Feminism Resurrected at New School
“So, what is feminism?” a discussion leader asked. The five women and one man in the group quickly looked down at the white paper-covered table. Stumped by this opening question, they contemplated their plates of catered Mexican food and the huge task of defining something as broad as feminism, let alone how to incorporate such an enigma into the daily goings-on of The New School.
Lang students Jamie Merwin and Rhiannon Auriemma organized the event, “The Coming Resurrection,” on October 12 to encourage the development of a feminist community at The New School and to discuss the university’s inadequate sexual assault policy. “We wanted to get a bunch of badass feminists together in one room,” Auriemma said.
The assault policy was definitely the most clear-cut issue on the table. Beyond that, conversations in the nine small discussion groups ranged from whether or not Sarah Palin is a feminist to assertions like, “In the U.S. porn seems to replace sex ed for a lot of people,” by discussion leader and Lang senior Suzy Exposito, and many similar attempts to situate the idea of feminism within the scope of students’ lives.
Conversation repeatedly circled back to the question of whether the gender studies department should be built up to stand on its own or whether its central concerns — gender and sexuality issues — should become a larger part of every class across disciplines. Most agreed that both are needed. “Don’t be afraid to be that one person in class that everyone rolls their eyes at ‘cause you’re bringing up feminism again,” Merwin said.
Ann Snitow, a literature and gender studies professor who played a large role in the creation of the gender studies program, reiterated this push in a later interview with the Free Press. “People should be bringing this material in all over the place,” she said. “It’s what’s called in the European Union ‘mainstreaming.’”
Some fear that efforts to bring these issues in to every discussion could ultimately undermine the larger goal of changing people’s negative attitudes toward feminism. “If that’s something that really interests you, go for it,” said Nico Cassanetti, a Lang senior who cares about gender and sexuality issues but is reluctant to call herself a feminist. “But I don’t think it’s something that needs to be shoved in people’s faces.”
Some are skeptical of feminist activism at The New School because they don’t see the need for it at such a liberal institution. “I feel like a feminist movement coming out of this school is more of a tribute to old feminist movements and they’re just trying to emulate and make current what has already been done and established,” Cassanetti said. “I don’t really know what they’re fighting against.”
Jennifer Baumgardner, Lang writing professor and number seven on Spike.com’s “The Top Seven Cutest Feminists” list, agreed that balance and some restraint are needed in order to avoid completely turning people off to the issues. “I think women do really well at The New School,” Baumgardner said. “It’s not the same issues that there were 30 years ago when women were having to kick down doors.” But, she argued, just because things aren’t as bad as they used to be doesn’t mean that there’s no need for activism. “I think anyone, whether or not they call themselves a feminist, notices things that they think are unjust,” she said. “So there are opportunities to create change.”
This lack of clarity about what purpose feminist activism could serve at an institution that is clearly progressive, and where the majority of students are female, may have contributed to the lukewarm reception of March’s two-day event, “No Longer in Exile,” the introduction of the gender studies program. Merwin and Auriemma hoped that “The Resurrection”’s less formal approach would generate more student interest and it was, in fact, better attended. “Jennifer Baumgardner suggested something like a giant Voodoo funeral baptism for feminism at The New School,” Merwin said. “That was too expensive, so here we are.”
Beyond community building, “The Coming Resurrection” was organized largely around the visit from representatives of the organization Students Active for Ending Rape, there to talk about how to reform the school’s sexual assault policy.
“We learned what a minimal policy we have and how many holes there are in it,” Snitow said. She explained that the policy’s definitions of terms like “informed consent” are vague and that the procedure for victims to follow in reporting assault is unclear. She also said that without an amnesty policy the university doesn’t properly protect victims. “You’re not going to tell someone that you’ve been raped if it turns out that you’ll be thrown out of school for having been drunk at the time,” she explained.
Attendees of “The Resurrection,” with the help of SAFER representative Erin Burrows, brainstormed a list of things that they would like to see added to or changed about the policy. Auriemma told the Free Press, “We’re getting a new president in January, so we’re hoping to be able to take the list directly to him.”