On Saturday morning, after getting the news that President Obama would be giving the commencement address at Barnard College this May, graduating senior Marly Faherty did what her generation does: she went online, to a Columbia University blog called Bwog. But as she watched the comments pouring in, her excitement turned to shock, and then despair. “It was the first time I’d seen something get that nasty that quickly,” she told The Daily Beast. “It was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”
At first, some of the sniping was understandable. Obama, a graduate of Columbia College, has repeatedly spurned efforts to get him to speak at graduation. But then commenters started attacking Barnard, Columbia’s all-women’s sister school across the street, and accusing its students of academic inferiority and much, much worse. Using terms like “feminazis” and calling Barnard “Barnyard,” commenters said the school was just a back door to Columbia, and its students deserved neither Obama as a speaker nor affiliation with the university as a whole.
What was perhaps the most troubling to Faherty and others was that many of the nastiest comments came from women themselves. “Try using your Daddy's hard-earned cash in a respectable way if you want to be an ACTUAL role model for Women,” wrote one female Columbia student. “Unlike Barnyard financial leeches, I have NO intention of pursuing a Mrs. Degree. I came here to make myself successful, not try to plead at the knees of a Columbia boy to marry her.”
By the end of the day, comments like this one, posted under the name “Blue and White Vagina,” started to appear: “While you guys were perfecting your deepthroating techniques and experimenting with scissoring and anal play, we were learning Calculus (usually by sophomore year of High School). Trust me, if you actually deserved to go to Columbia and put in the work it required, you would understand our resentment. Moral of the story is that feeble, ugly Barnyard women need to shut their jizz holes and just be happy that Columbia let Barnyard pretend it was affiliated for this long.”
There's a certain absurdity in discourse among the Ivy League intellectual elite so quickly ending up in the gutter. Considering the premise of Obama’s visit to campus, it seems almost ludicrous.
Last week, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to denounce 30-year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” who is “having so much sex it’s amazing she can still walk,” because of her arguments to Congress on the importance of contraceptive coverage. The men battling for the GOP presidential nomination offered varying degrees of tepid responses, and the Democrats found a new rallying cry: battling back against the Republicans’ “war on women.”
On Friday, Obama made a rare personal phone call to a private citizen—offering Fluke his support and solidarity—and on Saturday, Barnard announced that he had offered to give the commencement address, and that the previously scheduled speaker, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, was “happy to speak at Barnard at a later date.” "His commitment to empowering women is so meaningful to our students, who aspire to lead and make their mark on the world,” wrote Barnard president Debora Spar. “No doubt, the President's words will make this year's Commencement truly unforgettable."
It seems he already has. But the vitriol kicked up in the wake of the news is hardly empowering. In launching his defense in the "war against women," it seems the president started up a war among them—one that took many by surprise. Rachel Simmons, an educator and the author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, argues that it shouldn’t have. Columbia women taking to blogs to call Barnard women “cumdumpsters” and Limbaugh taking to the radio to call Fluke a “slut” are, she says, like “bookends”—both a result of a culture rife with sexism and gender-based violence.
“We expect someone like Limbaugh to say things like this, and yet we’re really stunned when women do it,” she says. “Is it really fair to hold women to a different standard? They’re growing up in the same world that Rush Limbaugh lives in. It’s not the responsibility of Columbia women to change the way they talk, it’s up to society to think about why it is that it’s produced a culture in which Rush Limbaugh and these women sound the same.”
It’s a question Obama has two months to think about. But he may already, if inadvertently, have given the graduating class that life lesson on which every good commencement speech is built. The events of the week, Faherty says, left her feeling personally attacked in a way she had never felt before. But, she adds, “what I really felt the most was that it was the first time in my life I felt my need to defend my place as a woman, here or in the world. My generation has grown up not having to do that. It was scary as a realization to see that equality was still not there.”