Students Question Smith’s Values: ‘#WhichWomen’ Should Be Honored?

Photo by Anya Gruber '16 | Students handed out flyers about the #WhichWomen campaign as seniors streamed into John M. Greene Hall on Rally Day.  

Katherine Hazen '18 News Editor

In response to the recognition of CEO of the General Dynamics Phebe Novakovic ’79 as a Rally Day Medalist, several students organized a campaign entitled “#WhichWomen” to question the brand of feminism Smith chooses to honor.

After learning that Novakovic heads one of the world’s largest defense companies, Sophie Strauss-Jenkins ’18 started to organize a conversation addressing her profession and the values Smith upholds.

“If we’re going to sell Smith as an institution that values human beings and life, then you can’t also honor women for being CEOs of militarized industries,” Strauss-Jenkins said. “Honoring [Novakovic] and seeing signs that say ‘Women of the World,’… it’s a paradox: women of the world don’t have that concentration of wealth; women of the world don’t have a concentration of power; women of the world don’t profit from bombing other women.”

In a statement from the Office of College Relations, Sam Masinter said, “One of the extraordinary strengths of Smith is the diversity of ways we recognize and celebrate leadership. Through the Smith Medal, and reflected in and embodied by our students, we continue a strong tradition of honoring voices from across the spectrum of experiences and professions.”

When The Sophian spoke with Strauss-Jenkins last week, Novakovic had just canceled her appearance at the ceremony due to illness.

“The fact that she’s not coming tomorrow is a shame, but is also beneficial because the overarching conversation isn’t about her,” said Strauss-Jenkins.

Strauss-Jenkins, along with Bess Hepner ’16 — who authored an op-ed for the Daily Hampshire Gazette on the subject — and Raven Fowlkes-Witten ’17 have organized a panel conversation in coordination with the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability to take place early next month.  The panel thus far features study of women and gender Professor Elisabeth Armstrong, in addition to professors from the sociology, history and Latin American studies departments.

The hashtag #WhichWomen was born out of the organizing around Christine Lagarde’s Commencement speech.  Hepner suggested the use of the hashtag for this campaign.

“I wanted to use the hashtag to relate the issue over Lagarde to the issue with having Novakovic come to speak and show that it is the same conversation,” said Hepner.  “In using the hashtag I also wanted to take the individual out of the conversation. This conversation is not about Novakovic or Lagarde as individual people. It is about what type of feminism Smith chooses to honor.”

The group has since changed the title to “Who Do We Value,” after “other students [sic] said that this hashtag was made specifically for students of color to use who wanted to address how the [International Monetary Fund] harms their identities,” said Hepner.

Not all students share the group’s sentiments — many have expressed dismay that students are campaigning against accomplished women who have overcome sexism in their own fields.        

Others wished they saw a broader definition of success.

“I believe the women [Smith College had] chosen for Rally Day are certainly accomplished and deserve to be recognized. However, Smith has a pretty specific definition for successful women, and I don't believe that it is all-encompassing,” said Michaela Rohde ’17.  “To be more inclusive, I'd like to see women with more individual definitions of success. To be successful should mean to be happy with what you've accomplished, even if that means raising healthy and well-informed children. When women leave Smith, I would like for them to feel empowered to do what makes them happy.”

The students have since deactivated the “Who Do We Value” Facebook page in fear of using the college’s logo but still plan to host a conversation.    

The Smith Bipartisan Coalition chose the topic of “#WhichWomen” for their own bi-weekly meeting this week.

The Bipartisan Coalition did not respond to The Sophian’s request for comment.