Columbia Students and Alumni join Ten Panelists to discuss Women and Wisdom

BY Rakesh Palisetty, February 10, 2020

The third installment in the Woman in Language series took place at the Katherine Otto-Bernstein Screening Room at the Lenfest Centre for the Arts on January 31st at 7:00pm. Nine panelists engaged in a conversation curated by Leslie Ayvazyan about the embattled relationship between women and wisdom. Among them, was Maggie Burke, Linda WinerVictoria Bailey, Cori Thomas, Kate Mulley ’16, Zizi Majid ’20, Brittany Patch ’15 , Diana Fathi ’21, and Elaine Carberry. Lee Grant, the tenth panelist, was absent due to illness and Anna Woodruff ’18 took her place on the panel.  


The Woman in Language series grew out of Ayvazyan’s interest in language and her interrogation of words used to describe women. She describes it as ‘a conversation about myself with myself,’ which led her to the discovery of words and phrases such as ‘cougar,’ ‘bitch,’‘resting bitch face,’ and more. She found there was a word or phrase for every letter in the alphabet to describe a woman’s personality. The only way she knew how to change this perception was to have a conversation about it and so started the Woman in Language series. The earlier installments dealt with themes of power and success. 


The panelists were women with varying backgrounds. Diana Fathi is an Iranian playwright, director and actress. Cori Thomas is a playwright and screenwriter but also volunteers with lifers at San Quentin State Prison. Linda Winer has been a theatre critic for 48 years and has taught critical writing at Columbia’s School of the Arts since 1992. She has judged the Pulitzer Prize for drama ten times, five of those as panel chair. Maggie Burke has been an actress for 45 years on and off-Broadway but also a happy grandmother to nine grandchildren. All these people were chosen by Ayvazyan because she admired and respected them.


Panelists were asked ten questions by Columbia MFA students and alumnae, gathered by Ayvazyan beforehand. The conversation began with the panelists—who had no prior knowledge of the questions—trying to shed light on what wisdom means and what it is to think of oneself as wise. 


Questions explored ideas of emotion, instinct, and knowledge in relation to wisdom. Conversation led to discussion around how and when one becomes wise. Zizi Majid was asked if one needs to be wise to be a good artist. “Yes, but you define wisdom. One has to be wise in choice and inspirations. You have to learn from mistakes and be socially conscious.” When asked if wisdom could be fun, Carberry quipped, “Absolutely! Your hands get cut off and when you regrow them, that’s when wisdom happens. It’s bloody and painful.”  


One question kept emerging: Why aren’t women seen as wise? And who gets to decide the language attributed to women? The words that kept popping up when thinking about what constitutes wisdom for the panelists were ‘gut feeling’ and ‘instinct,’ and a debate ensued about the difference between the two. Diana Fathi has always listened to her gut and believes everyone is wise. She said, “Women are seen as second class citizens and have to listen to men who are wiser to you. I don’t believe in that and always follow my gut.”


Panelists pondered aloud the virtue and utility of being wise and if it really serves women to feel wise or be thought of as so. Language has been a tool to subliminally subdue people and men have long held control over this power. The conversation shed light on what language does and can do to affect behavior. They collectively decided that seeking status that comes from being wise is not wise, which seemed wise. When asked if wisdom was attached to status, Winer said, “Seeking status is not wise… There is something weird about thinking you are wise.” To which Ayvazyan retorted, “Why? Why are women seen as smug when they think they are wise? And why do men have the space to think they are wise and not women?” Ayvazyan and the panelists grappled with finding language to empower oneself to trust oneself and to stop asking for permission. 


The evening concluded by opening the floor to the audience for questions, which led to some interesting discussion. One audience member noted that men are offered more chances to make mistakes in finding wisdom. Another raised an important and relevant question, which is to look at language around people of color, and intersectionality and how it can mean so many different things to be a woman, when you’re seen as a specific kind of woman. For various reasons, not everybody can relate to things typically associated with womanhood like childbirth, for example. Or particular things that happen when you are a person of color living in the U.S. and also a woman. 


Woman in Language was a beginning to a nuanced conversation critical to provoking change in the world we live in.