Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rurality and class as identity, in the context of an elite(ist) institution

I have been following recent news out of Amherst College about sexual assaults some students have committed against others--and the allegations that Amherst administrators previously tried to hush up these incidents, discouraging victims from pressing charges.  Indeed, victims of the sexual assaults have alleged that administrators acted insensitively to their reports, saying things like, "are you SURE it was rape?"  and "why don't you take the semester off and get a job at Starbucks until he graduates."  Read more here, and don't miss this student website featuring student victims of sexual assault who have "come out" about what happened to them.

In the context of news coverage of these matters, Amherst's president since summer of 2011, Dr. Biddy Martin, has received mostly positive attention for her handling of the crisis.  Richard Perez-Pena, reporting for the New York Times, wrote in his Oct. 26, 2012 story:
Dr. Martin, who is known as Biddy, released a statement that had neither the defensiveness nor the bland wait-and-see that are common to institutional responses, declaring that things “must change, and change immediately.” She made more administrative changes, and said in an interview in her office on Thursday that she is inclined to make more still, like having experts — rather than shifting panels of professors and students — adjudicate complaints.
Now, in a second NYT story published yesterday, Perez-Pena reports further on Dr. Martin's unusual response to the rapes--unusually confrontational and frank, that is.  In doing so, he picks up on aspect of Dr. Martin's background--one might even say, her identity--and implies that it has relevance to her handling of these sensitive matters.  Perez-Pena writes that "no college leader in the country" is as well prepared to face this Amherst controversy, in part because her academic work is about gender and sexuality, in part because she has a "history of tackling ... thorny disputes," and in part because even before this issue came to the fore at Amherst, Martin had begun "overhauling" how the institution deals with sexual assaults.  

But Perez-Pena has more to say about why Dr. Martin has responded as she has.  What he suggests is that not only Martin's gender, but also rurality and perhaps class are salient aspects of her identity. 

Perez-Pena notes in the story's lede that the Amherst controversy "began with a first-person account of an elite college's callous treatment of a rape victim," a "woman from the rural South who said she had never felt fully accepted on campus."  Then Perez-Pena writes of Dr. Martin, who grew up in southern Virginia:  
And [Martin] is, herself, a woman from the rural South, who attended an elite college where she did not feel fully accepted. 
* * * 
Her parents, a school secretary and a salesman, “thought girls didn’t need to go to college, and they worried that I would be turned into a liberal lunatic,” she said. “Their greatest fear was that, as they put it, those eggheads would think they were better than we were, and when I went to William and Mary, I did encounter some prejudice.” 
As a scholar of German literature, and a lesbian, she did not always fit in back home, either — where, she said, “what mattered was high school football.”
Wow.  Kudos to Perez-Pena for picking up on this part of Dr. Martin's bio--for seeing the relevance of her class background and the marginalization of the rural in relation to it--especially in the elite(ist) milieu in which Martin now operates.  Dr. Martin, it seems, is both insider and outsider; she has experienced being both, along various axes of her identity:  gender, sexuality, class--and even geography.  And maybe Perez-Pena is right in speculating on the capacity this gives her to empathize with a female student from the rural South, a woman who didn't feel she accepted at Amherst, even before she was raped there.  

It reminds me of this sentence from Perez-Pena's first report about the Amherst rapes: 
Are sex crimes more surprising at a school thought of as elite and supportive of women's rights, or less surprising at the kind of place often labeled as having a culture entitlement?  
Cross-posted to Feminist Legal Theory and ClassCrits

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