From Los Angeles to New York: Student Activism and the Fight for Justice

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

On March 11, 2019, student activists at Sarah Lawrence College swarmed Westlands – the administrative building – at seven in the morning. They called for the college and the administrators to listen to their detailed list of demands which ranged from access to housing opportunities to assistance with international visas. The students announced that they would occupy Westlands until the demands were met; thus began the approximately ninety-hour long occupation. Their chants reverberated throughout the crowded halls, their sleeping bags and textbooks lined the floors, and their courage could be felt across campus and in every single classroom.

Undoubtedly, these students are some of the most determined, inspiring, and emotionally-generous individuals on campus. While I sat in Westlands in support, I began to think of the student activists throughout history and across the nation who have demanded and occupied just as those that surrounded me. The students demanded that administrators better the environment of the institution, which is not an isolated occurrence in any capacity. For instance, at Sarah Lawrence College alone, students have demanded that the college adjust their policies and provide better opportunities and access for students of color since the 1950s with sit-ins occurring in 1969, 1989, and now in 2019.

As I pondered on the idea of writing a piece on the history of student activism, I began to think about the demands made by student activists that came to fruition. Every activist hopes that positive change is realized, but more often than not, feelings of being disheartened and exhausted come from these tireless and courageous efforts. In the hopes of inspiring students to continue making necessary demands, I put the spotlight on the February Sisters of the University of Kansas and the years of activism by students that caused UCLA to create a Chicano/a Studies department.

On February 4th, 1972 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, the February Sisters – consisting of twenty women and four children – occupied the East Asian Studies department on campus. They called on the institution to provide free daycare that the University would finance, that women fill open positions in the administration, to develop an affirmative action program directed by women, and establish a Women’s Studies department. Directly following the protest, administrators began to meet the demands. The Hilltop Daycare Center was founded in 1972, the Women’s Studies department and Major were developed in 1972, Student Health services began to provide reproductive health options, and Marilyn Stokstad was hired as the associate dean.

The February Sisters’ tireless efforts to have their demands met should not slide under the radar, nor should those of the Chicano/a high school students of Los Angeles. In March of 1968, approximately 20,000 students walked out of their classrooms to protest the racism and the complete disregard of Mexican-American heritage by public school administrators and teachers. Students recognized their power in hitting them where it hurt; money. If the students did not attend their classes, the school lost funding. At this moment, UCLA noticed what they could do to benefit themselves and the Chicano/a community. They started offering Chicano/a Studies courses, and developed the department in the early 90s. As a result, the university marked an increase in enrollment. Without Chicano/a students recognizing their power as students in the cog of the institution, perhaps the department would not have been founded.

The unwavering courage and activism of students makes actual change. From the West Coast, to the Midwest, and all the way to Sarah Lawrence College on the East Coast, students have the power to enact change and cause unjust institutions to reevaluate the entire system. The students that occupied Westlands on March of 2019 will change the landscape of social, political, and cultural conversations at the college forever. They are calling on students, faculty, staff, and administration to recognize systematic racism, how it is perpetuated, and the lack of humanity that can exist in an ivory tower of academia. Just as the February Sisters of the University of Kansas did not rest until their demands were met, and the high school students of Los Angeles witnessed the development of a Chicano/a studies department, these dedicated and passionate student activists will push forward and make necessary demands until the change that needs to occur, does.

  1. “A Statement of Action,” KU Libraries Exhibits, accessed March 28, 2019, https://exhibits.lib.ku.edu/items/show/6835.
  2. “Women’s Rights Activism and Deans of Women at the University of Kansas.” Omeka RSS, exhibits.lib.ku.edu/exhibits/show/deans-of-women/the-february-sisters.

The Smart Girl’s Guide to Ordinariness

By Anushka Joshi
Anushka is a class of 2021 undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

I know little of my great-grandmother’s marriage except that she was married when she was thirteen to a man thirty years her senior, as was not uncommon in her time; that when she was widowed the bangles she wore on her arms were taken off and smashed to pieces according to Indian custom; that she wore white saris, as was expected of her, every day until her own death, never allowing herself even a blue or gray thread to be woven in to alleviate the decreed blankness of her existence. It was I who persuaded her finally to give in to color; on hot afternoons when we were left alone by the napping family, I would paint her fingernails and toenails all sorts of colors. I had always thought it was an act of acquiescence to a persistent great-granddaughter, but now I wonder if it was defiance, rising like bile to her mouth towards the end of her life.  

I knew her as joyful, but in pictures of her she is never smiling; people of her generation did not smile for photographers, looking thin-lipped at the camera instead, as if facing a firing squad. When she died, my parents and I had returned to America after a summer in Ahmedabad, our hometown. My mother held me for a long time, and gave me a hair straightener she had bought for me as consolation; I had wanted it for a long time but at fifteen dollars, it had been reluctantly dismissed as a luxury by my struggling family. For the rest of the year whenever I straightened my hair, I would think of her.

