“But if we ask instead, ‘Who is a woman or who is qualified to be a woman?’ we find ourselves immediately caught up with the debate of who wields the power of the definition of a woman,” humanities professor Judith Butler said to students Thursday night at the Women’s History Month kickoff in the Diana Center’s Event Oval.
Women’s History Month will focus on what it means to be a woman and the intersections between womanhood and other identities. Among the various events throughout March includes a discussion on sexual violence on college campuses called “Debate Night Live: Rape Culture on the College Campus,” on March 7.
Butler, who was the night’s keynote speaker, was joined by dance groups Onyx and Sabor, Barnard Associate Dean for Student Life Alina Wong, and Columbia Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs Melinda Aquino.
“That is why many of us rely on women’s studies, gender studies, race and disability studies … working in concert with studies of class, region and power,” Butler said, answering her own question.
In line with the month’s theme, Butler told a story about a black woman who was assaulted and later asked by police whether she was attacked for her race or gender.
“They weren’t able to conceptualize the fact that being a black woman is kind of an identity that’s different from what we think of because when we think of women we think of white women. So it really made me think about identity and womanhood and what that means.,” Darcy Cassidy, BC ’16, said.
Still, at the end of the evening, students said they were surprised by the humorous, less academic side of Butler, whose writing many consider to be dense.
“I thought that her speech was very accessible to people. I liked the way she was referencing cultural and current events,” Jessica Castro, BC ’14, said. “Judith Butler is so difficult to read … but in this speech she was just so generous with the audience and she’s very funny. That was surprising to a lot of people.”
“I loved the student performances and I loved the way that they were trying to make it representative of women in general, they were trying to open it up to different kinds of women,” Martha Zamora, BC ’14, said. “I thought that was really great what Judith Butler was saying about how being a woman or how it’s defined is still a big process and it’s still changing and it’s being redefined.”
“I can say with great confidence that this is one of the most important institutions of higher education for the teaching and preserving of women’s history and feminist studies,” Butler said.