Fourteen years ago, I arrived on the Barnard College campus with my Kmart steamer trunk and my outlet mall power suit—the two things my parents back in Colorado were convinced someone would need at a fancy northeastern school. Upon setting foot on campus, I promptly learned I was a stupid slut. It wasn’t because of the nerdy luggage or the discounted attire, but simply because I had chosen to attend an all-women’s college affiliated with a coed school. Who knew?
Apparently President Obama didn’t before announcing last week that he would deliver the commencement address at Barnard, an undergraduate college affiliated with Columbia University, his alma mater. But if his advance team was following reaction to the news online, they would have learned exactly what many Columbia students think of their peers at the sister school, whose degrees are conferred by the larger university and who have full access to classes on both campuses. The misogynist vitriol I once heard whispered in lecture halls and drunkenly shouted at dorm parties was suddenly on full display across the web.
The university’s "gender problem," traditionally kept mostly in the family, went viciously viral. Many Columbia students felt spurned by Obama's choice to speak at Barnard, and their disappointment brought out uncensored venom. A few choice excerpts:
It’s feminazi’s like you that give us women a bad name. If your reading comprehension skills were on par with say, a seventh grader, then maybe you would have realized your inference that I was criticizing women was completely invalid – I find fault with Barnard students and Barnard students only. I have absolutely nothing but respect for Columbia women as I AM ONE.
Barnard is full of academically inferior students that are able to use OUR campus, take OUR classes, and are stereotypically easy to get in bed.
While you guys were perfecting your deepthroating techniques and experimenting with scissoring and anal play, we were learning Calculus (usually by sophomore year of high school).
I wish I were surprised. I used to be. As a Barnard student in the early 2000s, I was shocked to hear this kind of sexism from the mouths of both male and female students just days after the class of 2002 arrived. Coming from a mediocre public school in Colorado Springs, I thought getting into Barnard meant I was smart, but suddenly my social life was defined by the perception that my peers and I had substandard brains and hyperactive sex lives.
I chalked up the negative reactions as a weird outlier in an otherwise empowering set of experiences. But five years later, when I went on tour for my first book, a study of the culture of eating disorders, I was shocked all over again to learn that these bizarre and cruel prejudices weren’t unique to Columbia. At St. Mary’s, the all-women’s college near Notre Dame, students told me that an oft-repeated rule on campus was, "St. Mary’s girls to bed, Notre Dame girls to wed"—a slogan I’d heard years earlier about Barnard and Columbia. St. Mary’s students described a similar confusion and humiliation over the dynamic, as did female students on campuses across the country where women outnumbered men by large margins.
This represents much more than a "sibling rivalry," as Richard Perez-Pena put it in The New York Times; it is sexist bloodsport. Already unconsciously privileged men grow even more assured of their own superiority as the sexual economy tips in their favor. They have their pick of women at bars near campus, and they defend their diminishing presence in the classrooms by taking up even more space, being even louder, insisting on their outsized intellectual prowess.
But the real crime is that women on both campuses buy into it. Fresh off of the dehumanizing college application season, maybe Barnard students are even more vulnerable than usual. Perhaps straight Columbia women are thrown off by showing up at college only to realize that they have twice the competition for men's attention. It fits into a classic pattern of oppressive minorities successfully dividing majority populations, pitting them against one another in order to ensure dominance. At Columbia, this dynamic is humiliating; in some contexts, it’s deadly.
As much as I wish I had caught on to this power grab from the start, it wasn’t until late in college that I developed the confidence and clarity to see that the Ivy League emperors of Columbia College had no clothes. When Columbia students scream that their average SAT scores are higher than their Barnard peers, they fail to realize that intelligence is multi-faceted, that some students would actively choose to attend a highly selective school known for better advising and closer relationships between students and faculty instead of an even more highly selective school that's less personal. In my experience, the classes at Barnard proved more demanding, the discussions more engaging, the professors more committed than at Columbia. In fact, several of my closest male Columbia friends started taking as many classes as possible at Barnard by their junior year, convinced that they were getting a better education on the so-called stupid, slutty side of Broadway.
Many people have criticized Barnard President Deborah Spar and Columbia President Lee Bollinger for not taking these comments seriously enough—Spar told The New York Times such sentiments were nothing more than "19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning." But while both were overly glib in dismissing the misogyny underlying the comments, such pernicious divisions can never be fixed by university administrators.
It is up to students on campus to condemn and dismiss hatred, and shift the culture once and for all. They must exact a cost for fellow students—female and male—who continue to spew inexcusable venom. Rush Limbaugh has lost 45 advertisers thanks to public outcry following his misogyny of a similar ilk. Columbia University’s principled students must inflict the social equivalence on those in their midst who continue to perpetuate these tired and hateful stereotypes. Whether it’s one person at a time refusing to participate in sexist conversations, or a full-on, university-wide campaign to target these nasty little myths once and for all—it’s got to happen. To quote Barnard's commencement speaker, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."