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Petition Asks For Female On MIT Seal

By Nancy L. Keuss


Mens et Womanus?

One undergraduate is rallying support for a change to the official MIT seal that could recast either the logo’s “laborer at the anvil” or “scholar with a book” as a female figure.

Last week’s “Speak Out” forum on diversity saw Zhelinrentice L. Scott ’00 drumming up support for “a strong statement of equality by the inclusion of one male and one female in this institution’s official seal.”

Although alternative versions of the seal are popular with student organizations on campus, the official design has remained untouched since its adoption by the Corporation in 1864.

“MIT needs to make a symbolic gesture to acknowledge the accomplishments of women who have come from this institution, who are at this institution, and who will be coming to this institution,” Scott said.

She first took note of the issue while attending the March Class of 2003 Ring Premiere, where the ring design was first unveiled. The event featured a Who Wants to be a Millionaire parody, during which a contestant was asked to guess whether the second figure in the ring’s seal was a man or a woman. Employing a “lifeline,” the contestant asked for audience’s input.

“Most of the guys in the audience shouted ‘male’ while most of the females called out ‘female,’” Scott said.

Though the contestant chose “female” as a final answer, the ring revealed a male figure featured on its mens et manus seal.

“I was so irritated. I felt insulted. I was really offended by the whole thing. At the time, I didn’t really know what to do in response to it,” Scott said.

Gender representation in the mens et manus symbol soon became the most heated topic of discussion for the Class of 2003 Ring Committee.

“The issue of whether the mens symbol should be a man or a woman took about three to four weeks to discuss. It was a very heated subject, and no side wished to budge,” said Ring Committee Chair Atish D. Nigam ’03. The group eventually decided it would be best to align its seal with the traditional image.

The Class of 2002 Ring Committee last year designed its brass rat to include both a man with a picket sign and a woman holding a laptop on its version of the seal.

Class of 2002 Ring Committee member Jenny M. Lin said, “It wasn’t a very controversial point for the committee. It just made sense.”

Decision rests with corporation

Scott only recognized the possiblity of a modification to the official Institute seal after receiving an anonymous letter from a student who shared her reaction to this year’s ring premiere.

The student believed that the seal still included two male figures was a result of “sticking to tradition” and that whether the seal included a woman was a political issue.

The MIT Corporation is the body with the decision-making power to consider such a change.

Scott intends to present copies of a petition to Corporation members and to President Vest, along with the “course of action we would like to see taken.” She further hopes for a motion to reconvene the MIT official seal committee, which could in turn collect input, formulate a design, and present such a change to the Corporation.

The Committee on the Seal, established in 1863 with President William Barton Rogers and the Treasurer of the Institute as members, recommended the original seal design.

Although during President Howard Johnson’s administration the design of the seal was “modernized,” the change was unofficial and never intended to replace the traditional seal, said Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation Kathryn A. Willmore.

“Over the years, we have had other suggestions about changing the official seal -- for example, making the figures face each other,” Willmore said. “One question for consideration is whether the original seal should be kept as an historical marker, so to speak, reflecting the original act and intent of the trustees.”

Nonetheless, Willmore does intend to raise the question of changing the seal with other officers in the Corporation, in response to the proposal.

Willmore also encourages members of the Institute community to stop using the modernized version of the seal and to use instead the MIT logotype, which relies on three letters rather than on the two male figures.

“We are in the process of redesigning the MIT graphic identity system, which will use a logotype. The current interim logotype has been in use for the past three or four years. One advantage of a logotype is that it can be used easily in conjunction with symbols or tag lines from individual departments or programs,” Willmore said.

“Is this proposal part of some larger plan to repair sexism?” asked Scott. “By no stretch of the imagination is that the case or the goal. We want to acknowledge the accomplishments of women here and get conversations started about sexism and its negative effects on society.”

Scott further notes the high visibility of the seal. “It goes on your diploma, on business cards. It’s everywhere - even on napkins from MIT catering.”

She dedicates this effort to the memory of Ellen Swallow Richards, a class of 1873 graduate and the first woman admitted to MIT, “who really did great work to open doors for women here. When MIT started, women were not in the picture.”

Scott, who hopes to collect somewhere on the order of 3,000 signatures, will have a booth on Tuesday on the first floor of the Student Center to gather more support for the petition and proposal.