Alumnae pioneer in gender-related fields

by Lucy Li | 5/19/16 8:11pm

05.20.16.alumsusy_Paula Mendoza

Despite its 247-year history as an institution, Dartmouth opened its doors to women 44 years ago, and since then we have had some incredible alumnae who have made their mark in a patriarchal world. These are women who are working to improve the lives of other women, who have seen firsthand the kind of inequality that women around the world face, who have had to work harder to make a career in a male-dominated industry and who have gone through trauma that they hope to save other women from ever experiencing.

Averil Spencer ’10, a women and gender studies major, stumbled upon a pilot program for social enterprise fellowship, called the IDEX Accelerator, upon graduation. The program partners with social enterprises across India to provide IDEX fellows with hands-on experience. Spencer went to Hyderabad, India to work in low-income schools. There, she fell in love with the girls she worked with, while also becoming aware of the obstacles in their way.

“These girls were absolutely incredible,” she said. “They were smart and passionate and driven, and when I talked to them they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and pilots, which was really exciting, but unfortunately I found out that a lot of these dreams were actually just dreams.”

The Nike Foundation approached the organization she was working with to sponsor a camp for girls in India. So in 2011, Spencer started VOICE 4 Girls, a supplemental education program for adolescent girls in India that focuses on providing them with critical information, action-oriented life skills and spoken English proficiency.

VOICE’s mission works specifically to combat issues that Spencer believes are very prominent around the world right now, including the inaccessibility of credible information for girls, the decline of girls enrolled in school as they grow older and early marriage. According to VOICE, only 30 percent of girls in India graduate from 10th grade and 47 percent are married before the age of 18. Early marriage, she says, might be the most critical issue.

“If girls can delay early marriage and stay in school, with each additional year they’re able to do that, the health benefits to them, to their future families, and the added income they can earn by the added years of schooling are huge,” she said.

While this issue is both complex and large, Spencer’s work with VOICE certainly changed lives — the lives of 73,479 girls to be exact. An innate interest in gender studies, and an awareness of gender dynamics that Dartmouth helped her develop, cultivated her passion for activism. Her affiliation with Sigma Delta sorority gave her an empowering base that inspired her to give back to girls who might not be lucky enough to have a strong female support system.

“I realized that a lot of the girls in India didn’t have that, and so creating a camp that was all girls and only for girls and a special space for them was something that I was able to bring for them,” she said.

Anne Munger ’13 managed social media platforms and created multimedia content for VOICE from July 2013 to July 2014. At Dartmouth, she majored in film and media studies and philosophy, dedicating herself to filmmaking. Munger’s interest lies in changing the conversation around women. Through her work with VOICE, she came upon the issue of female sterilization in India, which is the most prevalent form of birth control in the country.

“If you’re talking about a country as large as India and as widely uneducated in certain areas, instead of promoting the pill, condom, IUDs or whatever, it’s a lot easier for the government to sterilize people who are done having children,” she said.

According to the 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey, the rate of female sterilization in India is 37 percent and accounts for 66 percent of all contraceptive use. For such a questionable policy, the topic of female sterilization has received very minimal press coverage. Munger noticed that the literature that she could find on the topic, though, was very much one-sided and through her documentary, “Nasbandi” (2015), she wanted to capture the other side.

“The articles that we could find that were addressing the nuances of the governments policy [and] were really not taking into account the woman’s voice and her agency. We found it was severely missing, so the goal of film was to bring to light womens’ voices on the subject of their own reproductive health,” she said.

When Munger moved back to New York, she started focusing on an issue that was more personal.

“One issue that’s very close to me and my industry right now is the fact that women are severely underrepresented in the film industry,” she said.

She jumped on the chance to participate in the #ActuallySheCan campaign, a project started by Tribeca Enterprises and Allergan Pharmaceuticals to promote female filmmakers. They funded three female filmmakers to make short documentaries about female subjects succeeding in their respective fields to be shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Munger’s piece, titled “Chromat: Body Electric” (2016), follows fashion designer Becca McCharen as she develops a line for the runway.

Munger developed an interest in gender equality and female empowerment at Dartmouth, where she worked as a Sexual Assault Peer Advisor. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Many alumni have dedicated themselves to battling sexual assault, including Susan Struble ’93. When she first graduated, she worked at a domestic violence and rape crisis hotline for four years. She reengaged with the sexual assault issue at Dartmouth through an organization called Dartmouth Change four years ago.

“I formed a group that we call Dartmouth Change as a collection of alumni, faculty and students and together we try to put forth recommendations to the College and keep the pressure on the College to be making changes,” she said.

Struble feels that the statistics speak for themselves — there simply hasn’t been enough change. And if the statistics aren’t enough, her own personal trauma has a voice of its own; she was raped at Dartmouth both when she was a prospective student and as a freshman. The reported numbers don’t lie, nor do they begin to account for all the cases of sexual violence on campus that go unreported.

She believes that the first step in solving the epidemic of sexual assault is transparency.

“I think the first thing starts with real honesty about the root cause of those problems, and that needs to be done by a group of independent experts, and that is precisely what the College refuses to do,” she said.

Spencer says that gender issues can be more than just an interest; they can be a life calling.

“If you are interested in activism around gender equality or development or any of these things dealing with women in the U.S. or abroad, you can make a career out of it, and there are things you can do at Dartmouth that will set you up for success after college,” she said.

Munger wants women on campus to know that we need our male peers on board in order to change the gender dynamics at Dartmouth.

“I think Dartmouth has a long, long, long way to go when it comes to treating female students with the respect they deserve,” she said. “There’s a lot left to do in terms of gender equality on campus, and we can only get so far without the support of male peers.”

Struble has a direct message for College President Phil Hanlon: “I would like for President Hanlon to state very publicly exactly why we have sexual assault on Dartmouth campus. What are the driving forces behind it? I think it starts there, with some brutal honesty.”

Struble believes that belief is necessary for change.

“It’s awareness combined with belief,” Struble said. “You can make somebody aware of the fact but they can still just say, ‘I don’t believe that; I don’t believe the stats behind it.’ It’s awareness plus belief plus a feeling that the institution and your peers and the culture is actually willing to change.”

Will we see the change you want to see?

“Over the long term, yes, because I think over the long term we are luckily in a shift of power, and women will wield much more influence, and we will ask much harder questions, and we will refuse to take weak answers that too many of us do now,” Struble believes. “In the short term, I don’t know.”