Inaugural Panel: Listening for Social Justice


When Lynn Pasquerella is inaugurated this afternoon as the eighteenth president of Mount Holyoke College, she’ll be living the theme of her keynote address, “The Promise of Women’s Leadership: Uncommon Women for the Common Good.” While Pasquerella will be talking about what women can do to help shape the world, an all-star roster of panelists looked at the issue from the other side last night--discussing what leaders, whether as individuals or countries, must do to help ensure women’s equality worldwide.

A capacity crowd in Gamble Auditorium listened to Princeton University professor of philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah, University of Michigan professor of law Catharine MacKinnon, and Joia Mukherjee, medical director of Partners in Health, participate in the discussion moderated by MHC alumna Kavita Ramdas ‘85, a senior advisor and former president of the Global Fund for Women.

Ramdas began the conversation by asking panelists if there is "something inherent in the way we've been...brainwashed" that leads us to perceive women as "less than"--a question that led panelists to broaden the issue to cultural inequality.

“Dealing with male dominance puts a serious dent in your faith in cross-cultural (appreciation) because you always see the same people at the top and the same people at the bottom,” MacKinnon said.

This same sort of shortsightedness, Appiah said, is a key barrier in United States foreign relations; without a mutual respect, he stressed, there will be no progress. For an example, he brought up the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. The reason the operation has been ineffective, he said, is "because we don't manifest equal respect for Afghans….Changing the law won't mesh with social reality (until) people realize a dialogue based on respect can do things the Marines can't."

In her response, Mukherjee stressed the importance of learning to listen. “(When trying to help people, don’t forget to) ask ‘What do you think?’ Put the power in the hands of those who should have it,” she said. “The liberating form of education is not to bank my knowledge in your head, but to say, let’s come to an understanding…The power is the story that comes from the afflicted…that’s where we can change the power dynamics.”

Ramdas then asked whether having more women leaders will help foster that change.

“For the women leaders, recognizing equality for women is hard because the system (they’re leading within) is still organized around patriarchy,” Appiah said.

Mukherjee added that we must be careful that tokenism doesn’t preempt justice for women. “A word to our new president: leadership shouldn’t be about a person, but about a movement, working together with others toward justice,” she said. “The best leaders are...part of a movement.”

“The women’s movement has been about both changing the definition of power and about getting power as currently defined,” MacKinnon responded. “There is no reason women can’t have power as currently defined, but who’d want it? It’s about getting power to make a world you’d want with others who feel the same way you do.”

The “Women’s Leadership and Social Justice” panel was just one of a yearlong series of events to celebrate Pasquerella’s inauguration.

See the photos from this event in our Flickr gallery.