A History of Feminist Activism
at Miami University, Oxford Campus

1969-1993

By Stephanie Abrams
American Studies, May 1993
Miami University


IMAGES OF WOMEN

   Another issue that has consistently been the concern of feminist activists is how women are portrayed in our culture at large and in the media. Feminists criticize the monolithic, racist, often unattainable standard of beauty forced into the nations consciouness through books, magazines, television, and other artifacts of popular culture.

   A common focus of feminist critiques of images of women are beauty pageants. September 7, 1968, the first protest against the Miss America Pageant was staged in Atlantic City. The protest was initiated by the New York Radical Women (NYRW) and grew to include women form all over the country. Echols counted this action as NYRW's most significant, marking "the end of the movements obscurity because the protest--the movement's first national action-- received extensive press coverage." (1) The protesters picketed and performed guerrilla theater on the boardwalk outside of the pageant. In addition, they crowned a live sheep Miss America, chained themselves to a Miss America puppet to "emphasize women's enslavement to 'beauty standards'." and tossed "instruments of torture to women" (high heels, fashion magazines) into a "Freedom Trashcan". (2) Inside, the women purchased sixteen tickets and were able to disrupt the pageant that was being televised nationally. They hung a banner that read "Women Liberation" and shouted "Freedom for Women" and "No More Miss America". (3) When reporters approached for comment, the protesters refused to speak to male reporters. Their reasoning behind this action was an attempt to give women reporters a chance to get off the society and style pages.(4)

   This protest not only gave the women's liberation movement national attention, but it set a precedent for women around the country to follow. Women in Oxford and at Miami University were fairly quick to follow NYRW's example. Miami Women's Liberation Protested the image of women that the Miss Miami Pageant espoused. "The idea of a plastic girl walking across the stage representing the way I supposedly want to look is ridiculous.' explained Mrs. Beth Meredith." (5) And later in the same article, "The major emphasis is on appearance and physical attributes, and beauty contests end up like cattle shows or state fairs,' another Miami member, Mrs Ronna Benjamin added, 'It's like presenting your cows, chickens, and canned goods for display.'"(6) Benjamin's quote reflects the NYRW's use of a sheep in their protest, both referring to the idea of women used as property to be paraded and judged.

   Oxford/Miami's Women's Liberation was composed of about fifty women from the entire Oxford community.(7) As one member, Mary Murrison said, "It is the breaking down of stereotypes of what man, women, rich man, poor man, or any person can do. It means no social discrimination." (8) The group's concerns included employment discrimination and helping women become aware of roles assigned to them. The women hoped to get their message across by speaking to all residence halls on campus about the group, its goals, and the activities it sponsored.

   Oxford/Miami Women's Liberation held several workshops during its limited existence, including one in conjunction with the April 15, 1970 Moratorium in protest of the Vietnam war.(9) The meeting held seven workshops, with topics including sexuality, abortion repeal and sex counseling, alternate family lifestyles, raising liberated children male liberation, capitalism, the war, ecology, and women as consumers. In fall of 1971 the group was recognized as a campus organization.

   This group of about fifty women was probably more reflective of national action than other campus and community women's groups. The group membership fluctuated, the women held consciousness raising (CR) groups, and the group was short-lived. These were all characteristic of other women's liberation groups nationwide.

   Each year, women protested the Miss Miami pageant. Sometimes Miami Women's Liberation was involved; other years the protesting group was under a different name. In February of 1972, a group of women calling themselves "Mary attempts to disrupt the pageant" and during the finals, the women could be found distributing pamphlets, singing and carrying signs.(10) This disruption was a common tactic of other feminist groups, and follows somewhat what the NYRW did in Atlantic City a few years earlier. The spokesperson for Mary explained that "The Miss Miami pageant is one of the institutions that perpetuates the myth that women are just sex objects. Ever since we were little girls, we have been seeing these pageants on TV. . . We felt that the concept of a beauty pageant is degrading to women."(11)

   In November of that year, some minor changes were made to the contest in response the women's protesting. The changes included the title and the emphasis in judging. In addition, a private judging of the swim suit competition was held and judges asked the contestants possible controversial questions to be judge. Finally, the Program Board committee opened the contest to all Miami women students.

