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Speeches & Media

Hope For an Equal Chance

At Smith, fighting gender bias begins with internalizing women’s worth

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2014

I am living and working at one of the rarest places on earth: a community where individuals are respected and possibilities are not limited by traditional roles or expectations. I didn’t have the benefit of a women’s college education, but I am having it now.

Like a Smith student in her first semester, I reach for ways to describe to friends and former colleagues how Smith differs from the other communities I have known. One illustration I cite is from the world of film.

Recently, cinemas in Sweden have begun assigning a gender equity rating to movies, to help audiences make educated choices. They use a set of criteria articulated by the noted memoirist and cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To earn an A rating under the Bechdel test, the film has to have three basic elements:

• at least two women in it
• who talk to each other
• about something other than a man.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet, as a number of critics have pointed out, most Hollywood films—and even most independent American films—would fail that test.

You don’t have to apply the Bechdel test at Smith—where the A-rating reality is both obvious and extraordinary. The belief that women have value, individually and collectively, is fundamental to the Smith experience. Internalizing that belief—through daily experience, reflection, and activism—is a powerful inoculation against subtle messages of gender bias that shape even the most enlightened among us.

Second-wave feminism—for which we all, as President Obama recently acknowledged, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Gloria Steinem ’56—has emboldened and propelled me, my generation. My academic and administrative paths at co-ed universities schooled and shaped me. My mentorships with other women sustained me. But my early months at Smith have sharpened my insights about equity.

In Britain, aristocratic women are challenging the laws of primogeniture—the so-called Downton Abbey laws that confer automatic inheritance of property and title to a first-born male. I don’t stand to inherit a castle or a title, but what resonates with me is the larger question being raised: How do we create standards of equity?

Each of us comes to the equity conversation—and to Smith—from a different starting point. Our experience of gender is inflected by generation and class; by culture, faith, politics and profession; by family dynamics and lived experience. What is liberal by some measures is conservative by others, and vice versa. What we hold in common is a profound hope for an equitable world, an equal chance.

If Smith is a movement, its vision is this: a world where women are represented equally at the highest levels of government; where women’s health is not considered an afterthought; where women constitute no less than half of the Fortune 500 CEOs; where women will not have to derail their careers in order to raise their children; where women in positions of power no longer have to answer questions about what they wear.

That is a rightful inheritance, a powerful story and a message I am proud to carry.