As the co-chairs of the Williams College Feminist Collective, we’ve been asked about our opinions on the Suzanne Venker controversy a lot over the past couple of weeks. Although we have plenty of ideas about Venker’s ideology (hint: we’re the co-chairs of the Feminist Collective, so you can probably guess how we feel about her viewpoint), we have also had the opportunity to think about and learn more about the views of our peers on feminism and what it means to participate in uncomfortable learning. Let it be known that experiencing the debates on campus and appreciating the ways we have come to understand the issue does not mean we support spaces that actively cause harm toward people on this campus. The ideology that Venker articulates is neither one that we are insulated from nor is it one we no longer encounter in our day-to-day lives.
While it is interesting to witness the varied and complex opinions on this campus about Venker and the Uncomfortable Learning series, there has also been an underlying assumption in many of the conversations we have heard that puzzles us. One argument in particular stands out: some members of our community argue that it is useful for students at the College to be exposed to anti-feminist rhetoric because we do not experience anti-feminism within our own community. In other words, there is an implicit assumption that everyone (or even the majority of people on this campus) is a feminist, and that all understandings of feminism are the same.
In our experience, this is not the case. People here encounter anti-feminism all the time. There is a poster sale on Paresky steps that sells objectifying images of naked women every year. We have overheard a man at a party refer to the punch as “rape juice.” We have been catcalled by a student at the College that we recognized as we jogged on Cole Avenue. One first-year student told us that she has already found a ranking list of the women in her entry based on attractiveness. There was an anti-Planned Parenthood group on Paresky steps just the other day.
Our daily interactions with anti-feminism extend further than negative experiences walking down the street or chilling in Paresky. These anecdotes are symptoms of a problem in our community. There is hostility toward thinking critically about privilege – male privilege, yes, but also in terms of race, sexual orientation, class, ability and all other markers of identity. No matter our opinions on the events of the last week, this controversy gives us the opportunity to turn to ourselves and be honest with our own comforts and discomforts at the College. We are often flawed, inarticulate, misguided or unaware, but the demand to understand what truly makes each of us uncomfortable as we confront what we have taken for granted in our lives is imperative.
The College may be a liberal place (whatever that means) by national standards, but we cannot be lulled into the passive and dangerous belief that this campus is some kind of imagined feminist utopia, free from sexism or misogyny, or even an inherently feminist community. Additionally, the assumption that everyone who identifies as a feminist shares the same experiences and will share the same discomfort with Venker’s now-canceled event disregards the diversity of experiences on campus.
As we discuss the Venker controversy and feminism at the College, it is easy to create a dichotomy between Venker and the College, but we must remember that not everyone at the College is a feminist. The notion that Venker would have been this community’s first exposure to anti-feminist ideology is patronizing and inaccurate. As you continue to consider and debate the Venker controversy, we ask that you also use it as an opportunity to reflect on the climate of our own campus. Students already encounter anti-feminism every day at the College, and no matter your opinion on free speech, uncomfortable learning or promoting dialogues, this is unacceptable.
Olivia Goodheart ’18 is from Lorane, Ore. She lives in Mark Hopkins. Marissa Levin Shapiro ’18 is from New York, N.Y. She lives in Gladden.