The Los Angeles Review of Books published an article last week called “Our Deep Springs Syllabus.” The fictional, satirical syllabus for the male-only school situated in the California desert is a humor piece. More importantly, though, it’s a plea to reexamine the female voice in male-dominated spaces. Swarthmore, to be sure, is not male-dominated to the degree that Deep Springs is (our student population, after all, is 51 percent female). But gender does shape a large portion of the discourse on campus — we’re constantly asking ourselves and each other whose voices are louder, in whose spaces they are heard and why that answer matters.
It’s not a mistake to look to our peers for answers to any and all of those questions. Swarthmore was founded as a co-ed institution, a socially subversive move for our 19th-century founders. Naturally, Swarthmore’s conversations regarding gender have followed in a similarly curious, if not subversive, manner throughout the years. Today, our attention is mostly focused on intersectional approaches to gender and discourse that includes non-binary gender identities.
These gender conversations take place everywhere — amongst Sharples trays piled high with empty cups and sticky bowls, in hushed whispers with the person in the McCabe isolation desk in front of you, or perhaps even in class. Thankfully, our campus is a perfectly safe for everyone to conduct these discussions because, after all, our student population isn’t a homogenous, single-gendered one. Non-white, non-cisgender men don’t need to ask to be heard in any special way because we’re not Deep Springs — right? Wrong.
Time and time again, discourse surrounding gender arises precisely because the places at Swarthmore that we are having them in aren’t safe for everyone involved. In response to this, the student body has called for the creation of spaces where gender conversations are as safe as possible, like Intercultural Center groups and clubs, events and entire buildings, one of which is the Women’s Resource Center (WRC).
After being struck by lightning last year, the WRC reopened with some notable changes to its previous function. This semester’s Thursday night housesitters, Liliana Frankel ’17 and Emmy Liu ’17, both reflected on the WRC’s past, present and future, and its changing meanings as conversations, spaces and consciousness on campus evolve. These reflections have indicated a need, Liu and Frankel feel, that is well-served by their new Thursday night discussion groups.
“I didn’t want the impression to be that the WRC is a place for women to bake men cookies when they’re drunk after a party [as it has been in the past],” said Liu of the WRC’s use in past years. She continued, “It’s not as if we don’t welcome comfort, but the fact that that is the perception I thought was a really valid point. [That] is why I am taking initiative: I want to make it a space where people can view the WRC as something bigger than just that kind of space.”
Frankel chimed in, “I see it as having a bigger place on campus as a symbol of solidarity for people that identify as women. I think that’s something that is lacking here.”
But in order to define solidarity, there has to be a group for and amongst whom this solidarity exists. Liu and Frankel had to ask themselves which parts of the Swarthmore student body the WRC — and their WRC hours specifically — aim to address.
Frankel believes that the WRC “has an obligation to remind [all] women that they have things they can relate to each other about.” In other words, the WRC is a place and an entity whose job it is to explore these tensions amongst women — and really amongst everyone — on campus, and, in some cases, question or intercept these divisive factors.
As Frankel put it, “This should be a spot … where women can stop seeing each other for how they present and for what they are … I want to project a perception of the WRC that is not targeted toward a certain type of woman/person.”
Given recent tension surrounding topics of gender on campus, from the institution of a Kappa Alpha Theta chapter at the college to rising concerns regarding sexual assault, the WRC’s new housesitters are attempting to understand gender and women in both localized and globalized contexts.
The Thursday night talks, focused on women and beauty in media, have done just that. Last week, the topic was Kim Kardashian’s PAPER Magazine photo shoot. The conversation soon turned into a dissection of colonialism, racism and sexism, not only during Kim’s shoot, but in the broader contexts of Swarthmore and society, as well.
The WRC, at least from 8-10 p.m. on Thursdays, has now become a dedicated safe space for debating Kim Kardashian’s butt and its implications. But perhaps it is also now a safe and appropriate space to transcend the sorts of problems that divide us. Maybe, even, Liu and Frankel’s discussion group is not just a device for parsing out and critiquing the finer points of feminism, mass media, and more. But, equally as importantly, a tool for uniting people in the spirit of discourse, and finding common ground as women and people who care about gender issues. These hours are a place to find solidarity in agreement, disagreement and everything in between.
“The women I talk to lately are hugely impressive and excellent people and to get to realize that is cool,” shared Frankel. She added, “We have the opportunity with literal time and money and food to create an event — not one that has a[n enormous] purpose or grand social value, but just [an opportunity to have] time that is set aside to meet women we may or may not know already and talk about stuff thats common to all of us.”
As a culminating project, Frankel and Liu are working to put together a panel of professors, magazine editors and experts on everything from race to eating disorders to discuss women and beauty in media. And following in what seems to be one of the most important themes in their WRC aspirations so far, they plan on co-sponsoring it with Theta and the IC.
Whether or not this panel comes to fruition, Frankel and Liu’s efforts this semester are hopefully just one conversation amongst many about how to look at women and gender in a new and progressive way that accounts for the complexities of space and safety. Upon leaving the meeting, Liu summed up perfectly what appears to be her and Frankel’s goal at the WRC, “This space should be dedicated to reinventing feminism.”