Meda Chesney-Lind chosen as commencement speaker

Shelly Le

As graduating seniors wrap up their final year at Whitman, the administration has been preparing for what is possibly the college’s largest event of the year: Commencement.

For such a special event and with such a diverse graduating class, it can be difficult to choose the perfect keynote speaker. This year, the Whitman administration has picked Meda Chesney-Lind, professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where she also earned her doctorate in sociology and has been a member of the faculty since 1986.

“Every year we seek to find a commencement speaker who brings a unique and different perspective to the our graduates,” President George Bridges said.

Chesney-Lind graduated from Whitman in 1969 summa cum laude and has since become one of the nation’s leading experts in feminist criminology, a field in which she has authored and co-authored numerous books on the connections between women, crime, and violence. Chesney-Lind is also a fellow of the American Society of Criminology and the Western Society of Criminology.

Chesney-Lind is the first woman commencement speaker the college has had in three years.  President Bridges hopes that Chesney-Lind’s research on women’s studies will offer Whitman a different view that students oftentimes don’t hear or see on campus.

“We’ve been looking for a speaker to bring a feminist perspective,” Bridges said. ” I am delighted that Meda will be joining us. She is a very accomplished scholar who will discuss her own life course and her research on the problems girls and young women have in our society.”

Melissa Wilcox, associate professor of religion and gender studies, said in an email that she believes that unique criminology perspective Chesney-Lind brings to women’s studies will provide students with a different way of viewing issues affecting social justice today.

“Feminist research is often concerned, as Chesney-Lind’s is, with social justice in the world, and that fits nicely with the concerns of many Whitman students. One hopes to hear from a graduation speaker about the ways in which one can impact the world after graduation, and such impact is an important concern of much feminist research,” Wilcox said.

According to Wilcox, the unique opportunity of hearing from a speaker who focuses on women’s studies like Chesney-Lind is that gender studies is an interdisciplinary field, producing a unique perspective on academic work.

“Gender studies majors learn about power, inequality and justice; they also learn to think about these issues from a variety of perspectives and from a wide range of faculty,” she said.

Senior McKenna Milici agrees.  In an email, Milici said that often, criminology is associated with men.  She hopes that Chesney-Lind’s speech this Sunday will remind people on issues affecting both genders.

“I do think her area of study affords her a unique perspective, because I feel we associate criminology with men studying men, and I hope we get to see some of that on Sunday,” Milici said.

Chesney-Lind hopes to focus on the great strides women have made in the academia world since her graduation from Whitman.

“One of the things that intrigued me was thinking back on my own graduation,” Chesney-Lind said. “I’ve been thinking about how much women’s status has changed, how women were treated back then in my generations, how many issues have changed since, and then challenges that [the current generation] face.”

Chesney-Lind hopes that by reflecting on her time at Whitman, her commencement speech will highlight the backlash in the women’s rights movement and other challenges that women still have to overcome today.

“Although today is not like when I was in school where medical and law school were overwhelmingly male, we do face a backlash to women’s rights,” she said.

According to Chesney-Lind, her interest in women’s studies was encouraged by former Whitman professor, Lee Bowker, and developed upon graduation when the first wave of womens’ empowerment hit in the early 70s.

“It was a fabulous time to come to age and the ability to say ‘What about girls?’ was what encouraged and helped me,” Chesney-Lind said

Chesney-Lind will receive an honorary degree from Whitman during the commencement ceremony and will follow her sister, Margaret Chesney-Lind ’70, in addressing graduating seniors at commencement. She encourages those who hear her speech on May 22 will continue to think about women’s rights and social justice.

“I’m very flattered and honored,” Chesney-Lind said.   “While we face a brighter future, there’s still a ways to go.”