   However, these changes did not satisfy some women. February 1973, Western College Women's Liberation protested. In a letter to the editor, Tracey McCullough and Karen Fitzer explained their grievance. "Beauty pageants traditionally emphasize a woman's physical attributes: therein lies our quarrel. . . Since we feel that non-action passively condones this meat-market atmosphere, the decision was made to leaflet, petition, and set up posters."(12)

   These protest continued each year the pageant was held, while little or nothing was done to change or eliminate the contest. The protesters arguments shifted over the years. For instance, in 1974, a letter to the editor from the Western College Women's Liberation said that "The continuation of this contest shows both a lack of awareness of the consciousness of this community and a negligence of responsibility at an educational institution. This degrading contest must end because it is a burden and an insult to us all."(13)

   Later, in 1979, protesters were no longer calling for the abolition of the contest, only a change in the name. The women, in a leaflet, said "awarding scholarship on criteria other than academic excellence in 'discriminatory' and 'unfair to the students who attempt to achieve scholarships on academic excellence." (14) One protester, Cyndi Rundquist said "We believe this (pageant) is wrong but they (the contestants) have a right to do it."(15) Their main request was that Miami not use its name on the contest--a different goal than bringing to an end the entire pageant, what protesters in earlier years had called for. Perhaps this shift was due to the unresponsiveness of Program Board to the Women's groups protest, or perhaps just a shift in the make up of the protesting groups.

   Again, in 1980, the group protesting had similar objections. "The Miss Miami pageant falsely stereotypes the Miami women and should not be affiliated with the University, say members of a group opposing the contest." (16) This article has Rundquist clarifying what the protestors objections are condemning. "The thing we want to stress,' Rundquist said,' is that we're not condemning the women in it, it gives them a chance to get ahead and we realize this." This clarification is reflective of some of the objections to NYRW's protest. Some felt that instead of critiquing the institution and the contest, NYRW was condemning the women involved. Rundquist and the protesting group were probably aware of this criticism, and wanted to steer clear of any such accusations.

   Then, March 25-26 1988, the flavor of the protests changed. This was during the school year of the Roudebush sit-ins. The same core group of radical feminist women were part of a protest against the Miss Miami pageant sponsored by the Men's Glee Club. The men were planning to use the profits from the contest to travel to Europe.

   The group of silent picketers outside of Hall Auditorium included, but was not exclusively comprised of, AWS members. Their signs read "Don't use bathing suits to make a point" and "Stop the objectification of womyn." "This is the blatant exploitation of women," said Nancy Herzog, and AWS member. 'W think its abhorrent, and we're ashamed that Miami supports it." (17) The group of protestors was also blamed for graffiti painted on walls and chairs in Hall, but all accusations were denied.

   The university was clumsy in its treatment of this situation. In a Cincinnati Enquirer article "Pageant site at Miami hit by vandalism," Richard Little, university spokesman, is quoted saying, "We've had a deteriorating situation over the last two months with a small group of feminists with a narrow agenda." (18) Many felt that this statement was implicating the members of AWS who staged the sit-ins in the destructive graffiti. Kathryn Braeman, mother of Elizabeth Braeman, wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees asking for the university to remedy the problem. Her suggestions included an apology to the women implied, was well as a commendation for the group's earlier call to attend to women's safety.(19)

   During the same month (March 1988), the same core group of women (Braeman, Ewers, Lotz) also protested the Kappa Delta Sorority Date Auction. The Auction, held on March 8, was a yearly fund raising event for the sorority, and met several objections. Braeman and Ewers filed a complaint of sexual harassment against KD's with the Office of Affirmative Action. In their letter to Gary Hunter, Director of Affirmative Action, the two women outlined their reasons for finding the auction "repugnant." They wrote, "First and foremost, it objectifies women... Secondly, the auction makes a mockery of the horrors of slave auctions.. Finally, the auction reeks of a perfect set-up for date rape." (20) The straightforward and clear reasoning also led Braeman and Ewers to file a complaint of sexual harassment against the Office of Student Affairs, which approved the event.(21)

   At the event, the two complainants protested with other women and were threatened by a member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, who allegedly said "How do you know I won't rape you right now?" The women filed a complaint of threat of sexual assault against the fraternity with the Office of Affirmative Action.

   The women filing these complaints, Braeman and Ewers, were actively pursuing every outlet of resource they legally could. Their brand of activism succeeded in this case. According to The Report,(22) the sorority decided to discontinue the "Date Extravaganza," as it was called.

   Another common way for women to be objectified is through photographs . In 1986, feminists at Miami became angered by two calendars published by fraternities. The Miami chapter of Chi Phi published a calendar bearing photographs of twelve Miami sorority women in order to raise money for their philanthropy. (23) The Sigma Nu's published a calendar as well. The Student reported, "(Tom Craver, a producer of the Sigma Nu calendar) said that considering Miami's conservative campus, 'We realized we would have to take an approach different from the stereotypical pin-up calendars that plainly exploit women.'"(24) A later article, "Women of Miami calendar sparks feminist response", reports Sarah Milligan, editorial adviser of AWS said "There is nothing more traditional or old-fashioned than the objectification of women's bodies which has left them powerless for centuries." (25) The AWS response shows that the group had evolved into a political group. In addition, this incident was the start of a series of protest dealing with pornography and the pictorial objectification of women.

