Women’s advocate, former ‘first lady’ dies at 79

Cassie Buchman, City Editor

Even without the use of the Internet, driving and typing, Sandra Rives was able to work and be active in many causes to support women.

Her daughter, Jackie Rives, said networking, research and writing were her tools for change.

“She went all over Illinois to meet women, listen to their concerns and find ways to better their lives,” Jackie Rives said.

Sandra Rives, an advocate of many women’s studies programs at Eastern and around the community, died on Feb. 26 at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center. She was 79.

She is survived by her husband Stanley Rives, who was the president of Eastern from 1984 until 1992.

Melanie Mills, a retired communication studies and women’s studies professor, said Sandra Rives was a very down-to-earth and practical woman with a strong sense of justice.

“She was kind of feisty,” Mills said. “When she set her mind to something, she worked until the job was done as well as she could do it.”

Sandra Rives was the “first lady” when Mills first came to Charleston in 1985.

“I was impressed with her smarts, her wit and her tenacity related to fairness for women on campus,” Mills said in a commemorative Facebook post.

Sandra Rives was an advocate for better local women’s health care. She helped in establishing the Women’s Resource Center in its original location in the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union.

“Sandy was instrumental in helping to establish the Women’s Resource Center,” Mills said.

She also founded the Women’s Expo at Eastern and fought against domestic violence.

The Women’s Expo was a long day of conferences for the community and university.

Sandra Rives also worked as a faculty member at Northwestern University and the University of Hawaii during her lifetime.

She was recognized with many honors in regards to her work advocating for women, including the Woman of Achievement Award by the Women’s Study Council, a Zonta Club Woman of the Year, an Outstanding Woman of the Year by the Girl Scouts of Terre Haute, and a Gold Medal from the National Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

Susan Kaufman was a journalism faculty member who became very good friends with Rives.

She said Sandra Rives worked with and supported women on campus and throughout the area, and she understood how women could become isolated in rural areas.

“She knew it was important to bring women to campus,” Kaufman said. “She was a champion of that.”

Kaufman also remembers a more personal and personable side to Sandra Rives as well.

“She had a fantastic sense of humor,” Kaufman said. “She was a private person, very focused.”

Sandra Rives was skilled in other areas along with her advocacy and activism.

“She was a good bridge player,” Kaufman said.

Sandra Rives was born in Warrensburg, Miss. on Sept. 17, 1935.

“She grew up right on the Mississippi River, just across from St. Louis,” Kaufman said. “She came from a working-class background.”

It was because of this working-class background that Rives was able to understand how women’s lives in rural areas can be hard and isolating.

Another influence in Sandra Rives’ life that caused her to become an advocate for women’s causes and domestic violence was the death of her good friend Carol Specht, who was murdered in 1983 in her Mattoon home.

“It had a profound impact on her,” Kaufman said.

Sandra Rives served on committees on domestic violence and was instrumental in fighting domestic violence issues.

In memory of Sandra Rives, it has been asked that donations be made in her honor to the Women’s Studies Program or the EIU Foundation. People may also choose to honor her memory by volunteering time at an organization of their choice in her name.


Cassie Buchman can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]