She had never told me she loved me for the same reason she had never smiled in photographs: people of her generation did neither of these things. But I knew she had. There were a thousand examples of love, but the one I hung onto was that when I came down with colds as a baby, she would hang small cloth sacks full of garlic above my crib. This, she said to my mother, would clear my lungs. That, and, she kept unshelled pistachios in a bowl by her bedside for me when I went to visit her. And she spent hours telling stories.

I remember her solitude more even than I remember her. Because the smashed bangles and colorless clothes, were all, of course, to ensure that she was not beautiful, that she would never marry again, that she would never love or be loved. If her white sari was a white envelope containing her, then loneliness was the address stamped on it by a society determined that her life should be unsent and unspent, unshared and undelivered.  

My life as it is now, living independently and far away from my family, would have bewildered her rather than made her proud: her expectations for me would not have changed from her own mother’s expectations for her.

Because, although women’s education in India has changed utterly from the era of my great-grandmother, whose education was halted at the fourth grade, the expectations have not changed much. They did not change for the next generation. My paternal grandmother dreamed of being an actress and was offered a role in a film; her father forbade her from accepting. The director cast another actress who would become legendary. My grandmother does not speak of this with much regret – ruefulness must be rationed, a certain amount of ounces for every quietly forsaken dream.

The dream of being an actress was not the only one: she and her younger brother were the most academic in the family, and her father had enough money to send only one of the seven siblings to medical school. He sat her down and asked her if she wanted to become a doctor. She answered as she was expected to: no, she did not want to become a doctor, she was afraid of blood. Her brother became a doctor, and my grandmother endured blood when she gave birth to two sons, and endured it again when one of them was partially blinded by a slingshot. She was not afraid of blood; she was just afraid of claiming too many lives for herself.

She was happy, of course: happiness had not been banished from her life, she had just been made to realize that her happiness did not lie in becoming an actress or a doctor, but in having a family. Her dreams had been domesticated. I wonder how many stories there are in India of women like my grandmother, who have been given an education with the understanding that they will make little real use of it. A friend of mine studying architecture for five years bemoaned the fact that her grandfather wants to see her married at twenty-five, a situation which gives her just one year after college to live her own life before she is “settled”. How truly unsettling is that? When I was nineteen and on a gap year, a middle-aged acquaintance had chastised me for taking time off from my education; she was a privileged woman who spoke fluent English as she gave me a dressing down: “What are you doing? Your biological clock is ticking.” Before that, when I was fifteen, an Indian classmate who had been raised in America told me she felt compelled to get married before twenty-four because after that it was “slim pickings.” I found the juxtaposition between the American phrase and the culturally Indian sentiment jarring, but since then I have grown to accept what she said was the commonly held belief. It’s as if we live in a dystopian era created by Margaret Atwood in which a whole country conspires to make its young women believe that at twenty-four, their life will be over, all in a bid to rush them. If I had a minute for every time I’ve heard a friend rue about her parents pressuring her regarding the “ticking clock,” then I would have a lot of time on my hands.

Which is what we all need.

Of course, till twenty-five, my friend the aspiring architect can smoke weed and drink with us, her friends, and date whomever she likes, but only till then. Does the partying end upon being married? Sometimes, sometimes not. I know of someone from a conservative family who makes marijuana brownies with her husband and his friends. She is free to be drunk, be stoned, be outspoken, be smart, all things denied to our grandmothers and mothers; she is allowed to be whatever she wants to be, but she is not allowed to become anything.

Instead of becoming, growing, achieving, we wait. My generation of Indian girls is the generation in waiting. Girls who finish college and open up fashion boutiques or unthreatening patisseries in our hometowns, waiting to be arranged or loved into a marriage as if we’re waiting to be spirited away. I wish we, the Generation in Waiting, could be called something more glamorous, like the Lost Generation; but we are not allowed to be lost.

As India struggles with increasing reports of gang rapes, as a black-market industry revolves around doctors telling parents whether their baby is a boy or girl (and thereby deciding whether the baby is allowed to be born or becomes another case of female feticide), as women in crowded local trains count molestations with the same resigned, numbed matter-of-factness as they count station stops, this may seem like an irrelevant problem. But it isn’t. It’s as if those of us who have escaped the ultrasound and been allowed to be born are born with a guide to carry us through life, instructing us on evading excellence, on settling instead of summiting. It teaches us the art of un-remarkability. It is passed down through generations, because though the opportunities have grown, the options are still the same. I like to think of it as The Smart Girl’s Guide to Ordinariness.

