Barreca brings different take to discussion of public civility

Lori Humphreys | Staff Writer

Gina Barreca


It has become a national mantra, moan and, perhaps, a national illusion that civility in political discourse was the rule and now has been supplanted by ravening partisanship. Whatever the historical fact, Gina Barreca, author, lecturer, columnist and humorist, offers a thoughtful yet witty take on the “End of Civility” at the Contemporary Issues Forum 3 p.m. Saturday at the Hall of Philosophy. She is a practitioner of the theory, “If they are laughing, they are listening.”

Barreca greets the end of civility with some enthusiasm, perhaps because she rejects a definition of civility which is synonymous with false modesty, good manners and prissiness.

“The definition of civility is changing for better or worse,” she said. “Civility, a respectful exchange of ideas, doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting or even edgy. You can be funny and civil at the same time.”

Barreca believes that intelligent humor permits discussion of subjects that are otherwise terrifying.

The Hartford Courant column “Irreconcilable Differences,” which she shares with Laurence Cohen, is a good indication of her style.

Her essay, “Joining the Alcott Cult,” on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, is a paean to reading childhood classics like Little Women in the middle years of life. These two tonally different columns demonstrate how Barreca combines wit that can pierce or soothe, but always makes you smile.

For the past 10 years, Barreca has spoken at the non-partisan Yale University Women’s Campaign School. The annual seminar offers campaign training for women who wish to enter politics or are in the process of doing so.

“For women, the white gloves are off — for that matter, all gloves,” she said.

Barreca graduated from Dartmouth College in 1979 with a degree in English. The result of that early experiment in co-education is her memoir, Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Co-education in the Ivy League.

She continued her studies, receiving a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in England and a Ph.D. from The City University of New York. Barreca is a full professor at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

This is Barreca’s third visit to Chautauqua, and she will sign her book, It’s Not That I’m Bitter… Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World, after the lecture.

The Contemporary Issues Forum is sponsored by the Chautauqua Women’s Club.