The leaders of the Seven Sisters colleges published an open letter Monday taking exception to comments by a top Trump administration appointee who disparaged lesbians, feminists, and alumnae of the elite historically women’s schools.
In a 2011 radio interview, Stephen Bannon, appointed as chief strategist by President-elect Donald Trump Nov. 13, praised prominent women conservatives such as commentator Ann Coulter, former US representative Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin for being female leaders who were “pro-family.”
He said those conservatives threaten the narrative of the traditional “women’s liberation movement,” calling those in the movement a derogatory slur for lesbians and saying they all “came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England.”
In response, the Seven Sisters letter read: “We are proud of our alumnae and students, who represent the spectrum of sexual orientation, race, class, and religion as well as political party. . . . Now more than ever, we look to those who would lead the United States of America for a message of inclusion, respect and unity.”
The leaders of the institutions — Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College — called for Bannon to “take a more expansive, informed and tolerant world view in your leadership role.”
Radcliffe, which completed a merger with Harvard in 1999, and Vassar, which went coed in 1969, took part because of their historical ties to the group.
Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith, said in a phone interview that the colleges learned of Bannon’s comments last week, and the leaders got in touch to decide if and how they would react.
McCartney said they concluded that ignoring the comments would “normalize” Bannon’s ideas about women.
“His comment wasn’t about the Seven Sisters; it was about feminism,” McCartney said. “This kind of hate speech requires an answer.”
She said Smith didn’t just receive calls about the interview, but also almost $4,000 in donations from nearly 50 alumnae made in Bannon’s name or referencing his comments on Nov. 15 — National Philanthropy Day.
“Far from defeating our graduates, I think his words galvanized them,” she said.
Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute , said she was “pleased and honored” to be able to collaborate on the letter, despite the Institute’s lack of formal involvement with the other schools.
“We may not have current students or current faculty, but we stay in touch with our graduates,” Cohen said. “We saw Steve Bannon’s comments as an attack on them and an attack on [the Institute].”
She said there was a “tremendous” amount of discussion about how to approach the response and whether they would include Bannon’s history of what the schools’ leaders called his anti-Semitism and racism. They decided to speak out against the “denunciation of our communities.”
The NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center have also criticized Bannon and his record as head of the conservative website Breitbart News.Martha Schick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarthaSchick.