Thursday, April 24, 2014

And another woman learns to speak up!

Cornell Library, Cornell U., Ithaca, NY.
The title of Jordana Gilman's recent post at the New Agenda grabbed my attention: But first it will piss you off. Yeah, she was quoting feminist icon Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Indeed. And would you believe the truth in question is discovered at the much esteemed Cornell Univesity? But Gilman is not content to just discover the truth; she takes action to right matters:

In an instant, I opened my eyes to the gender inequality in portraits that adorned the walls of my alma mater, Cornell University. I was studying in the nutrition building this past Fall when I glanced up and noticed the faces of three white men in suits watching over me from where their portraits hung. This is despite the fact that Cornell granted the first Ph.D. in nutrition to an African-American woman (Flemmie Kittrell in 1936) and that the female undergraduates of the Nutritional Sciences department outnumber the males 495:190 (from the department administration as of April 2014).

Upon noticing this imbalance in one building, I started noticing the same imbalance in other buildings. Portraits of men hung everywhere, and the rare female portrait was most often a famous man’s mother or wife. Again, this is despite the fact that Cornell University has been admitting women since 1870 and boasts some of the most notable alumnae in a variety of fields. These portraits and the names of the buildings that housed them were sending us clear messages about who is important and valued, and it went something along the lines of wealthy, male, and white. If I asked the average Cornellian today to list some famous alumni, they could easily rattle off the names of the libraries, auditoriums, administrative and academic buildings. They would be naming men. But they would be forgetting Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Frances Perkins, Janet Reno, Pearl Buck, Barbara McClintock, and hundreds of other impressive women of Cornell.

I couldn’t think of a good reason for this besides that portraits reflected who had the money and the power, and I couldn’t think of a good reason for who had the money and the power besides that it was the way it’s always been in our patriarchal society. This seemed less than satisfactory to me.

It’s like Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

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