On Sept. 19, the Berkshire community welcomed Dr. Gina Barreca to help us launch our All-School Read events in support of the renowned essay “We Should All Be Feminists,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Connecticut and winner of UConn's highest award for excellence in teaching, Barreca is also an honoree at the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame. She is the author, most recently, of “If You Lean In Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and has been a guest on "20/20," "The Today Show," CNN, and "Oprah," where she discusses gender, power, and politics with a signature wit and humor that is thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.
Barreca brought that very humor to the stage in Allen Theater during an all-school meeting where she promised from the get-go to “tell a few stories and make a little trouble.” Growing up in a Sicilian family in Brooklyn, New York, Barreca was the first woman in her family to graduate from high school and the very first one to go to college. Enrolling at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire made her a pioneer on that campus as well. In 1975, she was a member of only the third class of women to matriculate at the college where the male:female ratio was 7:1 at the time.
During her talk, Barreca read two passages from her book, “Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Coeducation in the Ivy League” and recounted tales about the challenges of being in the gender minority in the early stages of coeducation at Dartmouth.
When introducing the concept of feminism in her talk’s conclusion, she described it as “one of the last F-words in our culture.” According to Barreca, the definition of feminism is “the radical belief that people include women and that women are human beings. It's not a tough club to get into,” she explained. “Women are human beings, so just start there.”
Barreca’s visit and the All-School Read selection were timed intentionally to coincide with Berkshire’s celebration of its 50th anniversary of coeducation. Her remarks helped pay homage to Berkshire’s first alumnae and shed light on the similar challenges they faced as pioneers in the transition to coeducation.
After Barreca’s talk, students split up into small groups to discuss what gender-related obstacles might still exist within the Berkshire community. Barreca then held a Q&A session in Fentress Reading Room, had lunch in the North Alcove where she chatted with students, and then held a smaller reading and discussion of “Babes in Boyland” in de Windt dining room with students and faculty.
“After Dr. Barreca's visit, I realized how important it is to talk about how gender has impacted my own life, and to listen to other peoples' experiences as well,” said Peggy Stansbery ’20 who attended Barreca’s reading in de Windt. “I hope the Berkshire community will continue to have tough conversations about topics like gender, listen to underrepresented voices, and work towards promoting a more equitable community.”
“My biggest takeaway from Dr. Bareca's visit was that it is difficult to be vulnerable and brave, and that's why the road to gender equality is difficult,” said Luke Nguyen ‘21 who also attended Barreca’s reading. “However, I think if we are willing to open ourselves to new experiences, we will be amazed at the progress we make.”
All-School Read Committee Chair Callie Carew-Miller believes that conversations about gender on campus will continue throughout the year thanks to Barreca’s visit and the questions she asked of the community. “I think Dr. Barreca’s humor and honesty helped students look at gender from a new perspective,” she said.
"Dr. Barreca's visit was a fitting and important way to launch our celebration of Berkshire's 50th anniversary of coeducation," said Head of School Pieter Mulder. "Discussing the challenges she faced as a gender minority in college offered a springboard to encourage our own efforts to address gender-related issues that still exist today. Gina’s use of humor as an entry point to difficult conversations made the topic accessible and inspired new conversations that will ultimately make our Berkshire community even stronger."
As Barreca herself remarked in closing, “The most seditious, interesting thing you can do is to make a joke, and the best thing you can do is laugh.”