On the wall of the Yale Women’s Center hangs a brightly colored painting, paid for by the Center’s 1969 fund. It depicts a woman kneeling, breasts and arms raised to the sky. She is naked. She is jubilant.
In front of the painting stands a 20-something Yale student, breasts and arms raised to a roof fraught with exposed pipes. She is naked. She is jubilant. She is dancing to Britney Spears.
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And most likely she, along with the 10 to 20 nude women assembled in the basement of Durfee Hall this evening, came in response to an e-mail that read: “Ever wished that your breasts were bigger? That your diet was going better? Bitch, please. ALL GIRLS’ NAKED PARTY THIS WEEK AT THE WOMEN’S CENTER.”
Somewhere in the heat, bubblegum pop, snarkiness and exhibitionism of one of Yale’s notorious naked parties, there’s a feminist agenda. At least, that’s what the party’s guests want you to think.
This year, in addition to hosting many discussions and debates about women’s rights, the Yale Women’s Center has increased its social calendar to raise both visibility and student awareness of issues the center’s constituency holds dear. But even as students come to see the Center as more than just “that thing next to Durfee’s, behind the dumpster,” implicit sexism seems to persist elsewhere in University life.
So in a world where inequality, if it exists, seems to be below the radar of the average undergrad, how well is the Center achieving its aims? And if a safe space like the Women’s Center is still so desperately needed, nearly 40 years after women were first admitted to Yale, what does that say about the campus at large?
‘A love of the avant-garde of thought and a love for good times’
In some ways, the experience of the Women’s Center’s all-female naked party is like that of a high-school reunion: There is a vague sense of warmth and good cheer, but it’s hard to get over the underlying suspicion that, beyond a few shared experiences, no one has anything in common with the other girls around them — excepting, in this case, anatomy, which, like at every naked party, is in full view.
And according to political action coordinator Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09, that’s sort of the point.
“Most girls don’t know what girls’ naked bodies look like,” Olivarius-McAllister said. “Women are beautiful, but they just don’t look like what people say they look like. So it’s a non-normative nakedness thing with girls.”
From the bouncers at the door to the carefully arrayed curtains to the near-tropical temperature — a symptom of the building’s dysfunctional heating system, notes Presca Ahn ’09, the Center’s fellowship coordinator — a comfortable atmosphere seems to be the first and foremost priority. Discussions of women’s issues — spanning from menstruation to objectification to field hockey — are a close second.
The Center, which opened its doors soon after women were admitted to Yale in 1969, was founded to provide a “safe space” and improve campus life for University women, who might otherwise find themselves isolated in a sea of masculine colleagues, architecture and ideals.
To Hannah Burnett ’08, the Center’s outreach coordinator, providing a safe space for women also means providing a safe space for women to socialize with each other.
“The social events that we do have have a very clear aim toward improving cultural life for women and making them feel more comfortable in a space that has been so historically male-dominated,” Burnett said.
Though they point out that each board has its own face and its own way of carrying out the Center’s mission, current board members agree that balancing the Center’s social and political aims — and offering more events in line with both — is one of this board’s primary objectives.
As constituency coordinator Lorraine Van Kirk ’08 sees it, the concerts and parties and debates aren’t in competition with one another but rather are “mutually reinforcing aims.”
Though the discussions they host and the residence groups they sponsor are the lifeblood of the Center, when it comes to outreach, the focus is on presenting a face of feminism — both passionate and personable. According to the board, feminism can be both bra-burning and badass, more about breaking down barriers than busting balls.
“We have a constituency who is trying to make sure life is good and better for women,” Olivarius-McAllister said. “Part of that is making sure that kids know feminism is fun and rock-and-roll.”
Perhaps as a testament to this sense of security and self-assurance, the day after the naked party at a group interview, Olivarius-McAllister stands up from her chair, steps to the back of the room and changes into a black strapless cocktail dress in full view of the assembled board members.
As a result of similarly brazen behavior — but also because she is the most outspoken member of the Women’s Center board — she has become a de facto figurehead for Yale’s small, but noticeable, feminist movement.
