For two of the past three years, the Conference on World Affairs has been the target of protests by a small group of women calling themselves, among other things, Women in Support of Castration.
The women are deeply offended by the CWA program, which lists the people who chair panels, regardless of gender, as "chairmen." They don't care for the CWA's logo, either--a famous Da Vinci drawing of an anatomically correct male.
To express their displeasure, the women have disrupted panels by exposing their breasts and chanting slogans, to the puzzlement and occasional cheers of the international crowd. They have held topless press conferences, urging the "castration" of sexist language while wearing plastic penises on their noses.
A stickler for proper English, Higman insists that "chairman" is an acceptable term for both genders and cites several authorities for its use. He rejects the term "chair"--"I'm not a piece of furniture"--and abhors the neologism "chairperson." (On occasion he refers to himself as "Higperson," just to tweak the sensibilities of the politically correct.) No matter how many angry women disrobe, he's not about to reconsider the conference terminology.
"What you would be doing is succumbing to a fringe group," he says. "When I was chairman of my department, I hired more women in one department than any other chairman in the University of Colorado. More women. Vastly more. And I still call them women. I don't call them `wo-people.'
"The English language should not disappear one word at a time, even because of political movements. We're being anti-PC, violently and steadfastly, and proud of it."
Although the bare-breasted protests made the pages of Playboy, Higman dismisses them as inconsequential. After the last one, he says, "I went down the streets of Boulder, and women--age 22, 28, 34--would see me and come over and grab my hands. They don't like these bitches, either! You'd be amazed, if you dug into it, the number of women who think the extreme feminists are making affection and love between men and women more difficult."
Several female conference veterans see the protests in a different light. "It's hard to do what they did," says Toni Dewey, a former Motorola executive who served on the CWA steering committee before resigning after the 1991 protest. "When I first got involved with the committee, one of the first things I brought up was how come we were still calling people `chairmen'--it seemed so dated. Howard wouldn't even discuss it.
"I persisted; I even brought in some books on the subject. Then this protest happened, and I could see their point of view so clearly."
"Howard is a terrible, terrible sexist," says Tracy Ehlers, who left the committee a few months after Dewey. "I'm not going to take issue with the logo, but I can't tell you how many times I would bring up the `chairman' issue at a meeting and would be huffily rebuffed, in a nasty way. He had made a decision, and that was it, period."
One former participant says Higman called her "girlie"--a term he reportedly used in a conversation with the female police officer who arrested him in October. Higman says he's "never used the word `girlie' in my life." He does, however, plead guilty to having called a young female staffer "dear" before being set straight.
The larger issue is not nomenclature but the degree to which women and minorities have a voice in Howard Higman's house party. Despite increased efforts to recruit "new faces" for the panels, the number of women in the CWA hovers around 20 percent, and the percentage of black, Asian and Hispanic participants has been even lower. (Of the 97 speakers at the 1993 conference, 86 were white; only 19 were women.) "Gender and racial balance is a major issue," Adam Hochschild says. "In 1992 I was on a panel about South Africa, which I'd just written a book about, and we were four white men and one white woman. I felt embarrassed."
Hochschild says he conveyed his concern about the lack of minority participation to Higman on several occasions, to no avail. After eight straight years of invitations, Hochschild hasn't been asked back to the CWA this year--an omission that may have something to do with his critical comments about the conference in a Daily Camera article a few months ago.
"You don't invite someone to your house who wrote a letter to the newspaper saying you serve bad food," Higman says.
The chairman argues that the CWA's percentage of women participants has been higher than CU's percentage of female faculty and administrators for many years, and that the conference is "terribly diverse"--albeit not in the ways people expect; for example, two years ago an economist from Ghana stunned the crowd by asserting that several African nations had been better off under colonial rule.