Walk into the Harvard Coop on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and you’re bombarded with books. Some school paraphernalia is scattered about, objects bearing the school emblem, chunky sweatshirts, and spirited crimson-colored pennants-all in an effort to remind you of the prestigious surroundings. But books take up most of the space, “The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt” or “Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences.”
Wander into the Essays & Memoirs section and you’ll find a title or author that sounds familiar. Maybe the classical, muffled music, spiral staircases, or salespeople who look like librarians-maybe it will inspire you to buy a book or two. Take your new purchase to the quaint cafe on the second level. Sit down, sip a latte and fit in just fine. Suddenly you feel smarter. It must be a common reaction because, let’s face it, you’re surrounded by, well, smart people. There’s no other way to put it.
Welcome to Harvard. It’s a place where intellectualism is infectious. When it comes to the student body, one assumes their brain activity must be on turbocharge churning out sophisticated thoughts.
But there’s an undertow at this institution. It’s not mentioned in the information packet sent to prospective students. Nor is it uttered during the campus tour. If you’re not alert, it can drown your thought process. That undertow has a name. It’s called the New Intolerance. Intolerance when it comes to the simple idea of debate, a dissenting viewpoint, a more conservative perspective.
Meet Christi Williams, a third-year law school student at the oldest law school in the country and arguably the most famous in the world. Come this summer, she’ll be leaving these surroundings for the bar exam and then a law firm in the real world. But she won’t go quietly or without leaving her mark.
Describing her three years on the Harvard campus, Williams reflects, “I look back angrily that I was silent and felt I had to shuffle away when certain topics came up.” When Williams listened to her professors or was challenged by her fellow students, she found many reasons why she needed to speak up, but not much support to do so, or even her right to hold different beliefs.
She discovered that there is a great need for women with dissenting views to connect and find strength in each other instead of walking around with invisible duct tape over their mouths.
So one night in October, an ad hoc group of 10 women from the law school met over margaritas. They didn’t know one another, but it didn’t take long for a discussion to catch fire.
“It was a revelation to say what you wanted to say,” says Williams. “Afterwards we looked at each other and thought, ‘This is the first time I’ve actually had this experience at this school.'”
At Harvard? Sad, but it’s true. “What tends to happen is you’re silenced as a conservative woman,” says Williams. “And you’re categorized too,” says Mary Catherine Martin, a first-year law school student and friend of Williams.
On today’s college campus, by holding views counter to the mainstream campus orthodoxy, you inevitably place yourself in an uncomfortable position. It can be a lonely existence, mired in frustration.
With this in mind Williams set out, with the help of some like-minded friends, to chart a different course. It all began with a simple email that asked, “Are you tired of the notion that there is a universal ‘women’s viewpoint?’ Are you frustrated that this women’s viewpoint looks unkindly on your convictions?”
Looking back on her efforts, Williams admits, “I was nervous. It wasn’t me to put myself in that sort of position.” But it wasn’t in vain. A chord was struck, interest was sparked, and a communal sigh of relief could have been heard, “Gosh, I’m not the only one.”
Realizing that she was onto something, Williams then contacted the Independent Women’s Forum in search of some guidance. In November, she organized a meeting that continued into the wee hours of the night. A constitution was written, officers were elected and, last but not least, a name was chosen.
“We decided on the name, Harvard Law School Alliance of Independent Feminists, because we like the idea of reclaiming the term ‘feminist’ and felt that together with ‘independent,’ the two words convey a new, exciting direction for women,” says Williams. “And we chose the term ‘alliance’ because it suggests a united front.”
It took two months, plus much give and take with the administration, but in early February, the Alliance of Independent Feminists (AIF) became official. “We would like the group to be active in whatever discussion is going on at Harvard’s campus without being marginalized,” says Martin. “We want to be evident, to catch people as they come in because it can be an isolating experience to be a conservative on this campus.”
To date, AIF has 15-20 very active members with 70 students on their email distribution list. In March, IWF National Advisory Board member Jennifer Braceras gave a stirring speech about misdirections in the feminist movement. And IWF co-sponsored an event in April that brought IWF National Advisory Board Chairman Christina Hoff Sommers to the law school to explore the concept of gender studies. (Check out our website SheThinks.org for excerpts of these talks.)
Not surprisingly, the women of AIF are varied and impressive. Some already have master’s degrees, and one has been a high school religion teacher. Some are engaged to be married, many have been successful in the workforce and have now returned to school. They talk about Keynesian economics and dissect Locke’s theories. One got up at 5:30 in the morning to row crew in a freak April snow shower. Others edit the esteemed Journal of Law and Public Policy. They are the archetype of the perfect student and yet, like many students across the country, they carry a big secret. They disagree with the status quo.
“It’s so sad that we go to this world-renowned school and find that women are uncomfortable debating women’s issues,” says Williams. “It’s such a waste,” adds Martin.
AIF hopes to change that. Williams says, “It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to constantly be on the defensive. But we hope it will become a more acceptable fight,” Martin finishes.