Of the events I organized when I was an undergraduate at Williams, one lecture stands out as genuine accomplishment. It made a difference in campus dialogue and so helped define the quality of the college U.S. News and World Report regularly names the nation’s finest liberal arts college (the tie resolved in the older school’s favor by a football game).
Offended that angry feminist Mary Daly spoke at the college, yet refused to take questions from men, I spearheaded a group of conservative students to set up the James A. Garfield Society (named in honor of the President shot on his way to his Williams reunion). We raised money from the Political Science Department, the college’s Lecture Committee, College Council and the Young America’s Foundation to bring Phyllis Schlafly to Williamstown. Mrs. Schlafly agreed to take questions from male as well as female students.
The Women’s Studies program refused to support the event while a number of left-wing faculty members, one since denied tenure, threw a hissy fit, upset that this leader of the movement to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment would speak at our college.
While these faculty members couldn’t bear to hear an opposing point of view, students, including many left-of-center ones, were preparing for the lecture. My peers checked out all her books from the library. Some searched out her articles and public statements through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature–how we tracked down news in the days before the Internet.
They were helped out by one distinguished professor. Rosemarie Tong, a feminist professor of Philosophy, alerted them to articles by and about Mrs. Schlafly. Professor Tong joined conservative students at the dinner we held before the lecture.
Liberal students prepared themselves to “do battle” with this conservative icon by familiarizing themselves with Mrs. Schlafly’s ideas. And when she spoke to a crowd of well over 1,000 (we will never know the exact number because the hall was filled beyond capacity), they listened. There were no cat-calls, no hissing, just a polite silence.
As soon as we opened the floor for questions, however, they start firing away, not with insults but with intelligent questions. No one called her names, but they did challenge her ideas. Mrs. Schlafly was unflappable, keeping her cool even after numerous feminist students pressed her at a reception afterwards.
Shortly after the lecture, I approached a classmate who, after reading one of Mrs. Schlafly’s books, asked a particularly tough question. I said that I didn’t think the conservative speaker answered. “Oh, but she did,” my classmate replied and went on to explain why she felt her non-answer was an answer. She came away more convinced of the merits of her own feminist ideas.
Other women with whom I spoke reached different conclusions about the address, with one practically glowing; she had heard her worldview affirmed in front of a large audience.
Like many of our peers, she joined in the many discussions around campus sparked by Mrs. Schlafly’s lecture. A Marxist Professor of Political Science with whom I keep in touch still remembers how serious those conversations were and still praises me for organizing the event.
The reaction to the event made me proud of my alma mater. It’s one of the many reasons I support the college with my time (I’m a leader of the local alumni association) and money. There, I saw how smart people deal with differing points of view. They showed respect for an intellectual adversary, familiarize themselves with her ideas and take issue with those ideas, challenging them without insulting her.
Liberal bloggers have a lot to learn from liberal students at Williams College. And one feminist professor of Philosophy. And that Commie, my favorite Marxist. 🙂