Women’s History Month Lecture: Joan Wallach Scott

BCRW’s annual Women’s History Month Lecture this year featured renowned historian Joan Wallach Scott. However, as she herself admitted, Scott is often considered to be a political philosopher; more “traditional” historians (read: old university men), as she put it, categorize her as such with the intention of criticizing her and perhaps de-legitimizing her approach to history. As a feminist studies student and enamored attendee of her lecture, I’d grant her the label out of admiration for her work in women’s histories and her use of gender as a productive lens for historical analysis. Her lecture was as dense in information as any history lecture I’d ever attended–I don’t think I stopped taking notes at any point while she spoke, but Scott’s approach to history is one of self-conscious (hyper?)criticism. By this I mean she is not only critical of the more traditional historical narratives (in her 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” she established a methodological framework for using gender theories in historical analysis, opening up a space for alternative narratives) but also of feminist studies and feminist narratives, particularly when “feminism is produced as a kind of politics.”

Much of her lecture asked us to examine and critically interrogate feminist politics and assumptions. For example, the assumption that secularism and feminism are inevitably aligned due to their mutual “progressiveness.” She questions the notion that secularism is the necessary “common sense” prerequisite for a proliferation of feminist thought and feminist policies, when historically secular ideologies and policies have been working against moves made toward equality and inclusiveness. In the sections of her lecture that really had an impact on me, she urged us to question these increasingly “awkward alignments” between feminism and “narrow strands” of liberal secularists’ ideology; take, for example, the Democratic party’s re-branding as the “political party fighting the war on women.” This assumed solidarity between “secular” and “feminist,” Scott warned, stifles the radical activism or progressiveness of feminist groups as they struggle to maintain their coalitions with established “liberal” and “progressive” institutions.

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Reflections on the BCRW, a Truly Feminist Space

At the end of two years at the BCRW as a research assistant, I am sad to leave such an incredible organization. As I reflect on my time here, I’ve realized that what has been the most exciting and formative part of working at the BCRW has been having the experience to work in a truly feminist space. The BCRW is a feminist space not just because of its initiatives and events, or the way feminism informs every discussion, formal and informal, in 101 Barnard Hall. To me, the BCRW enacts feminism most profoundly in the way it fosters a place where every voice is valued, heard, and appreciated. 

I have always remembered that during one of my first days working at the BCRW, my hours happened to overlap with the weekly staff meeting. I was immediately invited to join the discussion, and my opinion was sought at every turn and by every member of the team, despite what a new addition I was. More than this, I was impressed by how quickly other research assistants jumped in to offer their own opinion, confident of how genuinely their voice was valued. New to the research assistant position, and hesitant in my own contributions, this meeting was a first and powerful indication of how deeply the BCRW cultivates a rare and special feminist work environment, a commitment to horizontal organization, and leadership that nurtures rather than demands.  

Adair-and-Shilpa

Adair at the Scholar & Feminist Conference 2014, with past BCRW Research Assistant Shilpa Guha ’12

This has only continued and deepened during my time at the BCRW. My projects have almost always been ones that, first and foremost, support my own edification. My first responsibility was to archive ephemeral materials from the women’s movement. I was excited as I discovered a magazine from the 1970s describing a female sexuality discussion group like the one I was part of on campus. Were the questions and struggles discussed then really so similar to those that I planned our curriculum around at Barnard now? 

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Broadening the Scope of Anti-Domestic Violence Work with Caritas Doha and Sakhi

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In anticipation of an upcoming volume of New Feminist Solutions (NFS), last month, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women Tiloma Jayasinghe and her colleagues came together to discuss ways to broaden and transform the anti-domestic violence movement so that it brings the needs of communities of color to the center.

For April’s episode of Dare to Use the F-Word, the BCRW’s monthly podcast, Amrita Doshi and I wanted to focus on a fellow young feminist working at Sakhi. Her work may not seem obviously related to Sakhi’s mission, but it is in fact crucial to the organization’s overall goals. Caritas Doha is a fellow at Sakhi working on an initiative surrounding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. DACA is an immigration-related Executive Order that targets undocumented immigrants who came to the United States when they were children and who have lived in the US most of their lives. If applicants are approved they receive a two year protection from deportation and the right to work.

Image by takomabibelot from Flickr Creative Commons

Image by takomabibelot from Flickr Creative Commons

Both Amrita and I have previous connections to Sakhi: Amrita has been interning with Sakhi since January, while last semester I worked with the organization through a class (co-taught by Barnard’s Professors Bernstein and Jakobsen) called Theorizing Activism. As a part of this class, students were split into five groups which then were partnered with local activist groups in New York City. Three of my classmates and I were partnered with Sakhi and, under Tiloma’s supervision, researched the “state of the field” of South Asian women’s organizations across the country.

