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Half the Sky campus chapter to dissociate from larger group after co-founder visit

After hosting author and journalist Sheryl WuDunn in Graham Chapel Tuesday night, the Half the Sky Movement campus chapter is disavowing the author of its namesake book.

By the end of a response event held the next day, the co-presidents expressed their desire to potentially change their group’s name to disassociate themselves from WuDunn’s opinions.

WuDunn, the co-founder of the Half the Sky movement, gave a short presentation about her work dealing with the oppression of women around the world, stressing areas that need improvement, including sexual violence and trafficking, maternal mortality, microfinance and the education of girls.

Many audience members, including the co-presidents of the group, were displeased by many of WuDunn’s statements, including her emphasis on western superiority, assumptions about the Washington University community and refusal to identify as a feminist. For the latter, WuDunn explained that she does not take a feminist position in her writing because the horrific experiences speak for themselves.

The co-presidents did agree with her six main theses presented in the book and documentary but were disappointed by her presentation style.

“We brought her because we felt that the research she’s done and the journalism she’s done in these areas was really valuable, and we wanted people to hear that information. However, we didn’t realize that the information would come with her opinions, which we don’t condone,” Orma Ravindranath, internal co-president of Half the Sky, said.

Members of the Washington University Half the Sky chapter had already planned to host an open meeting for responses to the event on Wednesday night, but after WuDunn’s presentation, they were happy to have a room reserved.

“This event we’re having tonight was supposed to be talking about the issues she covered, but we also want to give people space to express to us how they felt about it because it did concern us as well,” Ravindranath said.

At the response event, nine female Wash. U. students came to discuss their general sentiments regarding WuDunn’s presentation. Most felt that it was essentially a shortened version of the book, documentary and TED talks that she had previously been a part of. There was a general sentiment of disappointment with WuDunn’s ideas of western countries as superior and quick, band-aid solutions to larger global issues.

“It scares me that people are having the energy and motivation to go out into the world and do things without context,” senior Jacqui Germain said.

Despite the controversial response at the second event, several surveyed audience members were very pleased by WuDunn’s presentation.

Principia College student Nohemy Johnson, ambassador for her school’s Half the Sky chapter, drove 45 minutes to get to Washington University for the event.

“It was amazing. She was well-spoken. A lot of what she said really resonated with me. She is just so passionate when she speaks,” Johnson said.

Danae Vachata, a staff member at the Washington University School of Medicine with clinical research, came because of her involvement with education reform and familiarity with WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column.

“I thought it was fantastic. What she’s doing is hard. Sometimes when you do this work it’s met with resistance, and [I appreciate] the fact that she’s…still here to answer all of these questions being presented to her and trying to help us have a new view on this problem,” Vachata said.

Freshman Shivani Desai’s feelings about the event were mixed, but she understood both sets of reactions to WuDunn’s presentation.

“I thought it was inspiring. I really loved hearing her talk about building a movement with common people. A lot of people say that’s too idealistic, but to have people like Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof tell me it’s not, I thought was really cool,” she said. “On the alternate side, as a huge feminist, I was shocked to hear her not identify as a feminist. I think that not identifying as a feminist when you’re fighting for women’s rights globally is just really surprising.”

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  • Truncated Turtleneck says:

    What did she say that was so offensive? You claim twice that she talked about the superiority of western culture; where’s the quotation to back that up? Without any context, it comes across as if y’all are twisting her words.

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  • rach94 says:

    I find this article highly biased and inaccurate. I was at the talk, and I would like to illuminate some of her points that was clearly not represented at all in this article. The writer forgot to mention her commitment to and background in journalism. She explicitly said multiple times that her job was to “REPORT.” In that process, she wanted to build credibility. As a journalist, she did not want to associate herself to any -isms (feminism being one of them). I think she showed incredible amount of professionalism by implying that each and and every journalist should not associate him/herself in personal ideals in order to expose the wrongdoings of each culture.

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    • spock says:

      Your last sentence does not make sense. Thinking that something is wrong = having personal ideals. Also, according to the people quoted, she espoused plenty of her personal ideals.

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  • Brian Duddy says:

    I see a lot of responses, but not a lot of context given as to what these people are actually responding to. Is there any reason there are no direct quotes from her talk?

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878