   1988 was a year filled with controversy at Miami, most likely because of the core group of radical feminist making their voices and views heard across campus, sensitizing some students. In September of that year, Program Board announced that one of the speakers they would bring to the University was James R. Petersen, "The Playboy Adviser."

   Petersen had spoken at Miami in 1984, facing little protest. The lead paragraph in a Student article said, "Playboy Advisor' James Petersen opened his lecture claiming that Playboy never ran a survey ranking Miami women number one in the nation--'but that's our mistake.' Miami women are unbelievable, he said."(26) This article carried not critical slant at all, and the only resistance demonstrated in the Students came in a letter from a male student, Mark Stall. He called Playboy" a smack in the face of every woman on campus."(27) However, in 1988, Program Board was criticized more widely for its choice. There was protest because of the fact that Petersen worked for a sexist magazine, what some called a pornographic magazine. In the February 17, 1989 issue of the Student, it was announced that the lecture, scheduled for eleven days later, was canceled. The article reported that there was some negative reaction four years earlier (Stall's letter). However, "Alicia Kunz, vice president of program board, said that Petersen's lecture in 1984 was 'fairly well received and had a capacity crowd." (28) Again, students speaking out changed the course of events when the lecture was canceled in 1989.

   Issues surrounding pornography did not disappear from the campus however. In September of 1991, Christie Hefner, Chairman and Chief executive Officer of Playboy Enterprises, Inc. was invited by the University Lecture Series to speak in the Shriver Center. Hefner was invited to speak about being a successful businesswoman and a philanthropist. The invitation, including an $8,000 speaking fee, stirred feminists on campus to protest once again.

   Members of AWS, and concerned students faculty, staff and community members joined together to create of group called S.T.O.P. (Students Taking Oppression Personally). A flyer advertising a meeting about their protest of Hefner, S.T.O.P. reads:

S.T.O.P. is a coalition of concerned students, faculty, staff, and community members who oppose the University inviting Christie Hefner, C.E.O. of Playboy, to campus. Miami's invitation message to the University community that exploitation and degradation of women and children is harmless. We do not believe Ms. Hefner's business to be harmless. Pornography may be covered from legislative restriction under the First Amendment, but free speech is not free from consequences. We live in a society where instances of domestic violence, child abuse and molestation, rape, racism, and sexual harassment are becoming epidemic. Playboy is more than a magazine with a few magazine with a few pictures of nude women: recent articles, editorials, and letters to the editor pole fun at the injuries of rape and domestic violence; sexual harassment of women in the workplace is regularly encouraged through the "Playboy cartoons"; and they habitually mix sex, violence, and children in its pictorial and textural format. The actions of S.T.O.P. are not an attack on Christie Hefner, rather an attack on the international business of pornography which objectifies and dehumanizes women and children to such a degree that injuries inflicted upon them are literally disregarded by society.(29)

   The group of approximately 25 protesters carried signs outside of the lecture and held up banners inside, as well as singing chants such as "We won't be denied, We will not be objectified!" and "Say it loud, say it clear, We don't want Christe here!" (30) Although their protest did not stop not stop Hefner from lecturing at Miami, they stirred a great deal of controversy. The formation of a year long honors class dealing with pornography, taught by professor of Philosophy and radical feminist Mary Windham. Windham, who arrived at Miami in 1991, was behind much of this awareness and activism. Radical feminism is based on the premise that women's oppression is fundamentally sexual. Windham's activism focuses on pornography issues, and Hefner's visit gave Windham a perfect chance to spread her message. In an interview, Windham said, "How we spend our money should be informed by ethical and political considerations and regrettably, people didn't find it problematic to bring in a woman who pimps women." (31) In addition to the class, a group called S.O.A.P. (Students Organizing Against Pornography) was triggered by Hefner's visit.

   S.O.A.P. holds educational meetings, where they present slide shows and discuss the harms of pornography. In the Spring of 1993, the group organized a conference entitled "The Politics of Sexuality: A question of Civil Rights." The keynote speaker was Andrea Dworkin, co-writer of an ordinance that would allow those harmed by pornography to file a civil suit, and radical feminist. Dworkin's presentation was well attend almost filling Hall Auditorium.

   The approach to how women are presented at this university has changed slowly over the years since the beginning of the second wave of feminism at Miami. Protests and education surrounding the issue created a dialectic on campus which has led to some positive changes.


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Contents | Acknowledgments | Introduction | Women's Safety | Images of Women | Education | Conclusion | Endnotes


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