Spears Keynotes Women’s Banquet

By Georgia Travers

This past Wednesday, Link Up (a female mentoring group at Dartmouth created by Frances Vernon, ’10) hosted its second annual Proud To Be A Woman dinner.  The dinner, tickets for which are exclusively sold to women, provided a classy, three-course meal catered by the Hanover Inn as well as a keynote speaker and facilitated dinner table discussions about being a woman at Dartmouth.

Dean of the College Sylvia Spears (Photo courtesy of Joseph Mehling)
Last year’s keynote speaker was Wynona Ward, founder of Have Justice Will Travel, an organization that provides legal and supportive services for victims of domestic and sexual violence in rural Vermont.  Ward was an emotionally powerful and inspiring speaker, and the value and impact of her work spoke for itself.  This year’s keynote speaker, Acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears, was a great divergence from that model, both stylistically and substantively.

Nevertheless, Dean Spears spoke with a personal air and rhetorical flourish that reinforced her speech’s credibility and power.  She began by describing the woman who was “most responsible for making [her] the proud and strong woman [she is] today.” This woman had been kicked off of buses in the 1950s for sitting towards the front, had insisted that her two daughters be allowed to wear pants to school, and had taught them like any good second-wave feminist to value “the autonomy of a woman’s body.”  Well, as you might’ve guessed it, this Rosa Parks/Katherine Hepburn/Betty Friedan/Super Woman hybrid was none other than Gloria Hill Spears, mother of the speaker herself.

Predictable as this choice may have been, Dean Spears’ description of her mother was engaging, nonetheless.  She portrayed her mother as a prominent early feminist, and while this description may have been somewhat embellished, its conclusion was still legitimate.  Dean Spears spoke of how her actions are informed by the fortitude and perseverance that she grew up seeing in her own mother, a black woman raising her two daughters in the South during the 1950s.  Dean Spears continued without a shout-out to a number of powerful women on campus, including Jessica Guthrie ’10, and Holly Sateia, Vice President of Institutional Diversity and Equity. 

While Dean Spears’ talk initially focused on the worthy goal of encouraging and congratulating the strength and unity of the female community on campus, she veered off into a bit of a politically correct gender-diatribe about halfway through. Spears demanded of the audience, “Has Dartmouth gone fully coeducational?”  Well ostensibly (obviously), the answer is yes.

Still, I believe this to be a legitimate question, to the extent that much of the College’s social scene, traditions, and ritual validation (i.e. pong) can often feel intimidating to women due to its frequently gendered context.  Unfortunately, Spears did not address the systemic issues and gender dynamics inherent in such feelings.  Rather, she digressed into a rhetorical non-sequitor to the effect of, “You are not fresh“men” or upperclass“men” but rather upper-class females and first-year students who are women.  Every time we use one of those other terms, we give someone permission to make us invisible.”  While most women in the room undoubtedly agreed that language could be misused to reinforce social marginalization, Spears’ semantic blame-game constituted a frustrating diversion from the actual challenges that female Dartmouth students face, perhaps the least of which are these “sexist labels.”

Spears regained momentum, however, when she declared, “I feel compelled in a room of women to quote the righteous Maya Angelou.”  Suffice it to say, I was skeptical after such an introduction.  Nevertheless, the poem that she read aloud, “Phenomenal Woman,” is vivaciously conceived and empowering.  It describes feminine grace, both internal and external, with a delicate, genuine flourish. Furthermore, the poem tied Spears’ talk back into the overall theme of the event, because it was primarily an expression of the author’s personal pride in her feminity.  The poem’s last few lines are as follows: “When you see me passing/It ought to make you proud. /I say, /It’s in the click of my heels, /The bend of my hair, /the palm of my hand, /The need of my care, /’Cause I’m a woman/Phenomenally. /Phenomenal woman, /that’s me.”

Spears concluded, “You are not girls, but women.  They may be guys, but we, we are women.  Do not relinquish that power.”  She encouraged all of us women in the audience to be proud of what makes each one of us distinct and phenomenal, but ultimately, to also derive pride from our common identity as women.  It may sound cliché, but in a culture as dominantly masculine as Dartmouth’s, this advice and encouragement was particularly meaningful. 

While her speech may have been imperfect, Spears’ enthusiasm was very well received by her audience.  Additionally, despite her flaws, I believe that Dean Spears is a testament to the progress that we have made, both in the greater popular culture and in the specific culture of the College, over the last fifty years.  For instance, when my mother, a proud member of the Class of 1977, was here, a position as prominent as “Dean of the College” could not possibly have been occupied by an outspoken African-American woman such as Dean Spears.  I am proud, for my mother’s sake, of Dean Spears’ position and prominence at the College, regardless of the fact that I do not often agree with her positions concerning campus affairs.

I believe the College to be particularly wonderful and distinctive because of its emphasis on tradition and its vibrant Greek system.  Nevertheless, these structures still constitute, at least marginally, an institutionalized male legacy at the College that I think is important for female students to understand and face in our daily lives.  I suppose it is curious, because until I came to Dartmouth, I definitely found the term “feminist” uncomfortable, if not whole-heartedly objectionable.  And while there a remain a myriad of problematic associations in the broader culture with that term, to the extent that “feminism” constitutes a respect for – as well as equal treatment and appreciation of – the female gender, I believe it to be a universally important position. 

Because the culture of the College, and more specifically, that of our social scene, is in fact, so “gendered,” I believe there is no better place to observe the positive social value of moderated “feminism”.  This is the aim of Link Up and its annual Proud To Be a Woman Dinner, and I think it has been tremendously successful at initiating such thought-provoking dialogues over the past two years. 

Being here at Dartmouth, as a woman in a space that is so obviously historically male, has made me singularly able to appreciate both the symbolic importance of Dean Spears’ position, and the positive value derived from modestly embracing my own, hesitant, inner feminist.