Must we choose how to address gender inequity?

Photo by John Nakano

In her Oct. 16, 2015, Technique article, Dr. Annie Anton argues against the “Join the Brave and Bold” effort to change a word of the Ramblin’ Wreck, recommending instead that we take more meaningful steps to identify and address inequity on the campus.  She claims she never felt discrimination as a student, something I wish for all of our students.  I was not so fortunate as an undergraduate at Harvard studying mathematics.  I remember asking none other than Mandelbrot on the very first day of his class if I could do a math project instead of the required programming one.  He immediately responded, “Last year one student did do a math project, and I think he even got an A, but he was much more skilled than you.”  First day.  Really?  (There was never a second day.)  I remember a close friend being told by the department chair that math is a hard field for women and she probably wouldn’t succeed.  She is now an award-winning mathematician at one of the top 5 departments, and sadly that is almost enough information to uniquely identify her.  I could go on, but the examples are limited by the dearth of women who stuck around to finish the degree, not by the lack of sexism.

Is Tech a haven for women that Harvard was not for me?  No. In both places, there are many  students who succeed unscathed and are even empowered by their success despite the rarified demographics. But for every Dr. Anton, there are probably 10 people who don’t feel a part of the mainstream culture, who grimace at a fight song that suggests women are on the campus as decorations.  And there are probably another 10 who say “to hell with Georgia” when they are applying to colleges, and they do not mean UGA.

A common argument for maintaining the Ramblin’ Wreck status quo recommends reversing the mention of sons and daughters in the lyrics:

“Oh! If I had a son, sir, I’d dress him in White and Gold,

And put him on the campus to cheer the brave and bold.

But if I had a daughter, sir, I’ll tell you what she’d do —

She would yell, ‘To hell with Georgia!’ like her mama used to do.”

The claim is that this role-reversal does not change the meaning of the song, thus concluding that the original is not sexist.  Frankly, this new version is much better!  In its current form, we are coddling our daughters (dress them / put them) and encouraging our sons (go yell profanities), and this is precisely the problem.  Now sing the version with gender-reversed lyrics.  Doesn’t the word “but” seem out of place?  Shouldn’t it be “and”?  If we want to attract more women to Tech, and if we want to change the culture, then we need to stop treating our sons and daughters differently.  My alma mater took a bold step in 1998, changing “thy sons” to “we all” in the 1811 lyrics of “Fair Harvard,” and there isn’t a school more steeped in traditions.

The change suggested by Join the Brave and Bold certainly is not a perfect solution.  But it offers a crumb to a community that is hungry for more acceptance and a reexamination of traditions started when Tech was an all-male trade school.  The signatories of Join the Brave and Bold are acknowledging that tradition sometimes impedes progress, and even the smallest concession can be tremendously meaningful and empowering.  I hold hands with over 1500 others to recognize that the time has come, and a baby step will look like a mile to those who want to embrace 100 years of progress and are passionate about shaping the next 100.

Dr. Anton is correct in saying that changing a word in a song is like slapping on a band-aid when far more significant and thoughtful actions are needed to address the gender inequity that persists on our campus.  Yet sometimes, it helps to have both a band-aid and a sling.