Feminist Speakers on Campus

Jane Fonda, February 13, 1971

The 1970s saw a number of feminist speakers come to the campus of Madison, some famous, others relatively unknown outside their respective fields.  Many these speakers were brought to Madison thanks to the efforts of the Madison Women’s Caucus, which, through its excellent Dominion Lecture Series, brought many intelligent female speakers to the campus that would not have spoken here otherwise.  The importance of the efforts of the Caucus cannot be overstated, because a large number of the feminist speakers that visited the campus during this period, and in fact, in the future, would not have come without the work of those involved with the Caucus.  The importance of feminist speakers themselves on a campus such as Madisons’ can also not be overstated, because feminist speakers can be the root of feminist thought in relatively conservative campuses, especially those in the south.  The presence of such famous figures as Jane Fonda and the less familiar faces brought by the caucus, such as Margaret Brewer, allowed women (and men) on campus to engage themselves with feminist ideas that may have not been available to them through other sources.

The first notable feminist speaker to visit Madison College in the 70s is also easily the most famous of them all: Jane Fonda.  While Jane Fonda is primarily noted for her anti-war activism, she also spoke candidly about her interest and personal experience with the women’s movement during her speech at Madison.  In her speech, she referenced the conservative nature of the campus when she expressed hope that “the movement would soon gain a foothold at Madison.”  She went on to discuss her personal experience with the movement, telling the audience about how the birth of her child prompted the development of a “new consciousness of womanhood” within her that helped her get in touch with the movement.  Despite Fonda’s high-profile liberal views, the Breeze articles covering her appearance state that there was not much of a negative reaction to her appearance, with one article noting that Fonda “appealed to the brains of her audience, not their brawn.” (Humphreys and Burrows, 4)

Bonnie Angelo, November 20, 1976.

Bonnie Angelo, November 20, 1976.

The Madison Women’s Caucus brought a number of important female speakers to campus in the latter half of the 70s through their Dominion Lecture Series.  Women who spoke in this series included Ruth H. Osborn, the Dean of Continuing Education at George Washington University, Bonnie Angelo, the Washington Bureau chief for Time, and Margaret Brewer, a brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Bonnie Angelo, apparently a huge fan of Jimmy Carter, spent her speech praising him, saying he will be a great president for minorities, specifically stating he has a “commitment to women.” Despite her apparent avoidance of the subject of feminism itself, her position as the Washington Burea Chief of Time magazine was a wonderful example of a strong, career-minded woman for the women of Madison to look up to. (Amman, 2)  Perhaps an even stronger career woman, Margaret Brewer spoke at the 1979 Dominion Lecture about her experiences working within the U.S. Marines. As the first female Marine general, Brewer shared her experiences of discrimination on the job and also spoke about the possibility of women in combat roles, saying that even if the ERA passes, women may have a vicious court battle ahead of them if they wish to engage in military battle.  (Elmore, 1)

Margaret Brewer, November 12, 1979.

Margaret Brewer, November 12, 1979.

Finally, one unlikely feminist graced Madison’s campus on October 6, 1977: male scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In a passionate speech to 2,000 students in Wilson auditorium, Asimov said that “The only way we can save our civilization into the 21st century is for all men to become feminists.”  Proudly exclaiming “I am a feminist,” Asimov explained that the women’s movement, if successful, will solve the problem of overpopulation, by giving women more options both in terms of reproductive health and in terms of how they are able to spend their time.  While perhaps not the most squarely feminist argument for supporting the women’s movement, Asimov’s rhetoric no doubt appealed to many students that were not completely on board with the movement, because it provided rational reasoning why they should be, with the stakes as high as they can get. (Richardson, 1)

Isaac Asimov,

Isaac Asimov, October 6, 1977.

Works Cited:

Humphreys, Frank and Geri Burrows. “Jane Fonda Appears at Madison; Anti-war Views Predominate.” Genesis II. Februrary 19, 1971.

Rummel, Rose Mary, et al. “The History of the James Madison University Faculty Women’s Caucus, 1973-1984.” 1984.

Amann, Sandy. “Carter: ‘personal understanding of ordinary people’.” The Breeze. November, 23, 1976.

Elmore, Cindy. “Woman breaks stereotypes as Marine general.” The Breeze. November 16, 1979.

Richardson, Tammy. “Feminism will save society.” The Breeze. October 11, 1977.

Control #: Guest01, JMU Historic Photos Online, Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.