Over twenty years ago a minority group at Williams felt disturbed by what they perceived to be an intolerant campus and hostile expressions of ignorance and prejudice. In 1977, women mobilized under the banner of feminism, keeping the club intact until just this year, when the club’s name changed to the Women’s Resource Center and became largely inactive. Female students formed the Feminist Alliance in reaction to a student body that showed its dark side of prejudices. This year, discussions of homophobia and racism have been the issues affecting the campus and inspiring talk about pluralism, leaving female-specific issues relatively untouched.
This year there is no Feminist Alliance but rather the Women’s Resource Center. The Center’s head, sophomore Dafina Westbrooks, said of the name change, “The [old] name tended to scare participants – male and female – away from the group. This fear was based mainly on stereotypes and preconceived notions about what a feminist is.”
English Professor Lynda Bundtzen, who now sits on the Women’s Gender Studies Advisory Committee and helped begin the Feminist Alliance in the 70s said, “I find it dismaying that there is no Feminist Alliance this year. I am shocked.”
The first incarnation of the student feminist movement on campus came in 1972 when the College’s first women students formed a support network. The first small group of women here felt that they needed a group to talk about being female on a dominantly male campus. Martha Cokely of the class of ’74 led Williams Women, as the group was then called. “The school was not a friendly place for women then,” Bundtzen recalled of her first year at Williams. “I remember banners hanging out of dorm windows telling us to go away. There was a lot of hostility towards women and we organized in reaction to it.” Bundtzen said that she did not call herself a feminist until she got to Williams.
The fall of 1977 brought a turning point for feminism at Williams. That year Williams Women decided to become the Feminist Alliance. They wanted the word feminism in their name to send a message to the campus. Bundtzen recalls that the main impetus for the beginning of the Alliance was “a very unsettling incident” that happened in Sawyer Library before homecoming that year: a mock gang-rape of an inflatable doll by several drunken male students.
Valerie Anderson ’78 described the event in her letter to the Opinions section of the November 11, 1977 issue of the Record. “The boys carried a blown-up women doll dressed in underwear stained with blood. They threw the woman down the steps of the reserve room as a crowd gathered below. Some people applauded when they were done.”
Deb Martindale and Lesley Wang wrote in an additional letter, summing up the larger message of the incident. “Through the vulgar use of an obscenely dressed inflatable doll, and the degrading references made to the female anatomy, they typified the lack of respect that Williams women receive on this campus. Such incidents not only serve to destroy the unity of the College, but infringe upon our rights as human beings. Therefore, the demeaning nature of public vulgarities and insults directed toward Williams women should not be tolerated.”
Such episodes happened in the shadow of the progress that Williams was making through the 70s. Professor Bundtzen said that from the start the Administration made, “efforts in good faith” to make the school friendlier for women.
However, in several issues of the Record, an advertisement for Schlitz beer appeared which many found to be offensive. The ad depicted a large-chested, shapely woman wearing small jean shorts, and a tight shirt, holding a mug of beer. That same November 11th issue has on its front page a headline that reads, “Record editors suppress advertisement.” The article by then editor in chief Scott Fenn explains that the editorial board decided to pull the ad in response to many students and faculty’s finding it offensive.
But a letter to the editor that appeared in the Record’s next issue displays how hard it was for some students to embrace change or even to accept standards of decency. Marcel Oudin wrote to object to the board’s decision. “Viewing the ad as sexist says something about Williams women and I am very sorry to say this, but it reflects a very prude attitude. As for the library incident,” he continued, “I can see how this prank could have offended many women here, but the fact that it created such a disturbance on campus is disheartening.” Oudin did not know when he wrote this that the disturbance was a catalyzing moment in Williams’ feminist history. Oudin ended his letter with a bit of advice for his fellow students. “C’mon women, get of your high chairs. Relax, laugh at yourselves once in a while, and don’t get so uptight over anything that doesn’t conform to your expectations of genteel behavior.”
Progress was noticeable in the November 29th Record. Its front page had three pieces of good news for feminism. The first headline reads, “400 hundred attend forum on sexism.” Below that another article tells that, “Peer Health center expands health care and counseling.” The bottom of the front page contains an open apology from the eight men who were responsible for the incident in Sawyer Library three weeks before. The then-new Feminist Alliance organized the meeting of four hundred concerned students.
