As we light the bonfire for the 125th time tonight, it is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the evolving environment for women at Dartmouth. Attending an all-girls school up until this year has fed my interest in the dynamics between men and women in the academic and social worlds on campus. Through personal experience and interactions with upperclassmen and freshman peers, my eyes have been opened to the reality of Dartmouth life for women: favorable in the academic setting, but not so much on the social scene.
Dartmouth is recognized as a leading post-secondary institution for women’s education. The College’s accolades in regard to women are numerous: women constitute half the undergraduate population, the Tuck School has one of the best representations of women among top-tier M.B.A programs, the Thayer School of Engineering’s 2016 graduating class was 52 percent female, and Dartmouth even has its own women’s, gender and sexuality studies department.
But this hasn’t always been the case. There were no women running around the bonfire on Homecoming night 125 years ago. Up until 1972, in fact, women did not exist in Dartmouth’s story. Dartmouth was the last Ivy League school to admit women, and faced vehement opposition from those who did not see Dartmouth as a place for women. In this respect, students should be proud of the strides Dartmouth has made in gender inclusivity. Today, Dartmouth women are athletes, intellectuals, artists and leaders. We are decision-makers, questioners and activists. And yet, in the social scene, an entirely different narrative exists. The discrepancy is alarming — and perplexing. How can Dartmouth publish such impressive statistics and still have women being preyed on in the basement of fraternities? In 2016, Dartmouth had 18 reports of rape on campus. In 2017, a Dartmouth sexual misconduct survey revealed that 34 percent of undergraduate women had experienced “non-consensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation” during their time on campus.
When I arrived on campus in September, I was optimistic about the social scene for women. After all, orientation was filled with sexual violence prevention talks, informative pamphlets and a clear message of commitment to gender violence eradication. By week seven of the term, however, I have already seen my friend experience inappropriate sexual advances in a fraternity that made her feel used as a sexual toy and afraid to return to similar spaces. So where is Dartmouth falling short? By the looks of it, the College is doing everything right: it has programs such as the Bystander Initiative and Movement Against Violence trainings, as well as the Sexual Violence Prevention Project, a plethora of discussions platforms on sexual assault and a robust Title IX office.
Late at night in fraternities, however, all of this programming seems to fall to the wayside. Here, I have observed the reappearance of primal gender roles: the men command and the women fall silent and subservient. I have observed a status quo that new freshmen are fearful of breaking: a social culture that perpetuates shame with the refusal of sexual advances.
There is a need to refocus and admit that impactful change has yet to come to this dimension of the College. While the avenue through which women are objectified has evolved, the culture of female victimization has not. In 1988, a women’s advocacy group shared that “dozens of women received anonymous obscene phone calls and several women were assaulted.” And similar to the committees that exist today, in 1986, Dartmouth women were advocating for the creation of a Women’s Support Task Force to provide legal services for “women who have been victims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual discrimination.”
Sadly, the exact same concerns that existed in 1986 continue to plague the minds of Dartmouth women in 2018. As the Dartmouth community celebrates this Homecoming, we must reaffirm feminism as a core Dartmouth value. Women on campus must know that there is no societal mandate that requires them to comply with sexual harassment, and no shame that will come with saying no. If we fail to emphasize this, we risk remaining stagnant in the same culture that existed five decades ago.
I am proud of the Dartmouth community I have joined, and of the women — past, present and future — who have shaped the College into the institution it is today. I am also cognizant, however, of the change that still lies before us, as we come to realize that it is not enough to solely have respect for women’s minds — there must also be respect for women’s bodies. Students must set the goal of creating a campus in which sexual violence is non-existent and zero discrepancy lies between the power of a man and that of a woman. Now is the time to be optimistically hopeful, to unite as a community, to celebrate the past and mobilize toward a better future.