The Catwalk

Surely one of the most ennobling of all Kenyon experiences was when you entered the Great Hall at mealtime, gliding forward amid your fellow scholars, with Chaucer and Shakespeare glowing in stained glass overhead and a cheese casserole of indeterminate odor awaiting you in its glistening servery vat.

Fond memories, yes? Not necessarily for women, many of whom found the experience cheesy in another sense. From the advent of coeducation, women resented having to parade down the middle of the Great Hall while guys at the fraternity and team tables conspicuously assessed them. The passageway—indeed, the whole experience—became known as "the catwalk."

"We all hated walking down that center aisle," a female member of the Class of 1974 anonymously told an interviewer researching the history of women at Kenyon. "Absolutely hated it."

The issue flared up briefly in the early nineties, in the aftermath of the controversial report of the Commission on Student Life (see Turf War), but as the thirtieth anniversary of coeducation approached, nothing had changed. "The men use their seating to publicly (both visually and verbally) rate the women as they walk by, commenting on the women's clothing, body shapes, and eating patterns," wrote members of the 1998 senior seminar in women's and gender studies. "This has made many women so uncomfortable that they no longer eat in Peirce."

The seminar students proposed rearranging the tables to force traffic flow around the sides of the hall. Another idea: replace some long tables and benches with round tables and chairs, to eliminate "embarrassing situations for women in skirts."

Debate ensued, in both the bureaucratic idiom and the vernacular. A "Senate subcommittee considering table arrangement in Peirce Hall" was formed. Meanwhile, an issue of the Newscope newsletter in the fall of 1999 featured an announcement stating: "Attention Kenyon Men! Fight the Power! We will be oppressed no longer! We need not be afraid to sit at our tables."

During that fall semester, as an experiment, the College did introduce a "modest modification," pivoting four of the long tables so that they ran east-west rather than north-south. But the catwalk kept reappearing, in part because food service and maintenance workers were used to the traditional formation. "Old setup habits die hard," recalled Cheryl Steele, associate dean of students at the time. "I would nag [the workers] about the 'new' table setup and it would get corrected, and then the tables would migrate back to the old position."

The issue faded, she said, as some students began to walk down the sides, whatever the table arrangement, and others decided they didn't mind walking down the middle.

Today, with incoming mealtime traffic flowing through Peirce's new atrium rather than running the Great Hall gauntlet, the catwalk question is moot. But there's still unhappiness over the fact that fraternities and teams lay claim to certain tables in the Great Hall. Shortly before spring break this year, in an effort to spark dialogue about "who controls social spaces at Kenyon," a group of women staged a kind of eat-in at two frat tables—a reprise, actually, of a similar event back in 1991. Stay tuned.

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