March
25th 2010
Small college $h!tstorms in the internet age

Posted under: GLBTQ, students, unhappy endings, women's history

Wellesley College is apparently in a malestrom (pun intended) over the fact that some non-Wellesley students were chosen to represent Wellesley in the HerCampus.com’s Mr. Campus Freshman 2013 competition.  (Wellesley is of course a women’s college–one of the four holdouts of the original “Seven Sisters” in fact, along  with Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Bryn Mawr.)  It looks to me like a first-year student, who was not yet aware of how charged these issues about gender and sexuality can be at women’s colleges, probably innocently suggested using people’s boyfriends instead of presenting women or trans Wellesley students.  Yikes.  I can absolutely understand why students are angry about this–but what an introduction to campus politics for this young student.  Like she fell through the ice on Lake Waban.

Having attended one of these colleges before the advent of the world wide timewasting non peer-reviewed web, and having witnessed some major campus tsuris in my undergraduate years, I can only imagine how much worse these periodic blowups are now that they’re plastered all over the internets.  On these campuses, where everyone identifies as a feminist and women’s issues are at the center rather than the margins of student life, questions of gender and sexuality can be dynamite.  The gay/trans students feel like the straight/cis majority students still marginalize them.  Some straight/cis students resent being identified with a “gay” campus–when I was a college student in the 1980s, women’s colleges were one of the tiny environments in which women felt comfortable being out.  Racial issues are always hot on campuses that are avowedly pretty liberal, but which remain by virtue of their private school tuition overwhelmingly white and privileged.  And, everyone is between the ages of 18 and 23, so there’s a lot of experimentation going on–sexual, political, rhetorical, etc.

Anti-gay harrassment is a feature for all students on these campuses, whatever their politics or sexual identities–or it was in the 1980s and 90s.  All we’d have to do is cross the street off-campus, and a carload of yahoos would scream “fags! lezzies! lesbos! fags!”  I was hired to teach at Wellesley the semester after I finished my Ph.D., and took a little “field trip” with my students to look at headstones in a local graveyard adjacent to the Wellesley campus, so I can testify that at least as late as 1997, the anti-gay drive-by harrassment was alive and all too well.  Women’s communities still inspire a shocking levels of resentment, hostility, sexual fantasy, and just plain stupidity–it’s like the rhetoric against women’s religious communities in the Reformation.  (I once had a boyfriend who went to school elsewhere.  He had a lot of dumb questions:  “So, you’re all women, right?  Do you all just walk around naked in the dorms?  Why bother putting on clothes?”  Why didn’t I dump him right then and there?  Because I was an 18-year old idiot, I suppose.) 

Some of you probably teach at SLACs like this, single-sex or not, or you’re fellow alums.  I loved my college life, but as a faculty member it’s a relief to teach on a big campus at a big state school, because we’re spared for the most part these crazy little $h!tstorms that consume everyone on campus for weeks on end.

11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Small college $h!tstorms in the internet age”

  1. Janice on 25 Mar 2010 at 7:31 am #

    It can be very tense when outrage is sparked over hurts inflicted and rhetoric rises. Youth is particularly prone — I’m glad I’m well done with that stage in life!

  2. PoliSci Prof on 25 Mar 2010 at 8:44 am #

    I used to teach at a Catholic SLAC for women in the midwest.

    Yes, we did have periodic blowups related to issues of gender, race, and class. Some of these “$hi!storms” were over issues of interest to the 18-22 year old set. Most however, were over real issues of empowerment or censorship (like the time the Student Life folks banned a performance of “Vagina Monologues” or the administration’s refusal to allow Hilary Clinton to campaign on campus).

    We also had ongoing discussions (in a number of formal and informal venues) about what it meant to be a Catholic women’s colelge.

    As time-consuming (and repetitive) as these outbursts can seem, they are really all about young women who are thinking the world around them and testing their own voices. I miss that now that I am on a public campus with mostly brain dead undergraduates.

  3. Historiann on 25 Mar 2010 at 8:55 am #

    PoliSci prof–your experiences sound very familiar, with the additional twist of the religious affiliation w/r/t women’s issues.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that these $h!tstorms weren’t also frequently about important issues, as you suggest. (Although as Janice says, it’s a volatile time in life, so the accusations and rhetoric were overheated sometimes.) I just was remembering that these incidents were exhausting and all-consuming for the students–and I can only imagine how much more upsetting they are when the whole world can watch and add their viewpoints/insults to the mix.

