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Mixing Gender & Politics

By Peggy S. Chen

Women's participation on the Undergraduate Council has increased this year, but some female members say it can still be difficult to make their voices heard within the council.

When Elizabeth A. Haynes '98 resigned her position as chair of the Undergraduate Council's Student Affairs Committee (SAC) last fall, she cited a complaint often repeated by critics of the council.

According to Haynes, it is sometimes difficult to be a woman and a leader on the council.

At the time, Haynes said she left the committee because of a "hostile environment."

"[My behavior] was seen in a very different light [than men's], somewhat aggressive, somewhat bitchy," Haynes says now.

"When a woman walks onto the council floor, she is judged," she adds.

Other members express concern about the respect accorded to women on the council.

"It is a constant challenge to present ourselves in a manner in which we are taken seriously," says council member E. Michelle Drake '97-'96.

Some representatives also say the atmosphere of council debates intimidates female speakers.

According to council Secretary Lamelle D. Rawlins '99, whispering and frequent interruptions during council meetings often discourage female speakers.

"It's not to say that [simply] because there's a woman in front of the council that that's why people aren't paying attention," Rawlins says. "But in general, she is not accorded the respect that men get."

Women on the council say they are concerned about the respect that they receive, but also say the council's environment is not nearly as hostile as it used to be.

In fact, during the 1992 to 1993 academic year gender relations on the council degenerated to an all time low. Out of 88 council members, only 21 were women.

After 10 women on the council met to discuss gender issues in the fall of 1993, then council vice-chair David L. Hanselman Jr. '94 criticized their meeting as "sour grapes" and urged the women to "devote less time [to] whining and more time [to] working on constructive council business."

The ensuing uproar over gender relations and women's role on the council divided men and women for years to come.

Now, more than two years later council members say gender relations have definitively improved.

Male Dominance

The leadership of the council has historically been dominated by men.

In its 14 years of existence, the council has never had a female president, and most positions on the executive board have been filled by men, according to council vice president Brian R. Blais '97.

This year, out of the 14 officers on the executive board, only one, Rawlins, is a woman.

According to statistics provided by council President Robert M. Hyman '98, 34 women and 47 men are now members of the council, as compared to 26 women and 54 men last March. The proportion of female representatives has been growing steadily since 1990-91.

End of an Era

But with female representation on the rise, the era of male dominance looks to be at an end.

Indeed, some representatives say they believe the council has become increasingly receptive to women's needs.

"The dynamic in the council has been towards gradual improvement," Rawlins says.

Justin C. Label '97 agrees. "Things are generally better than a few years ago. There is in general now a higher sensitivity to gender issues," he says.

Despite the lack of women historically on the executive board, women do hold less visible leadership roles in the council, former council member Alicia Moretti '96 wrote in an e-mail message.

Seven of the nine delegates the council sends to the Committee on Student Life, the Committee on House Life and the Committee on Undergraduate Education are women.

According to Hyman, these female delegates demonstrate increased female activism on the council this year.

"This council should be commended for major inroads. In many important ways, there are many strong women," Hyman says.

Is the Hostility Real?

While a number of council members say they believe the council--while improving--remains a difficult forum for women, another group contends that the council is not as hostile as some have made it out to be.

Several council members dispute Haynes' assertion that gender played the major role in creating a hostile environment, saying instead that personality and politics were the relevant issues.

"It's hard for a women to be assertive without being characterized as shrill, harsh and bitchy," says SAC member Melissa B. Weintraub '97. "I'm sure Liz fell prey to some of those characteristics. But I think that her discomfort was a result of some fundamental differences over the direction the committee was taking, not only her gender."

Current SAC chair Marco B. Simons '97 also questions the role of gender as a dividing force on the council.

"It's difficult for me to agree that gender discrimination was a part [of her resignation]," Simons says. "SAC has very active members who are women, so I don't see it as likely."

And other representatives say women are at case participating in council debates and forums.

"Women on the U.C. feel very comfortable speaking," says Jennifer R. Dean '96.

New Women's Group

Regardless of the debate about the council environment toward women, women are clearly making inroads at council meetings.

This year, the creation an informal women's caucus had enlarged the role of women at council meetings.

"[The women's caucus] is acting as a proactive body of political women who want to address the issues of women on the U.C. and women on campus in general," says Drake, a caucus member.

Rebecca E. Stich '98, one of the chief organizers of the caucus, says official recognition of the caucus is not currently necessary because much of its proposed legislation is supported by the full council.

"The only time I think that [an official caucus] will come into play is when we all want to formally sponsor an amendment as a symbolic gesture, and when we want to have the full strength of the women on the council," Rawlins says.

According to Blais, an official caucus would be subject to council policy against discrimination. The caucus would have to admit male members to gain official recognition.

Proposed Reforms

Women are not only organizing in the council, they are working hard to reform it to make it more equal.

A series of new proposals intended to address women's concerns on the council are currently under debate.

An amendment presented last week by Rawlins in a meeting of the executive board would reform the constitution of the council to make all wording gender-neutral.

A second amendment would give the secretary the power to change such phrasing in other council documents.

These proposals will be voted on in the second meeting of the council next semester.

Council officers have also discussed measures to encourage more female participation during meetings.

One suggestion was to require speakers to stand at the podium with a microphone in order to discourage interruptions and focus the council's attention on each speaker.

The women's caucus is planning a public speaking workshop for women on the council and on campus who would like to improve their speaking.

Hyman has also said he will wait longer during meetings for less outspoken members to volunteer, call on members to speak and try to prevent interruptions.

Women's Issues

The council has already sponsored several projects dealing with women's issues, mostly with safety.

The council subsidized the Harvard Police Department's Rape Aggression Defense program (RAD). It also contributed financial support to "Model Mugging" sessions and the Runners' Alliance, a group which promotes safety in numbers when running.

Council members also aided the Radcliffe Union of Students's creation of HASTE, the Harvard Alliance for Safety Training and Education.

Representatives from the council and HASTE now jointly attend meetings of the Security Council. Harvard's ad-hoc committee that deals with security and problems on campus, Simons says.

Some female council members say they believe the increased presence of female representatives on the council is central to this new attention to women's issues.

"Men are as heavily involved [in women's issues] as women are...but in order to have something addressed, someone does need to bring up the issue," Dean explains. "I guess [the issue] is more important to you if you have a personal stake in it."

The Role of PUCC

Many credit the increased number of females on the council to the Progressive Undergraduate Council Coalition (PUCC), founded this fall.

One of PUCC's objectives is to encourage more women and minorities to join the council, says Rawlins, who is also a PUCC member.

She says the existence of PUCC was one of the reasons she decided to run for the council.

Another objective of PUCC is to promote the concerns of women and minorities in the council.

"[The council this year] doesn't seem much different...but there are definitely more women's issues," Dean says.

Some believe PUCC's presence has also encouraged more women to speak up in debates.

"There are more female voices on the council, largely due to PUCC's influence," Haynes says.

However, many de-emphasize PUCC's role in supporting female council members.

"I know PUCC did a good job of encouraging women, but women don't necessarily need an organization to run under," Drake says. "Women are quite capable of running by themselves. PUCC wasn't just looking to recruit women, but had a particular political agenda in mind."

Optimism for the Future

Many council members note progress made this year and hope for future gains.

"Politics is a field that women have been excluded from for a long time," says Melissa C. Jaazos '96, "Women were excluded from Harvard for a long time, so it might take some time for things to even up [in the council]."

"We moved in a new direction, tackled a whole new set of issues," Hyman agrees. "I have great hope for the future."

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