A controversial commencement speech at Sweet Briar College sparked anger for its anti-MeToo message, according to a report from Inside Higher Ed. During the May 11 address by Nella Gray Barkley — a Sweet Briar graduate of 1955 — students were rattled by occasional remarks that seemed to excuse the sexual harassment that was unveiled by the #MeToo movement.
“It’s a good time for women to be taking some of the spotlight in the glow of the #MeToo movement, with which I’m only in partial sympathy,” Barkley, a career coach, told the young graduates.
Barkley said she applauded women who came forward to report incidents where they were being cornered in a locked room by a male superior, but noted that she had “little patience” with women who “arrive breathlessly at her boss’s hotel room” for a supposed business conference. The hotel room analogy draws similarities to the women who reported calculated harassment by Harvey Weinstein that eventually led to the #MeToo movement.
“What did she think was going to happen? Don’t ever forget, it’s you who makes the ground rules and you who enjoys the consequences of them,” Barkley said. “It’s only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room.”
While other parts of Barkley’s speech focused on career advice for the women, the tone turned at several points to seeming disdain for modern feminism. During the commencement address, Barkley made a “disclaimer” to the school (to whom she did not provide her remarks beforehand) that she is “no raging feminist; I actually love men, and I married one whom I met right on this campus.”
Barkley seemed to acknowledge her own outdated views, remarking to laughter that back-in-the-day, men would come to Sweet Briar’s campus to “look over” the freshmen women, but she understands it “works in reverse now.” She further highlighted disparity between her generation’s views and the existing generation, noting that an engagement ring at Sweet Briar used to be “more prized than a diploma.”
Recent graduates of the school called the remarks “tasteless and insensitive,” according to conversations obtained by Inside Higher Ed. One person reportedly added that “there were sexual assault survivors in the graduation class today who had to relive horrible memories as Ms. Barkley participated in victim blaming and internalized misogyny.”
Meredith Woo, the president of Sweet Briar, told students in an email obtained by Inside Higher Ed that it was important to learn from people “with different life experiences, and different memories of what worked and what didn’t.” Woo said that Barkey tried to “shed light on the vexing problem of power and coercion. But she also raised the question of agency and purpose: how we act responsibly to avoid and thwart situations that happen all too often in life.”
On the Sweet Briar Facebook page, one commenter said that the students “deserved better” and reminded them “there are thousands and thousands of women’s college grads out in the world–strong, determined feminists holding one another up, fighting for a better world and a better tomorrow. We welcome you to our sisterhood and our struggle.”
The senior class president Annabeth Griffin concluded in her own graduation speech on Saturday that her class would graduate “knowing how to fight for things we believe in and win, even when those in power call us crazy. We’ve learned when to listen, but also when not to listen. We are so proud to become alumnae; we are so proud to join the warrior women who came before us. Wonder Woman has nothing on them, although she would totally fit in here.”
When reached by Teen Vogue, a representative for the college provided this statement:
“The College hopes that the comments overall inspired the Class of 2018 to think deeply and carefully, and we are proud that our graduates listened with discernment on what was a joyous occasion celebrating their triumphs.”
“We have an opportunity to continue a very important conversation – one that we all should be having and one on which women should take leadership – about power, responsibility and advocacy. Sweet Briar College has always been an institution that encourages discussion on subjects of profound importance for our women and our society. We hold this truth to be unassailable: Every woman has dominion over her physical self and must be free from coercion, pressure or influence.”
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