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Meda Chesney-Lind

The Art of the Dumb Question

By Meda Chesney-Lind, Ph.D.
Professor, Women’s Studies
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Commencement Address, May 22, 2011

Thank you very much, President Bridges.

Congratulations to the class of 2011. This is a great day and one you’ll likely remember for a very long time.

I can still vividly recall the day I was sitting where you are now. I actually remember a lot of details of that event, but I can’t for the life of me remember the commencement address at all. So, at least for me personally, the bar for this talk is set pretty low.

You may know that both my sister, Margaret Chesney and I graduated from Whitman. We have also both received honorary degrees from this esteemed institution. That may be one for the record books, and not just at Whitman. Talk about a sister act!

Thinking about the years when Margaret and I graduated made me realize how much the world has changed for the young women (and men) in this class.

When we were sitting where you are now, we were effectively barred from applying to medical school or law school. In those years, women accounted for 4.5% of law school admissions, and a whopping 7% of medical school admissions. No woman could apply to be a Rhodes Scholar, and even in the graduate school, women were terribly underrepresented; with, women receiving only about 13% of the doctorates awarded in all fields.

Then, along came Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stated simply “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..."

Title IX was written principally by Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color in the US congress. Patsy knew about gender and race discrimination. As a girl, she majored in chemistry in college had hoped to go to medical school, but none of the 20 medical schools to which she applied would accept women. She later applied to law school (where she was admitted by mistake by an admissions officer who thought Hawaii was a foreign country). Hey, maybe they were right, and the birthers have a point?

She would ultimately graduate as the only woman in her University of Chicago law class.

Title IX, now called the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, did a lot more for women than most people realize. As an example, today, young women account for 46.9% of admissions to medical school, 47.2% of law school admissions, and we receive just over half (50.4%) of all Ph.Ds.

The act is best known for its impacts on women’s participation in high school and collegiate athletics. Basically, before Title IX, about one in thirty girls played high school sports; today its nearing one in two.

I like to focus on the good news about girls, since as a criminologist focused on female offending, the media are always calling me for comments about the “bad” girls and women. If you want a comment on the cheerleader beating, other “girls gone wild stories” or even “mean girls,” I’m apparently your girl.

My favorite here was a call from the Rikky Lake show asking me about “girls who are thugs.”

So here’s the short course: No, girls are not getting more violent, and no, the women’s movement did not cause a rise in girls and women’s crime. Girls are not becoming more like boys on the soccer fields and the killing fields despite an unrelenting media hype that would have us believe that.

So, as a public intellectual who’s beat is girls who find their way into the criminal justice system, I have to spend a lot of time and energy on feminist damage control, and I hope that your generation won’t have to spend as much time as I have fighting backlash journalism.

Sometimes, when I’m talking to the many reporters who call me with the latest girl fights, I ask why they don’t talk about the good news about girls and women. When People magazine called me for a comment on the cheerleader beating, after I made the obvious point that we wouldn’t be talking about this if boys had done it, I said it to him. After a long pause, he finally asked: “What is the good news about girls?”

So, there, I’ve given you some good news about girls as well as good news about the world you and your generation are moving into. The story is also important because it demonstrates that even intractable problems can be addressed if there’s the political will to challenge authority and privilege.

I want to tell a good story, but now I want to point to the stuff left on your generation's to do list. Again, I could talk about the two to three wars we are apparently waging, with no thought to cost (during a near depression) or the looming threat of global warming, or peak oil. Basically, if you plan on seeing Venice, you'd better go quickly.

No, today, I’d like to issue a challenge to you about classrooms and cells. Long story, short here; while you were growing up, the United States decided to embark on a social experiment that criminologists call “mass incarcaration.”

The US leads the world, not in education, but imprisonment; we imprison more people, in aggregate, than any other nation in the world. We are 5% of the world’s population, but we imprison 25% of the world’s prisoners.

It is important to add that there is a racialized component to this situation; one third of African American male drop outs under the age of 40 are currently behind bars; of African American men born since I attended Whitman in the 60s, more than 20 percent will go to prison, nearly twice the number that will graduate from college.

Senator Jim Webb who is leading a national commission to look into the problem notes prophetically, “America imprisons 756 inmates for every 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world’s average. About one in every 31 adults in this country is in jail or on supervised release. Either we are the most evil people in the world or we are doing something terribly wrong."

Where has the money come from to fund mass incarceration; well, as the Governor of California recently noted, it has really come at the expense of education, particularly higher education.

So, as we sit here at a graduation, it is important to realize that the US faces a choice going forward: classrooms or cells?

What did Whitman give you to address these challenges; well, I have to say that as I think of the horrible challenges our civilization (or is it empire?) faces, I’m reminded about my years at Whitman where I was forced to read “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” which by the way was published in 1776, the same year as the war of independence.

Believe me, in my years here, they found some incredibly boring books to make us read (and forget reading any women); but, that said, I remember thinking as I read that work, how come they couldn’t see the profound mistakes they were making?

So, you come out of this place with a pretty cool took kit in terms of critical thinking. Again, as I left here I had no way of knowing where my passion would take me intellectually but I’d been given a great set of mentors including Dr. George Ball, Dr. Ray Norsworthy, and the very first criminologist I’d ever met, Dr. Lee Bowker, a great group of smart friends to hang around with, a very keen set of intellectual skills, a habit of hard work, and a passion for social justice.

So when I was started my career in criminology as a graduate student, I found myself in a huge a room full of old court juvenile court records (it actually looked like that room from Raiders of the Lost Ark), and I asked my friend who was coding them: “Do you ever see any girls’ files?”

So, you see I subtitled this talk the “art of the dumb question” for a reason: It’s not the answers you get at Whitman, it’s the questions.


1 Rich, Adrienne. 1976. Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton

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