Friday, May 9, 2014

An Uncommon Dialogue

In years past, Dartmouth seniors were required to hold forth from the stage at commencement as a means of proving beyond a shadow of doubt that they had become true gentlemen-scholars. In the early years of the College, these recitations often predictably followed neoclassical conventions, with the students engaging in debate while adopting the roles of characters named Sage, Epicurus, Zeno, and so forth. These mock debates typically were concerned with such weighty matters as the true nature of beauty, aesthetic principles, or the origins of democracy.

However, one graduation speech by two members of the class of 1797, William B. Banister and Edward Little, contains an interesting divergence from the usual abstract recitations. The two seniors argue whether women are the equal of men in all areas of life. Little presents the traditional stereotypical viewpoint of the patriarchy, claiming:
Men have strong intellectual powers, great penetration, and solid judgement, and consequently are most fit to provide and govern; women have not so strong intellectual powers; but having greater sensibility, and being more easily persuaded, they are very amiable and pleasing under good government.
 Banister takes Little to task, however, and convinces him that women's abilities are equal to men's: the only difference is a lack of comparable education. Little finally capitulates, stating, "I confess I have been misguided by common opinion, blinded by prejudice, and tenacious in my errors."

One possible impetus for their interesting and novel debate may have been Mary Wollstonecraft's groundbreaking feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft's writing emphasized the necessity of a rational education for women, whom she argued were just as intellectually capable as men. The resonance between her and Banister's arguments is doubtless more than just coincidence: a first edition of Vindication, printed in Boston in 1792, was among the books available to Dartmouth students on the shelves of the United Fraternity's Library, one of their local lending institutions.

Still, although clearly drawing from Wollstonecraft's general premise, Little and Banister aren't quite ready to relinquish all power to the female sex. They both agree towards the end of the debate that it would be disastrous if women were to become lawyers, doctors, and politicians, irrationally making reference to women's constitutional "embarrassments" as a deciding factor. It would be another 175 years before Dartmouth implemented such a revolutionary concept by embracing co-education.

To see both the original manuscript and typescript versions of the commencement speech, ask for DA-43, Box 3112, Folder "1797."

To see Dartmouth's copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, ask to see Red Room HQ1596 .W6 1792a.

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