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  • Writer's pictureNicole Kohut

Retaking Butler’s Facade

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Students are reviving a late '80s protest in honor of Women’s History Month.

By Nicole Kohut

Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Vergil.

These eight names are plastered on the front facade of Butler Library–arguably the most iconic landmark on Columbia’s campus. Nine other names wrap around the west and east sides of the library, including Dante, St. Augustine, and Voltaire. Eager freshmen and Columbia College alum will immediately recognize these names from their Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations syllabi. Another thread of connection? They’re all white men.

In 1989, Laura Hotchkiss Brown, a student enrolled in General Studies, decided to do something about Columbia’s lack of female representation on campus. With four friends by her side and a detailed plan consisting of design layouts and mechanical strategies, Brown hung a banner with eight new names above the pre-existing one’s on Butler’s forefront during 1989 commencement week. For the first time, Butler’s exterior would feature all women.

Almost immediately, Columbia ordered a tear-down of the banner, causing students to question the administration’s commitment to recognizing and celebrating the achievements of its female population. Students, however, rejected the university’s actions. Brown’s statement made the majority of the student body realize that the men listed on Butler’s walls didn’t accurately represent their university. The banner lit a small, but still fervent fire that finally pushed Columbia to widen their patriarchal origins, only this time under the administration’s authority.

Columbia administration announced that, in order to celebrate Women’s History Month in March of 1994, they would formally hang a banner of prestigious women. That is, women whom Columbia administrators deemed prestigious. Neither Brown nor her supporters were involved in the reformed banner. Instead, twenty students were elected underthe-radar by various Columbia officials, and the selection process for the eight names that would be displayed on the banner was kept under wraps. It came to be known as “The Butler Banner Project.”

It’s no surprise that the project failed. With Bacchanal right around the corner, Columbia’s lack of promotion for the project, and a handmade banner that ripped after a couple of hours, it was impossible for the event to pick up much steam. Instead of stitching the banner back together or rescheduling for a later date, Columbia abandoned the project. Like the women that appeared ever so briefly on Butler’s facade, the Butler Banner Project faded quickly from Columbia’s agenda.

If you tried to find more information on the Butler Banner Project, you’d stumble upon two lonely resources. The first, an uploaded photo from the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library that shows Brown’s original banner from 1989. The second, an archived Op-Ed from Columbia Daily Spectator staff writer Lauren M. Rosenblum CC’96 that, at best, mimics a Google Calendar invite, including the date of event, names on the banners, and location. The article is wrapped up with a quote from Sharon Brous, CC ‘95, who criticized the banner’s lack of ethnic representation, stating that while it is a celebration, it is also “a way to acknowledge that something is missing.”

Now, 25 years later, the project has bubbled back to the surface of Columbia’s exclusive radar. But how and for what reasons, nobody can be quite sure. Elise Fuller, a member of this year’s resurgent banner project, doesn’t hold the answer to these questions either.

When I got a chance to sit down with Fuller, she arrived eager to share the message this year’s banner aims to proclaim to students. Reminiscent of Brown’s notes and sketches from 1989, Fuller whipped out a gargantuan Google Drive containing spreadsheets, notes, diagrams, archival photographs of the original banner, and top-secret steps to set the project into motion. When asked about the changes the project wanted to make from the original banner, Fuller emphasized their goal to be more representative of our community–and this doesn’t just mean including women of color.

Illustration by Helen Becker

Even though the final list is still being revised, you can expect to see Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston plastered proudly over Butler in March. Like Sappho and Christine de Pizan, these two contemporary authors appear on core syllabi and are well-known throughout literary communities. However, their cameo on Butler shows us that writing literature in 610 BCE isn’t a requirement for prestige. If you’re lucky, one of the women with a reserved spot on this year’s banner, Gayatri Spivak, a Columbia professor, could be teaching your literary theorism class in the fall.

The fact that the women chosen for this year’s banner don’t reside in the ancient Roman hilltops like the men currently engraved on Butler’s walls fits perfectly with the committee’s vision–to be more representative of our community, all genders and ethnicities included, today. This not only means incorporating women who have produced modern-day work, but also having the banner reflect Columbia’s current student population.

Compared to the 1994 administration dominated committee, which included twenty female students from Columbia College, the 2019 committee is smaller in number, composed of roughly twelve students. However, this committee is vastly more representative of our campus than its 1994 counterpart. Barnard, Columbia College, and SEAS students are all directly involved with the project, but this doesn’t mean they’re the ones making the final calls. Instead, as Fuller informed me, they sent out a campus-wide survey asking students to suggest which female literary scholars they wanted to see on the banner. With over 180 submissions, each with roughly six suggestions, it’s safe to say that student voices are heavily intertwined with this project, a big departure from the last banner effort. This year, the banner won’t just represent the ideals driven from the canon of Columbia founders.Rather, the hope is that it will better represent our campus, our students, our ideas, and our goals.

Despite the excitement and effort fueling the project, I was surprised to learn that students on this year’s committee weren’t fighting to make the names, or any form of female memoriam, permanent. According to Fuller, it wouldn’t be right to have something forever engraved on our walls because we’re constantly evolving as a community, and there are new women who deserved to be recognized each day. As Fuller bluntly put it, “Virginia Woolf did black-face, and she was on the 1994 banner.”

Although a banner can always be taken down, the names of men engraved in Butler aren’t going anywhere. When we walk past Butler, for better or for worse, we recognize those men as a part of our school, maybe even part of our identity. The contemporary women who will appear on Butler’s facade come March will give us an opportunity to see how our campus is represented in 2019, not 1754.

In 1994, Laura Hotchkiss Brown and her banner should have hit a nerve in Columbia, but they didn’t. Even though the political climate in 2019 is a reflection of recent uproar in student body activism, we may never know what drove the revamping of the Butler Banner Project. Twenty-five years later, we’re still struggling to get the on-campus representation we deserve–but at least we’re starting somewhere.


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