Bess Hepner: Celebrated at Smith, but for contributing what to the world?

Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016

Smith College students hear about Rally Day their first year. It’s when alumnae are honored and set an example for the graduating class. As a senior at Smith, this is a day I have been looking forward to.

I am excited like many of my classmates to wear my gown for the first time. Even more, I am excited to leave campus at the end of the semester with a Smith degree in hand. Rally Day is an important tradition that demonstrates what you can accomplish with a Smith degree by showcasing alumnae who have done amazing things.

On Feb. 17, four distinguished Smith alums will be honored on Rally Day with the Smith Medal. These are women who “exemplify in their lives and work ‘the true purpose’ of a liberal arts education.” Among those getting medals are Joan Harris, an arts philanthropist; Kim (Rea) Carey, a social justice activist; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a documentary filmmaker; and last but not least, Phebe Novakovic, a “business leader.”

Novakovic is CEO of the fourth-largest defense contractor in the nation, General Dynamics. Novakovic made $19 million in 2014. In contrast, Obaid-Chinoy has made over a dozen films with titles like “Iraq: The Lost Generation,” and “Lifting the Veil/Afghanistan Unveiled.”

My question is this: Why insult a documentary filmmaker like Obaid-Chinoy by honoring Novakovic, a woman who has done extremely well for herself (and her shareholders) by making it possible to drop bombs on the subjects of Obaid-Chinoy’s films?

This list of honorees is a case in point of Smith’s conflicting moral values. The college sees this as “balanced,” and honoring “all types,” rather than sick and sadistic, a confusion about what qualifies as success.

This contradiction isn’t new for Smith. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), decided not to speak at the 2014 commencement after student protests. Her campus critics noted that the IMF’s loans to poor countries disproportionately hurt women and help multinational corporations. In addition, Jeane Kirkpatrick, foreign policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan and first female U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, decided not to speak at commencement after protests in 1983.

Like Lagarde and Kirkpatrick, the way Novakovic has made her not-so-modest living is by disproportionately displacing and killing (by proxy of course) women and children while aiding an economic system that relies on the subjugation and marginalization of women to pursue profit.

We should applaud Novakovic, she has done very well at her job. Her firm was recently lauded by the Wall Street Journal for selling private jets to emerging markets and seeing a 9 percent boost in expected profits for 2015 — more than any competitor (presumably run by men). But are profits what we should be applauding?

What kind of feminism are we trying to encourage at Smith and #whichwomen — a Twitter hashtag made popular by students protesting Lagarde’s speech — are we supporting? Novakovic as well as Kirkpatrick and Lagarde send a message to me and my graduating class that our degrees should be used to become powerful leaders, to make a lot of money, and, ironically, to uphold the patriarchy. Having a woman as the CEO of an exploitative corporation does not radically change opportunities for women. Instead, it keeps the system in place with a different demographic running it. For example, even with Barack Obama in the White House and Novakovic at the General Dynamics helm — both symbols of diversity in the neoliberal workplace — we are sustaining business as usual while bombs continue falling on the Middle East without an end in sight.

I have learned in my classes at Smith to critique the world we live in and to understand my education as a tool to make a significant difference when I graduate. Why then does Smith keep sending a message to me and my classmates that real success is not changing the system but maintaining it?

Smithies are known for speaking out. We protested Lagarde and Kirkpatrick. Why can’t we do the same now? A backlash against these protests is expected. The administration, media, and public will say we are not respecting Novakovic’s freedom of speech, just as we did not respect what Lagarde and Kirkpatrick had to say.

Why does freedom of speech always come into the question when challenging dominant power? In arguing to hear the voices of those who continue to oppress, colonize and kill in the name of feminism, we are not listening to the voices of those women who are oppressed, colonized and killed, who suffer as a result of an oppressive patriarchal system.

As a women’s liberal arts school, #whichwomen do we endorse?

Bess Hepner is a member of the Smith College Class of 2016.


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