Gender takes center stage during heated Janus Forum lecture

Friday, November 17, 2006

Tension filled the air in MacMillan 117 during the second installment of the Janus Forum Lecture Series, which was titled “Gender, Tradition, and the American Dream” and featured commentary on archetypical American characters and traditional notions of manliness.

The event featured Catherine MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard University.

MacKinnon described 20 “archetypical examples of the American dream,” or character prototypes that define distinctly American ideals. These archetypes included such personas as “the patriot,” “the self-made man” and “the playboy.” MacKinnon argued that women have not played a large role in defining many of these examples, a fact that reveals the inequality that has long existed in America’s history and still exists today.

Still, MacKinnon said she believes in a “new American dream” that will be free of discrimination and injustice.

“We all survived this last century … and I hope we will be free and equal by the end of this one,” she said.

Mansfield discussed the main argument of his most recent book, “Manliness.” He uses manliness as a term that captures a set of character traits typically embodied in a “normal man,” such as courage, assertiveness, frankness and stubbornness.

“Manliness is having confidence in the face of risk,” Mansfield said, adding that the trait explains male dominance of politics throughout history.

Mansfield claimed society is divided into public and private spheres, where the public sphere is “gender neutral” and the private sphere maintains divisions based on gender.

Mansfield also stressed that, although distinct, manliness and womanliness are not any more or less worthy than the other, adding that each sex should be able to act according to their respective set of traits.

During the question-and-answer session following the discussion, students raised both personal and abstract questions to both panelists.

One student asked about the issue of pornography, which MacKinnon is well known for opposing. She outlined her view of pornography as an instrument of desensitization of violence against women and proposed legislation to combat it.

Another asked about gender-neutral bathrooms.

Mansfield replied, “Students who don’t identify as male or female? Get real. You are either one or the other. Face it.”

One student was visibly distressed after Mansfield claimed that universities give advantages to women in the sciences. Mansfield also caused a stir in the audience after commenting that “Larry Summers was right,” referring to former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who claimed in a much-criticized 2005 speech that women are innately less talented at math and science than men.

Despite several moments of contention, the atmosphere at the discussion did lighten up at points. When asked whether he himself is manly, Mansfield replied, “I would give myself a seven out of 10. I am afraid of riding a horse.”

Linda Zang ’10 asked Mansfield why traits like courage, forthrightness and assertiveness cannot just be called by their individual names, instead of lumping them together into one term. Mansfield replied that men are more likely than women to possess these traits, and so it makes sense to link them together. He also added that the women’s rights movement was manly because its proponents stood up to injustice and contributed to change.

“Courage and the ability to stand up for what you believe in front of a large group of people … are qualities that men and women should aspire to,” Zang said. “Universal virtues should be open to anyone.”

Despite the high level of audience engagement during the debate, reactions to its content were mixed.

Mansfield had kind words for MacKinnon. “I enjoyed it. It was a good debate,” Mansfield told The Herald. “She is a very smart woman.”

MacKinnon was not so enthusiastic.

“(His thesis) was just something he was making up,” she told The Herald. “He is not representing reality.”

Kate Horning ’07 expressed frustration with the debate.

“I was intrigued that the Janus Forum picked two people who are seen as radicals in their fields,” Horning said. “I don’t know how productive the debate was.”

Still, Horning, who asked Mansfield a question about his notion of gender neutrality, had some choice words for the speaker. Referencing a statement Mansfield made about the role of women as contributing to diversity, Horning said, “If women are just something to spice things up, I hope I burn his mouth.”

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