Interview with Diana Whitney

By Kiera Bernet


TW: Sexual Assault/Rape

Diana Whitney ’95 is a member of the original Spare Rib published in the 90s. She is a writer and poet — with a focus on feminism, motherhood, and sexuality. Diana also works as a feminist activist and advocate for survivors of sexual violence in her community and beyond. I had the pleasure of (virtually) sitting down with her to hear her story.


Kiera:

How did being a part of Spare Rib impact your Dartmouth experience?

Diana:

I’m a ’95 and coming onto campus as a freshman, I was thrown into Dartmouth mainstream culture — going out to frats and participating, but yet being frankly disgusted but not being able to know why.


I was raped my freshmen winter in February in a dorm room in Woodward. Everything changed for me about Dartmouth after that. At the time, I didn’t even understand it was sexual assault. I called it coercion. We had a really different language then around consent, even the term consent wasn’t around. While sexual offense is still an epidemic, the conversation has really evolved since then.


That all happened in February of 1992, I was 18. I was also harassed by two frat guys who came and banged on my door in the middle of the night … screaming “slut” and “whore.” I called campus security to get them to leave and nothing ever happened for it. And then I just thought, “I need to leave this place. What am I doing here?” And it started this crisis where I thought I was going to transfer.


And then something happened: later on in that spring term I found the Women’s Health Resource Center. I discovered it and it changed my life at Dartmouth. It was run then by someone named Mary Childers. It was a place to be supported by other women — some really powerful feminists who were terrifying but brilliant. We would have weekly potlucks. I don’t know that I actually shared or discussed what had happened to me privately around sexual assault and the harrassment, but it gave me this new framework and it gave me this new community of powerful women at Dartmouth.


Sometime that spring, a group of seniors were starting a feminist newspaper called Spare Rib. For me, it started with me being asked to write for it. I had written a few pieces for The D, [which] was fine but I realized that I wasn’t a hardnose journalist, and this is where my passion and energy wanted to go.


The first piece I wrote was a poem called “Why You Came Over Tonight.” I’m always writing about desire and sexuality, so it’s kind of funny that was my first Spare Rib contribution. sophomore year, I started to get more and more involved. Some of my highlights of Spare Rib are from that summer. I went undercover to a fraternity rush party with a friend of mine as a Spare Rib reporter. We had no idea what we were doing, and looking back it sounds pretty dangerous. The event was called “hostessing,” which I know they thankfully do not do anymore.


It was this really misogynistic, disgusting ritual where fraternities would invite “hot” girls to be hostesses at their rush parties. They would look through the freshmen facebook — an actual book — called it the “Shmenu.” They found photos of the youngest on campus who they thought were hot, and they would send them an invite from the brothers of the house. My friend got an invite. We were grossed out, but we decided to go together and I would report about it. We dressed up in mini skirts and stilettos. We served drinks and made small talk and I wrote about it. Looking back, it’s interesting how tame my exposé was, even for Spare Rib. Even then, I was afraid of the consequences. I don’t know if I even had the framework to see the ritual for what it was — exploitative and misogynistic. But, it was a record of what was going on in fraternity culture at the time, which was Dartmouth mainstream culture. It is called “Confessions of a Hostess” and it was my first big piece for Spare Rib.


Later, I wrote about my sexual assault, but I called it fiction. The piece is called “Carnival” and it came out in the December ’92 edition. I wrote it in the third person, which I think was the only way I was able to write about it. That was the only thing I could muster at the time, but at least it gave me an outlet. I guess there was some release in being able to write about trauma even if it was hidden in plain sight.


What’s interesting to me is I wrote that piece in a creative writing workshop at Dartmouth and then it was published in the newspaper. If I read it now, I would think this person has been through sexual trauma and we should check in with them and see if they’re okay. And nobody did that. I think it was just accepted that it was just a normal sexual interaction. The administration to this day continues to put blinders on. It’s [a] historic and … current epidemic.


Kiera:

What did being a feminist mean on Dartmouth’s campus at the time? How has your feminism grown and evolved since writing for Spare Rib as an undergraduate?


Diana:

My feminist awakening really happened at Dartmouth. It was through the Women’s Resource Center, taking women’s studies, reading some of the formative feminist theory, but really it was from just being incubated in that community. So for me instead of transferring, I decided to stay, find these kindred spirits, and say, “I’m going to resist. We are going to resist.”


The biggest thing I was so thrilled to see when opening up the new edition of Spare Rib is the intersectionality. We were not intersectional: we were a group of white women, and our feminism was white feminism. We were reading Audre Lorde and definitely the theorists who were more intersectional, but not in terms of how it showed up on campus. For sure, when I look back on our feminism there is a little bit of regret and shame that we weren’t able to expand it beyond that experience of white students at Dartmouth.


Now, intersectional feminism is the only feminism that is possible. I have been able to recognize that … the past five years which is late to the game, understanding those issues and layers that I really didn’t when I was 18 through 22.


Kiera:

In bringing Spare Rib back to campus, our center focus was really making this publication intersectional and representative of different sexualities, gender identities, races, and experiences.


Diana:

I really saw that in the [Summer 2020] issue. Elaine wrote this great piece on queer love and I just devoured that. I was just thinking how important that would’ve been for me if I could’ve read that. I’m bi[sexual]; I identify as queer and Dartmouth is where I came out. I came out my sophomore summer after being closeted since I was 13. It was high school in the 80s; I couldn’t come out in any way, not even to myself. Dartmouth did give me a place to do that.


I’m a poet. For me, the way I express my intersectional feminism is by lifting up the voices of women and nonbinary people and amplifying voices of women of color. My new book is an anthology that does that with pieces from trans, nonbinary, and POC poets.


Whitney’s latest project You Don't Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves will be released on March 30, 2021.