In an instant, I opened my eyes to the gender inequality in portraits that adorned the walls of my alma mater, Cornell University. I was studying in the nutrition building this past Fall when I glanced up and noticed the faces of three white men in suits watching over me from where their portraits hung. This is despite the fact that Cornell granted the first Ph.D. in nutrition to an African-American woman (Flemmie Kittrell in 1936) and that the female undergraduates of the Nutritional Sciences department outnumber the males 495:190 (from the department administration as of April 2014).
Upon noticing this imbalance in one building, I started noticing the same imbalance in other buildings. Portraits of men hung everywhere, and the rare female portrait was most often a famous man’s mother or wife. Again, this is despite the fact that Cornell University has been admitting women since 1870 and boasts some of the most notable alumnae in a variety of fields. These portraits and the names of the buildings that housed them were sending us clear messages about who is important and valued, and it went something along the lines of wealthy, male, and white. If I asked the average Cornellian today to list some famous alumni, they could easily rattle off the names of the libraries, auditoriums, administrative and academic buildings. They would be naming men. But they would be forgetting Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Frances Perkins, Janet Reno, Pearl Buck, Barbara McClintock, and hundreds of other impressive women of Cornell.
I couldn’t think of a good reason for this besides that portraits reflected who had the money and the power, and I couldn’t think of a good reason for who had the money and the power besides that it was the way it’s always been in our patriarchal society. This seemed less than satisfactory to me.
It’s like Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
The next logical thing to do was to get other people pissed off with me. I started posting on facebook, twitter, and instagram about the problem, and would upload pictures of the offending portraits with the hashtag “#showmethewomen.” It was a call for Cornell and its students to wake up and take notice of the gender inequality that surrounded them.
The hashtag caught on and my friends started uploading photographs and tweeting about gender inequality in portraits, building names, gender ratios in certain departments, business club leadership, and so on. More and more people were beginning to see that the women of Cornell were being short-changed. It was time to act.
My friends and I secured $800 in funding from the university for a special project and got to work naming notable Cornell women, listing their accomplishments, and finding their photographs. We went as far back as Class of 1873 and even included a Class of 2014 member, Olympic Gold Medalist Brianne Jenner (Canadian Women’s Ice Hockey). We asked students to nominate female professors and administrators who had made an impact on the Cornell community and included them as well. This culminated in an art exhibit of 250 black and white photographs of Cornell women that was displayed in the student union for the month of March.
The exhibit attracted students, community members, professors, faculty, and even the women featured! About 25 of the women whose photographs hung on the walls of the exhibit were able to come and view their “portraits.”
The exhibit received enormous praise and great press. Hundreds of people filtered through the gallery over the course of the month and I received countless emails of encouragement and gratitude for the project.
There were people who didn’t get it though, as I knew there would be. Some of my male friends who helped me put the exhibit together couldn’t help but comment on the attractiveness of each woman’s portrait we hung. Others still claimed that it was “only a matter of time” before women’s portraits hung in equal numbers beside men’s at Cornell, and that the exhibit was unnecessary or even wrong.
Although the exhibit has been taken down, #showmethewomen is just getting started, and so am I. The experience taught me to be confident, to take action, and to gather my friends and champions around me. I started seeing the world in a whole new way, and I helped other people start to see it too. I learned that social media can only take a cause so far, and sometimes you need to make things happen in the physical world. Today, I am constantly disappointed (and often pissed off!) by all the places that still need to #showmethewomen, but I feel prepared and excited to start doing something about that.Share Your Story
Join us for a #SHEvolution!- it is never too early and you are never too young to get on board. A Girlfriend’s Guide to Making it in the Real World will be held on Wednesday, April 10th from 5-7 at Villanova.Share Your Story
On November 17, item number 2 is a “motion to proceed” on the PFA.Share Your Story
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