To the class that shouldn’t have but did anyway:

IMG_3297I always found it mind-boggling that slavery was once, in part, justified by the idea that African Americans were not as intelligent as Caucasians… while simultaneously making it illegal to educate slaves.  What a self-fulfilling prophecy! What a load of crap! What an act of courage to defy that law! How brave of Frederick Douglass to secretly teach himself to read and write and later become the famed writer and orator who proved this wrong.

There was a time, too, when educating women beyond reading, writing and basic arithmetic was considered superfluous. We were thought of as “less than.” Our primary purpose involved menial tasks with no options; our highest achievement was marriage. This was when women’s colleges began. What an act of defiance!

Not that the original culture of those schools wasn’t just as susceptible to the internalized sexism of the day: one of my favorite speeches from my time at Sweet Briar was from an elderly alumna talking about her first trip to the college of her future. She spoke about the sashes the Junior Year Abroad students wore to class as seniors, dressing for dinner–which included white gloves–and the upperclasswomen’s ability to pick out the women from other area colleges waiting at the train station by their scandalous shoes: flats. (Can you imagine?)

As children, we do everything we can to please our parents. As teenagers, we couldn’t care less, or pretend so, as it becomes more important to please our friends. Our parents ask us if we would, in fact, jump off a bridge if our friends did. A critical question to be sure, but I think the friends-pleasing phase is an important apron-string-cutting exercise: a stepping stone of sorts. By the time you move out of your parents’ home, you know you’re different from your parents, but you can’t always put your finger on how much or in what ways. The college years are where you, if my creationist parents will forgive the term, evolve.

At a women’s college, these days anyway, one of the first stages is deciding there are better ways to spend your time than putting an hour into hair and makeup every day. That’s 365 hours a year you can put into learning Latin, doing yoga, or practicing bass guitar–depending on your roommate situation. I personally kept that 365 hours a year to myself until, out of career frustration and after reading about a survey that said people saw women who wore makeup as significantly more intelligent than those who didn’t, I caved. I do my hair and wear makeup now.

I understand it was the class of 1969 that first challenged the dress code. They started Sweet Briar on the road to cultural change and helped us get our 365 hours back.  Every class year has made their mark on the culture that is this college. My big sisters, the ’93s, seemed like a bunch of “Type A” ambitious, stick-to-business, go-getters from day one.  The ‘93s include Tracy Stuart and Marine Katherine Polevitzky. My ’94s are laid-back and known for being equal parts big brains and big fun. Our classes were deliberately kept to about 100 because they were renovating dorm buildings. In our day, our tap-club hats really just had the club logo and senior-robe Fridays were decorated with only buttons and pins that could be removed for more formal occasions. (I don’t know why we didn’t think to have two robes: one decorated robe and one for formal occasions.)

What a shock when my first-year presented my robe with a gold glitter-glue mane and flashy pipe-cleaner whiskers–a reference to my nickname, “Lion.” (Today, I deeply regret the look that was likely on my non-poker-face. I didn’t understand at the time that this was the ‘97s way to make their mark on our culture.) It’s like those ’98s when they started sitting up nights writing for Step Singing and belting the “Holla, Holla” song with gusto never before heard. Seeing it on YouTube sung in the hallway outside of court was a major adjustment for me. Over the last year, though, it has had me thinking: Why shouldn’t a school known for building confidence, that doesn’t have an official cheerleading squad to follow the boys around cheering at their sporting events in short skirts and pompoms, counter that by empowering the entire student body to cheer for their fellow women and their accomplishments–athletic, academic or personal?

Indeed, every class year leaves their mark on this school and this school leaves their mark on them. What will be the class of ’16’s legacy to Sweet Briar and hers to them? What steely determination could be seen in these women just by the fact that they sat there at that graduation? What knowledge has this last year given them that they know anything is achievable, it is literally a matter of time, i.e., hours put in. Hours that are driven by faith and determination, cut shorter by investment in research and working smart and savvy, but never cut off by the lack of tenacity. That’s just choosing to fail.

The “Sweet ’16s’ ” impact has already been felt out in the world. Hadn’t you heard? According to the Daily Progress, interest in women’s colleges was down across the country–last year–and then Sweet Briar happened. Then everything changed.

As of just a year ago, sexism was supposed to have been solved, at least in the minds of many. We didn’t need feminism anymore. It was, after all, technically illegal to discriminate, at least overtly. If our average pay is less, it must be because we chose not to negotiate or put family first (and if we didn’t, we were selfish or somehow not feminine). We’re just not ambitious, (unless we are, then we’re too ambitious). We chose part-time jobs filled with menial tasks for the flexibility or low-paying careers that focused on helping people like teaching or social work rather than competitive aggressive male dominated careers like investment banking. We chose to be followers at work instead of leaders (unless we didn’t, when we chose to be too blunt and bossy… for a woman). We chose to be superfluous, focused on make-up and marriage.

What a load of crap. What an act of defiance to say, “No, we’re not. You’re retroactively excusing the data with a bunch of biased judgement calls about what we want in life. You’re pushing us into these ‘feminine’ boxes and punishing us when we refuse to back into one of a few cages of what you think women are supposed to be.”

What an act of defiance to say, a tiny fraction of Congress and the Supreme Court is not enough for 50% of the population, when we’re supposed to be satisfied with housecleaning. What an act of defiance to keep pointing out that those businesses with more women at the top tend to do better. What an act of defiance to look at the rate of women’s college grads in these groups and say, “Hey, we better not let those go yet.”

What an act of defiance for the women’s soccer team to file suit and call attention to one of the most egregious cases. What I hope is one of the most egregious cases. What an act of defiance to talk about what you make with your coworkers, ignoring the HR advise that, “We don’t talk about these things, for obvious reasons.” FYI, that’s illegal–for obvious reasons: it’s illegal to pay according to gender but no one will get caught doing if no one talks about it. That said, I don’t recommend jumping hard-core into the equal-pay fray, at least beyond getting in the good habit of negotiating for a bit more than you’re offered, before you’ve you got your footing but until you get there, keep your eyes open and keep questioning gender-roll authority.

Example: If you think about it, there are two careers that safeguard an individuals’ future and ensure it grows through investment and nurturing to be a legacy to that individual in the world even after they’re gone: bankers and teachers. Why should they not be paid the same? Because we, men and women alike, devalue “women’s work” through cultural cues ingrained throughout life. What an act of defiance to say otherwise. What incredible courage Sweet Briar’s faculty have had to come back together, put together curriculum four months late and a few colleagues shy.

Right now, you need the approval of your co-workers, bosses, and interviewers and not just for emotional validation, but so you can keep paying your bills. As time goes on you’ll need that less and less, and that leaves more and more room for little acts of defiance. Know that there will be times when you need to fit in, or near to, one of those gender boxes to get along. They’ll also be times when you need to call it out and just say, “Hey, that’s a stereotype and I don’t have to back into that box.”

Ultimately, a culture, a college, and an individual are slowly evolved by one little act of defiance at a time. From Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks and all who came after them, the world is changed one defiance at a time, and, if a bunch of little “defiances” get together, like the 82 of you, the world can change that much faster. Sweet Briar College’s class of 2016 committed a big defiant act when they returned in the fall, and how much more this year than any other you have grown? We have all, each class and individual, had our briars to bear but, having earned our roses, can smile through the tears and say, as my grandmother was fond of, ” ‘Twas a mere nothing.” I might amend that to, ” ‘Twas a sweet, breezy piece of cake.” 2016s, I recommend having yours and eating it, too.

Rosam quae meruit ferat.

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