Rally Day Medalists: #WhichWomen Does Smith College Endorse?

Photos Courtesy of arts.gov, thetaskforce.org, likesuccess.com, bizjournals.com (left to right) | This year’s Smith Medalists represent a diverse array of Smith alumnae – but are all of them good spokeswomen for the College?

Photos Courtesy of arts.gov, thetaskforce.org, likesuccess.com, bizjournals.com (left to right) | This year’s Smith Medalists represent a diverse array of Smith alumnae – but are all of them good spokeswomen for the College?

Bess Hepner ’16
Contributing Writer

On Feb. 17, Smith students will have the afternoon off from classes for Rally Day. On this day, Smith students honor not only the alumnae who have come before us, but also celebrate our future and the enormous potential we have as Smithies.

This Rally Day, four distinguished alumnae will be honored with the Smith Medal. They are Joan Harris ’52, an arts philanthropist; Kim (Rea) Carey ’89, a social justice activist; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy ’02, a documentary filmmaker; and last but not least, Phebe Novakovic ’79, a “business leader.”

Novakovic is the CEO of the fourth-largest defense contractor in the nation, General Dynamics. In 2014, she made $19 million through the production of tanks, missiles, warships and other technologies that make violent warfare possible.

This decision to honor Novakovic is reminiscent of an incident that happened two years ago. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, decided not to speak at the 2014 Commencement after student protests. Protestors felt that the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Policies disproportionately harm women and people of color as a result of promoting neoliberalism.

What is feminist about oppressing other women in order to build up one’s own power? Novakovic and Lagarde have both done a very good job of gaining power in male-dominated fields. But doing so only upholds and maintains an exploitive patriarchal system with a different demographic in charge. If these are the people we are choosing to honor at Smith, we need to consider what message that sends about our college. #WhichWomen – a hashtag made popular by students protesting Lagarde’s speech – are we supporting?

After the incident with Lagarde two years ago, President Kathleen McCartney facilitated a series of panels and conversations “to discuss how we cultivate a culture of civil discourse, diversity of thought and freedom of expression,” as she wrote in an email to the Smith community on Sept. 29, 2014. While these events were important in starting a discussion concerning what freedom of speech means on college campuses and questioning what Smith should stand for in this day and age, according to faculty involved, little progress has been made.

Colleges all over the United States have been having conversations about whom their schools choose to honor and what message these honorees send about the type of education students receive.

For example, in May 2015, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill renamed Saunders Hall – an academic building named after a 19th century Ku Klux Klan chief organizer – to Carolina Hall. More locally, Amherst College recently removed its mascot, the Lord Jeffs, a reference to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a Colonial military commander known for purposefully giving blankets infected with smallpox to Native Americans.

These conversations have not happened easily. Many of them are a result of protests, significant student organizing and a good amount of community backlash.

Although these discussions involve many disagreements, they are essential to the existence and future of our schools. Student protest is not a dangerous abuse of freedom of speech – it is healthy and has been going on for years.

Smith is not the same place it was 50 years ago, nor should it be. We now accept transwomen (although gender identity is still the focus of an ongoing discussion on campus). Seventy-two percent of our undergraduate students are on some type of financial aid. About 46 percent of students from the United States are non-white. Given our diverse student body, we need to ensure that our school is honoring figures that support, rather than attack, our undergraduate classes.

In arguing to hear the voices of those who continue to oppress, colonize and kill in the name of feminism, we are not listening to the voices of those women who are oppressed, colonized and killed, who suffer as a result of an oppressive patriarchal system. We need to seriously consider whom we honor and what message they send about Smith to the community at large. In doing so, we also need to consider what kind of feminism we are endorsing here. In 2016, we cannot continue to be a school of contradictions in which women are encouraged to apply from a wide variety of backgrounds and are force-fed an agenda of neoliberal feminism that may contradict and endanger their very existence.

With honorees like Novakovic, Smith sends the message that real success is not changing the system but maintaining it. This is not just about Novakovic and her neoliberal agenda; it is about the future of Smith, about feminism on an institutional level and about us Smithies. We need to have this conversation for ourselves, for the many alumnae who came before us, for future Smith students and for the many oppressed people around the world.

As a women’s liberal arts school, #WhichWomen do we endorse?

One Comment

  1. Najwa Alsheikh says:

    Fantastic article.

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