Women’s Rights Advocate Leaves Mark on Campus
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:37

Perhaps no one has left a greater impact on campus in the last year than Dana Bolger. The soft-spoken, but persistent Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought (LJST) major has risen to become one of the most exemplary and visible advocates for women’s rights and issues of sexual assault on campus. The co-founder and co-editor of It Happens Here, an organization and magazine about sexual violence at the College, Bolger became widely known on campus after publishing an article on AC Voice about an underground fraternities misogynistic t-shirt, which in turn prompted discussion on campus and paved the way for Angie Epifano’s account. Since then, Bolger has become a national advocate, continuing to contribute to the discussion at the College and around the nation concerning sexual assault and sexism, publishing articles in Feministing, the Huffington Post, and The New York Times online, just to name a few. Bolger has, and continues to, work tirelessly to ensure that the stories of survivors like her are heard.

Coming into her Own

Born in Bethesda, Md., Bolger moved around several times in her childhood due to her father’s job in the Navy before the family settled down in St. Louis, Mo. following her father’s retirement from the service. With a much older half-sister, Bolger grew up an only child, though the family always had little kittens running around that they had taken in as fosters from their local Humane Society, along with the dog and two cats the family owned.

“I was really shy as a child,” Bolger said. “In a lot of ways I still consider myself a shy person, which has surprised some of my friends here. I still have a hard time speaking up in some of my classes.”

In high school at a small private high school called John Burroughs, Bolger began to find her interests, as she grew into her own through reading, writing and language.

“I took the regular high school courses — biology, chemistry, physics, history, English, calculus, etc. I loved bio and thought I’d like to be a doctor,” Bolger said. “Then I took physics, hated it, and realized my interests lay outside the sciences.”

Bolger maintained a wide range of interests throughout high school, from playing flute in her high school’s band to playing tennis on the varsity team. Bolger was also very active on the Model U.N., both the St. Louis Area Model U.N. and The Hague International Model U.N., and led her school’s community service club. Bolger was very involved in community service, volunteering as a tutor at the International Institute, a community organization that served refugees and immigrants. Bolger was also an academic standout, receiving a National Merit Scholarship as a senior.

Amherst Awakening

Bolger entered Amherst eager to see what the Fairest College had to offer. She delved into studies, taking a class called Psychoanalysis and the Law with Professor Adam Sitze, which immediately hooked her into the LJST major. She also lived in the Asian Culture House, as well as continuing her volunteering streak, spending her first and sophomore years tutoring adults in Holyoke to get there GEDs.

“This was, and is, really important work for people to be doing, but at the time, I had a pretty poor understanding of what I was doing and why—meaning, I lacked a comprehension of the roots of the problem, the broader issues and institutional structures contributing to it, how tutoring fit into, or played a role in, it, and how I might have wanted to have addressed these issues in other ways,” Bolger said.

However, everything changed for Bolger when she was raped and stalked by a fellow student.

“I started having nightmares and flashbacks and when he began threatening my friends, I finally reported it to an administrator, who urged me to take time off until my assailant graduated,” Bolger said. “At the time, I had no idea that what the Dean had said was not just unethical but also illegal under Title IX.”

Bolger took a semester off following her attack. When she returned to campus, Bolger joined a survivors group on campus and began hearing other students’ stories.

“I realized that other survivors had experienced a similar spectrum of responses from the administration — everything from ineptitude to institutional neglect and betrayal,” Bolger said.

The unfairness of the situation awakened something within Bolger.

“I distinctly remember sitting in Val one day, watching a few students who I knew had assaulted some of the other women in the survivors’ group walk by, and I started crying. Everyone was eating lunch in Val, finishing homework, laughing with friends and I began feeling all this rage building up inside of me that people could be living their lives so normally while others were being raped, stalked, harassed and abused on the same campus — and that the institution was doing nothing to stop it,” Bolger said. “This was the first time I saw injustice as unfair and unnatural. This was when I began developing a political consciousness.”

Bolger decided to take action. On campus, she wrote for and performed in the Women of Amherst show, as well as co-founding It Happens Here, an organization dedicated to acknowledging and ending sexual violence at the College, with Kinjal Patel ’13 and Sonum Dixit ’13.

“People are sometimes surprised to hear that I didn’t identify as a feminist when I came to Amherst,” Bolger said. “My personal experience of violence on this campus politicized me. I don’t give credit to the institution as a whole for that, but to the individual friends and professors who supported me and taught me so much.”

One of her most popular articles, entitled “Surviving at Amherst College,” is a photo essay of current and former Amherst students who said they had been sexually assaulted, holding signs with insensitive comments they had heard from students and administrators, which she put together with friend and fellow activist Jisoo Lee ’13.

