What does it mean to be a woman at Dartmouth in 2003?

by Jenn Buck | 11/21/03 6:00am

Dartmouth College opened its doors to women in 1972, and has graduated thousands of women since. The Dartmouth talked to three College women to try to gain an understanding of what life is like for them as women of Dartmouth. Tsering Kheyap '04, Kiva Wilson '04 and Emilie Fetscher '03, Thayer '04, all shared their individual experiences.

The Vision

"A lot of it is about being able to see things," Kheyap said of her academic work in women's studies and geography. It's about gaining a perspective on everyday events that we might not look twice at, but are in fact laden with meaning.

She talked eagerly about the impact of the work done in these fields that she has discovered throughout the past three years.

A visiting history professor told Kheyap's class about going to work for a publishing company. The woman was hired to add a perspective to history texts, infusing missing details about women in history and making the language more inclusive.

"And in Texas, the P.T.A. and different organizations rallied against it, because in order to do something like this, you might downplay something like the Alamo, just to have a little square picture in the margins of an important woman," she mused.

Follow Your Stars

"Both of my parents are Tibetan refugees," Kheyap told The Dartmouth. "My dad came to the States in '69, and my mom in '81."

She spoke warmly of her parents and her experience as a daughter of immigrants. Speaking English and having U.S. citizenship from birth gave her a leg-up that her parents didn't have, she said. And their relationship at times made her question traditional gender roles.

Despite her family's sometimes traditional outlook, Kheyap described them as generally interested in her studies and encouraging.

"But there are funny things, like my dad will be so proud he'll tell his friends who ask 'What's she studying now?' and he'll say, 'Oh, ladies' studies!'" She laughs. "And I say, 'Oh pops, that's OK. Just tell them geography from now on.'"

Difference and Dartmouth

Kheyap talked about her awareness of being different from other families growing up.

"There's a self-awareness of difference -- it can be race or gender or anything, whatever sets you apart from the group you're entering into -- that makes something go off in your head," she said.

At home she didn't talk openly with family and friends about racial and cultural divisions, but coming to Dartmouth, where they were discussed in a scholarly manner , she gained a sense of empowerment.

"When you speak of something just from personal experience it makes it easier for other people to dismiss, if you can't quantify or academically produce reasoning behind why certain things happen. I think that's really why I enjoy women's studies."

Woman Versus Machine

Emilie Fetscher is a modern-day alchemist, using science to create art. The Montana native created her own unique major of engineering modified with studio art.

"They are both very similar, more than people realize," she said, "They're both about problem-solving."

The majority of the engineering classes she took were in mechanical engineering and were based on doing creative projects, she said. Her studio art classes were most often in sculpture and architecture. Her course selection enabled her to closely link the work done in both majors.

These days she is just doing engineering at Thayer, getting a one-year Bachelor of Engineering. She describes herself as spatially oriented, and likes her work in science, but her eyes nonetheless lit up when she talked about working on her art projects as an undergraduate.

"I feel like interactions at the engineering school are very different from interactions in studio art. Art is more personal; people are more open," she added.

Good Genes; Gender at Home

A big factor in her choice to study science, Fetscher said, was that her mother's scholastic interests were stifled by the education system she grew up in. Her mother, now a lawyer, was a good student in college and in high school, but her guidance counselors discouraged her from taking math and science.

"I think that my mother was so disappointed that she was not given opportunities to explore things she was interested in that she was going to make sure that didn't happen to me," she said.

Heading North

Kiva Wilson shivered in the 20-degree New Hampshire weather as she sat down to tell her story to The Dartmouth. She laughed about having moved up to Hanover from her hometown of Columbia, S.C.

"I hadn't seen this place before I enrolled here," she said. "My mom really pushed the school to me, possibly because she knew I wasn't out" as a lesbian, Wilson said.

She said that she didn't know that Dartmouth had been all-male at one point, and that might have changed what she thought about the college.

Moving from South Carolina was interesting, she said, because she would have thought gender identity and divisions would have been more noticeable at home.

Instead, she found the gender division to be more marked here. At the same time she found it empowering to be a woman at Dartmouth because there is a very significant and important history of how women came into this institution.

Gendered Spaces

Wilson's academic background in geography has also led her to look at how gender affects one's perceptions of place on the Dartmouth campus.

"I don't find that there are many gendered spaces on campus, the Greek system aside," she said. "There are gendered structures, though. I find Collis more of a female space than Thayer, in that it's so open inside."

The physical composition, she said, more than the people, create the gendered feel of certain places. This is a good thing; she said that she believes her Dartmouth peers aren't too gender-exclusive about places where they gather.

For her part, though, Wilson's grateful that she feels comfortable wearing what she wants and dating whomever she chooses. This is an important component of her own experience as a Dartmouth woman.

She spoke positively about modes of expression on campus.

"There's the drag ball, for example. That's a great gender-bending experience," she said.

"People have made active decisions about how gender can play a role on campus, using biological sex and gender constructions to unite folks." Wilson cited the Men's Project and the Women of Color Collective as positive examples.

"Gender is a fluid thing, and you can see yourself fitting into the spectrum in a lot of different ways. There are people who are pushing this place, too," Wilson added.

Parting Shots

Each of the women who talked to The Dartmouth had her own perspective to offer.

Fetscher said she looks forward to feeling like she could one day identify equally as a woman and an engineer.

"I feel a lot of the time I have to remain genderless in the field or take on a lot of male characteristics. But I don't feel the freedom to be a woman and to do engineering. I don't have the tools to have that dialogue," she said.

Wilson gave a strong message to women of the College. "Look at this place and know that you own it, because they didn't let us in just any reason, there's something we bring that's unique -- changes we make by being here and people we can effect while we are here."

"There has to be connection from class to class, from feeling marginalized together, or empowered together. There's continuity in it," she said.