Sidelined: The Fight for Gender Equity in the World of Ultimate Frisbee

By Bella Rowland-Reid
Bella is a second year undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Watching the broadcast rerun, it’s hard to tell if the background sounds are cheers or static from the poor video quality. Either way, people were watching. The footage is from an NFL live stream of the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings preseason game where, during halftime, the Minnesota Windchill and Madison Radicals were in the throes of a showcase game. While neither team made a show of running onto the grass, that all changed once the eighty foot video board lit up behind the goal post: there, on the field, a white plastic disc cut through the air, and the game had begun. Although it wasn’t broadcast on television, for the hundreds of thousands of fans in the stands of U.S. Bank Stadium and anyone watching online, it was their first glimpse into the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. And, although the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), to which both the Windchill and Radicals belong, is technically open to people of any gender, of the fourteen players on the field at any given moment of that game, all were men.

It wasn’t surprising, given the AUDL’s historic lack of female representation in the eight years since its inception, that there were no female players on the field. Still, the backlash was swift and grating: comment boards, Reddit threads, and niche ultimate news sites filled with criticism from both sides. Some—mostly male—players and fans criticized the league for playing a showcase game in the first place, as if such a mainstream platform would strip the sport of the its counterculture identity. The match, however, sat much differently with female players. “Thanks for the reminder that women aren’t welcome at real games or showcase games,” wrote Seattle club player Kat Overton on Twitter. When the AUDL promoted a showcase game featuring only male players, they sent a message, intentionally or otherwise, about whom their sport was, and still is, intended for.

From its inception, ultimate Frisbee was off the beaten path. Created in 1968 by a group of high schoolers, participants first played games in parking lots, using telephone poles as goal markers. By 1972, the first ever college game premiered, a match between Rutgers and Princeton. In 1984, the inaugural college championships were hosted by USA Ultimate, the newfound national governing body to the sport. In the finals, Stanford beat Glassboro University by a score of 21 to 18. The women’s division wasn’t introduced until three years later.

The sport is more popular than ever, and is continuing to grow. The biggest matches are shown on sports channels like ESPN 2, and there’s talk of a possible sport for ultimate in the the 2028 Olympics. However, ultimate remains loyal to the game’s philosophy, rooted in spunk, fun and sportsmanship, known in the official rule book as the “Spirit of the Game.” Players wear fake mustaches in the field; tournaments hold trophies for best costume; post-game spirit circles include dance-offs, in which victory is more coveted than in the game itself. Ultimate, at its core, rejects the conventional mold. Therein lies the question: why, for a sport that is said to go against everything that traditional sports values, is gender representation such a large issue?

Up until a couple years ago, it was rare to find high-quality, full-game footage of the women’s division, while men’s leagues had been producing live streams and highlight reels for years. The High School National Invite consisted of only eight girls’ teams in its inaugural year in 2017, compared to sixteen teams in the boy’s division. In ealy 2017, the World Flying Disc Federation was slammed with criticism for failing to hire any female commentators, to which Communications Director Rob McLeod responded by claiming “[we don’t] live in a patriarchy,” and the affirmative hiring of a woman would not be putting “the best commentator on the mic.” Traditional sports are criticized for giving women’s divisions a fraction of the media coverage men receive, and ultimate is no different: the nicer fields, bigger opportunities, and better time slots, are given to men.

The issue of gender equity–along with inequalities in race, class, and other intersections of privilege–is one that ultimate has dealt with since its inception, and will continue to until the sport prioritizes marginalized players. This is not to say changes haven’t been made–filming company Fulcrum Pro has been at the forefront of producing high-quality women’s games, and the USA Ultimate Transgender Inclusion Policy was recently revised to become more inclusive regarding trans players. However, the fight is not over, and for every step of progress, there seems to be another two backwards, a constant reminder of how far the sport still has to go in order to achieve the inclusivity it is so keen on promoting.

This essay was originally written in Spring 2018, and less than nine months later, the Vikings hosted another showcase game of ultimate during halftime. This time, the game was between Windchill and Chicago Wildfire, another AUDL team from the Midwest Division. Yet again, the game was live streamed, and yet again, that same eighty-foot scoreboard lit up with video of players throwing the disc for what felt like miles, only to be caught by the majestic dives of their teammates onto the green and white turf. The crowd cheered louder than they had perhaps the entire first half of the football game, the game they paid hundreds to attend. It was spectacular, history making, even–and there wasn’t one woman in sight.


This was an excerpt from a longer piece. 

Wonder Woman and the Importance of Female Comic Book Characters

By Katie Swartwood
Katie is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.  

Since her creation in 1941, Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, has become one of the most pervasive female comic book characters of all time. She’s been an inspiration for generations of women. This can be specifically traced to how the creator, William Moulton Marston, envisioned the character. He held a particular reverence for women and crafted Wonder Woman to be a powerful female force based on the women in his own life. He intended for Wonder Woman to be intelligent, independent, strong, and unwilling to submit to men’s power. The themes of Wonder Woman’s origins include an island without men, men as oppressors of women, and female independence, which are significant signifiers of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon.

