Lots of questions have been raised since Bridget Kerrigan first hung a Confederate flag from a window in her Kirkland room three weeks ago. Is her action a fierce display of Southern pride, or is it a disingenuous attention-getting ploy? Is she really an ardent Southerner?...
Bridget L. Kerrigan '91 has provoked a march, angry eat-ins, heated shouting matches and several highly disapproving statements from University administrators, including President Derek C. Bok.
Indeed, her hanging of a Confederate flag from her fourth-floor Kirkland House suite three weeks ago has given rise to a number of questions, many of which remain largely unanswered.
Is her action, as she claims, simply a display of fierce southern pride and a desire to spark debate? Or is it a disingenuous attention-getting ploy designed as a springboard for a political campaign on a conservative ticket? And in fact, is she really an ardent Southerner, or is she using that identity as a guise, an excuse for causing the current controversy?
The answer depends largely on whom you ask. Like the Confederate flag, her name provokes strong and conflicting opinions from anyone within range.
Ask Kerrigan, and she'll tell you she's "just the average blonde girl from Virginia," a watchdog making sure that she, as a Southerner, gets the respect she deserves from the Harvard community.
"The fact is, I'm diversity, and Harvard is having a pretty hard time accepting me," she says. "For all the diversity that Harvard claims, this is Brahmin Yankee monoculturalism here."
Kerrigan says she is glad she has stirred up a spirited political debate, but that she is disappointed with how those around her have reacted. "I've been extremely saddened by the public actions of my house master and tutor, when I think they should not have come down on either side of a matter of opinion," Kerrigan says.
Kerrigan, who transferred from the University of Virginia after her sophomore year, is no stranger to controversies at Harvard. Last year, she hung a Confederate flag from her window in Peabody Terrace, until her superintendent asked her to remove it, a move she says "disillusioned" her.
In addition, Kerrigan is one of the charter members of Peninsula, a campus conservative magazine, many of whose positions have themselves stirred up much debate since the periodical's inception last year.
Katherine J. Florey '92, who lived with Kerrigan last year in Peabody Terrace, says that Kerrigan "knew what she was getting herself into" by hanging the flag. Nonetheless, Florey adds, "she's very committed to what she believes."
Others, however, are less charitable in assessing her motivations. "I know she likes being in the limelight," says Nigel W. Jones '91, a Kirkland resident. "I know she wants people writing about her and that's why she hung the flag."
For her part, Kerrigan says that while she may be flamboyant, she is not out to seek attention simply for its own sake. "This is not an ego trip for me," Kerrigan says. "This is not the start of a political campaign."
Florey, however, says she thinks Kerrigan will eventually seek political office. "I always joke with her that she's going to end up in Congress," Florey says. "Even though she denies it, part of her hopes she will."
But Kerrigan maintains she is not a candidate for any political office, and that such a concern has not factored into her decision to create the recent controversy.
"If nominated I will not run. If elected I will not serve," Kerrigan says. "I want to be a video jockey on MTV." She says her immediate plans are to attend law school at the University of Virginia, where she has already gained acceptance.
A True Southerner?
Although much of her stated rationale for hanging the Confederate flag is based on the idea of defending the Southern ideal, some who remember her from her younger years say they don't recall anything particularly "Southern" about her at all.
In an interview, Kerrigan refused to say exactly where she was born. The most specific thing she would say is, "I was born in the South. I was born a rebel." She says she has lived in Mobile, Alabama; Great Falls, Virginia; and Arizona.
While Kerrigan speaks with a Southern accent, and maintains she's always had it, some say they don't really remember her displaying that trait when when she lived in Virginia. Geoff S. Keenan, who attended Langley High School with Kerrigan and who lives across the street from her house in Great Falls, Virginia, says he's "pretty sure" she didn't have the accent in high school.
A high school friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity says the town Kerrigan lived in is by no means part of the deep South, but is merely "a very wealthy Washington suburb."
The friend says Kerrigan's recent attempt to portray herself as a defender of the South comes as news to him. "If Bridget was to try to show that she represents a Southern belle, I couldn't be more surprised," he says.
Of Kerrigan's flag-hanging activities, the friend says, "it totally surprises me that she would be doing something like that." The friend also says he does not remember her having a Southern accent.
Besides possibly changing her accent, Kerrigan has also changed her name. She says her parents intended her to have the name "Bridget," but overlooked an error on her birth certificate, which spelled the name "Brigid."
Kerrigan says she discovered the error at age 16, when she went to get her driver's license. She kept her legal documents under the name "Brigdet," but used the name "Brigid" until she got to Harvard. She says she made the switch to avoid "a logistical and clerical nightmare."
Keenan mentions that he does not recall Kerrigan taking part in any unusual political activity in her high school years. And in fact, in an interview, Kerrigan did not suggest in any way that politics was a large part of her life during that time.
One of her main passions during high school, she says, was riding horses. Another highlight was traveling to Ireland in a special program that concentrated on Irish history and literature, she says.
She was a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, she says, and was accepted by the University of Virginia under their Early Decision plan. She didn't consider applying to Harvard, she says, because everything she wanted was available in Virginia.
But her life took a dramatic turn, she says, in the summer before she was supposed to leave for Charlottesville and the campus planned by Thomas Jefferson. An automobile accident in July 1987 left her comatose for a week, and it took her nearly a year to recuperate fully.
According to a contemporaneous article in the Washington Post, the accident killed 17-year-old Amy Edgerton, a friend and passenger in a black Toyota truck driven by Kerrigan. In the article, Capt. Ronald Miner, Fairfax county police traffic division commander, speculated that alcohol was a factor in the accident.
According to Kerrigan, a Fairfax County court dismissed the case. "I did not even get a ticket for that accident," she says.
Although she refused to comment on a civil suit relating to the accident, Kerrigan says the accident constituted a major turning point in her life and was a major force in shaping many of her political ideas.
"I'm a rugged individualist. I don't believe in handouts. I don't believe in favors. I don't believe in the politics of victimization," she says. "When you take something like [the accident] and come back from it, you don't have much sympathy for people with minor complaints."
Besides shaping her politics, Kerrigan says, the accident also "brought back religion as a particular force in my life."
Because of the accident, Kerrigan enrolled at Virginia a semester late, and spent three semesters there before deciding to head north to Harvard in the fall of 1989.
"I had mixed feelings leaving Virginia. It offered me a lot," Kerrigan says.
At Virginia, she says, she spent much of her time going to parties on "Rugby Row," a hotspot for fraternities on the Virginia campus. Rather than write articles about politics, she says, she chronicled the school's polo matches.
Kerrigan, now a government concentrator at Harvard, never declared a major at Virginia, according to an official at the school's registrar's office. She says she wrote a thesis on anti-federalism while at Virginia.
Henry J. Abraham, Hart professor of government and foreign affairs at Virginia, says that in the constitutional law class he taught, "she was an excellent student," adding that she was "very articulate and very principled."
He describes her as "an exemplary student, always in class, always prepared." Abraham says he believes Kerrigan transferred to Harvard for the academic opportunities available here.
Kerrigan says she applied to Harvard on a whim, and later chose to come here--against the advice of some professors who suggested that Harvard would be too liberal for her--because of the prospect of going to a place that once would have excluded her based on her gender and ethnicity.
"When I got into Harvard, it was an opportunity to go someplace that at one point excluded Irish, at one point excluded Catholics, at one point excluded women, and I'm all three. And I figured, what an opportunity," Kerrigan says.
Now, as a graduating senior, Kerrigan has about two months left at Harvard. She maintains that the flag will stay at Harvard as long as she does--until both head home to Virginia after Commencement.