Women Of, Not For, the World

Cornelia Beckett ’14

Opinions Editor

Smith’s sharp and undeniable turn toward the cold rhetoric of neoliberal “empowerment” rather than traditional feminist “liberation” is nowhere more evident than in our slogan: “Women for the World.” I’ve heard alums get miffed and say “What’s wrong with women for America?” – i.e., how dare you admit international students and women of color? But there’s an important semantic difference: on this campus, we are not already assumed to be women of the world, but women trained to go forth and dominate, to lean in, “for” the world. As if the world needs that. Fortunately, a large cadre of students such as myself already have guaranteed futures in low-paying, high-demand jobs of feminized labor, such as teaching, nursing, social work and even human resources. But I guess we should just all lean in harder.

There’s also the choice of Christine Lagarde as commencement speaker: another reaffirmation of capitalist values and the desire for role models of individual success. But the academy isn’t pretending anymore, and Smith isn’t alone. Academia wants to desperately make money while it can, while higher education has any social capital left. Groom a few more students to go into banking or high-ranking tech positions, and they’ll donate more to trickle down to what will be left of the humanities.

The cruel paradox is that whatever career women come to dominate next will be systematically devalued. Teaching and social work are the traditional examples, but now that more women than ever become lawyers, accountants and human resources professionals, those fields too see a drop in pay, prestige and “usefulness” (useful to whom?). Smith exists as a quasi-safe space and still a good holding period: college has not outlived its social utility as a buffer between high school and employment or, rather, grads’ competition with the job market.

Smith can recast itself as women for the world, as if an education here trains us to be a better kind of female neoliberal leader than anywhere else (hint: the real people with power in the world went to the Ivies, or have entrenched power that no degree can buy), but it will still struggle with urging us to go on and be “leaders.” Another truth: not everyone can lead. What’s the real message here? Are we to be women for the world, leaders, or scholars and pink-collar drudges?

Not just individual majors have the power to determine that, either. I heard a professor once describe Smith as “in the midst of a perpetual identity crisis,” so this is nothing new. But the shift toward Sandburg-style feminism is much darker. The old, hackneyed criticism of “out-of-touch academics” is not enough – I know it’s not the professors of this school who are pushing for us to lean in. In fact, most if not all of my peers have complained to me that Smith actively prevents students from doing good, original academic work unless it’s in the service of a brand-name fellowship. It is not the teachers but administrators, donors and myriad ivory tower bandits who want a select few Smithies (for it is impossible for all) to succeed to the level of corporate, influential alum.

So what can Smith do to actually cast a light in the name of progressivism and to be, as Sophia Smith stated in her founding, a perpetual blessing to women and the world? The slow march away from the facade of intellectual and economic equality has long since begun. If we really want to tap “a resource of human capital” as the corporate-feminist rhetoric would have it, there is but one option left. Admitting and recognizing trans women is currently the glaring and necessary action left to Smith. Trans women belong here. Full stop.

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