Activism Comes in Many Forms

When I think of activism at Dartmouth, I think of many of the students I have known and worked with since I came here in 1994. But I also think of Judy Aronson-Ramos ’82, who preceded me by over a decade. Students like Judy changed Dartmouth at a time when issues of gender were very new and very difficult to confront.

On behalf of many other students, at a rally in the early ’80s, Judy demanded change — among other things, the editing of the alma mater and support services for survivors of sexual abuse. Standing up in front of hundreds of people and proclaiming, as Judy did, “we are not ‘men of Dartmouth'” was not easy 20 years ago, but, in combination with other efforts, it was effective. The school song did change. The College did create a program with administrative support devoted to preventing and responding to sexual abuse on campus.

Student activism in the form of a rally helped make these changes happen, and it was one of the first times women and some men at Dartmouth organized against the unwelcoming, sometimes downright hostile environment many women found here in the early years of coeducation.

Another group of women in those first years chose a different activist route — they created a performance called “You Laugh,” wherein they dramatized and condemned the sexism they encountered on campus. Performing the “Cohog Song” (an aggressively sexist tune written and performed by male students about “coeds” which was awarded first place in a campus contest judged by the then-dean of the College!) to demonstrate the pain and anger its popularity on campus generated for many women was not easy. But it was effective. The highly controversial “You Laugh” was seen by almost the entire campus, and it put the conversation about sexism and gender issues on the agenda in new and pressing ways.

Thinking about activism now, in this 25th year of coeducation at Dartmouth, what challenges still face women as women? How are “women’s issues” the same for all women, and how are they different for women from different communities? What about men — how can they be part of the solution? What strategies are appropriate and effective today for making change? These are hard questions, and it is important to explore them in a variety of ways.

Rallies are a highly visible and fairly common form of activism. When we think of the student activism of the 60s and 70s, we rely on images of protest rallies on college campuses. We have seen rallies at Dartmouth recently — one in response to campus incidents of hate speech, another protesting Prop 209. Those of you involved in making those rallies happen know that they require much time and energy. They are sometimes painful to organize because they bring us face to face with the differences among even those of us who agree so passionately about the issue at hand. But they are also inspiring, precisely because they can demonstrate our ability to work together despite those differences.

Bringing in a speaker or film to explore these and related issues can be a form of activism. Such events can encourage us to think differently, come up with new approaches, make change. Speaking up against injustice in your classrooms, residence halls, workplaces and homes is a form of activism. This end of the activism spectrum may seem passive to those eager for radical transformation, but it can set the stage for social change.

Students sometimes choose forms of activism they know will shock, anger or insult. Two years ago student activists anonymously published a newsletter outlining and condemning incidents of racism, sexism and homophobia which had occurred on campus. They also published an account of backlash against a female student who had spoken out against such acts publicly, thus demonstrating why they had chosen to remain unnamed. Nonetheless, women who others assumed were involved in the production of the newsletter received threatening blitzes and were directly harassed.

Sometimes activism leaves people feeling beaten up and vulnerable and needing support. But activism, however difficult, usually pays off. It translates frustration into action; it creates movement, however slight. Rosa Parks simply sat down and stayed there. Some people say she started the civil rights movement that way.

After 25 years of coeducation, I ask again, what challenges still face women as women? How are “women’s issues” the same for all women and how are they different for women from different communities? What about men — how can they be part of the solution? What strategies are appropriate and effective today for making change?

The Women’s Resource Center is committed to providing a place to explore these and other questions, consider options for action, and move toward change. This week, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, we reaffirm that commitment and, along with all those involved in organizing this week’s commemorative programs, ask each of you to keep the dream alive by choosing activism each day.

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