On May 12, a bright and balmy Saturday, 50 friends of the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Program gathered for the annual Chellis House end-of-the-year party. This year, people not only came together to celebrate the Feminists of the Year, but also to honor writer-in-residence Julia Alvarez and sociology professor Peggy Nelson for their decade-long commitment to promoting feminism at Middlebury.
Catharine Wright, Director of the Writing Program, gave a moving speech in which she remembered her last year as a student at Middlebury College in 1984 and her request to have a woman writer read her senior work. Since there were only two female members of the English Department and neither one of them was a creative writer, Middlebury had to “borrow” Julia Alvarez from the University of Vermont, where she was teaching at the time. “During my defense, for the first time all year, I felt as though someone really saw my work, and spoke about it in ways I understood,” Catharine Wright remembers. Ever since she started to teach at Middlebury, Catharine has used Julia’s essay “A White Woman of Color,” “a story [that allows] for the competing claims of different parts of ourselves and where we come from” and thus models for the young writers in her classes how to write their intersectional experiences of self and world.
Claudia Cooper, visiting assistant professor of English & American Literatures and Education Studies, praised Julia for “her curiosity and sense of justice, and her understanding of the ways in which we construct meaning from narratives, and her dedication to uncovering Truth, which as she reminds us, does not necessarily lie in the facts.”
Cheryl Faraone, professor of Theater and GSFS, lauded Julia for her dedication to the program in all its permutations—Women’s Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and finally GSFS. Students Angie Segura ’16 and Zarai Zaragosa ’17, co-presidents of Alianza Latinoamericana y Caribeña, thanked Julia for her dedication to their organization. For over two decades, Julia has been the “madrina,” or “godmother” of the student group, and constantly conveys to the students: “I will be there for you, I will share with you what I understand, I will shine a light.”
The laurels for Peggy Nelson were equally impressive. Holly Allen, Assistant Professor of American Studies, put Peggy’s career at Middlebury in a historical perspective. Soon after arriving at Middlebury in 1975, Peggy became a recognized feminist and advocate for women’s issues on campus. Within a year, she was faculty advisor to the student Women’s Union, which in 1976 had dozens of members and an ambitious program of activities including women’s health advocacy, career counseling for women, and a campaign to establish a women’s center on campus, which finally came to fruition in 1993 with the inauguration of Chellis House. Holly also highlighted Peggy’s abiding scholarly commitment to addressing the deeply gendered demands of family and caregiving—as those demands fall differently on women and men, young and old, abled and disabled, wealthy and working-class.
Heidi Grasswick, professor of philosophy, praised Peggy for taking junior faculty members under her wing and serving as a sounding board “to think through challenges in [one’s] teaching or ideas of how to bring gender issues into the non-women’s studies classroom, to strategize how to balance the demands of teaching with the demands of scholarship and research productivity of Middlebury, and most importantly, how to keep oneself sane and grounded while doing so.” She remembered Peggy as a driving force in building the program and also pushing for initiatives such as a family leave policy.
These two faculty members serve as role models for the 2016 Feminists of the Year. This year, J Finley received the faculty distinction. Her nominators praised “Dr. J” for “the care she takes in getting to know her students and prioritizing their learning in the classroom by soliciting and incorporating their feedback.” She engages with race critically and allows students to develop skills to observe and critique power dynamics in spaces they participate in through ethnography.
Carter Curran, fellow at the Counseling Center, received the staff award. “As a therapist,” one of her nominators wrote, “Carter does not judge students who want to address their pain through activism. She has reminded me to take care of myself and treat advocacy as a marathon rather than a sprint. She has consistently made myself and others feel supported in the work that we do, refusing to dismiss activism as angry or otherwise unproductive.” Carter also supported the “Sister-to-Sister Program” throughout the year, leading a workshop on active listening skills and serving as a resource person at the summit in November. In the spring semester, Carter also held meditation and mindfulness sessions at Chellis House.
As in years past, several students garnered the Feminist of the Year Award. Chi Chi Chang ’18 was honored for her work for “Raisins,” a group of radical Asian students discussing identity, politics, and racial justice. Chi Chi is also involved in the Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury, in JusTalks and participates in a student coalition for racial justice. Most recently, she was also one of the prime forces behind the activist art installation Stares on Stairs. Developing ideas from Tiffany Rhynard’s J-term class “Radical Performance and Social Activism,” the group staged five performances on stairwells of known party spaces. Surrounded by bodyguards, the performers were in various stages of undress and had handprints on their bodies, holding up signs such as “Not asking for it” and “Sexual Assault Leaves a Mark.”
Elizabeth Dunn ’18, another artistic collaborator in the Stares on Stairs project, was also honored as student Feminist of the Year. One of her nominators praised her for being a critical voice for intersectional feminism on this campus and taking up feminist concerns in her writing in the student-run blog beyondthegreen, the student newspaper The Campus, and her weekly radio show “The Kettle.” One of her nominators praised her for being “not a single-issue feminist, but rather a collaborator across a variety of anti-oppression and social justice works.”
The third distinction went to Rebecca Coates-Finke ’16.5. For the past three years, Rebecca has produced and directed Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues” to inspire and involve many other students on campus and to turn this event of feminist theater-making into a moment of sustained collaborative activism. She has worked closely with the cast on feminist questions and self-exploration, but also engaged the larger community through pop-up performances of monologues in unusual places (from the dining hall to the gym). Her thoughtful, self-reflexive, ethical engagement with issues of diversity and inclusion as they have been posed to Eve Ensler’s play has had an important impact on Middlebury’s institutional learning process regarding sexual violence and diversity.
Highlighting intersectionality and intergenerational collaboration, the achievements of all honorees at the 2016 Chellis celebration serve as a testament to the vitality of feminist scholarship and activism on this campus and beyond.