Tertiary syPhyllis gets a degree
Hundreds turn back on Schlafly at ceremony
By Kavita Kumar
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. LOUIS -- Some felt the silent protest with white armbands and the dramatic turning of backs was disrespectful.
But those who took part said it was a fitting way to show their disapproval that Washington University was honoring a woman whose views and life’s work they strongly disagree with.
For her part, Phyllis Schlafly, the 83-year-old at the center of the controversy, said she thought it was "juvenile" of students who were "raining on their own parade." But it didn’t ruin her moment, she said.
At today’s commencement ceremony held on a sunny Brookings Quadrangle, Schlafly did not seem to notice the hundreds of backs turned to her while a citation heralding her accomplishments was read. A tense hush settled over the gathering of more than 14,000 people. Schlafly responded with a tranquil smile she held for several minutes as she was given an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
Margaret Bush Wilson, a retired civil rights attorney, volunteered to introduce Schlafly as faculty and students were calling on the university to rescind the degree. Wilson said after the ceremony that while she does not agree with many of Schlafly’s views, she is a strong advocate of free speech.
"Vigorous, free-flowing debate is the cornerstone of our American life," Wilson said at today’s ceremony.
One of this country’s great virtues is that people don’t have to agree with one another, she added.
"It is Phyllis Schlafly’s persona — not her politics or views — which is being recognized here today," she said.
Wilson noted that Schlafly is a national leader of the conservative movement, author of more than 20 books, a fearless debater, and twice a graduate of Washington U.
Some applauded while Schlafly was hooded. But about a third of the graduating students draped in the school’s green and black robes turned their backs to her, along with some faculty members sitting on the stage behind her. Many family members in the audience also took part.
Three faculty members made the extra point of walking off the stage and then turning their backs from the audience.
One of the protesters was Darla Dale, an assistant dean and a faculty marshal at the ceremony. Dale said she decided to participate after making sure the protest was intended to remain respectful.
Dale said she strongly disagrees with Schlafly’s views on the role of women in society as well as with her work to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. And students encouraged her to join them.
"It felt good," Dale said of turning her back.
Marshall Thompson, a Ph.D. graduate in political science, said he thought the white armbands should have sufficed for protesters to show their dissent. But he thought the turning of backs was "a bit overboard."
"It’s not the right way to voice your displeasure," he said.
Despite the protest, Schlafly said afterwards that she was touched by the university’s decision to grant her the degree.
"It’s the highest honor a university can give to anyone," she said.
As for her detractors, she said, "I’m not sure they’re mature enough to graduate."
If anything, she said she feels sorry for them because they’ve been misled by women’s studies classes. She said they do not respect the role of the full-time homemaker, a role that she has championed.
And Schlafly expressed some disappointment that Chancellor Mark Wrighton did not mention homemakers in his list of some of the career paths students were embarking on.
But Wrighton did give a nod to the Schlafly controversy in his address to graduates. As he has done a number of times in recent days, he reaffirmed his commitment to diversity and inclusiveness as well as to improving the gender balance at the university.
In diverse communities like this one, he said people sometimes disagree on many things — from granting tenure to faculty members to awarding honorary degrees.
Being part of the university community — like any family — can be painful at times, he said. "But we remain a family and learn from each other."