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Considering 'Women's Issues' at Harvard

By Noah Oppenheim

Thank goodness for folks like Shai M. Sachs '01. This past Sunday, Sachs, along with 23 other student representatives, voted to keep "Radcliffe" in the name of the Undergraduate Council. While Sachs presumably understands that Radcliffe no longer exists as an undergraduate institution, he told The Crimson that his vote was a protest against the neglect of women's rights on campus. He explained, "Female students are still at a big disadvantage, the administration hasn't done anything to fight discrimination."

Well, this past Wednesday the aforementioned administration held an informative town meeting--well-publicized and open to the public--where the matter of women on campus was the topic of discussion. Neither Sachs, nor any of the other 22 concerned council members who voted with him, bothered to show up.

I'm grateful for people like Sachs, because without them, it might be slightly more difficult to convey the level of absurdity that currently defines gender politics at Harvard. In the wake of the Harvard-Radcliffe merger, all of the requisite interest groups have taken to the streets, and it has become high-season for lofty symbolic gestures and self-righteous posturing.

While Sachs and his cohorts apparently had other plans on Wednesday night, I was intrigued by his assertion that women are still at a disadvantage at Harvard. So, I went to the town hall meeting, hoping to be educated about the persistent oppression in my midst. Unfortunately, those in attendance--the usual cast of characters: the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Perspective--had another priority.

It seems that they are all miffed about the process used to select students to the advisory committee of the new Ann Radcliffe Trust. The Trust is intended to distribute funds to student groups and generally promote attention to women's issues on campus. It assumes its official responsibilities on July 1, 2000. The advisory committee is a small group, picked by Assistant Dean of the College Karen G. Avery '87, that, in the coming months, will help determine how the Trust will operate. Whether they are formal members or not, all interested students have been encouraged to provide the committee with input.

Most of the community leaders who spoke at Wednesday's meeting acknowledged that they had, in fact, been formally accounted for on the advisory board. However, they were nevertheless quite disgruntled. One woman objected to the fact that some people she knew really, really wanted to be on the committee--in fact, she reported that these people were "desperate" in their enthusiasm--had not been selected. Another woman objected to the inclusion of men. She inquired, "What do people who don't come from women's groups or have a stake in women's issues have to bring?"

Of course, it is difficult to respond to such a question without understanding which issues exactly are "women's issues." Thankfully, a nice little trope was thrown about throughout the evening--apparently "sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault" are women's issues. Additionally, one speaker indicated that she was concerned about the availability of "emotional support" for women on campus. And another complained that now that Radcliffe's facilities might no longer be accessible, women might have to worry that "people would barge into the JCR" during their meetings.

By the end of the night, I must admit that I was rather confused. Surely, sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are issues that belong to everyone. Why are women's meetings any more deserving of protected space than anyone else's? And, as for the existence of "emotional support," don't we all need a bit of that? While most of those in the room were pre-occupied with the bureaucratic workings of the Trust, I was beginning to wonder why the Trust existed in the first place.

My confusion was only compounded when two women began questioning why the Trust wouldn't be granting money to groups which explicitly barred men from membership. When Dean Harry R. Lewis '68 reiterated the importance of the College's non-discrimination policy, one of the women explained, "It's very necessary that some groups be all women to not have the sexual tension." I wonder if RUS has decided to embrace the final clubs.

It may be time for the feminist activists on this campus to take a little time-out for a good old-fashioned reality check. Some committees, in order function effectively, have to limit their membership. The overwhelming majority of undergraduate women are not complaining of any rampant discrimination by Harvard. Sexual assault is a matter of public safety, not gender politics. The non-discrimination sword cuts both ways. We all need more meeting space and an occasional hug.

Dean Lewis described the Radcliffe merger as the culminating moment in the "normalization of women's status as undergraduates at Harvard." It's time for "women's issues" to undergo a similar process of normalization.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column will resume in January.

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