At a forum on women’s rights on Monday afternoon, tension among attendees seemed to mirror the rising discord and polarization within Congress on gender politics this election cycle.
A crowd of about 150 students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents packed into the Hatcher Graduate Library to listen to prominent feminist figures discuss the plight of American women amid a transforming political culture. The event, titled “The Republican War on Women,” spurred outcry among students and local officials who expressed concern that the University was demonstrating a liberal bias and defying campaign finance laws by using public funding to support a partisan event.
LSA senior Rachel Jankowski, chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, drafted a letter to University Provost Philip Hanlon, urging University officials to cancel the forum and noted that legal action may be taken against the University.
“As a woman and the chair of the College Republicans, I am incredibly offended that the University of Michigan has the audacity to promote such a blatantly fallacious forum,” she wrote in the letter. “This is an insult to every woman who has ever supported the Republican Party and its candidates, and only further creates tension and division.”
Fellow members of the University’s chapter of College Republicans mobilized in opposition to the event and organized a protest on the steps of the library before the meeting, carrying signs and airing their grievances with passersby.
LSA senior Brian Koziara, a senior adviser to the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said he felt the nature of the event was oppressive to conservative students.
“The title of this event really seems to be laying blame on Republicans, and since it’s an officially University sponsored event, it seems like the University is taking sides on the issue,” he said.
LSA senior Arielle Zupmore echoed Koziara, saying she felt the University was infringing upon her rights to attend an unbiased institution of higher education.
“I was really upset, because as a women who is a Republican and very involved with the party, I found it really, really embarrassing that I also have to call myself a Wolverine at a school that is sponsoring a partisan event,” she said.
Despite claims that the University breached state policy, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham wrote in a statement that the event was not in violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act because it was purely informational and not promotional.
“It was our understanding that the event was never intended to endorse a political position,” Cunningham wrote. “It was a thoughtful, critical analysis of how the media has covered the issues around gender in politics and the historical place of women in the electorate. It was very much an educational forum. “
She added that holding events that promote discourse among diverse perspectives is one of the University’s primary objectives.
“This type of intelligent, thoughtful and respectful dialogue among people of diverse views makes the University of Michigan such a special place,” she wrote.
Susan Douglas, chair of the Communications Studies department and moderator of the event, sought to dispel concern over implications of the title of the event, explaining that the term “Republican War Against Women” derives from a book published in 1996 by Tanya Melich that detailed the ideological shifts of the GOP on women’s rights throughout history.
During the panel discussion, Katha Pollitt, a writer for the magazine The Nation said she believes the Republican party “sends out complicated vibes” and conflicting messages, noting an incident in which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney told an Iowa newspaper that he had no plans to enact anti-abortion policies. His campaign promptly rescinded the statement Pollitt said.
“I think that he was sending a message to say to pro-choice moderate Republicans — ‘It’s OK to vote for me. I’m still moderate Mitt, the former governor of Massachusetts, who was pro-choice, who did Romneycare,’” she said.
Rebecca Traister, a writer for the online news site Salon.com discussed the transformation of the American political system as women and minorities have made increasing gains and taken on leadership roles.
“Throughout history, we have been run by one kind of person — a white male person,” she said. “That’s what the presidents have looked like, a white guy. It’s what people with economic power have looked like; it’s what people with academic power have looked like. It’s what power has looked like in this country.”
Anna Holmes, the founder of the feminist blog Jezebel and a columnist for The Washington Post, spoke about an incident last spring in which conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a student at a Georgetown University who advocated contraceptive rights, a slut.
“I think that (women) saw in Sandra a kindred spirit and they were outraged that she was being lambasted publicly,” she said. “I think a lot of younger women, and older women, are tired of having their sexuality called into question when they actually have something to say about anything uncomfortable.”
The room quickly grew heated during a question-and-answer session in which attendees expressed concern over the lack of Republican considerations on the panel.
Cynthia Kallgren, the Republican running against U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) in the newly drawn fifteenth congressional district, told the panel she feels the Democratic Party has failed to focus on issues like unemployment and the struggling economy, and she challenged their protection of women’s rights.
“Unemployment … is affecting every woman in the state; it’s affecting these college students here who want to go out and get jobs,” Kallgren said. “You say that your party cares about women, but your party doesn’t give a crap about women, or they would be worried about the economy, about paying the debt and not leaving it on these young people.”
Traister countered, stating that the panel was not advocating for Obama or Democratic ideals, just considering varying viewpoints, which was received by cheers from the audience.
“I don’t think anyone on the panel has said Democrats are perfect for women,” she said.
In an interview after the event, LSA sophomore Emma Maniere said though she identifies as a liberal feminist, hearing opposing viewpoints was helpful in understanding important issues in this election cycle.
“Hearing what (conservatives) have to say before the election, it helps me cement my beliefs, and hearing the opposition that was so prevalent in the questions afterwards, helps me recognize that there is another side and helps me balance that out and be informed,” she said.
In an interview after the event, Douglas said while she is glad to see that students are politically active and motivated to stand up for their beliefs, she felt the claims by groups such as the College Republicans were unfounded.
“As far as trying to challenge the University’s nonprofit status, or suggest that it violated it in some way, is just completely ridiculous, grasping at straws, and actually is very counterproductive for students to try to revoke the non-profit status of the own university that they go to,” she said.