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Women's Issues--a Barrier Falls at Boys School

May 21, 1987|MARY ELLEN STROTE | Strote is a Calabasas free-lance writer.

One of the last places you might expect to find a study group on women's issues is Harvard, the only all-boys school left in the San Fernando Valley.

But Jon Calame, an 18-year-old senior who is editor of the school's student newspaper, has decided that is just what his classmates needed.

His brainstorm was sparked by two catalysts. Calame's pro-feminist hackles were raised last spring when a Harvard student scrawled the phrase "Women's Studies Sucks" in charcoal on the stucco walls of Westlake School for Girls in Bel-Air.

Harvard paid for the damage, but Calame, then a junior and newly elected first prefect (the equivalent of student body president), didn't think that was enough.

"I started to become aware of the sexist attitudes you might expect at an all-guys school," he said. Bothering him nearly as much was the lack of feminist literature in Harvard's library.

"There was nothing in our card catalogue about feminism or women's issues," he said. "We have a million-and-one weird periodicals, but not one copy of Ms."

Calame asked Harvard officials to add a class in feminist literature to the formal curriculum, but says he was told "school policy is to add a class only when another can be dropped." So Calame organized the seminar and asked that the books on his reading list be added to the library's 18,500-book permanent collection.

English teachers Margit Dementi and Mimi Flood agreed to sponsor the seminar. Librarian Ellen Mintz ordered the books, which range from feminist novels to Carol Gilligan's 1983 landmark study, "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development."

Calame's first in a series of five seminars in feminist literature began this month. The lively discussion ranged from the failure of the equal rights amendment to the work of feminist author Adrienne Rich to gender roles found in the Bible and on the "Brady Bunch" television program.

Attendance was light--three boys and three teachers from the private Harvard School and two students from Westlake School.

"The weak attendance suggests that there aren't many people who will resist what they've been fed by society," said senior Ben Herman, 17.

"Maybe people aren't interested," Calame said worriedly.

Calame's seminar, scheduled for the last five weeks of school, is unique in Harvard's 87-year history. And, for the school's 813 students, most of whom have not attended classes with girls since they entered seventh grade, it may be a first chance to approach a subject from a feminine perspective.

Courses in feminism are not commonly offered in area high schools, although Westlake does have a highly developed women's studies program available to seniors.

"But that's pretty specialized," said Marty Estrin, public information officer for the Los Angeles District Board of Education. "It's a college-level subject. I haven't heard of anything like that in the district's secondary schools."

John Butler, head of Harvard's upper school, was enthusiastic in his approval. "In this school, it is very appropriate that we reflect on that issue," he said. "Jon's concern will benefit a lot of people."

But reaction wasn't all positive.

"I get all kinds of gibes," Calame said. "Even my friends give me a hard time. On the other hand, people you wouldn't expect come up and ask about joining, like the captain of the Rugby team.

"Some of the guys here think girls who take women's studies are just getting together to talk about how they hate men," he said. "Feminism is way too threatening for them to take seriously.

"The reaction is to turn women's studies into a joke. To them, the phrase 'feminist literature' is an oxymoron," Calame said.

"Teen-age guys in general, but especially at Harvard, think feminism doesn't have anything to do with them."

Co-sponsor Mimi Flood, who also serves as head of the middle school, doesn't agree that Harvard has a particular need for the seminar. "The boys hear about this subject from students at the local girls schools, Harvard's faculty is filled with women teachers, and feminist issues do come up in class," said Flood, who has taught at an all-girls school and three co-ed schools.

"I don't expect adolescent boys to have realistic views of girls and vice versa."

"There is a lot of hostility to women's studies at Westlake," senior Vanessa Marsot, 17, told the group gathered at Calame's home for the first literature seminar.

This elicited a startled reaction from the boys, who had assumed that all women would embrace feminist goals.

"Women have been so deeply conditioned that they tell their daughters how to get men rather than how to succeed in work," said Marsot, who will study at Yale next year.

Her comments prompted a discussion on the fundamentalist backlash and the human fear of rootlessness.

The mood was lightened when Aaron Lipeles, a 16-year-old junior at Harvard School, confessed: "Until I was 6, I thought doctors were always women."

"My mom is a doctor," the Thousand Oaks resident explained with a shrug.

The meeting ended and participants were handed excerpts from Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." Lipeles suggested discussing Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth" and William Styron's "Sophie's Choice" at the next meeting.

"And I'm going to bring a videocassette of a "Saturday Night Live" skit on male chauvinism," said Ben Herman, who has been accepted at Brown University.

Calame isn't worried about the fate of his seminar when he attends Yale next fall.

"I'm leaving, but Ms. Flood and Ms. Dementi will still be here," he said. "Even if it's not carried on, we've brought the issue to the attention of the school and now some feminist literature is on the bookshelves."

"It took a lot of courage to do what Jon has done," said Mintz, who has known Calame six of the nine years she has been Harvard's librarian, "but then, I've always admired him for not being intimidated by other boys who sit back and watch him go out on a limb."

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