If 1977 marked the beginning of active feminism on campus, 1983 marked brought one of feminism’s most crowning moments: the inception of the Women and Gender Studies concentration. Female students and faculty lobbied to bring the concentration. Although the school was fully coed by then, some felt the curriculum was stuck in the pre-feminist era, offering very few classes that taught women writers or artists or female perspectives of history. As with many of the other changes that Williams had seen, the Administration played a vital and encouraging role in fully incorporating women into the school’s curriculum. “When we were pushing for Women’s Studies,” explained Bundtzen, “we expected a lot more debate than we got. The school received the idea very well. I have always felt that the administration has listened and acted.”
Bundtzen compared Williams Women to today’s BGLTU. “The queer community feels very threatened. They mobilize and their activism is in response to perceived hostility. We felt that in the early 70s.” Bundtzen notices that there is much less feminist activism on campus these days and said, “Groups seem to have to be created and recreated on an ad hoc basis as response to a menace.”
Today the school has been fully coed for a generation, there are few displays of overt sexism and many women do not feel the need to be active feminists. This is viewed by some as a sign of progress: that women no longer have to protest for better treatment at the College. Female issues are now centered around body issues. Eating disorders, the representation of the female body, and sexual assault are the main issues of Peer Health and the Rape and Sexual Assault Hotline. Those two groups do call themselves feminist but they do not deal in gender politics as the Feminist Alliance did. Rebecca Barson ’99, who headed the Feminist Alliance last year, said that she did see the Alliance’s role as wider than those of the other groups. “Our purpose was an activist one. To that end, we tried to coordinate speakers and events that would raise people’s awareness of gender issues,” she says. Barson listed topics such as reproductive rights and how people at Williams see feminism. She added as an important role the club played setting up tables in Baxter, “to have people send letters in support of specific legislation important to women.”
As hard as the Alliance tried to fill a niche on campus, Barson says the club suffered from a lack of involvement. “Few people were interested in planning these events.” She went on to add, “I don’t exactly know what happened or why only a few people at Williams seem to identify with feminism, but I do know that we could not keep coordinating programming.” Barson said that her effort did not seem to pay off as, “there did not seem to be a lot of people interest in a feminist organization here at Williams.”
Barson and Bundtzen agreed that few students see feminist issues as immediately important to them. There is no motivating outrage as there once was and many believe that women have achieved full equality both at Williams and in the outside world. The politically sterile climate that is often criticizes at Williams frustrated Barson, too. “I think there is still sexism here, as there is anywhere. It might not be overt, but it’s there,” she said.
Looking back on her four years of campus activism Barson said that she, “feels a bit cynical.” She went on, “Sometimes it seems that too little has changed since I’ve been here, and people really don’t care about these issues.” On a more positive note, Barson expressed happiness with the number of volunteers that the Rape and Sexual Assault Network has had. “[Sexual assault] seems to be an issue that is seen as more immediately relevant here. Interestingly, there are tons of people who have done the training for the hotline and are actively involved, while involvement in the Feminist Alliance was weak at best.”
Barson would like to see the strains of campus feminism consolidated in an active group but admits that other campus groups such as Peer Health, the Hotline and the Women’s Studies Advisory Committee are active in their pursuit for better treatment of women. Philosophy Professor Jana Sawicki, who is also Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies concentration, did not find the end of the Alliance as disconcerting as Barson did. “I would be dismayed if the many strands of activism on campus concerning issues of importance to a diverse group of women were eclipsed in too narrow a focus on one organization.” She pointed out that feminists are active in the groups that Barson mentioned as well as the BGLTU and Sisters as One, a group that organizes an annual conference for women of color.
Despite Barson’s obvious disappointment that the Alliance could not stay afloat, she said, “I don’t want the picture to sound wholly bleak because there are people who care about these issues and bring then to campus in other ways.”
Bundtzen seemed proud to say that in her tenure she has seen women reach levels of equality that were unimaginable in the 70s. However, she thinks that after graduation, women will see a world less equal than that of our friendly campus. “When women leave here they will se that the world’s not benign. They’ll need feminism then. They are treated equitably here, but in the real world life is not fair. Maybe they’ll become feminists.”
In any case, the nature of feminism at Williams has been evolving since its inception, and only time will tell what the future for feminism holds.