Kristin Nelson (right) leads a chant as Fed Up Vermont marches from Bailey Howe Library at the University of Vermont to City Hall in Burlington on Saturday. / SHANE BUFANO, for the Free Press
Hayley Mason of Fed Up Vermont, a “grass-roots feminist coalition” formed in June, said a rally Saturday was the kickoff of a campaign to “eradicate sexism” on the University of Vermont campus, in the broader community and “eventually everywhere.”
Mason, 24, of Burlington, said the incident in December involving the UVM fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon, which was shut down after distributing a survey to members asking whom they would like to rape, was only part of the reason for Saturday’s rally.
“Rape culture is bigger than one frat,” Mason said. “(Sigma Phi Epsilon) only embodied what we all want to fight against, oppressive inequality and a division between men and women.”
About 50 people braved the cold Saturday for the march that began at the Bailey Howe Library at UVM and ended at City Hall. Mason and another Fed Up member, Marni Salerno, led the crowd in chants with a bullhorn, saying, “Tell me what a feminist looks like!” to the answer, “This is what a feminist looks like!” from the marchers.
Another refrain went, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, rape culture has to go!,” and “We are unstoppable, another world is possible!”
As the group made its way down Main Street, a sprinkling of passing cars and trucks honked in support, with one driver giving the “thumbs up” through his window.
Once the marchers reached Church Street, they marched up and down the length of the pedestrian mall, chanting as they went. Some shoppers stopped to listen, others shot video of the rally with their smartphones, and still others ignored the entire affair.
Thomas Grace, 28, of Burlington said he joined the march to show support for women.
“The attacks on women in this country and around the world need to be fought against,” Grace said. “It needs to be men and women together.”
Once the marchers reached City Hall, the rally convened in the Council Chambers for three speeches from local activists, and “speak-outs” by anyone who wanted to address the audience.
Acting as master of ceremonies, Mason began by outlining the demands being made of UVM by Fed Up Vermont and other organizations including Vermont Workers’ Center, Peace and Justice Center, Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, Occupy VT Burlington and more.
Mason said UVM:
• Must institute mandatory women and gender studies courses for all students.
• Must invest more resources into the women and gender studies department and make gender studies a Spire of Excellence.
• Must provide full transparency about sexual harassment, rape and gender violence in the UVM community and regularly report statistics about the occurrences.
• Must develop leadership bodies which reflect the gender composition of the UVM community and project the role of women as leaders.
The first speaker, Peggy Luhrs, was a co-founder of Fed Up Vermont and has been involved in women’s rights issues in Burlington since the early 1970s. Luhrs said when she first got involved in the movement there was very little protection for abused women from society in general, with no shelters for battered women, and no training for police involved in domestic disputes, but “there were women’s centers starting to spring up.”
The next speaker, Nancy Welch, is an English professor at UVM who also teaches courses in women’s studies. Welch said the UVM campus had long been entrenched in “racism, sexism and corporate cronyism,” and that while the situation had improved over the years, she told rally participants that “everything you are doing to take on sexism on campus is hugely important.”
The final speaker was another member of Fed Up Vermont, Emily Eck, who said sexism and “rape culture” must be “attacked.” Eck said there were several steps people could take in this regard, including watching their language, not denigrating women, and not blaming rape victims for their own rapes.
“Don’t make rape jokes. Joking about rape is never harmless,” Eck said. “The last thing you can do is organize to overthrow social ills that have been festering for a long time.”