The Life and Death of the Medusa Movement

Larsen Klein, Contributing Writer

Remember the Medusa Movement? If not, here’s a little refresher: On Colgate Day — Nov. 13, 2020 — over 150 students gathered on the academic quad to attend the Medusa Movement’s Survivor Solidarity Protest. This protest was in response to Title IX changes from Betsy DeVos and the Trump Administration’s Department of Education (DOE), where Medusa put pressure on the Colgate administration to do more to protect survivors in response to these changes. However, after the protest, and at the height of our public recognition, Medusa underwent intense scrutiny for being led primarily by white, cisgender, able-bodied and mostly Greek Life-affiliated women, while the people of color (POC) in Medusa were the ones doing the majority of the day-to-day labor. In response to these allegations, that leadership took a significant step back. In an attempt to reconcile with a lack of attention to equity in the organization, Medusa attempted to shift from a top-down leadership structure to a more horizontal, collective one. As this was all taking place, however, Medusa suffered from burnout and disappeared from campus consciousness. The amount of time it took for Medusa to gain traction as quickly as it did is just how quickly it took for the movement to die. At the time, I was proud of the campus awareness and the community of support that had been built in response to the DOE’s harmful changes to Title IX regulations. While I was not a core leader in the movement, my positionality as a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman in Greek Life and my proximity to leadership renders me complicit in the harm and death of Medusa. This led me to engage in a research project through my women’s studies senior seminar to figure out why the Medusa Movement died

What I found through this research is that the Medusa Movement’s death cannot be boiled down to just one cause. While majorly due to student burnout, the lack of purpose articulated in the movement as well as significant issues over equity in the leadership all contributed to the death of the activist group we all once knew on campus.

To begin my investigation, I conducted a survey asking former members of Medusa why they thought the movement died. I analyzed the responses of 12 former Medusa members and the language of Medusa’s own internal documents which detailed the transition to a horizontal leadership after the protest. Looking at these responses led me to define that burnout for Medusa was an evacuation of leadership and goals, brought on by a lack of purpose and equity in leadership. 

Analyzing the survey responses and Medusa’s own documents of an “accountability committee,” I found that the group used intersectionality as a buzzword. More specifically, in an attempt to fix problems of leadership and shared organizational work, intersectionality was invoked and plans made to shift organizational structure, but these plans were never actualized. Jennifer C. Nash, a scholar and professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke University, described this use of intersectionality as what is “often celebrated as precisely what can disrupt so-called white feminism and even save feminism from its racial exclusivity.” For the Medusa Movement, a focus on intersectionality through “accountability” and a shift to horizontal leadership was poised as the “fix” to the group’s internal dynamics where white, cisgender women held the power and got the credit, while people of color, specifically women of color, were doing the work.

In my analysis, I also found that the production of external discourses targeting Medusa’s lack of attention to equity, as well the internal discourses from members themselves, produced a feeling of discontentment and lethargy. One respondent — a queer person of color — wrote that after the protest, “nobody was really that committed and it felt super performative most of the time.” Another respondent who identified as a white, cisgender woman wrote that the “criticism was not taken well nor productively and leaders were quick to pass the baton without spending deliberate time and care investing in doing the necessary introspection.” These responses seemed to question what the point was of continuing to do labor for a group that didn’t know where it was headed, what its goals were or how it would achieve those goals in a way that makes space for those marginalized within the movement. In Medusa’s own internal documents, plans were written to engage in open dialogue about frustrations, fears and honesty about our privileges and identities. Yet, as respondents made clear in the survey, “although the trust in the group could have been salvaged with hard work and transparency, the lack of focus on POC, especially Black queer women — the backbone of this movement — completely diminished any chance of that.”

Additionally, the discourses of an organizational transition meant to fix the top-down, white-centric leadership produced contrasting sets of knowledge on campus that there was “nothing left to fight for,” yet also a precarious, potentially unliked group on campus that privileged members began to feel ashamed for supporting in its popular infancy, while the more marginalized members who had done the brunt of the work lost a sense of validation in the movement. It was a combination of these discourses that led members, including myself at points, to shy away from Medusa, slowly stop attending meetings, responding to messages or engaging in any action items. Neither the lack of purpose of the movement beyond a few action items for visibility, nor burnout, nor a lack of equity in leadership acted in isolation to cause the death of the Medusa Movement. 

Now, why is this “diagnosis” important? As I near my departure from Colgate and look back at my time here and the political formations that shaped me, I wish I had experiences like the Medusa Movement to learn from when I began to organize myself politically. It is my hope that this piece will serve as a resource for future organizers and activists at Colgate, who will learn from the shortcomings of Medusa to create sustainable and equitable political organizations to fight for justice on our campus.