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Promoting Student Dialogue About Gender
Orlee Marini-Rapoport '19 Associate Editor
October 12, 2016

In order to establish a sustained dialogue about gender, sexuality, and gender identity on campus, Deerfield has instituted gender symposiums—a series of discussions, movie screenings, and lectures. The first symposium, on September 22, focused on “just-right dating.”

Future symposiums will feature Melissa Dickey and her story as a female writer; Nicole Lopez and her work with LGBTQ youth; a conversation about consent through an active theater presentation by Ms. Adaire Robinson and Ms. Anna Gonzales; a talk on dating at Deerfield in the digital age; a senior-only discussion in the spring about topics directly related to the transition to college; and screenings of three movies, including Miss Representation, The Mask You Live In, and The Hunting Ground.

credit: Claire Zhang
Credit: Claire Zhang

Mrs. Caroline Savage, Associate Director of Admission and facilitator of the first symposium, hopes that “the gender symposiums… will give students a little more perspective on what their schoolmates and classmates go through.” Mrs. Savage explained that she wants all students to have an understanding of the societal expectations placed on a gender identity other than their own, and wants to “create some empathy” with this effort.

Assistant Head for Student Life Ms. Amie Creagh explained that she sees the purpose of gender symposiums as twofold: She sees them as “proactive because gender, sexuality, and gender identity are timely topics for adolescents,” and she hopes to make those topics feel “more familiar and less scary” for students.
The other intention, she explained, is reactive, as last spring, an anonymous letter was posted around campus on May 31 that criticized Deerfield’s handling of girls and liberal faculty who stand up to patriarchal norms. The letter included statements that girls were “being punished for standing up to objectification” and that liberal faculty members were “being silenced and fired for advocating for gender equality.”

Ms. Creagh felt that because of this letter and other factors, “it was clear that we have some work to do.” She emphasized that “we are going to lean into it very deliberately and take on that work.” She hopes students feel that the administration is “equipping them with info, skills, and mindsets that allow them to engage with all of these issues responsibly and thoughtfully,” and that students know their “school understands that [these] are important issues to grapple with.”

Ms. Creagh explained that other factors in addition to the anonymous letter led her to think about gender on campus this summer, including a discipline case last spring and the fact that others seemed confused when she made “subtle language adjustments,” such as using the term “ninth-graders” instead of “freshmen.” She also felt that “some cis-girls on campus had concerns that they weren’t getting the same experience as the cis-boy experience, and that didn’t feel right,” so she “took it as [her] charge to make it a priority.”

Mrs. Savage decided to focus her symposium on healthy relationships and dating because she’s heard many people encourage “dating on your terms” at past girls’ meetings. She feels this is “a great thing to say,” but she questioned whether anyone—particularly girls on campus— actually understands what “their terms are,” since “what’s right for [one person] might not be what’s right for someone else.”
Mrs. Savage hopes that students took two main things away from her symposium: she wants students “to reflect on their own feelings and how they are feeling in a relationship,” and consider forethought, because “every relationship has goals, even at the very beginning,” and it’s important “to know your boundaries, to set your boundaries, to keep your boundaries, [and] be self-possessed in a relationship.”

Ms. Creagh hopes students take away from the first symposium the understanding that “dating is really exciting, but you should have a plan that aligns with your own terms in a relationship.” She wants students to have “an awareness of the ingredients that make up a healthy relationship,” and wants everyone to “have set terms for [themselves] about what will be healthy for the relationship and what will not be.”

Mia Silberstein ’20 attended the first gender symposium and was pleasantly “surprised by the lack of heteronormativity.” She enjoyed how Mrs. Savage “made it clear that the meeting was inclusive to all people of any sexuality,” and she “thought [Mrs. Savage] handled the uncomfortable topics really gracefully while still being honest and keeping some humor there.”

Ms. Creagh stressed that through these gender symposiums, she’d love to see the community progress to a place where there are “healthy, thoughtful practices” about these issues. She hopes to both be “reactive and thoughtful” about what she considers to be such a timely issue on campus.