Meeting Mr. Carter

Meeting Mr. Carter

Women’s College First-year Seminar Shakes Students from Comfort Zones

In the spring of 2014, the seemingly indefatigable former President Jimmy Carter published his latest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power – a well-documented indictment of persecution and prejudice that women still endure around the world. Since the Georgia-based Brenau Women’s College assigns all first-year students collectively to read and critically examine a special book as part of their first-year seminar course, a book about women by the Georgia-born former president seemed a perfect choice, said Dr. Ken Frank, Brenau humanities department chair who oversees the first-year seminar program.

Brenau requires all students entering the Women’s College for the first time to complete a one-semester, three-credit-hour course. The course introduces new students to intricacies of college life and the importance of liberal arts curriculum and critical thinking. Program aspects, like the common reader, expose students to things they have not encountered before to shake them from their comfort zones.

There was a hitch: Brenau usually requires authors of common readers to come to campus and meet with students. Khaled Hosseini, the internationally acclaimed author The Kite Runner, Kathryn Stockett, The New York Times best-selling author of The Help, and Mary Alice Monroe, author of the environment-sensitive work, The Butterfly’s Daughter, all came to Gainesville. However, Carter as ex-president stays busier than many current presidents, often scheduling things two or more years in advance. The likelihood of his visiting Brenau on such short notice seemed, at best, improbable.

That is when two Women’s College alumnae got into the act. Nancy Wofford Moore, WC ’60, of St. Simons Island, Georgia, and Nan Jared Powell, WC ’64, of Williamsburg, Virginia, both worked in Carter’s campaigns for Georgia governor and the presidency and their husbands of both were among the president’s closest advisers. If the president could not come to Brenau, they reasoned, why not take Brenau to the president? So, on Aug. 22, close to 150 students, wearing green tee shirts commemorating the colors of Carter’s presidential campaign, bussed to the Carter Center in Atlanta for a special audience just for them.

Jimmy Carter with First Year Brenau Students“[Nan and Nancy] told me I had to do it,” Carter quipped in his warm, engaging conversation with the students. “But I would have done it anyway,” he added. He said that he planned to spend the rest of his life fighting for full equality for women around the globe and that he felt it was important to share his views with the group of Women’s College students whom he urged to help him carry out the fight.

One of the students asked whether the United States had improved its record in doing right by its female citizens since he began his presidency in 1977.

“We have gone downhill,” Carter said with his characteristic bluntness. He cited a litany of examples of why he felt that way: how rape and sexual assault victims are treated in the branches of the U.S. military, absence of women in corner offices of major corporations and institutions, equal pay issues and the abysmal record of female office holders in state, local and national governments in the country.

“I am immeasurably grateful for my experience at the Carter Center,” said Melani Stein, a psychology major from Marietta, Georgia. “I definitely feel like I learned a lot from the book, especially the statistics, but it really hits hard when you actually hear someone say it. To hear him support my cause, and a cause that I think everyone supports, it really touched my heart.”

However, during the question-and-answer period, Stein sort of got in the grill of the former president. He had remarked earlier that, because of circumstances, women often are “defenseless,” a term to which the Brenau freshman objected.

Former President Jimmy Carter signed Brenau University's print of a Jimmy Carter portrait done by Andy Warhol after his question and answer session with the school's first-year students.
Former President Jimmy Carter signed Brenau University’s print of a Jimmy Carter portrait done by Andy Warhol after his question and answer session with the school’s first-year students.

“Now, President Carter responded to my question by clarifying that he did not mean women were inherently defenseless,” she said. Obviously, I had hoped this was his point of view. Mr. Carter explained several situations in which women are unable to fight back against patriarchy. He asserted that women can’t fight back in most rape cases, since reports are usually overruled or dismissed, (because of ” lack of significant evidence”), especially in the military and universities in order to save face. Victim blaming is also rampant. Additionally, he mentioned that young women can’t fight back against genital cutting or forced child marriage. Girls have no ability to avoid honor killings, since an overwhelmingly majority of the time they are committed by husbands, brothers and fathers. He meant that society hinders women’s rights. I understand his use if the word, but I still wish he would have implemented one of my pro-feminist choices. I would have chosen ‘disempowered,’ ‘oppressed’ or ‘stripped of basic human rights’ to describe the status of most women today.”

The key point that did not escape her, however, was: How many chances does a college freshman get to have that kind of one-on-one with a former president?

“I also had a few other questions for the president,” she conceded with some mock disappointment, “but I couldn’t be greedy, could I?”

Later in the term, the Brenau students heard first-hand how continuing the fight with women’s rights is paying off – at least in one country. Twenty-six delegates of the Nigerian Quintessential Business Women Association visited the Gainesville campus to share their stories and answer questions from the students – who more than obliged. The social business enterprise comprises women who overcame gender prejudices in Nigeria to create businesses of their own.

Twenty-six delegates of The Quintessential Nigerian Business Women Association visited the Gainesville campus.
Twenty-six delegates of The Quintessential Nigerian Business Women Association visited the Gainesville campus. Click the photo or here for a gallery from the event.

Association president and founder Shimite Katung explained that women in the association had to overcome a variety of obstacles – foremost the prevailing cultural tenet that a Nigerian woman must be completely obedient to males in their lives. Hassaana Jummai Adamu, the association’s commissioner for women’s affairs, elaborated: “Nigerian men are like gods. They are the heads of the family, and nothing can be done without their permission. With the coming of education, women are now educated and can do whatever any man can do.”

“It is quite an opportunity to bring such a powerful group of women leaders to our campus for the benefit of our students,” said Frank.

Dr. Gnimbin Ouattara, an Ivory Coast native and history professor at Brenau, moderated the give-and-take question-and-answer session between the Brenau students and the Nigerian women. He said that he and his students often discuss the difference in his culture and their American culture. “Whenever I talk to students issues, my life comes up, their life comes up, and I encourage my students to ask any questions that may have,” he said. “Our differences can spark important dialogues about what we really have in common.”

Katung put the idea bluntly to the students – capturing the essence of what the first-year seminar is about. “You all should be thinking about tomorrow,” she said. “This world is so much tougher than yesterday that you do not have a choice. You need to understand what is going on in the world around you because there is only so much they can teach you here.”

View the 40-minute program.

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