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President's Page: Sexual Politics

Debora Spar, photo by Steve DeCanioOn a particularly dreary day at the end of February, I received an unexpected phone call. Back and forth with doctors all morning, I was trying to get word about my younger son, who had phoned from college to report that he was ill and on his way to the hospital. When the phone rang, I leaped, positive that it was the emergency room calling with the final diagnosis. Instead, it was my office, informing me that President Obama wanted to give the commencement address at Barnard. What does one say? “Oh wow,” I mumbled. “Sure. I have to get off the phone now.”

Over the next few days, matters evolved in a blur. My husband and I raced to Vermont to check on our son who, thankfully, was soon okay. I ran through the list of people who had to be contacted confidentially. And then worked with my staff to craft a careful strategy for releasing the good news. In an e-mail sent early on a Saturday morning, we solemnly informed our students that the president had chosen Barnard and would soon be addressing the College’s graduating seniors. The news hit slowly, and then exploded in the blogosphere. “PRESIDENT OBAMA IS GIVING THE BARNARD COMMENCEMENT SPEECH,” one student swiftly reported on Facebook. “No words. Just wow,” commented another. By noon, though, the tone had taken a decidedly different, distinctly horrible turn.

Out of the woodwork, unidentified grumblers began attacking the College and its students. Most of the attacks were general in nature and could reasonably be explained away as jealousy. “POTUS is smart and he made an intelligent move,” groused one. “Better to speak with people without brains than…talk with students who are intellectually superior.” But some were distinctly and disgustingly misogynistic, demeaning the career ambitions and purported sexual practices of Barnard students. “Barnard is full of academically inferior students that…are stereotypically easy to get in bed,” asserted one anonymous post. “Just tell them to have babies and take good care of your family,” stated another. A handful were so obscene that I won’t repeat them here. Other media, however, had no such reservations; within days the campus was embroiled in a nasty and high-profile fight about women and sexuality; women and success; and the complicated boundaries between profanity and free speech.

That same week, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a law student who testified before Congress in favor of expanded insurance coverage of contraception, a slut and a prostitute. In response, President Obama telephoned Fluke personally to express his disappointment and support. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, then vying with Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, offered carefully worded comments, trying to distance themselves from Limbaugh’s language without, necessarily, disagreeing with his views.

Certainly, much of what has driven the sexual politics of 2012 is this year’s electoral politicking—a divisive ideological scramble in which both parties are explicitly fighting for the “women’s vote.” More surprising and of greater long-term importance, is that these fights have also unearthed a deep-seated ambivalence about sex in America, particularly about the sexuality of young unmarried women. Because what was revealed by our announcement, by Limbaugh’s rantings, and by the outbursts surrounding them both, was that women in 2012—roughly 50 years after the dawning of the sexual and feminist revolutions—are still being crucified on the cross of the madonna-whore, damned if they do and if they don’t. To some older feminists, the public eruption of these tensions stands as proof that the battle for women’s rights has not yet been won. To many students, though, it came simply as a shock. “It’s hurtful,” reported one. “Since when should I have to defend myself just for going to the school I go to?” “Why,” asked another more plaintively, “are they being so mean?”

Struggling to answer these questions, I wrote an open letter to our students in late March. Noting, thankfully, that the worst of the attacks had subsided by this point, I mentioned how well-reasoned counterattacks led by students on both sides of Broadway had helped bring the situation under control. But still, I wrote, the misogyny we had experienced was shocking. “Lurking still below the surface of women’s advancement is a sexism that refuses to die, a sexism that rears its frightful head in anonymous online commentary and Congressional testimony on contraception; on hate radio and in electoral contests that still focus on female candidates’ looks rather than their achievements.” I continued, “Fighting back against [sexism] is not a crusade owned solely by women’s colleges. It is a fight we all share, and a goal we cannot afford to neglect.”

Over the past few months, I have been delighted to see our students rising to this fight and embracing its far-flung goals. I have been heartened by their reenergized interest in reproductive rights and by their willingness—across the political spectrum—to engage in political debate and activity. There is a new activism around feminist issues, a new willingness by this generation of students to grapple with problems, from misogyny to work-life balance, that their mothers might once have believed were long ago laid to rest.

Barnard Commencement of 2012 will be remembered, as it should be, as a glorious day, marked by great accomplishment and pride. But I will also remember the disturbing bumps along the way, and the sobering effect that came from seeing how potent sexism remains today, and how cruel.