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Rubbing Salt into the Wound: Added Injury to the 19th Century Irish Immigrant Experience

The 19th century was an unforgiving period for Irish immigrants living in the United States. They faced persecution, poor job prospects, and unfavorable living conditions. Because Irish immigrants often came to industrial cities from rural, uneducated areas, they were only able to work low-skill jobs, which usually involved manual labor. The nature of these jobs caused them to suffer severe injuries, dramatically lowering their employability and furthering their ostracization. Meredith Linn, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies, is interested in investigating the link between the persecution, labor, and injuries that these immigrants experienced. On April 2, in a lunchtime lecture titled “Gender, Labor, Healing: Irish Immigrant Experiences in 19th Century NYC,” Linn shared her research examining common injuries among 19th century Irish immigrant workers in New York City, and described how these lead to increased discrimination. Furthermore, she discussed how the types of injuries and their consequences varied as a result of the gendered division of labor. Linn’s research works to gain a better understanding of how xenophobia, gender inequality, and socioeconomic difference led to the injuries that pushed Irish immigrants further into the margins.

“Little Ireland,” Diane Griffiths, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

“Little Ireland,” Photo by Diane Griffiths, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

There are many records that indicate that 19th century Irish immigrant workers in New York City were at a especially high risk of facing injury. According to Linn, “historians have long noted that rates of injury among Irish immigrants were much higher than their native [American] counterparts.” Hospital records from 1845 to 1952 show that although the Irish made up 30 percent of NYC’s population, they accounted for over 60 percent of injured patients in the hospitals. The dangerous careers Irish held most likely played a big role in this disproportion. As Linn stated, “about 85 percent of Irish men … were employed in jobs that would have employed hard manual labor … literally back breaking labor.”  This ‘back breaking’ labor put the Irish at a high risk of injury and as a consequence, limited their ability to find employment.

Not only did these injuries physically disable Irish immigrants, but also they resulted in social injury. Linn argued that the immigrant’s physical injuries caused them to become further stereotyped and marginalized. The back injuries Irish men sustained from manual labor exacerbated the idea that not being able to stand up straight meant that Irish men were not fully human. This physical and social discrimination was also detrimental to the immigrant’s mental health; by 1908, Irish made up the most common nationality in mental hospitals. Irish women were at an especially high risk of mental illness. Since the type of labor differed according to gender, Irish women experienced their own set of physical injuries and repercussions in addition to their greater disposition to psychological injury. For example, because of the domestic nature of their work, Irish women often worked near open flames like stoves, which by design were hazardous, and as a result they were susceptible to burns. Since an injury such as a burn would mark a woman as further from the feminine ideal, it would be more difficult for her to get work outside of her home.

“Irish Immigrant," Photo by Thunderchild7, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

“Irish Immigrant,” Photo by Thunderchild7, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Even without these work-related injuries, Irish women were judged for other aspects of their physical appearance, such as their weight. Irish women were thought of as having thicker bones, giving them a larger appearance, which contrasted the idealized slim female body. As a result, Irish women’s bodies were constantly under scrutiny. The necessity of work exacerbated this scrutiny: the more they labored, the more they inured themselves, “again modifying their bodies and setting them a part from the norm.” Potential unemployment was not only damaging to women; often Irish men could not make enough to support the family by themselves. Furthermore, some households lacked any sort of male figure, due to the male deserting the family, leaving to look for work, or dying of disease. This created an even greater necessity for Irish women to work, and as a consequence, to alter their physical appearance to find employment.

"Duffy's Cut," Photo by parabat4868

“Duffy’s Cut,” Photo by parabat4868, flicker.com (Creative Commons)

Although discrimination against Irish immigrants took place mostly during the 19th century, Linn said that much of their experience is still relevant today. Many immigrants in the United States, even in relatively progressive areas such as New York City, face marginalization and discrimination similar to the Irish immigrants. While today Irish immigrants have blended in with mainstream society, newer immigrant groups are now the recipients of poor employment prospects and healthcare. Linn described how, like with 19th century Irish immigrants, society judges new immigrants by their appearances. Like Irish immigrants, they have been categorized and placed in boxes, therefore limiting their employment opportunities. Linn shared a quote from the 19th century that she said represents the common view of Irish laborers: “Irish means to us a class of human beings whose house is their work, and their men dig the railroads.” Similar jobs can now be seen with immigrants working as domestic workers or in physically demanding fields such as construction. Linn’s lecture, which looked at the gendered division of labor, the relationship between discrimination and employment, and the conditions which lead to further marginalization, was both an intriguing look to the past and a necessary examination of the present.

Emily is a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in Sociology and is a BCRW Research Assistant.

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