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She opened the door—but at what cost?

Columbia markets itself as a space for enterprising women. Whether it be our proximity to our partnering women’s college (even if we did try to absorb it once) or our steadfast dedication to maintaining our status as one of the only institutions with a 50/50 gender balance in engineering students, ask around, and our reputation will speak for itself. However, you’d be hard-pressed to sidestep the caveat there: upholding our partnering women’s college while it faces accusations of being “a women’s college for the 1 percent.” Worse yet, the former president of such a brand of women’s empowerment admitted concern that students from public schools may not hold up at Barnard. The image sharpens: We are all for women’s empowerment, but for what kind of woman?

Recently, an email was sent out to the Columbia community detailing an upcoming event being held by the Columbia Alumni Association. The Student Affairs Committee boasted an appearance by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the conference which was supposed to be centered on celebrating a “powerful network of women.” However, an evening with the notorious RBG wouldn’t be free. Quietly juxtaposed against a schedule of the conference were prices for attending individual sessions—$15 just to hear RGB’s speech, and up to $65 more for sessions, keynotes, and networking events throughout the weekend. The event, dubbed “She Opened the Door,” would shut out any woman not able to shell out the necessary amount of cash.

Dreams of professing my undying devotion to RBG dashed, I considered the networks which Columbia truly values. I considered what made up the power of these “powerful women.” I considered that certain doors would always be shut to girls like me. I recalled the first time in my life that I’d heard of the Ivy League, and I recalled the insistence in my mother’s voice when she warned me: “Those schools are only for rich kids.”

I made it anyway. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t “powerful” enough when my stubborn, perhaps dangerously ambitious, seven-year-old self resolved that I would make it to the Ivy League—net worth aside.

This event stands as an example that even if an underprivileged student is allowed within the elite sphere, that sphere will often shrink itself in response so as to safeguard the comforts of the established elite. It demonstrates an emptiness in the promises made by Columbia leadership to equalize the opportunities available to our students regardless of their socioeconomic status. When Columbia fails to make “networks” and “empowerment” accessible to all students, it demonstrates that the low-income students on our campus are ornaments—valuable to Columbia as means of boasting diversity, but not as intellectuals, innovators, and certainly not as figures who will move on to bear the Columbia name.

Perhaps more importantly, this event is ironic given the supposed “progressive” tone of our campus. The classism and exclusion so ingrained into Ivy League culture are ever-present, even while Columbia and its peer institutions supposedly provide platforms for marginalized groups to thrive. Our community promotes feminist values and the empowerment of women, but simultaneously fails to uphold equal opportunity for less privileged women. What does it say of Columbia’s devotion to equal rights when we do not fight for the rights of the underprivileged? We, as a community, must reject any brand of feminism which excludes the women who do not have the luxury of fighting with us.

I am reminded of a quote by RBG herself: “I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at.” Perhaps it is time that our powerful women re-examine what is means to fight for equality.

Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English. She works with the First-Generation Student Advisory Board to address prominent issues in the low-income community on campus. She is sorry that she had to bring RBG into this. She also writes a column called You’re Not Middle Class which runs alternate Mondays. If you would like to buy her a ticket to the RBG keynote, she can be reached at alexa.roman@columbia.edu.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Low Income Students Women's Rights Opening Doors
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