‘Not dressed like Farmer Joe’s hos’
Although the Women’s Center constituency may follow Olivarius-McAllister’s lead by “rocking and rolling the feminist way,” things outside the Center and around campus don’t seem so rosy.
Members of the Women’s Center board witness sexism throughout their time on campus. Inequality, hostility and concerns that the Women’s Center — and feminism in general — is too often dismissed as a joke informs board decisions to host both social and more overtly political events.
“Much of the Yale social scene is constructed by males, whether it’s frat life or countless other examples,” Stacey Fitzgerald ’09, the Center’s business manager, said. “It’s important for a women’s group not necessarily to be the sole alternative or to reject male-sponsored parties, but to provide an alternative.”
And although the board may not be blacklisting all parties thrown by men, many of its members have strong opinions about the inherently anti-feminist nature of the undergraduate experience.
The Women’s Center board expressed concerns about subtle inequalities, faulting Yale’s tenure system and the way sexism is discussed — and often dismissed — at the University. But they objected most adamantly to fraternity parties with themes like “CEOs and secretary hos.”
“If the equivalent kind of discrimination that you see in frat parties was about black people … it would be an outrage,” Olivarius-McAllister said. “Girls are subjugated at Yale by whole expectations of sex that are unequal, and we’ve been asked to ignore pain and suffering that whole generations of women were deliberately made to go through.”
Though his group’s parties are all named after natural disasters, Brad Hann ’09, president of Yale’s former chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, suggests that other frats select these sometimes explicit themes to create a mood, rather than to marginalize or offend individuals.
“The purpose of the theme of the party is to set the tone,” Hann said. “It doesn’t sound good, but it’s kind of meant to help create a sexually charged environment, and I think it’s intentional.”
But whether the themes are intended to be funny, set a mood or simply suggest a particular dress code, the potential for offense still exists. And more troubling to feminists is the possibility that a sexual atmosphere may lead to unwelcome sexual contact, especially when alcohol is involved.
Becky Chang ’08, who views herself as a feminist but is not a member of the Women’s Center, feels that the dynamic of older men supplying alcohol to underage women — often in hopes of sexual conquest — creates unsafe environments for women.
“The way weekends are structured is very safe for the men and very incompatible with the safety of women,” Chang said.
Although he acknowledges that such problems may exist, Hann argues that fraternities host parties purely for students to enjoy themselves and said a greater emphasis should be placed on personal responsibility for both men and women. Those who criticize fraternities and blame institutions instead of individuals are overlooking individual choice, he says, and that such rhetoric is patently offensive.
“It suggests that women can’t choose to go to fraternity parties,” Hann said. “Or that women’s sexual decisions are based on the fact that we sent them an e-mail and put a beer in front of them.”
But while the Women’s Center continues to fight their good fight, pitting radical feminist activism against what they consider the rampant sexism of fraternity parties and pornographic films, other organizations have cropped up offering a less political and more practical feminist ideal to Yale’s undergraduate females.
‘Have they told you anything? Do they like us?’
Rebecca Taber ’08 is a far cry from Olivarius-McAllister’s wild hair and smudged eyeliner. She is friendly and composed. When she speaks about the Women’s Leadership Initiative, of which she is the vice president, her words are honed to the point of deliberate diplomacy — probably because of the many interviews she has endured in her role as Yale College Council president. Any parent would love her.
Formed in response to the troubling gender politics that co-founder and president Alexandra Suich ’08 noted while writing an article for The Yale Herald, WLI encourages women to express their aspirations for leadership.
Although WLI shares the Women’s Center’s goal of improving life for women at Yale, their methods and focus are radically different — trading protests and naked parties for networking events and milk-and-cookie study breaks.
“We wanted a place where all women would feel comfortable … rather then taking a divisive sort of stance,” Taber said. “The Women’s Center is a great resource at Yale, but they seemed to be less inclusive than we hoped to be with Women’s Leadership Initiative because they do believe in certain ideology and certain lines that we really wanted to steer away from.”
