Alumna Ellyn Uram Kaschak celebrated for support of women and girls
Alumna tells her story of why she established the Ellyn Uram Kaschak Institute for Social Justice for Women and Girls
When Ellyn Kaschak ’65 was celebrated on Sept. 4 for her career achievements and her support to establish the Ellyn Uram Kaschak Institute for Social Justice for Women and Girls at Binghamton University, it was made clear that she’s a fair-weather friend — of sorts. In his welcome, Vice President for Advancement John Koch said “she made me promise it will never snow when she’s here!”
But Koch added that Kaschak has made a commitment to make Binghamton better and “to ensure that the University is always at the forefront of the fight to bring justice to women and girls.”
Kaschak was on campus for the first time since she had made a seven-figure gift to establish the institute. She sat in — and weighed in — during classes and in meetings with faculty and administrators during her visit.
Noting that the celebration was a formal occasion, President Harvey Stenger nevertheless opened his remarks with a laugh. “I grew up with three sisters, and no brothers. I have two daughters, and no sons. I have two granddaughters, and no grandsons,” he said. “I’m very comfortable in this space!”
“I am most impressed — both by her vision for this institute and her impact on her discipline as one of the founders of the field of feminist theory,” Stenger said. “But most of all, I’ve been impressed by Ellyn’s commitment and thoughtfulness in engaging with Binghamton, and supporting Harpur College and our students.”
As the beneficiary of Kaschak’s generosity, it is our great hope that her donation will spark innovative and life-changing research and scholarship on women and girls, with a focus on generating practical solutions and empowering women and girls in pursuit of social justice, Stenger said.
Kaschak has also established the Ellyn Kaschak Summer Research Grant program that annually supports a Harpur College undergraduate student seeking to conduct research in the field of social justice for women and girls. Recipients will share their findings with Kaschak in a subsequent semester as part of the mentoring process.
Stenger called the work Kaschak is supporting interesting, “but more importantly, it has the potential to have a real and positive impact on the lives of women and girls across our region, across the United States and around the globe.
“I thank Ellyn for making this possible and for her growing engagement with, and generosity to the University,” Stenger said. “It is making Binghamton a better, more complete University and more importantly, having a real impact on women and girls around the world.”
Calling Kaschak a truly remarkable person for her pioneering and sustained contributions to feminist theory, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman said that Kaschak is lively, funny, well read, bursting with ideas and a great conversationalist, but she also has a serious side.
“She is deeply committed to making the world a better place for members of historically marginalized groups. It has been her life’s work,” he said. “She has never lost sight of the fact that gender, race and where one is born create deep, persistent inequities and she has dedicated her life to challenging institutionalized racism and sexism and promoting justice.”
Kaschak’s experience at Binghamton University – then Harpur College – in the 1960s led her to choose Binghamton as the place to continue her legacy of promoting social justice through education and research, Nieman said.
“Ellyn, thank you for a career that has enhanced Binghamton University’s reputation and for your faith in our ability to be worthy partners in the quest for social justice. We both know there’s a lot of work to do.”
Kaschak spoke of defying her family and culture by arriving at Binghamton in 1961. “Finally they accepted my gender-inappropriate desire for education with the hope that I would simultaneously acquire an MRS,” she said.
“Entering the campus, we were greeted by a large sign proclaiming, ‘Let each become all he is capable of being,’” she added. “In my four years on the campus, that sign made me a bit uncomfortable, but I was not sure exactly why. Yet it reminded me every day that I was lucky to have been given passage into a man’s world.
“I was frightened, happy and eager,” she said. “I never imagined feminism. I never imagined this day.
“I just thought I would have to live my life in the margins, the borderland. Maybe I could be an honorary man.”
But she learned how to think critically, she said, and though she did not seek feminism, it found her.
“Harpur did not turn me into a feminist in the 1960s,” Kaschak said. “Life in a woman’s body did. But Harpur gave me the vision and the tools to recognize critical thinking and to engage with it. It did not give me the answers. Instead it gave me the skills to ask better and better questions.”
When she endowed the institute, she thought her work was almost done, Kaschak said. “Women have entered all the universities and professions, LGBTQ rights have been recognized and ethnic diversity supported. These were all the accomplishments of the generation I am part of and we have watched in horror as they are, one by one, being erased.
“We declared that women’s rights are human rights, but today human rights mean almost nothing in this country,” she added. “Children are afraid to go to school, companies are selling bulletproof backpacks and brown-skinned people are being hunted and caged, women trafficked and raped.
“I have persisted, insisted and resisted,” she said. “But I cannot finish the job. My work will be done when every girl on the planet is given justice, safety and respect. When skin color and sexual orientation are no longer used to categorize and demean and are nobody’s business but your own.
“When every women and girl is safe, is educated and is able to fulfill her own destiny.
“That girl lives inside you for the rest of your life and inside me she is saying, you did it and more,” Kaschak said. “She is happy beyond her wildest dreams. I have suffered hatred and discrimination for being born female. I have experienced joy and triumph specifically as a girl and woman. I have understood and changed things as a feminist and a scholar.”
Kaschak said she wants to give women and girls opportunity for education, not advice. “I continue my work by passing it on to you. Ask your questions and make your own mistakes. And when you inevitably must choose, choose justice, passion and choose love.”