“She doesn’t section off a time to talk about the issues she’s passionate about, the way you might set aside a time for a club meeting – she lives and breathes them, and she’s always looking to further educate herself on sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression,” Lee said regarding Bolger. “It’s been incredible to watch her getting stronger, wiser and more confident everyday. I remember when things were very bleak for her in the fall of our junior year, and I’m staggered by how she has turned such a negative experience into actions that are so positive. Seeing her undergo this radical transformation to start fighting and raising awareness about institutional oppression and apathy, and empowering survivors and women – it’s something I wouldn’t have expected at the time. I have learned so much from her this past year and a half and I know she’s reached many people’s consciousness with her activism.”

Bolger remains extremely passionate about changing the culture at Amherst and hopes that this year’s events will help raise awareness for the changes that are needed.

“There’s a culture of elitism and privilege at this school. We go to Amherst and we think we know everything, we think we are fully alive to the world. I don’t think that’s true,” Bolger said. “I went through my first three years at Amherst asleep — and by that I mean, ignorant of my place here and in the world, ignorant of the ways in which claiming an ‘apolitical’ or unquestioningly liberal, rather than progressive, identity was in fact deeply political and complicit in the abuses I was reading about in my textbooks, ignorant of just how high the stakes were in what I was reading, writing, doing in my daily life. I don’t think I’m the only person here who was asleep.”

Bolger has also brought her fight to the national level, interning at a progressive women’s organization in Washington D.C. last summer as well as working with the IX Network, a collective of student-survivors and their allies across the country, who are currently launching the Know Your IX campaign, which aims to educate every college student in the U.S. about their Title IX right to an education free from violence and harassment. She has contributed to Feministing, the Huffington Post, and The New York Times online, among other publications, covering a wide range of issues surrounding gender and inequality, as well as sexual assault. Her written work on athletic culture, the gendered wage differential in America, Title IX and other hot topics are well-researched and filled with captivating human stories, demonstrating the intensity of her passion in these topics.

“One of the biggest challenges for me in this past year at Amherst was learning to talk to reporters,” Bolger said, citing her natural shyness. “I’ve found that blogging also takes a certain level of confidence — of believing that you have something important to say — that I had to develop. I have had tremendous role models, especially among my friends, who have encouraged me all along the way.”

Her involvement continues to grow as she looks to life beyond school. Just this past week, Bolger traveled to the Department of Education in Washington D.C. to testify about campus rape and the Violence Against Women’s Act.

“It’s been incredible meeting kickass men and women across the country who are angry and fed up with their schools’ responses to gender-based violence. The amount of energy I’m seeing nationally makes me so hopeful for a day when rape will not be viewed as an inevitable fact of college life,” Bolger said. “Everything we’ve seen at Amherst this year is not just an Amherst problem—it’s national, it’s societal. But I think it’s important not to spread responsibility so wide as to dilute or justify Amherst’s complicity. There are institutional structures and policies—whether formal or informal—on this campus that reproduce and maintain a culture in which sexual violence is not only rampant but also tolerated and even condoned.”

Bolger is also known for her compassionate listening, and her willingness to reach out to and support others.

“Dana is an inspiration to all of us — the first time I met her was actually on Facebook doing what she does best, spiritedly debating against rape culture and for feminist politics on campus. Every encounter I’ve had with her since reinforces that first impression: someone who is sweet and kind to talk to, but who is unapologetically firm in her views, passionate for what she believes in, and strong beyond measure,” Meghna Sridhar ’14 said.“She was intensely smart, but at the same time came across as really kind and gentle. Always willing to make a new friend, to listen and share her opinion alike, I knew right from that day that this girl was one of the coolest people I would meet at Amherst College.”

A Bright Future

Since she is a ’14E, Bolger will be returning to campus next semester after interning this summer at the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice, where she hopes to get a better sense of whether she wants to pursue non-profit, grassroots organizing or government work in the future. After she graduates, she hopes to continue pursuing social justice work and eventually plans to go to law school or public policy school.

As of now, Bolger has mixed feelings about her time at the College.

“They say college is supposed to be the best time of your life. Amherst has not been the best time of my life. I have learned a lot — more outside the classroom than within it — and have gotten to know some incredible people. But it has not been a walk in the park, and I think that this is true for many other students here as well. It’s important to note, though, that my experience here does not invalidate other people’s experiences — who may have loved Amherst — just as theirs do not invalidate mine. To people who are happy here: I’m glad you love Amherst; I wish I loved it, and I wish my friends had loved it here,” Bolger said. “In the future, maybe we can create space for students who are not happy to share their experiences and have them heard and validated, rather than questioned and challenged. I wish that people here, and beyond, were critical of the institution, its policies, its narratives of ‘history’ and the ideologies it (re)produces, rather than of people’s experiences and identities.”

She hopes that in the future the College will develop more of a feminist, anti-racist, anti-oppression consciousness, and encourages students to take a sociology, a Black Studies, or a WAGS course before graduating.

People who are interested in supporting causes such as these should consider donating to the Know Your IX, campaign, which will be used to develop an extensive website with resources and fact sheets, run a huge social media campaign and print full page ads in student newspapers about students’ rights and colleges’ responsibilities.