Smithies Respond to Offensive Letter with Righteous Rage

A few days ago, a fellow alumna of my alma mater sent a rather puzzling letter to the school’s newspaper in which she proclaimed that the increase in diversity at Smith in recent years is sending the college down the tubes and attracting subpar* applicants, and in which she stated, among other things, that “the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate.”

That excerpt was possibly the least offensive statement in the entire letter. I could comment at length on the classism, racism, and homophobia of the letter as a whole, or the fact that it reflects a mindset that stagnated in the 1950s, but that’s already been done. (You can read the letter in its entirety–plus commentary–on Jezebel.)

The Smith community reacted to this bomb, predictably, with righteous rage.  Tell Smith women that it’s a problem we’re not wearing pearls and sweater sets and dating Amherst men? Tell any Smithie that her background makes her a charity case? You’d better run for cover.

Within a few hours of the letter hitting the Sophian,  some enterprising Smithies started the “Pearls and Cashmere” project, in which Smithies past and present were invited to respond with their stories of where they came from,  how they got to Smith, and what they’ve accomplished since graduating, with photos to illustrate the glorious diversity of the student body. Several ladies posted their best photos of themselves in pearls and cashmere–some including a classy middle-finger salute for the woman who dared to suggest that they didn’t merit their education if they weren’t pursuing their MRS.

My own response and photo (no pearls or cashmere or rude gestures required) is at the end of this post.

Antagonizing Smithies is a bit like antagonizing a pack of hyperintelligent and slightly rabid she-wolves: you will get the most well-articulated smackdown in history. But we’re above bombarding you personally with hate mail–we’ll put our responses online, where they don’t clutter your inbox, and they don’t risk going unseen. We’ll use your intolerance to affirm pride in our own individual identities, and in our collective identity as Smithies.  And we’ll let the world know how wrong you are in judging us based on your own narrow view of what women’s education is supposed to be.

Smith breeds Sisterhood. Siblinghood. We’re-all-in-this-togetherhood. The outpouring has been truly incredible. Reading the entries on Pearls and Cashmere has made me even more amazed at the variety of  people who go to Smith, and the amazing things we do when we go into the world. Seeing the way Smithies rally to affirm the glory of their multi-ethnic, multi-racial, economically diverse, LGBTQ and ally selves, I have never been prouder to have called Smith my home.

 

 

Self-Portrait at Habu Temple in Luxor

 

Laura Carroll, class of 2006. French major, Medieval Studies minor, with an unofficial minor in Philosophy as well. I graduated 5th in my high school class, scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of my SAT, and received a Smith Book Award, a STRIDE scholarship, and a Blumberg fellowship, all merit-based. I could have gone to college pretty much anywhere I damn well pleased, and I chose Smith solely because I knew that I would get an excellent education. Once there, I discovered that when you put two thousand brilliant women from diverse backgrounds in the same place and encourage them to learn and explore together, you create a phenomenal community that breeds intellectual creativity. At Smith, I was able to take classes in a mind-boggling array of disciplines, study abroad in Paris, sing with the Glee Club, and fence sabre. I made friends that are still with me to this day.
I’m currently working on my MA in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis, and I’m on practicum in Egypt (this photo was taken at Habu Temple in Luxor). I’ve lived in Morocco and Russia. I’m working on a book-length travel narrative and multiple short stories. I practice aerial arts and dance in my free time. I have a fabulous partner, whom I met at Smith. I challenge conventions about the things that are “acceptable” to do with my life—as have generations of Smithies before me.

Attending Smith was one of the best decisions I ever made.

 

 

 

 

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*Subpar, in this instance, meaning anyone who isn’t an upper-class, white, heterosexual, cisgendered female.

 

4 thoughts on “Smithies Respond to Offensive Letter with Righteous Rage”

  1. Respectfully, I think you’ve replaced one elitist mythology with yet another. I worked closely with Smith College students during the Eighties, Nineties, and the first half of the last decade (bringing me up to a mere six years ago) and while I certainly recall intelligent and articulate women I also remember numerous ugly incidents, especially during the high-water mark of militant feminism and political correctness, where well-articulated smackdowns were often replaced with young women screaming like banshees, dogmatic intolerance, and even vandalism. Then, Smith attracted the attention of Time magazine. The periodical published a photo of Smith’s PC speech code. I was present when, a few weeks after the photo appeared, one VERY articulate and thoroughly outraged 80s alum stormed into the Alumni Office and threatened to withdraw any further financial support for the school. She wasn’t alone. There were also plenty of pearls and furs during those same years, parties with jello-wrestling and LOADS of Amherst boys, and numerous of arguments–sometimes vicious and irrational, sometimes civilized, honest, and commendable–AMONG the students.

    Twenty-five years of familiarity with the school and its students and I’d be hard-pressed to describe a typical Smithie. I have had the privilege of knowing some extraordinary Smith students who were every bit the ideal you describe, and I’ve met plenty who were clearly legacies–plump, privileged, be-pearled and stump-dumb. Others were as narrow-minded and dogmatic as the worst sort of Bible-thumping Fundamentalist Christian. There were also loads of stories of gossiping and throat-slitting. One of the best of the extraordinary students that I knew was hounded out of the school by fellow students and some faculty members (!) for asking good questions about feminist ideals, for encouraging honest discussion, and for promoting tolerance. I don’t think hers was a well-articulated smackdown any Smith graduate should be proud of.

    One constant about Smith, though, is the mythologizing. I attended more than a few Smith graduation ceremonies and often had to endure manifestations of the Smith College Self-Appreciation Society. Yes, you were all wonderful, a credit to your gender, the very best women in the world; now off to reshape planet Earth in utterly marvelous ways. Many graduates possibly were all that, but much was ignored, hidden, suppressed, glossed over amid these public celebrations of The Smith Woman. Outside observers (like myself) could be caught rolling our eyes and smirking while this warm New England wind roared over our heads same time every year, like clockwork.

    It sounds like this letter–the topic of your posting–was inordinately obnoxious. It was also typical. Hardly a four-year interval passed when some Smith student didn’t send a letter like that, or otherwise create a similar classist, racist, ruckus. It’s no fluke. To the objective observer it’s just an eruption of something that’s always burbled beneath the glossy and–I’m sorry–invariably elitist surface of this school of schools. An event like this should prompt detailed analysis and introspection, not denial, dismissal, a brilliant flash of ‘outrage a la Smith,’ and a reassertion of the (forgive me) self-serving Smith mythology. There’s nothing commendable about smacking down a possible ugly truth. If you’re all as good as you say you are, you can deal with it.

  2. That’s cool. As long as we’re doing good and using our natural talents to the best of our ability, it doesn’t matter where we come from, what school we went to or what we do. Don’t succumb to others’ envy as long as we’re being true to ourselves. Honesty and authenticity come from the heart anyway, not from a school.

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