Monday, April 18, 2005

Authenticity and Performance at Smith

On the one hand, we have conservatives and romantics (that is to say, radical conservatives) whose god term is "authenticity": into this bracket, slot in words like "all-American" (i.e. white, male, upper/middle class); "anti-American" (i.e. anybody who is against the Iraq war), and "masculinity" (i.e. Schwarzenegger versus "girly men").

On the other hand, we have liberals and postmodernists (that is to say, avant-garde liberals) whose god term is "performance": into this bracket, slot in words like tenured professors (i.e. after all, getting paid $100,000 to describe comma splices as "subversive" gives "performance" a whole new meaning; and besides, we have worshipful graduate students who cushion us from the real world).

.... Meanwhile, another frontier opens, as the Financial Times reports :

i) Established 134 years ago, Smith has educated some of America’s most influential women. Feminist pioneers Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are graduates. So is the poet Sylvia Plath and former Republican first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. Set on a slope overlooking the town of Northampton in western Massachusetts, Smith is one of the four surviving “seven sisters” network of elite all-female schools.

It has been resolutely dedicated to the advancement of women (and women only) ever since it was set up. Its founder, Sophia Smith, was a wealthy New Englander who made it clear in her will that she wanted Smith to be a liberal arts college for women, equal to the best available to men; a place where women could “develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood”.

But now, a new insurgency by transgender students:

ii) Of the 2,500 women who attend Smith, about two dozen describe themselves as “female-to-male transgender”, or women who have become men. The term “transgender” itself is a catch-all that includes a wide spectrum of people who don’t identify with their birth sex; from transsexuals, who use surgery to change their sex, to those who change their appearance cosmetically - cross-dressers, as they used to be known, though such a term is considered old-school today. The number of transgender students at Smith is small, but it has been enough to create significant divisions on the campus. On one hand are the students who take an orthodox view of their college’s mission. These are the “girls with pearls” - the more traditional women who are at the college because of its rigorous academic training and its venerable heritage.

This is just a microcosm of a debate that has been held on campus for almost two years. In the spring of 2003, “trans” students began campaigning for a referendum to purge the school constitution of all gender-specific language. They wanted to replace “she” with “the student” and “her” with “the student’s”. About 1,100 students took part in the plebiscite, and the proposal was passed narrowly, by 50 votes.

A year later, the School Government Association held elections in which SGA vice-president Shawn Basta, a transgender student, ran for president. During the campaign, a broad coalition called for another referendum to overturn the constitution’s pronoun change, claiming that there had not been enough information before the original vote. Many students saw this as an unpleasant move aimed at calling attention to Basta’s gender identity....


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