Powerful women are easy to hate. Curt, confident and critical of depictions of women as maternal and meek, so-called “ice queens” have continued to thrive in professional, academic and social settings for years. Despite all the obstacles stacked against them, these women continue to demonstrate a resilience that can best be characterized as truly resounding.
In 2013 when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away, news of her death was quickly followed by “death parties,” and "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" reached number one on UK iTunes thanks to a campaign to celebrate her death. Even in her lifetime, Thatcher faced a “Ditch The B***h” campaign that was stamped on by Labour Party women.
Demonized in an utterly unparalleled way, by both men and women, Thatcher is just one powerful woman whose gender has motivated visceral and inappropriate attacks against her character. Sadly, her experiences are not unique.
In January, when then-junior Tara Bansal announced her candidacy for Duke Student Government president, Yik Yak—a social media app that allows individuals to post anonymously—saw a swarm of hateful posts. One individual anonymously posted a more tame thought: “tb walks into room and she thinks she’s the smartest one;” many others played on the qualities of an ambitious woman.
When discussing the antagonism Bansal has faced, it is impossible to overlook the role gender plays. The b-word is a potent example of society’s devaluation of women. Continued social, political and economic disenfranchisement of women—reinforced by a language of misogyny—pervades today’s politics in a pervasive way. Look no further than Hillary Clinton’s portrayal in the media and interactions with presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Words such as the b-word are intended to silence women in a world where likability is so strongly tethered to our notions of how to be successful. It is exemplified in how we’ve come to idealize endearing maternal qualities while demonizing the accomplished and confident “over-dog.” Qualified and capable women are constantly labeled “aggressive” in an attempt to disqualify their abilities and continue the habitual verbalization of misogyny.
Behind the rhetoric that proliferates anonymously on social media, and even in The Chronicle whereby coverage of Bansal has been problematic, is an individual: a feminist, Public Policy and Global Health double major from Long Island, New York‚ who has demonstrated her commitment to this school through numerous tangible projects and partnerships. Specifically, Bansal was crucial in implementing the living-learning communities—the first new housing model alternative in years. It is disingenuous to discount her litany of accomplishments and commitment to serving the student body.
Bansal is someone who was told during the DSG presidential campaign process to “dumb down” her ideas to sound more “relatable.” Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton has faced the same sexist feedback throughout her campaign; she is told to smile, not shout, and chastised nonetheless for her “un-presidential look.”
Given these overarching elements that have strongly swayed “public discourse,” specific criticisms can be better contextualized. In a column published earlier this year, an ex-DSG-affiliate characterizes Bansal’s decision to eliminate special parking passes to the Card Lot for all DSG vice presidents excluding herself—cutting a wasteful benefit and justifying the resource for presidents—as arrogant. After all, how dare she believe she could make a change?
I disagree with the manner in which the decision to revoke the parking pass privileges was made. There is an evident lack of transparency surrounding what exactly informed the decision and the assumptions made about how often vice presidents needed them. How is the student body to know that the passes were never solicited by DSG to begin with? Or to understand the range of how often different vice presidents need them to carry out their DSG responsibilities? Where is the argument for why only the president should be entitled to a pass?
Yet, in spite of my judgement, I find that these questions do not qualify the kind of responses. We can critique decisions without gendered remarks or fundamentally disrespecting the decision-maker.
Conjecture over who voted for Bansal and how they came to that decision, which remain suspicious in their origins, remain unproven and importantly irrelevant to the legitimacy with which she holds her position. Bansal was democratically elected, period. For all intents and purposes, regardless of motives, she was elected by members of the student body she is currently serving—the body that offered her fourteen of the twenty endorsements offered to candidates for DSG President, including those from the Engineering Student Government, the Jewish Student Union, the Muslim Students Association, the Baldwin Scholars Program, Blue Devils United, the Asian American Alliance, the Interfraternity Council, Mi Gente, DIYA and many more. No candidate for that office at Duke has captured more endorsements in the past five years. It is hard to argue that she is not representative of a wide swath of student interests.
“As women, we must stand up for each other,” said first lady Michelle Obama at the State Department Women of Courage Awards. When someone, regardless of gender identity, remains complicit in standing idly by as assertive women are perceived and mislabelled as aggressive, it hurts all women. Although women can be both assertive and “aggressive,” the rate of conflation between the two in the context of women remains profound. Everyone is free to criticize leaders; however, social norms have rendered women, such as Bansal, more vulnerable to chastising critiques. We, as a student body and as members of societies at large, need to be able to envision women as changemakers—Tara is but one. We are everywhere and we are stronger together.
Individuals need also avoid the racist rhetoric over Bansal’s ethnicity in relation to previous DSG presidents, and stop discrediting her efforts. We, a body, must fight the urge to feel intimidated or threatened by confident women. Conflating confidence with approachability is a fault of one’s own. Do not be a passive sponge to skewed, biased, ill-informed, inappropriate and misogynistic depictions of your peers. Take responsible measures to have your voice heard. When DSG is democratically elected, we note that it is not representative. However, when an application process is allowed, the practice is decried as nepotistic. The solution should be to offer founded criticisms, innovate and participate in one of the various outlets of student government.
DSG is not beyond reprimand. And in fact, they are not above realizing this. Last year, I was frustrated with issues of representation in its demographics and policy focuses—and to be frank, I still am. However, instead of bottling these expectations in, I chose to join in a capacity that would allow me to address those structural inconsistencies. We should all strive to take action from within our student government, and I invite you to join me in vocalizing our collective values. After all, it is up to us to hold the organization to a higher standard.
My final call is to the student body. Participating as candidates and as actively informed members of the electorate is key to having our interests represented. More recently, in response to previous criticisms, efforts have been made to more actively achieve representation. Raise your concerns and be part of the solution. In the words of President Obama, “Don’t boo. Vote.” Today and tomorrow, the Lincolnian principle—that our student government will operate best when all voices are heard—holds the key to DSG’s future.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore, who serves as DSG Attorney General. Her column, “in formation,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.