    The Vagina Monologues is a perennial issue at Catholic colleges and unis. (To its credit, the VM were staged on one of the Catholic campuses without much incident after I left.)

    (I’m sorry your students seem mostly brain-dead!)

  4. Matt L on 25 Mar 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Thats great a great post. I’m a Banana Slug. I remember March as being a particularly interesting time on Campus. The cherry blossoms flowered on the Stevenson quad and somebody was usually occupying the foyer of McHenry Library and the President’s Office.

    And, since the College Dems represented the right side of the political spectrum, the rhetorical flourishes of the left made for spectacular fireworks. Drinking on a Friday night usually started off with talking about the ‘solidarity of a multiplicity of struggles’ and devolved into the parsing and denunciation of relative privilege. Good times.

    I don’t think anyone ever saw campus politics as fun. It was all deadly earnest. The only group that enjoyed themselves were the four members of the college republicans. And why wouldn’t they have fun? The Ohlin foundation paid for their newspaper and their beer, so it was easy for them to be a band of happy warriors.

  5. Barry on 25 Mar 2010 at 10:45 am #

    Matt L, in addition, the right-wingers knew that they had a much easier path laid out for them. They were speaking on behalf of power and wealth, which always has the money to pay (and pay well) for advocates.

  6. Indyanna on 25 Mar 2010 at 11:33 am #

    Back in the day, as it were, the Yippies briefly figured out how you could have fun and be dead serious at more or less the same time without being actually dead, but it all pretty much unraveled quickly. The (bio)physics of it didn’t work out too well. There must be a top-ten list of answers out there, though, to the zen question “why bother putting on clothes,” isn’t there?

  7. Matt L on 25 Mar 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Barry, yes exactly. The Redwood Review crowd at UCSC wasn’t exactly doing any heavy lifting by justifying the then ascendant Reagan-Thatcher thought. (I wonder how many of them are working at the National Review now.) Still, they seemed to enjoy themselves. Unlike the left who were really not a lot of fun to be around.

    At least the Yippies, as Indyanna points out, tried to square that circle. Even if it ended badly, they probably had some fun along with contributing to social justice…

  8. Comrade PhysioProf on 25 Mar 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    For the record, freshman Comrade PhysioProf was much more handsome, sensitive, intelligent, and witty than all those dorkwads.

  9. Barnardian on 25 Mar 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Why did you boot Barnard out of the seven sisters? It may be part of Columbia University, but it is still all-women, with a separate campus, and most classes attended solely by Barnard students (at least when I attended, in the mid-90s).

  10. Moria on 26 Mar 2010 at 8:21 am #

    Oh, yes. Oh, yes. But the thing about those little campus $h!tstorms, as you call them, is that they did teach me how to pick political battles, how to tell a real enemy from a strawperson, when it was worth jumping into the fray and when to keep my head down and avoid the stormers. They taught me how to be kind and corrective at the same time – bashing someone’s head in for not being aware of complex gender politics is, they taught me, much less effective than a quick, quiet conversation. Not that I learned this easily or quickly (many occasions of foot-in-mouth, more that I’m probably not aware of), but I’m glad I did, eventually, learn it. And I don’t think I could have, on a bigger or more conservative campus, where it would have been 24-hour head bashing (only, in that instance, it would have been my head, and against a brick wall).

  11. Current Wellesley Student on 23 Apr 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Thanks for blogging about issues that affect women, I think there is a serious lack of that. But I have to disagree with what you’ve written.

    I find it troubling that someone who was invited to teach at a women’s college, particularly at Wellesley, and who accepted that invitation, would feel so bothered by energetic student discussion and activism surrounding issues of gender discrimination. Not only are the faculty very distanced from these issues, and so should not feel troubled by them, but they should be happy to see that their students are standing up to misogyny and gender-spectrum ignorance.

    As for your assertion that “On these campuses… everyone identifies as a feminist and women’s issues are at the center rather than the margins of student life….” Many women at Wellesley DON’T identify as feminists and in fact hate the term and would rather not be associated with it. Some have even expressed that their decision to attend the school was made IN SPITE of the fact that it is single-gender. This is, I think, is a serious misunderstanding of what feminism means, but that sentiment is common here. And from what I know from people that I’ve spoken to at Barnard, Holyoke, AND Wellesley, many girls don’t give a second thought to issues of gender and queerness, or are actually annoyed by the heightened queer awareness that comes with attending a women’s college.