Suich hopes WLI will ultimately change the culture of inequality in campus leadership by uniting women across organizations and political ideologies to facilitate the rise of female leaders.
“It’s not that men at Yale are purposely trying to exclude women from leadership positions, but that women aren’t as willing sometimes to step up and say ‘I want this position,’” Suich said. “I think what really needs to happen within organizations is for women to be more assertive in asking for those leadership positions and showing how they’re qualified.”
Sochie Nnaemeka ’09, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major who is not a member of WLI or the Women’s Center, points to specific organizations — even progressive ones — that have under-utilized female talent.
“Yale for Obama and Yale for Hillary are both run by undergrad men though there are many overly qualified women on board,” Nnaemeka said.
WLI has tried to achieve its pan-political mission by appealing to Yalies’ concerns about their careers, although Suich notes this is more a reflection of the Yale community than an explicit aim of WLI.
And even though WLI may have taken a more pre-professional tack thus far, Taber argues that they do more than teach Yale’s women the fine art of making friends and influencing people.
“We’re trying to get rid of that image that we’re very whitewashed consulting and banking job-seeking women,” Taber said. “I think the point is really connecting women, not espousing any face of WLI.”
As both organizations are committed to the idea of unifying women, it’s perhaps surprising that there have been rumors of competition or antagonism between WLI and the Women’s Center. Both groups seem inclined to bridge the gap, however, finding common ground in the mission to conquer sexism despite the divergence of their methods.
“I have nothing but the greatest regard for the Women’s Leadership Initiative,” special events coordinator Claire Gordon ’10 said. “Any group that promotes women’s issues, encourages female leadership and can do so with such organization and professionalism fills me with warm, fuzzy feelings.”
WLI’s leaders echo this sense of ideological unity.
“WLI and the Women’s Center are very much aligned in terms of the ultimate goal of the organization, which is to make women at Yale’s experience safer and more rewarding,” Suich said.
‘If you’re not sexist, you’re a feminist and you need to own up to it’
Although no one at Yale would openly say they’re sexist — at least not to a reporter — some students still find it difficult to believe the subtle inequalities noted by the Women’s Center exist at all. Even as groups like the Women’s Center and WLI fight to increase equality and heighten awareness, some believe the University’s coeducation signaled the end of the need for feminist activism.
“I don’t feel that there is a need for radical feminism,” Patrick Mitchell ’11 said. “I don’t see much oppression of or discrimination against women, though I suppose I don’t have the best perspective from which to see it.”
Even Yale’s administration prefers to highlight relative improvements rather than focusing on the lack of absolute equality. Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry acknowledges that there is always room for improvement — for instance, with respect to the University’s sexual-assault resources — but said he thinks Yale has demonstrated a commitment to bettering student life and increasing opportunities for women.
Despite differences in their methods and focus, members of both WLI and the Women’s Center agree that feminism, like sexism, is alive and well at Yale.
“Women’s issues are really hard to talk about on college campuses,” Suich said. “They’re viewed as not [being] as important as they used to be, because there’s a perception of equality already having been attained.”
Though they collectively lament the lack of a thermostat in the Center and individually bemoan the University’s lethargy in addressing their complaints, the Women’s Center board thinks they’re doing just fine.
“So far as we’re a community of women working to achieve feminist goals on campus, I think we’re doing amazingly well and we are working together in such beautiful and wonderful ways,” Burnett said.
Board members agree that this sense of unity is only deepened by the seriousness of their goals, emphasizing their love of activist politics over the enjoyment they get from the Center’s social aspects.
“Without any kind of hesitation, we are the most vibrant community at Yale,” Olivarius-McAllister said. “This is not a ski shop. This is a place where kids come because there are serious problems and you get to laugh about them and solve them.”
At the end of the group interview, the girls are seated on the floor around a small table, still glowing with the joy of female camaraderie. As I approach the door, the entire board thanks me for attending the previous night’s party, and as I button my coat in the Center’s small anteroom, Olivarius-McAllister calls: “Thanks for coming,” she says. “Yeah, you were hot.”