lives as Penn students.

Essentially, the WSGA faced the same problems at the beginning of the 1960s as those faced by the Undergraduate Council. Changing times and changing attitudes put the WSGA, organized in the late 1920s, out of touch with contemporary student needs. As changes came to male student government at Penn in the 1960s and 1970s, for the first time in its existence, women’s student government would meet a fate similar to that experienced by their male counterparts.