Wellesley College is apparently in a malestrom (pun intended) over the fact that some non-Wellesley students were chosen to represent Wellesley in the HerCampus.com’s Mr. Campus Freshman 2013 competition. (Wellesley is of course a women’s college–one of the four holdouts of the original “Seven Sisters” in fact, along with Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Bryn Mawr.) It looks to me like a first-year student, who was not yet aware of how charged these issues about gender and sexuality can be at women’s colleges, probably innocently suggested using people’s boyfriends instead of presenting women or trans Wellesley students. Yikes. I can absolutely understand why students are angry about this–but what an introduction to campus politics for this young student. Like she fell through the ice on Lake Waban.
Having attended one of these colleges before the advent of the world wide timewasting non peer-reviewed web, and having witnessed some major campus tsuris in my undergraduate years, I can only imagine how much worse these periodic blowups are now that they’re plastered all over the internets. On these campuses, where everyone identifies as a feminist and women’s issues are at the center rather than the margins of student life, questions of gender and sexuality can be dynamite. The gay/trans students feel like the straight/cis majority students still marginalize them. Some straight/cis students resent being identified with a “gay” campus–when I was a college student in the 1980s, women’s colleges were one of the tiny environments in which women felt comfortable being out. Racial issues are always hot on campuses that are avowedly pretty liberal, but which remain by virtue of their private school tuition overwhelmingly white and privileged. And, everyone is between the ages of 18 and 23, so there’s a lot of experimentation going on–sexual, political, rhetorical, etc.
Anti-gay harrassment is a feature for all students on these campuses, whatever their politics or sexual identities–or it was in the 1980s and 90s. All we’d have to do is cross the street off-campus, and a carload of yahoos would scream “fags! lezzies! lesbos! fags!” I was hired to teach at Wellesley the semester after I finished my Ph.D., and took a little “field trip” with my students to look at headstones in a local graveyard adjacent to the Wellesley campus, so I can testify that at least as late as 1997, the anti-gay drive-by harrassment was alive and all too well. Women’s communities still inspire a shocking levels of resentment, hostility, sexual fantasy, and just plain stupidity–it’s like the rhetoric against women’s religious communities in the Reformation. (I once had a boyfriend who went to school elsewhere. He had a lot of dumb questions: “So, you’re all women, right? Do you all just walk around naked in the dorms? Why bother putting on clothes?” Why didn’t I dump him right then and there? Because I was an 18-year old idiot, I suppose.)
Some of you probably teach at SLACs like this, single-sex or not, or you’re fellow alums. I loved my college life, but as a faculty member it’s a relief to teach on a big campus at a big state school, because we’re spared for the most part these crazy little $h!tstorms that consume everyone on campus for weeks on end.