Feminists United Responds to Misstatements by UMW President Regarding Their Title IX Complaint

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By Alyssa Seidorf
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On May 7, the Feminist Majority Foundation, together with the University of Mary Washington (UMW) student group Feminists United on Campus and several UMW students, filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights against the University of Mary Washington, alleging that UMW failed to protect students from a sexually hostile environment, from sex-based cyber assaults, and from threats of physical and sexual violence. On Monday June 8, UMW President, Richard Hurley, sent a letter to media addressed to Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal denying the allegations.

The Feminist Majority Foundation continues to stand with students at the University of Mary Washington as they seek to hold the university accountable for violations of their rights under Title IX. The Feminist Majority Foundation disagrees with the statements made by President Hurley in his letter and has alerted the President to several misstatements that we hope he will publicly correct.

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Feminists United on Campus also released the following letter on June 9, responding to President Hurley and requesting that he correct several misstatements.

Dear President Hurley:

We are writing in response to the letter you sent to Eleanor Smeal, President of Feminist Majority Foundation, on June 8, 2015, which you then distributed to the media and to the entire campus and student body. Your letter contains a number of misstatements that cast Feminists United in a false and negative light and which we urge you to retract. Contrary to your assertion, Feminists United and its members have never made any allegations that Grace’s death was caused by the threats we received or she received directly. We have publicly stated that we do not know whether a connection exists between these threats and Grace’s death. Law enforcement is apparently investigating this matter, which is as it should be. We have urged individuals not to speculate about whether such a connection exists and await further information about this from law enforcement.

In your effort to defend the University’s inaction in the face of threats we reported to you and to other members of the administration, you have made statements that are both galling and untrue. We are greatly offended by your statement that: “Had Grace felt scared or threatened in her last semester on campus, she never mentioned as much to either of these individuals.” We know from our discussions with Grace and with faculty members that Grace did in fact repeatedly express fear for her safety. Grace told us at our weekly e-board meetings on multiple occasions that she was afraid, nervous, and worried for her well-being. She took precautions not to walk around the campus alone because of her concern for her physical safety. Grace may not have filed a formal complaint, but she was fully supportive of the decision of Feminists United to file a Title IX complaint, and was thinking about being a complainant herself.

Grace, Paige, and Kelli were all named and personally threatened, while the rest of our e-board and club members were put under the umbrella of “FUC” in the yaks. Every member was threatened through this. When we explained to you that multiple e-board members had been threatened and felt unsafe, it went without saying that Grace, a vocal and highly visible member of e-board fell into that group, whether we explicitly said her name or not.

We also want you to know that we are very offended by your suggestion that the threats we received “must be placed in context,” citing that they were quotes from “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and Whitest Kids U Know. Your letter suggests that this somehow negates the fact that they were used and employed in a threatening manner against us, and it propagates the idea that rape jokes are acceptable. No matter the original source of the words, they were employed to impart and/or threaten harm against us. Do you really believe that it is appropriate to brush these threats aside because they were quotes from popular culture? When threats are issued against members of your student body, you cannot ask for them to be “placed in context” of being a quote; rather, they must be taken seriously as the threats they were meant to be.

Worse still, the way you framed the conversation about these threats, suggesting that members of our club were somewhat at fault for opening themselves up to criticism, was eerily similar to the victim blaming that is so prominent in rape culture. By excusing two of the harmful yaks, you have chosen to ignore the hundreds more that were directed at Feminists United and our members, including ones with elements of stalking that prompted us to request the presence of the UMW police ourselves.

Lastly, you continue to say that limiting the use of Yik Yak on campus would take away free speech, despite the fact that other schools, both public and private, have done so without incident. By taking Yik Yak off of the campus wireless internet service, the administration would be demonstrating to the university community that it does not condone sexist, sexualized words and hate speech that created a sexually hostile environment for women at UMW. We remain deeply concerned about the campus environment and urge you to take action to ensure that by the time we return to UMW this fall, the environment will be free of further threats, intimidation or abuse based on our gender.

Feminists United

By Alyssa Seidorf

Alyssa Seidorf is a National Campus Organizer at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She works with college students across the county to support their feminist activism. Alyssa is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!) where she majored in Business Management and minored in Women’s and Gender Studies. During her time at VT, she was president of the feminist activist organization, Womanspace, and interned with Planned Parenthood Health Systems as a Civic Engagement intern where she engaged the Blacksburg, Va. community about reproductive justice and supported the McAuliffe gubernatorial campaign. A short list of her favorite things is: coffee, traveling, sex-positivity, purple, and spicy food. aseidorf@feminist.org

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