UVA Appoints Abigail Palko as New Director of Women’s Center

Abby Palko says the UVA Women’s Center is uniquely positioned to help students learn how to respond to gender issues and social justice.

The University of Virginia’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center will welcome its new director, Abigail L. Palko, in July, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost announced recently.

Palko, associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Gender Studies Program, also is a fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and an affiliate faculty member of the Department of Africana Studies. A specialist in Irish and Caribbean literature, she examines questions of gender and sexuality, especially cultural expectations and practices of motherhood. Her forthcoming book, “Imagining Motherhood in Contemporary Irish and Caribbean Literature,” looks at how female characters handle the challenges and cultural expectations of being a good mother.

A member of the Arts & Letters Advisory Committee on Women at Notre Dame and the Committee for Sexual Assault Prevention, plus its assessment subcommittee, Palko has given presentations in classrooms and at conferences on diversity and gender dynamics. She also co-chairs the National Women’s Studies Association’s Feminist Mothering Caucus.

She earned her Ph.D. in literature from Notre Dame, her M.A. in English from Rutgers University and a B.A. in English and French from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

“We are excited to welcome Abby as director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center,” said M. Wynne Stuart, associate provost for academic support and classroom management, who chaired the search committee. “She has been selected with a very strong consensus from the search committee and others around Grounds whom she met during her recent visit. She has a sound philosophy of educating and attending to the growth of the whole person and deep knowledge and understanding of social justice issues. I look forward to working with her and introducing her further to UVA.”

The Notre Dame community recognized Palko’s many talents and accomplishments with four awards: the Dockweiler Award for undergraduate advising, the Marian Mullin Hancock Teaching Award for Gender Studies, Gender Relations Center’s Sister Jean Lenz Award for building relationships across campus, and the Africana Studies Academic Freedom Award. 

The Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center offers a wide variety of free resources that support the well-being of women and men, including students, faculty, staff and members of the local community. Staff members at the Women’s Center also mentor students through learning and leadership opportunities that combine service work or interning with classroom study of gender equity and other social justice issues.

Palko is only the second director of the Women’s Center, which Sharon Davie directed from its founding in 1989 until her retirement last year.

UVA Today contacted Palko to hear some of the ideas and goals she’ll bring to the job.

Q. How do you feel about taking the director’s position?  

A. I’m thrilled to be joining the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center as the next director. I have been so impressed thus far by the range of programming and services offered by the center, and I’m looking forward to meeting the students. It is my goal to foster an environment that addresses the particular needs of women students outside the classroom and serves as a tool for students to engage with gender justice and social change movements.

Q. What makes you want to come to UVA for this job?

A. The Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center has an incredibly strong national reputation, and Sharon Davie leaves an impressive legacy to follow. I look forward to continuing the important work she instituted with the center, and leading it into its fourth decade of serving the students and community of UVA.

This is a wonderful professional opportunity that will allow me to draw on the knowledge and skills I developed in my previous position. Until now, my work has been focused on the classroom as a learning space. But at a university, some of the most valuable learning happens outside of the classroom, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to turn my attention outward.

One of the most important responsibilities of the modern university is to prepare its students for life beyond the university. Today’s university students face a world with shifting gender norms, which will pose great challenges to them as they enter the professional world, as well as in their personal lives. I believe that the strengths of UVA’s Women’s Center enable it to address the needs of its students as they take on the challenges that our society’s relationship with gender creates.

The mentorship offered by the Women’s Center is a crucial component of the opportunities for personal and intellectual growth that the University offers its students.

I earned my undergraduate degree at Chestnut Hill College, which was an all-women’s college when I attended. We didn’t have a women’s center – because the whole campus was our women’s center! I am the woman I am today because of the mentorship and example of the faculty and my fellow students that I was so privileged to experience. It brings me great personal and professional satisfaction to step into this position now; it feels like returning to my roots.

Q. What do you consider your top responsibilities will be?

A. My first priority is to build relationships across Grounds. Already, in the interview process, I’ve met a lot of fantastic people who are committed to the success of the Women’s Center. 

Working with university students for the past decade, I have seen a growing awareness among them of the impact of gender on our society. I see the Women’s Center as uniquely positioned to help students learn how to respond to gender issues, by serving as a bridge between the academic and student-life sides of the University. This bridge is built on the foundation of relationships with the widest array of interested community members.

The Women’s Center’s programming takes into account that gender is one of the defining facets of our identity as humans who live in society. Its primary aim should always be to foster dialogue about women’s issues and provide support to the [institution’s] young women and men through nurturing relationships across Grounds, Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nation in order to empower them as leaders and citizens. As director of the Women’s Center, it is my responsibility to nurture the relationships that create this dialogue.

Our nation is having important conversations about the gendered issues that face today’s university students. We are asking questions about what it means to be a woman in today’s society through our conversations about gender identity, including the issues facing transwomen and transmen; Title IX and its impact on campus dating culture, including education about consent, sexual assault and women’s health issues; and work-life integration, including questions about compulsory motherhood, maternity leave policies and the gendered division of caretaking work. Simultaneously, there is growing awareness that none of these are merely “women’s” issues; they impact men, too, in very important ways. And solving the problems they cause will only happen with attention to the ways they negatively impact both women and men. This national conversation, though, is only sporadic. And that’s where I see the Women’s Center coming in: the Women’s Center has the programming and resources to lead a sustained conversation about the impact of gender norms on our individual lives. 

The Women’s Center reminds us that when some members of our community are unsafe because of particular aspects of their identity, no one is safe – precisely because of these aspects of their identity. It is my responsibility to lead the staff of the Women’s Center in developing programming to help students understand this and effectively respond to it, working for gender justice across Grounds and the globe.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications