After the SUNY New Paltz Women's Studies 1997 Conference on sexuality was attacked by right wing pundits in the Wall Street Journal, other media, the state legislature, and Governor Pataki, Women's WORLD helped New Paltz faculty plan the 1998 conference, which was on resisting gender-based censorship. Conservative hecklers invaded the conference and I wrote this op ed about what happened.
The annual Women’s Studies conference at SUNY New Paltz has become a centerpiece in the country’s ongoing culture war, increasingly waged around the issue of sex. Last year’s conference on women’s sexuality became the subject of a Christian conservative campaign against Women’s Studies, marked by efforts to demonize any open discussion of this subject; this year’s conference, called "Silencing Women: Voices of Resistance," was designed as a response. As a keynote panelist, I spoke about the relationship between gender and censorship, while watching a cluster of middle-aged men in suits, Pataki appointees to the College Council, whisper to one another. They were badly outnumbered by the five hundred other people who had come to show support for the Women’s Studies program and for women’s right to talk uncensored about any subject we think worthy of discussion and study.
Last year’s conservative attack was orchestrated by Roger Kimball in the Wall Street Journal, with the school voucher organization CHANGE-NY, state legislators [John] Guerin and [Tom] Kirwin, and Governor Pataki, who used the fuss as an excuse to go after Roger Bowen, the new president of SUNY New Paltz. Bowen had been unanimously chosen by the SUNY Board of Trustees except for one Pataki appointee, Candace de Russy, who voted against him. Besides being a contributor to the Pataki campaign fund, de Russy is a former contributing editor to the conservative journal Catholic Crisis, where she wrote articles on such subjects as home schooling and the evils of the card game Magic, which she describes as diabolical.
Mr. Pataki has also appointed four Christian conservatives to the SUNY New Paltz College Council. Until now, the Council’s role has been a purely advisory one but the new members are trying to expand this definition; they eagerly engaged in last year’s controversy and were much in evidence at the conference last weekend, going to workshops and asking if they could tape them. One of these Council members proudly identifies himself as an activist in the Right-to-Life movement; another is employed by the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate. And, of course, the general moral tone in the area is heated up by Operation Rescue, which has refused to condemn Dr. Slepian’s murder, and is based nearby.
But if Governor Pataki’s appointees were hoping to intimidate people at the conference, they must have been disappointed. The large, supportive crowd included men and women from the local community, ex-students, and students not only from New Paltz but from other colleges in the area and the SUNY system, including Bard, Vassar, Marist, Nassau Community College, and the SUNY branches at Albany and Stony Brook. An organizing workshop in the afternoon, given by the staff of Women’s WORLD, a global network concerned with women’s freedom of expression of which I am President, attracted one member of the College Council, one man described in the press as "the local gadfly," and sixty people eager to find ways to resist the Pataki administration’s attempts to silence women and gut the state university system. The workshop began with an announcement of the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo. During a moment of silence in respect for his memory, I glanced around. The member of the College Council was praying but the expression on the face of his cohort, who also spoke out in favor of censoring my children’s book Families, can only be described as gloating.
As an active member of International PEN as well as President of Women’s WORLD, I have been tracking connections between gender and censorship for twelve years. I have seen the number and seriousness of cases grow as the influence of religious fundamentalism has increased in various parts of the world, battling modernity in the name of religious truth. In such an atmosphere, any woman who speaks up can become a symbol of modernity, to be silenced, purged, or killed. There is nothing more dangerous to women—or to freedom of speech—than theocracy, the marriage of politics and religious authority. This marriage can be seen in the moralistic rhetoric of the Elmer Gantrys in our Congress, who post an interminable salacious transcript on the President’s sex life one week and the next pass laws restricting discussion of sex on the Web. It can be seen in Governor Pataki’s choice of Right to Lifers to oversee the state university system. The New York Times endorsement calls Pataki a supporter of women’s freedom of choice. If he believes, as he says, in freedom of choice, then whose agenda do these appointments represent? Is the Governor paying a debt of gratitude to his mentor Al d’Amato?
Afghanistan and Iran show us what theocracy brings, not only to women but to anyone with the slightest independence of thought. There are plenty of Western examples, from the Spanish Inquisition to Salem village to the Geneva of John Calvin, which passed laws governing not only sexual conduct but choices of food and clothing. How long are we going to let this creeping theocracy grow unchecked?
The vast majority of voters believe in the separation of church and state. If they bear this in mind on Nov. 3, they will throw all those with a religious agenda out of office—from Governor Pataki and Senator d’Amato to the Members of Congress whose loony-tune puritanism has made the United States a laughingstock to most of the world.