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A Feminist Fight Over First Lady’s Appearance at Seven Sisters School

April 25, 1990

WELLESLEY, Mass. (AP) _ Some Wellesley College students have inadvertently hit a feminist sore spot by protesting Barbara Bush’s selection as commencement speaker.

The students gained headlines by circulating a petition saying ″to honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contradicts what we have been taught over our years at Wellesley.″

The petition was signed by 150 of the 2,200 students at the elite women’s school.

But defense of the first lady percolated slowly and then poured forth, even from some of the most liberal corners of the Boston area.

″What seems to have happened here is that the feminist standards of the ’90s are being applied to a woman who matured in another era,″ wrote Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan, who is no Bush fan. ″Barbara Bush is a woman of exemplary values, vast charm and unrivaled popularity, to list those traits in descending order.″

The flap has stirred the tranquil college campus, nestled in a corner of this posh Boston suburb, where the cost of tuition, room and board runs to about $18,000 a year.

Students involved with the petition have become a little publicity shy in the wake of the criticism, according to the senior class dean.

In another Globe article, Suzanne Gordon, a freelance writer and feminist who has a book due out in January called ″Prisoner of Men’s Dreams,″ laid out her argument against the students.

Gordon wrote that the petition ″made me mad enough, even as a long-time feminist, to speak out against what has become an increasingly popular rendition of feminist thinking.″

″What the Wellesley protesters have inadvertently revealed is how much the original goals of the women’s movement have been distorted by the male-clone careerism of today’s ‘dress for success’ feminists,″ she said.

Susie Cardenas, a senior who helped push the petition, did not return several messages to her dorm telephone.

Lorraine Garnett Ward, dean for the 600-member Class of 1990, defended the petitioners, although she pointed out they do not represent a majority of senior class.

″Wellesley College students are extremely thoughtful people who are not at all whiney,″ Ward said. ″I think this is a college which encourages young women to think - and think aloud.″

Feminist author Betty Friedan said she had no problem with the choices Mrs. Bush made in her life, but added the first lady should use her influence to help other women.

″The choice to marry and the opportunity to exert influence as first lady is to be envied, but it is also to be used,″ said Friedan, who teaches at the University of Southern California. ″What I would do is say, ‘We challenge you to take a leading role in demanding that this nation take a leading role on child care.’ ″

A spokeswoman for Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women, who now heads the Virginia-based group The Feminist Majority, treaded a careful line when talking about Mrs. Bush.

″Our impression is that if for instance it was an Eleanor Roosevelt, who was someone who really used her role to improve the status of women, this probably wouldn’t be happening,″ said Tamar Raphael, after speaking with Smeal. ″We know Barbara Bush is really for women’s rights, but she really hasn’t used her position yet to do that.″

Several students said the timing of the protest made them uneasy.

″I’m primarily a little embarrassed just because I feel we invited her and it’s a slap in the face,″ said Erica Herz, a senior. ″There are a lot of people who are happy she’s coming.″

Marcy Goldstein, a junior, said, ″It would be wonderful to have such a well-known person on campus.″ Mrs. Bush still plans to attend the June 1 graduation ceremonies, according to her press office.

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