The original Wonder Woman refused to marry her male co-star, an American pilot named Steve Trevor. She lived on the island of Themyscira which contained no male inhabitant and instead was reared by fearless, warrior women. Prior to meeting Steve Trevor, the only stories of men Diana knew were those of oppressive, slaving owning men that forced the Amazonians into submission. In fact, Wonder Woman’s iconic golden bracelets are worn as a reminder of the Amazonian’s time enslaved by men, and if any man is to connect chains to them, the powerful Amazonians will lose their strength. (1) This could explain Wonder Woman’s aversion to marriage, as she might have feared the idea of men controlling her. This directly contrasted to the customs of the 1940s when many women saw marriage and family as their main aspirations. For young girls and women to see Wonder Woman thrive in her independence, they could understand that women could maintain lives outside of marriage, as well as understand that men’s control over them could be devastating to their own power.

However, after Marston died, so did his vision for Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman’s new writer, Robert Kanigher, dismantled Marston’s feminist Wonder Woman vision. Instead of fighting bad guys, she was reduced to movie star, model, and babysitter; she even wanted to marry Steve Trevor. (2) In this instance, Wonder Women did not only reflect the positive advancements for women in America, she reflected the subservient role they were forced to take after men returned from World War II and demanded their jobs back. Instead of standing tall as an icon for the women’s movement, like she had in the 1940s, her entire character was compromised so that she could fit one man’s ideal of women’s role in the 1950s.

As the 1970s fell upon America, feminists looked to reclaim Wonder Woman from her new roles. In 1972, the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine plastered a towering image of Wonder Woman on their front cover. Early second wave feminists used Ms. Magazine to publish their concerns and radical ideas for women in America. They generated an ever-growing reader base that was dedicated to the emerging women’s movement. Of all the strong females throughout history, they chose to place Wonder Woman on their first cover, even though at that time she had transformed into the antithesis of the feminist movement.

The iconic feminist leader herself, Gloria Steinem, is largely credited with playing a major role in Wonder Woman’s 1970s reincarnation. In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Steinem explains her role in Wonder Woman’s feminist return. She discusses how she both privately and publicly lobbied D.C. Comics to replace this new Wonder Women with the original. The Ms. founders wanted women and girls alike to understand what they had been missing. By featuring Wonder Woman on their 1972 cover, they hoped to accomplish this. Privately, they lobbied Dick Giordano, who headed D.C. Comics at that time. They encouraged him to replace those who painted Wonder Woman as an ordinary, subservient woman with those who would do her original character justice. (3) As a result, Wonder Woman regained her powers and her conviction to fight for justice. From this moment on, Wonder Woman regained her rightful place as a feminist icon.

Wonder Woman was not just any run-of-the-mill comic book character. The young girls that grew up reading the original Wonder Woman comics saw her as a inspiration- as an example of the great things that women could accomplish in a time when women weren’t allowed very many opportunities. She encouraged these women to grow up and fight against the injustices that hindered women’s advancement. And women like Steinman understood the importance of such a character and made sure that little girls in the future could have the same role model she had growing up.

Even as recent as 2017, Wonder Woman was getting her own major film directed by a woman. While many expected Patty Jenkins to fumble with the big Hollywood production, she proved that having a strong female presence behind the screen is just as important as having them on the screen. Jenkin’s Wonder Woman character lacked the hyper sexualization that many female comic book characters suffer from. Even with her short skirt and corset like armor, none of the shots focused on her ass or her cleavage. Instead, they portrayed her a strong, capable hero- someone that little girls everywhere could aspire to be.

One of the greatest things about Wonder Woman is that she is a character that anyone can see themselves in. As Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán stated in 2015, “…she stood for all of us: Wonder Woman the Chicana, Wonder Woman the South American Amazon.” (4) Wonder Woman’s image has been reproduced to fit the image for every woman and every version of feminism. She represents black women, Latina women, lesbian women, trans women, disabled women, girls, women, seniors, and so many more. Wonder Woman is an icon for every girl that has felt powerless; throughout her history she has embodied the true goals of feminism: equality, love, and acceptance. As a 2017 Party City Halloween commercial portrayed various women in a multitude of Wonder Women costumes and said, “What’s better than Wonder Woman…? Wonder Women.” (5) 

Sources:

  1. Jill Lepore. Secret Life of Wonder Woman. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015), 12-14.
  2. Jill Lepore. Secret Life of Wonder Woman, 271.
  3. Yohona Desta, “How Gloria Steinem Saved Wonder Woman,” Vanity Fair. October 10, 2017. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/10/gloria-steinem-wonder-woman
  4. Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán. “Introduction: The 1970s.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3/4 (2015): 14.
  5. “Wonder Women,” Youtube. October 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcgBszNWcVU