Gender Matters offers feminist approaches to a diverse range of discussions on intersectional, transnational, and community issues. Contributors include UB students, faculty, and staff, as well as greater Buffalo community members, whose perspectives enrich our collective feminist engagement with education, research, and lived realities.
August 15, 2019: Political Misogyny, Sexual Degradation and "The Squad" by Hilary Vandenbark
May 13, 2019: IRWEG -- The Prequel by Carolyn Korsmeyer
April 29, 2019: Sepideh.P and the Body as Desire, by Anne Marie Butler
May 14, 2018: Gender Disparity in UB's Engineering Department, by Alyssa Biniewski
May 7, 2018: Reflections on the Duke Feminist Theory Workshop, by Cheryl Emerson and Naila Sahar
February 10, 2020
My internship with the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, in collaboration with UB’s Global Gender and Sexualities Studies (GGSS), was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences I have had in my time at the University at Buffalo so far. Through this internship, I was able to work alongside many amazing people and it gave me the opportunity to take what I had learned in my various classes and apply that information to my immediate community. More specifically, it allowed me to use feminist thought, theory and policy to begin a process that could potentially help the women of Erie County. After some research, I chose to focus on the issues that Home Health Aides face at work. This job field was relevant to the internship because statistically more women work as Home Health Aides than men. While I found the internship to be an amazing experience, I initially struggled a lot with changing my writing style. I had to move away from jargonistic academic writing and to write more succinctly and in such a way that is easier to read. I learned how to create policy briefs that are succinct and more accessible than some academic writing can be. This skill is very important because it makes our writing more accessible to the general community by allowing a writer to present information in a clear way that is easily understandable to people of different educational backgrounds.
The biggest struggle that I faced was finding an issue within Erie County that could be addressed through policy since the goal of the internship was for students to create a public policy brief that addressed an issue that women face in the workforce. It is no secret that women face a lot of adversity in the workforce but finding a specific issue proved to be a difficult task. I initially found myself going from issue to issue, but when I read an article in class and spoke to a family member who works as a home health aide (HHA), and I learned about the issue of abuse that HHAs face at work. Finding recent, relevant information on issues of HHAs proved to be challenging which motivated me to keep looking and to learn as much as I could about the situation. I interviewed two amazing women who worked as HHAs, to learn about their experiences at work, as well as a union expert, to try to determine why there are few HHA unions and why few HHAs seem to be able to unionize. Using their stories and my research, I created a policy brief that addressed the most basic issues that they faced at work and offered recommended resolutions to them. I found it very strange that a field with as much projected growth as this one seemed to be collectively ignored. I also found it strange that while we have many laws and policies that protect the people under their care, policy makers seemed not to think it is important to protect the people whom we trust to care for our loved ones.
One issue that became very clear to me from my extensive research and interviews is that HHAs disproportionally affect women, especially women of color (WOC). This was no surprise to me because gendered issues that affect WOC tend to be underreported and under investigated. This is why it is crucial to have underrepresented people be part of legislative bodies and have safe spaces where they can voice their ideas and discuss their experiences constructively. These safe spaces could be town hall meetings run by advocacy groups or local government offices created specifically to reach out to people in underserved populations. It is also important that there is an active recruitment of people of color, especially women of color to serve in government positions. If my internship, years as a student, and lifelong status as a WOC has taught me anything, it is that it is hard to help people who are suffering when you either cannot relate to their suffering or are simply unaware of it. There are so many issues that we are insulated from because we never have to face them ourselves. It is our job to work to create dialogue with those living with those issues so that we can be of service to them. This internship experience ignited a passion for public policy in me and it taught me that public policy can be used as a means of social justice. I plan to continue working on this project because I think that it is relevant and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
Ebehitale Imobhio is currently a senior at UB majoring in Global Gender Studies. She is very passionate about advocacy and helping people.
Want to learn more about the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women and GGSS internship collaboration? Click here to listen to the podcast with the internship's founders.
New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence
October 17, 2019
Diversity and inclusion are at the center of current workplace policies and practice nationwide. Such terms guide recruitment and retention efforts, hiring decisions and promotional opportunities. Over the past several decades, we have experienced a gradual shift from a predominantly white, male workforce to one that includes women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with different abilities, and multiple generations working side by side. This shift pushed organizations, not only to focus on remaining competitive and profitable but also to provide all employees with fair, equitable, and safe working conditions.
The challenges involved in finding a balance that fosters employee growth, job satisfaction, and workplace safety while also complying with legal roles and responsibilities must look at what employers must do as well as how they must do it.
With the ever-increasing level of violence that has become our new norm in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, movie theaters, fairs, and other public places, employers are more eager than ever to prioritize workplace safety. Even so, only about 28 percent of private industry companies have a general workplace violence program or policy, while approximately 21 percent have a written policy. Even more concerning than these low numbers is that employers report lacking the resources and information they need to adequately and consistently support the safety and well-being of all their employees.
When Domestic Violence Comes to Work
Once considered a private matter between a victim and an abuser, domestic violence is now seen as a public health and safety epidemic. Most recently, domestic violence has emerged as a common denominator in mass shootings nationwide. FBI data indicates that “from 2009 to 2015 … 57 percent of [mass shootings] included a spouse, former spouse or other family member among the victims — and that 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.”
While policies and procedures must necessarily prioritize the protection of victims of domestic violence, they must also clearly inform all staff that violent behavior of any kind will not be tolerated, and that strict accountability will be enforced for any employee who uses company resources, status or location to abuse a current or former intimate partner. One study found that 78 percent of abusers reported using employer resources in connection with an abusive relationship. The same study found that 48 percent of perpetrators reported difficulty concentrating at work and 42 percent reported being late to work. In many cases, supervisors were aware of the perpetrator’s behavior but failed to respond or approach the employee, further reinforcing the need for written policies and protocols that require swift, consistent consequences for any and all violations.
The Cost of Domestic Violence
According to Department of Labor, victims of domestic violence lose 8 million hours of work per year in the U.S., resulting in a $1.8 billion loss in productivity alone for employers. When factoring in absenteeism, healthcare costs, and turnover, the Bureau of National Affairs estimates these losses totaling up to $3 billion to $5 billion annually. These results harm the workplace itself, requiring additional resources to recruit, hire and train new staff. Given this reality, it is critical that workplaces prioritize domestic violence as a serious health and safety risk to all employees. Policies and procedures must be equipped to address the perpetrators of domestic violence.
New York State Addresses Domestic Violence and the Workplace
On October 22, 2015, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed Executive Order #19 (EO #19), requiring all new York State agencies to adopt a Domestic Violence and the Workplace Policy. Since then, the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence has been providing training and technical assistance to state agencies by customizing their model workplace policies and by equipping managers and employees with the necessary resources and skills to effectively identify and respond to domestic violence within their agencies.
This year, OPDV is partnering with the Department of State in creating a new informational video that empowers appearance enhancement professionals, including hair stylists, estheticians, and others who work in salons and spas, to offer support and to share the State’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline number (800-942-6906) when they are concerned that a client or coworker may be a victim of domestic violence.
The negative impacts on the entire workforce coupled with the annual costs to organizations that do not address this issue through a holistic, preventive lens can be devastating. OPDV encourages all employers to create policies that address domestic violence in their workplaces and to frequently evaluate and update their approach.
For more information, contact the OPDV Domestic Violence and the Workplace project.
About the Author
As program administrator at the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Rushka Tcholakova is responsible for the creation and execution of the agency’s housing and economic stability project and oversees the Domestic Violence and the Workplace project. She has over a decade of leadership experience in the non-profit sector, leading coalitions toward collective impact, coaching organizations to create meaningful financial stability for their clients, participating in field-building research and national pilots, and creating systems of financial access and inclusion.
August 15, 2019
“Break me off a piece of that.” The caption accompanied an Instagram post of seven young white men pretending to grope, choke, and digitally penetrate a life-sized cardboard cutout of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The now-infamous photo was taken at a Sen. Mitch McConnell campaign event on August 5. Each of the men sported “Team Mitch” shirts.
On July 1, ProPublica published an investigative report on a private Facebook group for current and former Customs and Border Patrol officers. In this group, members mocked the deaths of asylum seekers, wistfully proposed raping Ocasio-Cortez and other members of The Squad in anticipation of their visit to a detention facility. One post met with glee depicted Donald Trump orally raping Ocasio-Cortez.
In March, a GOP-sponsored event featured a poster linking Rep. Ilhan Omar to September 11th in a xenophobic and Islamophobic attack.
On July 17, supporters at a Trump rally chanted “Send Her Back” as Trump mocked Omar and suggested that she does not love America and should return to her country of origin, Somalia. The chant, which Trump falsely claimed he stopped and discouraged, came on the heels of a racist tweet storm targeting The Squad, telling the U.S. citizens to go back to the “crime-infested places from which they came.”
“Go back where you came from” and language of infestation and invasions are old racist tropes, but applied to The Squad, it also takes on an additional gendered connotation reminiscent of “Go back to the kitchen” – know your place, stay in your lane.
Why have these Congresswomen (Ayanna Pressley, MA; Ilhan Omar, MN; Rashida Tlaib, MI; and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, NY) found themselves the target of racist, sexist, and violent harassment? Many Congressional freshmen find themselves flying under the radar, yet these women of color find themselves in the spotlight. Why have the attacks on them been so personal, so racist, so violent, and sexist?
Enter political misogyny.
Political misogyny is nothing new. Shirley Chisholm faced it during her presidential bid, as did Hillary Clinton in hers, as Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris are facing now. This is a common experience any woman in politics faces at any level of governance.
The particular invocation of sexually violent imagery against members of Congress is not directed solely at them, it is directed at all of us. Sexual violence keeps us on our toes; it can happen to any of us, any time so we must be careful and limit ourselves. When women do not limit themselves, they are punished with threatened or enacted sexual violence. (Yes, people of all genders experience sexual violence, but it is most broadly used as a patriarchal tool to oppress women.)
The racist and misogynistic vitriol targeted at The Squad reveals something simultaneously sinister and inspiring: Men are scared of powerful women of color.
These women remind them that power is fleeting, that they may not have control over the state for much longer. They remind these men that, as Pressley noted in response to the racist tweet storm, “We are more than four people. We ran on a mandate to advocate for and to represent those ignored, left out, and left behind. Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.”
White men are terrified of this squad of more than four so they resort to vilifying, humiliating, and degrading these women. The vast mobilization to preserve and protect democratic ideals and ensure that no one is left out threatens their fragile supremacy. White men have championed democracy when it suited them and when they could control the state enough limit Others’ access to democracy. But what happens when strong women of color start controlling the state?
Their political misogyny game is strong. Our political feminism game must be stronger.
May 13, 2019
The current Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, more conveniently referred to as the Gender Institute, has a long history. Here I reflect on its predecessor: The Graduate Group for Feminist Studies, which was established in 1986 and, after several active years sponsoring symposia, film festivals, seminars, and lectures, eventually folded into the Gender Institute in 1997.
The GGFS grew out of still earlier groups dedicated to feminist scholarship, which are worth remembering because of the historical depth of research on women and gender that developed in Buffalo. The Women’s Studies Program, founded in 1971 and spearheaded by Elizabeth Kennedy in the American Studies Program, was one of the first such academic units to be established in the US. Moreover, from the late 1970s until about 1993, a loose group called the Buffalo Women Scholars Network, comprising women from several local institutions, met periodically to read and discuss current feminist theoretical works. Back in the day, UB owned the Darwin Martin House, and the Network often met in the drafty remnants of that building, distributing ourselves across Frank Lloyd Wright’s original, elegant, valuable, and surprisingly uncomfortable chairs and couches. When that group began to dwindle, its UB contingent set about to establish a more formal institutional framework to provide a setting for feminist research, education, and outreach programs.
The opportunity for this was presented by units called Graduate Groups, which were sponsored by UB’s office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education with the aim of promoting cross-disciplinary research. In 1985, a group of faculty headed by a sociologist (Ben
Agger), a historian (Ellen DuBois), and a professor from the School of Education (Sheila Slaughter), submitted a plan that would formally bring together feminist researchers from across the university. Even with this first application, the seeds of IREWG were being sown, for the stated long-range goal of the proposed Graduate Group for Feminist Studies was “to lay the groundwork for a Center for Advanced Feminist Research which would enable SUNY/Buffalo to become competitive with such research centers as Rutgers, Wellesley, Brown, and Columbia.” The application was approved by the then Vice-Provost, Donald Rennie, and the following year the GGFS launched its activities.
With its first application, the GGFS had the support of three deans—Arts and Letters, Law, and Architecture and Design, later joined by Social Sciences, Nursing, and Education. (At that time, what is now the College of Arts and Sciences was split into the Faculties of Arts and Letters, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics.) It quickly became far and away the largest and most diverse of all the Graduate Groups, spanning multiple disciplines and Faculties.
The GGFS kept an active mailing list, produced a regular Newsletter, and compiled a Directory of UB feminist scholars. Annual figures for these products vary, but in 1990 the Newsletter (which was distributed on paper, not a list serve) went out to about 300 people. That year, the Directory listed 84 faculty members who classified their research as including feminist scholarship, and by 1997 that number had grown to 123. The Newsletter usually appeared monthly, and sometimes it was co-produced with the Women’s Studies Program. In 1997, Women’s Studies and the GGFS established a shared web home page to distribute information digitally. In 1990, the GGFS was accepted as a member of the National Council for Research on Women.
One of the first things to be established was a series of work-in-progress seminars where both faculty and graduate students could present their research. Lecture series were another obvious activity, and the GGFS sponsored and co-sponsored numerous speakers, some of whom would become luminaries in their fields. Others were already quite well-known, such as art historian Linda Nochlin and artist Faith Ringgold. The latter performed before a large audience at the Albright-Knox Gallery auditorium, and her appearance was co-sponsored by ten academic units. (The amount of co-sponsorship generated by programs of the GGFS is significant, for its own budget was always rather small.) Lecture series in the late 1980s and early 90s explored “Black Feminists and Sexuality”; “Feminist Interpretations of Mass Culture”; and “Around the Lake”—a cooperative venture among feminist scholars in New York and Canada.
In 1988, the GGFS launched a biennial series of symposia on New Feminist Scholarship. Speakers were chosen from applicants—both graduate students and early-career faculty—who responded to a national call for papers, and there were three highly successful such events. A fourth conference was discussed but never came about because by that time graduate groups in general were being phased out.
Feminist scholarship is never entirely divorced from political activism, and for a time members of the GGFS coordinated with the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women to provide research on women’s situations locally. A good deal of programming spanned UB and the surrounding community, including the 1989 forum on “Communities at Risk” that called attention to issues especially pertinent to the lesbian community.
Some of the most successful programming of the GGFS involved film and art festivals, which drew large audiences. One such program was titled Hi, this is Judy: Women Making and Becoming Art, which extended for two and a half weeks in October, 1987. This diverse set of events included an immensely popular all women reggae band, Casselberry and Dupree, whose performance drew an audience of over 500. The estimated attendance overall for Hi, this is Judy was approximately 1,500.
The GGFS co-sponsored and otherwise supported efforts undertaken by faculty whose work included feminist activities and research, such as a multi-year program for an International Women Playwright’s conference beginning in 1988, organized by Anna Kay France from Theatre and English. Several film festivals highlighted works by women cinema artists that dealt with subjects related to gender and social situations in different countries and historical times. In 1993, the festival Reverse Shot brought distinguished filmmaker Trinh T. Minh Ha to give the keynote address.
Bumps in the Road:
The extraordinary breadth of fields that described members of the GGFS signaled both the diversity and vitality of feminist interests and the difficulties that would beset programs that appealed to participants from such different areas. Although annual renewals were always granted by the Vice Provost’s office, complaints began to surface. A repeated grumble concerned how the GGFS deployed the energies of our Graduate Assistant. The GA, who was almost always from a department from Arts and Letters, was responsible for considerable organizing details, many of which involved tasks such as hotel reservations for visiting speakers, locating venues for programs, and the all-important mustering of co-sponsorships to supplement our limited funds. Most of those GAs—along with faculty—pursued such jobs with enthusiasm, understanding that popular events with a feminist agenda do not happen without such on-the-ground efforts. Nonetheless, our knuckles were rapped twice because these students were not assigned research duties that furthered their own degree programs. I suspect that more than one GA agreed that her own work was being occasionally sidelined.
But how does one identify a research project for a student serving a group with such a broad constituency? One that both enhances the education of a particular student, and at the same time serves the interests of scholars from fields as various as architecture, nursing, history, sociology, biology, philosophy, modern languages, law, and art? The fact is, interdisciplinary scholarship is extremely difficult to accomplish, and the label “feminist” cannot by itself unite any project that tries to combine fields of great diversity.
One of the goals of the GGFS was to foster cross-disciplinary teaching as well as research. Joint teaching, however, must accommodate varying schedules and requirements, and it was not always accomplished smoothly. I myself jointly taught a large graduate seminar on Feminism and Postmodernism (that enrolled students from four or five different departments) with colleagues from Art History (Carol Zemel) and English (Claire Kahane). Both Claire and Carol were members of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, whose Dean approved the course for their on-load teaching. But Philosophy was then in the Faculty of Social Sciences, and that Dean decided I should teach it overload. I did so and learned a great deal in the process, but a course taught by three people does not require a third of the effort for each; one should multiply rather than divide the work required.
Despite those complications and occasional tensions, the administration continued to support the GGFS, not only with funds but also by granting us the GA that other graduate groups were losing. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Provost’s office was beginning to redirect funds away from these groups, few of which had managed to garner grants to support their operations, which the UB administration had hoped would eventually underwrite their activities. A set of inquiry letters from the GGFS to granting agencies inquiring about that possibility are preserved in the archives. Virtually all responders noted that their organizations did not support operating expenses at other institutions—something we already knew, but we felt obliged to petition for outside resources anyhow. Several graduate groups folded; a few others became independent centers.
Members of the GGFS kept hoping that a permanent institute for feminist work would come into being, for that, after all, had been the ultimate goal from the start. In 1993-94 a committee of 20-30 faculty members, chaired by Susan McLeer of Psychiatry, began explicit planning for such an institute. Documents from the next three years indicate perseverance on the part of this committee and worry that the administration was slow to take action. Although it took several years of reminding and petitioning, as well as adjusting details regarding the formation of the institute, that goal was finally achieved: The GGFS/Women’s Studies Newsletter from November, 1997, opened with the triumphant headline: Graduate Group for Feminist Studies Incorporated into the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender.
Records of most of these activities are housed at the UB archives and are available for perusal. The finding guide for the holdings pertaining to the GGFS can be found at https://findingaids.lib.buffalo.edu/repositories/2/resources/400. Images from the GGFS archive are used here with permission of the UB Archives and should not be copied without further permission. I thank archivist Bill Offhaus for his generous help in locating materials for me to write this brief history.
Carolyn Korsmeyer is Research Professor of Philosophy at UB. Her chief areas of research are aesthetics and emotion theory. Her work on feminist aesthetics appears in Gender and Aesthetics (2004). She is also the author of Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999); Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (2011); and Things: In Touch with the Past (2019).
April 29, 2019
Originally from Iran, Sepideh.P received her MFA from the University at Buffalo in 2018. She currently works as a visual creator for a national company and continues to work in art photography.
For artist Sepideh.P, female sexuality is aggressive. Fleshy parts, genitalia, flora and fauna, and scenes from the Iranian cultural archive abound in her photographs, evoking boldness and troubling the limits of morality for women. The conflicting demands upon women’s sexuality and bodies are often portrayed as stifling. Here, Sepideh.P proposes that the intersection of these oppressive requirements is, in fact, a source for women’s sexual agency, particularly for Muslim women who face additional social stigma. By defamiliarizing signifiers of sexuality, Sepideh.P’s photographs inhabit the in-between places of possibility that move beyond borders, generations, and singularities. Her works show a body that recuperates the desire it exudes. In its hair, its fat, its genitals, and its ethnicity, it embodies the potential in the sexual agency of all women.
Female sexuality is misogynistically characterized as an uncontrollable, undesirable flow –of fluids, of appetite, and of immorality (Grosz 207). But Sepideh.P revels in that flow, depicting the desire and the pleasure of the woman’s body. In many photographs, the frame is cropped to show only parts of a woman’s body such as legs, back, stomach, or arms. The soft contours of the limbs and torso, rendered in muted tones or grayscale, invoke femininity, which might recall touch and care. Yet, these bodies are not whole; the frame cuts the limbs. In the close-up focus, hair follicles and flesh are more pronounced. We become intimate with these body parts - their hair, their fat, their skin, their wrinkles, their blemishes – they come into view as critiques of the process of beauty. In their fleshiness, the bodies desire. This fleshy desire is not one of conformity, but of becoming closer to themselves- to know, through their private parts, their own agency and sexuality.
Other works move away from limbs and torsos to focus on the genital area. In several works, Sepideh.P uses various props to obscure the genitals, such as flowers and clothes. A bra held in front of a woman’s pubic area confounds the purpose of that undergarment. However, the bra reinforces sexuality by referencing its typical application to the breasts, and also by now covering the genitals as an act of modesty, or perhaps as an act of foreplay. Undressing can occur during foreplay, and Sepideh.P also uses clothing in images of a figure in black underwear struggling with a turtleneck sweater. The neck hole of the garment is caught on the woman’s head, impeding its removal. In the act of undressing, the woman in her underwear, typically a sexual object, becomes clumsy and inadequate. The body is desirable, but the gestures are awkward. The intent of the figure subverts the desire of the viewer, prioritizing the woman’s action of accomplishing the act of undressing over her object status.
In other images, a bouquet of red carnations or a white calla lily obscure the genitals. In the latter, the photographed figure remains in grayscale and another, smaller woman’s figure is drawn on the image so that their genital areas overlap. The blooms draw our attention with their vibrant colors and focal placement. It would be redundant to analyze the symbolic relationship between flowers and a woman’s genitals. Sepideh.P, however, uses the blooms to evoke new meaning. Multiple visual cues from the calla lily indicate arousal. The pistil protrudes from the petals like an alert clitoris, its texture mimicking the raised hair follicles of the nearby leg. Its stem appears phallic in the hand that holds it so delicately. The lily’s pale cream color promises purity, yet its use speaks of desire.
The red blooms express aggression and sexuality, contrasting with the white calla lily. Red aligned so closely with a woman’s genitals can reference their engorgement, but this arousal is conventionally coded as vibrant pink. Red connotes blood. Here, the menstrual blood that flows from the woman’s genitals or the blood of giving birth is, rather than a dirty shame, part of her sexuality. As the woman’s genitals are the source of life, so too do her experiences produce her life.
Aggressive female sexuality also manifests through the figure of the lioness. Painted in India ink, over a photograph of a woman lying face down with her torso on her thighs, a powerful lioness sinks her teeth into the back of a male antelope. Her claws grip his flanks, preventing his escape. Antelopes often symbolize beauty, but here, beauty is consumed by female sexuality.
Throughout her works, Sepideh.P references Persian culture to highlight the erotics of concealing and revealing the female body. Farsi script is painstakingly applied to photographed skin with graphite. Acting as covering in two ways, the delicate Farsi appears almost like hair. Sepideh.P engages more directly with Iranian history in a series where late 19th century images of Iranian women in their quarters again highlight the discord between covering and exposure. The works repurpose photographs by Iranian Antoin Sevruguin(1830-1933), who lived during the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925). They feature patterns often found in the margins of the Quran during that era drawn over the women in India ink. Moving both the Quranic patterns and the women to the center of the image breaks regulations. Where other images are cropped or use props to conceal the body, this series circumscribes possibilities for the shrouded body. Sepideh.P charges the archival images with intensity by using red gouache to outline figures or write words on the photographs’ surface.
Sometimes, small beads or craft gems are affixed over a woman’s face, obscuring the only remaining visible skin of the veiled woman. Sepideh.P expresses that she is bringing these women, who were hidden, to the spotlight. While obscuring their faces may seem contrary to her stated goal, in fact, this action further nuances the women’s status; they are still hidden because, “they are still in the margins, and they still hide their faces” (Sepideh.P).
Sepideh.P often specifically references Persian culture, it is between the body as a whole and its parts, the shame and desire of menstrual blood, the use of a bra as a genital covering, and the obscuring of veiled women’s faces, that the source of an agency born of struggle for all women lies. These works are above all about a sexuality that knows no age, era, morality, or singular body.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Towards A Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Sepideh.P. Interview with the author, March 31, 2018.
All images reproduced with permission of the artist.
Anne Marie Butler is currently an Assistant Professor of Art History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Kalamazoo College after receiving her PhD in the department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Buffalo in 2019. Her dissertation is entitled “Unintelligible Bodies: Surrealism and Queerness in Contemporary Tunisian Women’s Art,” under the direction of Jonathan D. Katz. Her entry on genderqueer Tunisian photographer and performer Khookha McQueer appeared recently in The Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (Scribner).
December 20, 2018
On the occasion of Gail R. Willsky's retirement from the University at Buffalo Department of Biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, her colleagues and friends recount fond memories and express appreciation for her contributions.
I remember during my years as Co-Director and Director of the Gender Institute that Gail was a very involved member of our Steering Committee. In particular, I remember her active involvement with the Gender Across Borders symposium series that had an active graduate student component. What stands out in my memory is that Gail provided valuable mentorship to the subcommittee on graduate student abstracts and poster presentations. She was particularly interested in getting students in the health sciences involved in research presentations.
-Rosemary Dziak, Department of Oral Biology
All I can say about Gail is that she was an active, reliable participant in the Gender Institute for many, many years. Her steady contributions to the rewriting of the bylaws was one example of her generous devotion. Diane Avery, law professor emerita, was also invaluable in that process.
-Kari Winter, Department of Transnational Studies
I have known Gail for many of the years that I served in the Research HR Office, and then as Director of the old Affirmative Action Office (now Equity and Diversity), but my most recent contact has been thru Gail’s service as a Diversity Advocate representing her department on the program the Office of Inclusion started in 2015.
-Barbara Burke, Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement
I first met Gail in 1966, quite a while ago! We were undergraduates at MIT. I was the only Biophysics major in the class of 1969, and she was the only biophysics major in the class of 1970. After we graduated, we dropped out of contact with each other until one day when I was invited to a get-together for the new woman faculty member in Biochemistry, and there she was, Gail!
We turned out to still have many interests in common, including a strong desire to promote the cause of women in science. Gail and I both became active in the local chapter of Women in Science, and she has continued to devote a lot of time, energy, and imagination to local programs for women students and for underrepresented students. She’s worked to introduce science to students in the Buffalo Schools and BEAM, the Buffalo Area Engineering Awareness for Minorities program, and she won an award for service from BEAM.
One fascinating example of how Gail turned her love of travel, her scientific curiosity, and her desire to serve the causes of advancing women and minorities is her involvement in the study of traditional medicinal plants in Peru. It started when she took a side trip to Peru after a trip to the Galapagos. She learned that the traditional Peruvian healers make specialized compounds, and she wondered how the compounding processes alter the plants and promote their antibacterial activity. She went out and got funding to study the way that the plants are transformed by the healers’ methods, and she used some of that money to fund stipends for minority students so that they could learn research methods in Peru. Some of these students were UB honors students.
These activities are only part of the ways that Gail has contributed to UB, to Buffalo, and to the world. Now that she’s retiring, it’ll be fascinating to see the story continue.
-Susan Udin, Department of Physiology and Biophysics
October 22, 2018
As I prepare to once again take the stage in my one-woman show of Nurse!, I am reminded of what a journey I am on. It is a journey that has given me the opportunity to create inspiring plays. It is a journey that has enabled me to engage audiences at venues across the U.S. and Europe. But most importantly, it is a journey that has allowed me to give voice to women’s struggles, strength, and resilience. After two careers, one as an arts administrator in Baltimore and one as an actor (and legal secretary) in New York City, I followed my husband to Buffalo. He started a new job and I entered graduate school at the University at Buffalo. My first class, History of Working Women, required students to conduct oral history interviews related to one of three organizing campaigns in Buffalo: nurses, laundry workers, or the living wage campaign. Almost no one was raising a hand to indicate interest in nurses, so I volunteered. It was the pebble in the water that continues to have ripple effects today.
While interviewing nurses and health care workers involved in a fierce and ultimately successful campaign to get a union at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, I kept thinking, “These stories should be in a play.” I returned to this thought two years later when it was time for a master’s thesis project that would encompass both areas of my MA in Humanities program – women’s studies and theatre. Though I had adapted Jane Eyre into a one-woman show that I had toured extensively, this would be my first foray into writing an original play. As luck (or fate) would have it, I discovered that members of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) were striking at a hospital on Long Island. I emailed the striking nurses that I was a graduate student interested in writing a play about their strike. Could I interview them on the picket line? When the leader of the strike picked me up at the train station, she told me that plans had changed. Nurses and management were returning to the bargaining table that day. Instead of walking the picket line outside the hospital, I found myself at a local hotel witnessing the drama of a negotiation. I listened to and interviewed nurses waiting in the hotel ballroom for news about the negotiations, I interviewed leaders of the nurses’ negotiating team, and I sat in on a negotiating session. The nurses had described management’s lawyer as an obnoxious chauvinist in his sixties who tended to stick his hand down his pants, and when he got real excited would stick both hands down. They were right.
“Mr. A” (“A” for “Asshole”) became one of eleven characters in the one-woman play that I wrote as my thesis project. Nurse! tells the story of a strike, and includes many of the stories I heard in Buffalo and Long Island, as well as the characters I encountered.
Thanks to a grant from UB’s Gender Institute, I was able to rehearse with a director to mount a workshop performance of the play in Buffalo. But I really wanted to do the play in New York City. I contacted the union negotiator I had interviewed and asked if she was familiar with a performance space in the Manhattan headquarters of another union. She said, “Hold on, Lisa. This is our story. We’ll find you a theatre.” NYSNA sponsored a two-week run of the play at a small off-Broadway theatre in 2003. For an actor, the meeting of an audience and the world of the play is a unique experience; however, when you are also the playwright and the oral historian responsible for creating the play, the experience can be magical. One of those occasions was the off-Broadway opening night of Nurse! While I waited behind the curtain as the audience entered, I heard a conversation from the first row between the leader of the Long Island strike and two of the other nurses from the strike. The leader said, “She gave me a 13-year-old son.” “Why?” “It’s a play!” was the authoritative answer. “Is Lambirdie in it?” “You’ll see.” Whatever the made-up names and characters in the play, this was “their” story. When the audience stood at the end applauding, I realized that as much as my performance, they were applauding the nurses. By putting the nurses’ story on stage, I had acknowledged their struggle and provided a way to share their story.
The following year Nurse! took on new resonance when performed for nurses on strike in Northern Michigan. The Michigan Nurses Association had hired me to perform at their annual convention on Mackinac Island. While researching the location of the convention, I discovered that the longest nurses’ strike in American history was in progress at a hospital in nearby Petoskey. I contacted the striking nurses and offered to donate a performance of my play in support of their strike if they could provide a venue. The day before that performance, I visited the headquarters of the strike in a storefront across from the hospital. My arrival coincided with the weekly strike meeting. With the strike approaching its second anniversary, many of the nurses had long ago begun working temporary jobs at hospitals two hundred miles downstate. Nurses who did not have the flexibility to travel were working at non-nursing jobs in the community – cleaning houses, caring for children, substitute teaching, and so on. Because many of those at the meeting would be back at their temporary jobs the next day and so not able to attend my performance, I offered to do a monologue from the play during their meeting.
I chose the character of Lily, a meek nurse who had been working in the same hospital for 35 years and begins with, “You all know I didn’t vote for this strike.” She describes her experience of working in another hospital during the strike, “The biggest thing for me was I proved to myself I could do it – I could work somewhere else.” She mentions that some of them have been asked to go permanent and says, “But I don’t want to leave here. You’re my family. Walking the picket line with you has been just -what an amazing group of women we are. And men. I don’t mean to leave out our wonderful men. This strike, I know this sounds weird to say, but this strike is the best thing that ever happened to me. I feel like I’m standing up for myself, for what I believe, for the first time in my life.” The emotion of that moment was palpable in this union meeting room. The women and men sitting in front of me, some with children in tow, were living this story and had been living it for almost two years. Then Lily gets worked up, and says, “I know this sounds petty, but – F@#K! I want those scabs out of my hospital, I want my job back and I want to be treated with respect!” Everyone was on their feet, laughing and crying as they applauded. The next day about two hundred people attended the performance in the auditorium of a local middle school. After the performance the nurses presented me with a gift basket and a framed piece of the blue tarp tent that had been their headquarters during the first winter of the strike. Where in New York the play had been a tribute to a successful campaign, in this northern Michigan town the play was a reflection of a struggle in progress, a battle that was ultimately lost.
Nurse! has led to my creating other shows. After one of the off-Broadway performances, I was approached by journalist Suzanne Gordon, whose books on nurses and nursing had been part of my research. She shared her idea of creating a play about doctor/nurse communication and suggested we might work on it together. The idea might easily have ended up on the “maybe someday” list of projects had it not been for another grant from the Gender Institute. Guided by Suzanne’s notes, interviews, and expertise, I wrote the first draft of Bedside Manners and with the grant money produced a staged reading of the play during Gender Week at UB. Over the next few years, Suzanne and I refined the play and developed post-performance activities to actively engage the audience in re-scripting challenging encounters. The play and an accompanying workbook, published by Cornell University Press, are used to help improve team communication in medical settings.
Thanks to a performance I did of Nurse! at a European Association for American Studies conference in Turkey, I was invited to perform at the Association’s conference in The Hague in 2014. The conference theme was America: Justice, Conflict, War. I decided to create a new play. An internet search on “women and war” brought me to the exhibit One Person Crying and the story of Pulitzer prize winning photographer Marissa Roth’s 30 year journey documenting women and war. I contacted her, told her I had an invitation to perform in The Hague, and I thought her story would make a compelling play. Thus was born Finding the Light, a one-hour performance that shares the story of how Roth, with a family history haunted by the Holocaust, traveled the world documenting the impact of war on women from Cambodia to Bosnia, Vietnam to Germany. Using photographs from Roth’s exhibit “One Person Crying: Women and War,” I play Roth as she shares stories of the courage and resilience of ordinary women surviving extraordinary challenges. After performing the show in The Hague, I had the opportunity to perform the show at the United Solo Festival in New York at a theatre very near the one where I had originally done Nurse! Sitting in the audience was Marissa Roth, who was seeing her own story performed for the first time. It was an extraordinary experience for both of us.
Very soon I will step on stage at Baltimore’s Charm City Fringe Festival to perform Nurse! for the first time in many years. My PhD in American Studies led to a new career in public history and more than ten years working at Maryland’s Accokeek Foundation, a nonprofit that stewards 200 acres of a national park on the Potomac River. I recently stepped down from serving as CEO of that organization to continue my theatrical journey. I look forward to seeing where it carries me.
Lisa Hayes is a theatremaker, writer, and public historian. She graduated from UB with a MA in Humanities in 2002 and PhD in American Studies in 2008. Inspired by her experience with turning oral history into theatre with Nurse!, she continued to explore the topic in her dissertation, Theatricalizing Oral History: How British and American Theatre Artists Explore Current Events and Contemporary Politics in the Journey from Interview to Performance. Though she has performed in dozens of plays, it is her one-woman shows that have taken her to London, Edinburgh, Rome, Istanbul, Prague, The Hague, Glasgow, Toronto, and to venues from New York City to Los Angeles. She is a long-time practitioner and teacher of museum theatre, using theatre and theatrical techniques to enhance the visitor experience in museums and other settings. She can be contacted about performing, consulting, or teaching at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 26, 2018
The dangers of asbestos exposure remain a hot topic in today’s social and political climate. Decades of documented disease cases enforced the notion that asbestos-related health conditions were typically associated with male-dominant occupations. Some of these high-risk jobs include firefighting and construction, which are among the most dangerous professions when it comes to asbestos exposure. The lengthy latency period of these diseases gave cancers like mesothelioma a reputation as an “old man’s disease,” however, some current findings are beginning to shift the focus towards women.
Through jobs like construction, men were often exposed to the toxin, and would then come home and unknowingly exposed their wives to the same toxins. Laundry, sharing furniture, and physical contact are all common ways women were exposed to asbestos. Today, more women are joining male-dominated professions that put them at risk to asbestos, which directly correlates with the shrinking gender gap for mesothelioma.
Asbestos saw its peak in the mid-20th century. The spawn of the industrial age brought on a push for commercial manufacturing and production, and asbestos showed clear promise as a durable and inflammable material. From the early 1900s well into the late 1970s, the natural mineral was mined and manufactured across the United States, soaring in popularity with construction and trade industries. At the time, asbestos could be found in an array of materials and products including roofing tiles, insulation, adhesives, brake pads, and piping.
Gradually, it became clear that working with asbestos caused life-threatening diseases. The industries that primarily dealt with asbestos were male-dominated, and little research was conducted outside of this occupational scope. Those exposed occupationally or while serving in the military experienced elevated cases of cancer, especially in the lungs. Conditions like asbestosis and mesothelioma soon became prominent for shipyard workers. Specifically, Navy personnel are said to have the highest incidence for mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos in shipyards. Women have been serving in the military for over a century and their service in World War II proved to have exposed them to airborne toxins, including asbestos. The Navy marked the first time women were exposed firsthand.
As researchers continued to study mesothelioma, a form of cancer infamous for its commonly poor prognosis, cases continued to develop in women. For a minority group in the construction workforce, this evidence was surprising. However, during the asbestos heyday between the 1930s-1970s, women typically took charge of the household and tended to the family’s needs. During these few decades, women often developed asbestos diseases like mesothelioma from secondhand or environmental exposure, which can be brought on by proximity to asbestos sites or mines, or even coming in contact with a loved one that carries the toxic fibers with them off the job site.
Asbestos and the Environment
Around 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, however, this does not completely eradicate the risk of exposure. While workers are less likely to encounter asbestos in their day to day jobs, environmental exposure has increased across all genders due to older materials and infrastructure that were created before EPA regulations were enacted. The nature of asbestos fibers allow them to linger in the environment for years, spreading easily through the air and resisting biodegrade. Negligent disposal or demolition of asbestos-containing structures is one of the main culprits of this, coupled with natural erosion and age.
Since a majority of asbestos disease studies neglect the potential impact and scope of environmental exposure, it’s difficult to draw substantial conclusions on gender-based susceptibility. It is evident, however, that the heightened presence of asbestos in our environment, alongside a greater number of women in asbestos-related occupations, supports the rise in mesothelioma cases among women. Due to the aggressive nature of the disease, the lives of those exposed to asbestos, including women, are at stake.
Although there are currently restrictions in place, it is clear that asbestos diseases occur across all demographics and genders. Environmental risks coupled with the current role of women in the workplace have been both eye-opening and helped to build awareness surrounding the topic. Ultimately, this prevalence shows that concerns over asbestos exposure should not be a thing of the past and that further research may be needed to understand the prominence of asbestos in our environment and communities.
Asbestos and the Government
This past June, the EPA enacted a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR), which allows the government to reevaluate the use of asbestos throughout the country on a case-by-case basis. The newly proposed regulations raise an alarming amount of concern that asbestos might once again become as prominent in materials as it was before any regulations were introduced. As it stands, asbestos already accounts for 54 percent of all occupation-related cancers, and if restrictions are lessened, that number could skyrocket in the coming years.
Mesothelioma Awareness Day, held annually on September 26, serves as a reminder that this toxic mineral has a serious impact on public health, and the risk is not limited to older men in blue-collar fields. With rising incidence in secondary exposure and in women, it’s clear that asbestos is still causing harm to this day. Rates of mesothelioma will, unfortunately, continue to rise until the toxin is fully phased out and treated with caution on a global scale.
As the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, Emily Walsh dedicates much of her time building cancer awareness through social media and blogging. She is passionate about helping veterans and their families learn more about the lesser-known health risks from military service.
In her spare time she enjoys the great outdoors camping, hiking, rock climbing and kayaking. She also has two cats and a dog.
September 6, 2018
In the summer of 2017, Adrienne Hill, the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project’s co-founder, had just conducted two interviews for a column in a local queer magazine. The topic was the case of Mean Alice’s, a popular mid-70s gay bar that Robert Hairston and John Morrison, two black men, sued because of the staff’s consistent racist practices. The story, first recounted to Hill at one of Hairston’s house parties forty years later, seemed to be both a legal and a moral victory for the city’s black LGBTQ community. It’s been memorialized as historic singular incident when local authorities had to formally acknowledge that white supremacy was an integral part of Buffalo’s business operations and communal life, and were even forced to act on it. In reality, as the two men later explained, the New York State Division of Human Rights hadn’t done more than paid lip service to their complaints. Morrison’s complaint was rejected with the explanation that the claimant’s youthful appearance could have reasonably misled the door security into believing he was underage. Hairston received a settlement of $500 from the owner of Mean Alice’s. When he later returned to the bar, only to receive the same treatment, and reported this to the Division, an official asked him: “Why do you keep going there?”
To this day, the owner of Mean Alice’s continues to run some of the most popular gay bars in Buffalo’s Allentown. Yet, the de facto protection that the State Division of Human Rights granted him, as well as the general lack of interest of white patrons in this and other instances of racism common in gay bars, led to something arguably more important. Hairston, Morrison, and others soon established a dance party series for black queers under the names “Just Us” and later “Jack Your Body,” which lasted from late 1970s into the late 1980s. Here, black “same gender loving people” (Morrison’s phrase) could dance to the music they enjoyed without fearing that someone would change it because too many people of color were on the dance floor. Or, they didn’t need to worry about being denied entrance for not being able to show four pieces of identification, a detail that Hairston and Morrison described in the interview and other elders confirmed.
Black in Time, a historical queer dance party planned and organized by the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History project last April, started as a luminous splinter of Hill’s article, caught in a private conversation. Hairston and Morrison’s story reminded us that music is a weapon — both of oppression and of opposition and remedy— and we wanted to honor this history. We decided to facilitate an opportunity for the community to learn about black queer social spaces and the role of music in them. But equally so, for those who have built this history, we wanted to provide an occasion to recreate and reimagine the spaces that shaped their identities by intertwining old and new memories, and by joining with old and new friends.
The idea that we should host a dance party with the music that used to be popular in black queer spaces came first! We began to imagine this one night of elders and siblings dancing, laughing, and flirting with each other across generations and race lines, past the barriers of educational, cultural, and institutional backgrounds. We would play the songs that had given Buffalo’s black queers pleasure, shelter, and a sense of self and community over the decades, maybe since the 1960s or as far as we could go back in time. For this, we were fortunate to partner with Richard Stepney, aka DJ Remmz, a well-loved name on the local queer club scene (Marcella’s, Underground, Roxy’s) and one of the youngest members of Black Men Talking. Next, we added narrative and visual components: between blocks of music and dancing, folks would share stories and reminisce about the places that sustained them – both in person, and from the footage that we prepared in the months leading to the party. At first, we imagined the black queer spaces to include only bars, clubs, and parties; but soon enough, this encompassed social groups such as Black Men Talking and Black Intelligent Ladies Alliance (BILA), and communal spaces such as Unity Fellowship Church of Buffalo. Bill Thomas, a founding member of Black Men Talking, gave the event its future name: “Honey, no one is going to come to a historical dance party! How about something like… ‘Black in Time’?”
Sweets Lounge and Restaurant, currently the only gay-run bar on the East Side, was an easy choice for a venue. By this time, Tinamarie and Denise Sweet, the owners of Sweets and founders of BILA, had become our friends, after having participated as keynote speakers in the History Project’s Screaming Queens film screening. Sweets Lounge is a simple, friendly bar standing on the corner where Schreck Avenue meets Olympic. Not long ago it was vilified by the city police and the media, and even temporarily forced to close in the aftermath of a shooting that occurred in front of it. The couple is still fighting to show that their bar is a loving home to the queers and women living east of Main Street, but also anyone else who comes with amicable intentions. We even used Sweets at a location to film part of the footage that we created for Black in Time, with interviews about historical black queer spaces and mostly featuring members and associates of BILA, who strongly identify with a black working-class lesbian ethos. They mostly belong to the generation whose members are now in their 30s and 40s, who came out and of age at 134 Dewey Street. Today an empty lot, this was the location of Ms. Julie’s bar in the 1990s and 2000s. It was known by many names, among them Julie’s Touch of Class, Touch of Class, and by the time it closed down in late 2000s and later burnt, just Touch; but among its queer patrons it is still famously remembered as One-Thirty-Four, or affectionately, One-Dirty-Four. Never officially a gay bar, the name One-Thirty-Four practically functioned as a queer code meant to preserve the venue’s unofficial queer status from outsiders. Its weekend queer parties, drag shows, and pageants were legendary, and yet, during the week, Touch of Class was a straight venue.
Making Black in Time happen took months. It required more than the tangible work of conceptualizing, filming the interviews with community members about their memories, editing, curating the art show, printing, cutting and mounting the photographs, and setting the installation in the back room of Sweets Lounge. It is impossible to measure the time spent writing carefully phrased messages to elicit people’s participation, waiting for a response and holding up hopes, tracing links to the elders whose names and reputations persist, but whose whereabouts remain unclear, going to people’s homes and spending hours in cafes and clubs to talk to them, not being demoralized by silence, listening quietly, holding our tongues to let the answers unfold by themselves… And then, embracing contradiction, multiplicity, and sometimes gossip and opacity in stride, because that is what makes queer lives possible and releases their intrinsic radiance from under the statistics and themes of poverty, death, and isolation.
Seeing many of these distractible narrators finally walk from the ice storm of April 15, 2018 into the dimly pink-lit bar on the night Black in Time took place was close to being part of a fairy tale. Their faces luminous, their club gear on— leather, chains, boots, wigs — they drifted in and away on the waves of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off,” only to tumble into the room at the back, right into the purple, red, and blue-lit labyrinth of undulating images suspended on thin silver wire. Bathed in glitter, they would travel for some time through the intricate memory corridors. The photographs of themselves, departed queer mentors, old friends and lovers, or that breathtaking dancing kid whose name they could not recall, flashed back at them from the mirrors running around all the walls of the room. At last, they would dance back into the front room, into the embrace of many friends and lovers who were still here, still around.
Loss and absence continue to thoroughly shape the life of queer archives. Historical evidence is purposefully destroyed or otherwise scattered before we are able to learn about it or preserve it. Buildings and neighbourhoods where queers used to find life and with time, to create movements, are almost completely razed under the relentless hand of urban development ushered by campaigns for social cleansing. Once such example was a local antivice campaign headed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller that at the end of the 1950s systematically targeted most of the bars that catered to queers, and in the 1960s left Buffalo almost without a single bar or club where they could let their hair down. Furthermore, traditionally, much of the substance of the queer archive has been considered irrelevant in institutional circles: tiaras, dance parties, sex toys, mixtapes, memorabilia showing a deep familial attachment to pets. As scholars and artists have pointed out, the central challenge here is to preserve and productively engage perhaps the most elusive, yet most persistent history: the embodied memory of feelings, alternatively referred to as spirit or affect, which carries on across generations and geographic locations, intersecting with the experiences of racialization and diaspora.
As such, work on queer memory can barely happen without tireless self-questioning: what kind of methodology does it take to engage a historical archive as fleeting as this? In response, many have drawn attention to the particular preponderance of performance as a mode of dealing with queer memory – from ritual, to performance art, to dance and music – and its ability to summon and focus in its intensified, ephemeral here and now, disparate moments in time, distant places and those who have been long absent.
Ephemerality of different kinds is a potent factor in queer history and world making. Videotapes with almost a decade of archival footage of Talon House balls disappeared in a fire, when the scene’s founder, Mother Ebony Talon, lost her home several years ago. Hamlin House, which used to be the venue for most Talon balls in the 2000s, today hosts mostly weddings; and the original House of Talon, now a private renter’s house on York Street, stands completely unaware of its historical significance. Only two founding members of the House are alive — Mother Ebony and Escada Talon— while Sierra, Retro, Royale, Stoney, and Dolce Talon have all passed. On the night of Black in Time, draped in silver faux reptile leather cloth and lavishly spilt glitter, the pool table at Sweets became a pedestal for Escada’s five ball trophies that she won between the scene’s inception in 1999 and the late 2000s. When asked if she could help us build a small exhibition of memorabilia, Escada doubted she would have anything of interest, whether an artefact or a story. Yet when I came to her home that she shares with her mother to borrow the trophies, she offered the most beautiful and straightforward account of a personal sense of gender and gender presentation I had ever heard. On the same pool table, we placed a copy of the NY State Division of Human Rights decision in Hairston and Morrison’s case – a reminder of the grim history behind the creation of erotic and imaginative spaces crucial in the constitution of black queer identities, but that also was an impetus for Black in Time itself. Between the ballroom trophies and the document with the report, as a connective tissue, was a crown belonging to the self-described “Buffalo transgender griot” Ari Moore.
The photographs in the installation, which transformed the bar into a glitter dream of streaming images, spanned from the early 1960s to the early 2000s and all came from Ari Moore and Mother Ebony Talon’s private archives. Both collections live in boxes and photo albums in the women’s homes, and tell stories of Buffalo’s queens and other black queers. Some of the subjects of the photos are still with us, and others are not. The images depict Ms. Cougar, who was found murdered and thrown on the 190 Southbound, or Tonya “Kita” Harvey, who was found earlier this year on Shepard Street, her body riddled with bullets. Some of the photographed subjects have left for New York City, like Buffalonian Dorian Corey, founder of the legendary House of Corey and house mother of Angie Extravaganza, both featured in the cult documentary Paris is Burning (1990). Others, like Ms. Wanda Cox, have built decades of the history of “women-impersonator” shows, from cabarets and drag shows all the way to the official start of the ballroom scene. But some stayed, like Kelly “Keke” Valasquez-Lord, who currently carries the title of Miss Continental (the highest national status in gay pageants) and has become Buffalo’s drag show and pageant icon. Many others in the images are gentle-faced, mustachioed butch queens in the arms of dreamy-eyed femme friends, with names lost or conflated, in clubs and bars that also disappeared.
What’s the significance of all of this in personal day-to-day lives? One or two weeks after Black in Time, the storm and the ice had melted into a hot spring afternoon. Escada Sanders, on that day feeling and presenting as Jerald Sanders, was meeting me at a local queer-run coffee shop. As we were sitting at one of the sidewalk tables, Silver Light, a black lesbian from the East Side in her late thirties, who also came that night to Sweets, stopped to greet us. In the course of a friendly, teasing exchange punctuated by Jerald’s self-deprecating jokes, Silver explained how life-sustaining it was for her to see Escada many years later walk into that wiry floating labyrinth and examine between her fingers the old images of herself and her Talon family at balls, her face seemingly struck with surprise and gentle melancholy. And then to hear Jerald speak to the audience gathered at the bar, about how important and how possible it is to allow yourself to be who you are— Escada and Jerald, sometimes intermittently, sometimes at the same time, loving both.
Ana Grujić received her Ph.D. in English from the University at Buffalo in 2017. She has written about black queer literature, performance, women’s experimental writing, and the cultural memory that animates them. She taught writing and literature at the SUNY University at Buffalo and is one of the founding members of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project.
June 4, 2018
Recently, the UB Gender Institute invited members of the UB Community to reveal the books they would be reading over summer 2018, for work or pleasure.
This summer I will begin by reading Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman's Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. Next, I will move on to Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminismby Jessica Yee. Lastly, I plan to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants written by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Laura Aguilera graduated in 2018 with a double major in International Studies and Global Gender Studies. This fall she will be enrolled in University of Vermont's Higher Education and Student Affairs graduate program. She was awarded a graduate assistantship and looks forward to serving as the Graduate Coordinator for Residential Education and Retention.
My summer reading, which was my spring reading, and will undoubtedly drift into winter reading, is pretty predictable. A Tour of the Calculus, by David Berlinkski, because I like to see how others make maths more accessible. I teach topics which are cold, dry, and impenetrable, so any inspiration for making them a little more palatable is welcome. The English: A portrait of a people, by Jeremy Paxman. I judged this book by the cover. I am also very interested in Paxman’'s thoughts about the English, in contrast to the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish. Not something people around here often see as a difference -No, I am not from Canada. Final book: The World According to Clarkson, by Jeremy Clarkson. Should I pretend I do not have this book? Should I pretend I did not laugh at the first couple of articles? Very trashy, very funny. Now I have written my three titles, it occurs I have picked 3 male authors, and and least 2 alpha males. (I am unfamiliar with Berlinski.) I will make sure to read more about suffragists and suffragettes for the centenary this summer for balance.
Dr. Glenna Bett is the Gender Institute Deputy Director and Vice Chair for Research in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
I always begin each summer with great expectations about all the reading I will accomplish. I have endless lists that I revise and tweak, various book purchases, and an increasingly dangerous tower of books looming on my nightstand. But this summer, I optimistically insist, will be different. I am determined to read at least the following two books: Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (Farrar, Straus 2018), which explores why blaming mothers is so easy to do. She asks: why are mothers “the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings”?
The second book is Gayle Salamon’s The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia (NYU 2018), which focuses on a single incident, the shooting of a middle-school trans girl, Lakisha King, in Oxnard, California. Professor Salamon, who will be speaking on “Transmisogyny” at the UB Gender Institute on February 21, 2019, asks how the media and the legal system report on gender-nonconforming bodies that are dehumanized and surveilled. I am delighted that Prof. Salamon will be visiting us next academic year.
Carrie Tirado Bramen is Director of the UB Gender Institute and teaches in the English Department.
This will hopefully be the summer of going back. I want to finish up all the books that I’ve only ever half opened. I want to read the last few essays of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and put them in the context of his poetry. I also want to reopen Notes of A Native Son by James Baldwin and get back into Jeff Chang by starting We Gon’ be Alright. Lastly I want to read some comic books and graphic novels such Southern Bastards, Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, and Fun Home, because not everything in academia has to be hard core theory, sometimes it can be about ribs and aliens.
Matthew graduated from UB in 2018 with a B.A. in English. He specializes in telling you everything is going to be alright and quips. His interest include comic books, poetry, Puerto Rico, and Hugo from the hit series Lost.
ver the summer I generally feel that I can relax a little with more fiction in my backpack. This summer, I’ll be taking up two novels by authors from the upcoming season of Babel, Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee and Sing, Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. I’ll also continue to read in my favorite genre, speculative/science fiction/Afrofuturism, by tackling the only series by Octavia Butler that I’ve yet to read, the Patterner series (includes the books Wild Seed, Mind of my Mind, Clay’s Ark, Survivor, and Patternmaster). As far as non-fiction, I mostly read academic books related to my research interests. I’ll be finishing up the essays I didn’t yet get to in the volume Posthuman Bodies, edited by Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston. I’ll also read the collection Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, edited by Catriona Sandilands. Bruce Erickson, and Eric Gable.
Anne Marie Butler's dissertation reads queerness as oppositional strategy in contemporary Tunisian art by women and LGBTQ individuals. Her text “F*** Your Morals: Amina Sboui’s Body Activism” is included in Bad Girls of the Arab World (2017) and her entry on Tunisian genderqueer digital artist and performer Khookha McQueer is forthcoming in the Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (2019).
I am currently finishing The Cooking Gene by James Beard award winner Michael Twitty, a Jewish, African American, gay man. This is an intriguing, thoughtful, beautifully written food history about southern cooking and its roots in slavery and African culture. As is my habit, I try to read about a region I will visit and this history is my preamble for a first trip to New Orleans.
This summer I will read the Just Buffalo Babel series books, a source of pleasure and intellectual expansion for the last ten years. I have already completed Mohsin Hamid's excellent novel Exit West and look forward to Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing; Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, and George Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo. The Babel series has encouraged me to read authors I am unfamiliar with while involving me in community discussions/performance about/from the books, the authors and an array of genres. In response to growing social disparities the series has incorporated a focus on citizenship, democracy, and diverse international voices. What a gift Just Buffalo is to our community and I am grateful to be a part of the dialogue and of such literary enjoyment.
Sherri Darrow is the Director of Wellness Education Services and Clinical Associate Faculty in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health. She works with innumerable campus partners to create environments that support students’ academic, personal and community success. She believes health and well-being are human rights to be enjoyed by all individuals and communities.
Summer can’t come soon enough for me, as I fear that I might be crushed any day by the ever-growing pile of books awaiting attention on my bedside table. For me, summer is about fiction, always. I am excited to first get a dose of my homeland, via The Dry, an acclaimed first novel by Jane Harper. I am promised a gripping murder-mystery set in a small Australian farming community that is experiencing severe stress due to a long-lasting drought arising from climate change. Great writing about my homeland always makes me nostalgic, but also helps me to stay connected to the culture in which I grew up. Then, I am going to read the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend – later than almost everyone else it seems. I anticipate drowning myself in her intimately drawn characters.
Liesl Folks, PhD, MBA, Dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is an internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and magnetism. She holds 12 U.S. patents and is the author of more than 50 peer-reviewed technical publications. She is also a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering.
Since first picking up one of his books in 2006, I have read or reread a Haruki Murakami novel every summer. This summer, I'm leaning toward rereading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or tackling IQ84 for the first time. I love the way Murakami mixes emotion with fantasy in a way that feels so very real. Also on my list is Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power. I fell in love with his style when I read Between the World and Me and am looking forward to this collection of poignant essays and the author's prefatory comments. Finally, Religion and Hip-Hop by Monica R. Miller, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and the Rhetorics of Black Subjectivity by Aaron Ngozi Oforlea, and Chuck D's This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History. As much as I find my research "fun," I have to make sure I keep working while I play this summer!
Nicole Lowman is a Ph.D. student in the English department at UB, the President of NeMLA's Graduate Student Caucus, and Vice President of the Kurt Vonnegut Society. She enjoys cooking, hip-hop music, and hosting a weekly pub quiz.
Although I read as much as I can during the academic year, summer is when I catch up. Top of my list is Philippe Ariès' The Hour of Our Death, a magisterial history of Western attitudes toward the final moment of our lives that tracks the symbiotic relationship between our sense of self and our feelings about the extinction of that self. I will then turn to Fuminori Nakamura's Cult X, the latest novel from the contemporary master of Japanese noir, who now turns his attention to the psychology of extremism as the protagonist joins a mysterious cult in an effort to find his missing girlfriend. I’ll finish with Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a sly revision of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos that exemplifies the imaginative creativity of weird fiction. Dark books for dark times.
David Schmid is an Associate Professor of English at UB and is trying to maintain his faith in humanity.
Re-reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963) is a great way to reignite passion for social justice. How timely his interventions still are. To propagators of "post-truth," he points out: "An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought." And to those who fan the flames of hatred: "It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself."
A longtime fan of Orphan Black, I was surprised to discover how its themes reverberate in Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 Never Let Me Go, a novel whose gentle narrator calmly recalls her coming-of-age with two best friends in an English boarding school where the pupils gradually learn that they are clones being raised to "donate" their body parts to "real" humans. Ishiguro raises haunting questions about what it means to be human and why we are willing to give up so much of ourselves to fit into a violently exploitative social order.
Kari Winter is a Professor in the Transnational Studies Department at UB. She served as the director of the Gender Institute from 2010-2017.
May 14, 2018
1,923 students are currently enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences here at the University at Buffalo. When this figure is broken down by gender, it is revealed that only twenty-one percent of these students are women. However, the gender disparity at this university is not unique. Consistently across the nation women are a minority in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments. Engineering is one of the highest paid STEM career paths, yet it contains the most striking gender imbalance in the United States (1). The lack of women in this field demands investigation. We can start by asking a few questions about women engineers here at UB: Why do women make up such a small percentage of the department? How are the women within the department treated? How is the job outlook for women engineers post-graduation?
Representation impacts people at a young age, and can stay with them for the rest of their lives. Considering the differences in the socialization of male and female children, it is not surprising that males often grow up with an inclination towards problem-solving and innovation. Trypically, boys are given tools, building blocks, and other toys that encourage them to create and explore, while girls are given dolls, kitchen sets, and other toys that mimic domestic labor. From an early age many girls are fed the idea that their potential lies in domestic work and caring for others.
However, there are plenty of parents that encourage their daughters to play with legos and their sons to play with dolls, and this seems to make a difference in child’s interests (2). Emma DePiro, a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate, claimed that as a child she was offered a lot of “boy” toys, often involving science or technology, which made pursuing a future career in engineering seem logical. There are also people who do not identify themselves in terms of the gender binary, and therefore do not subscribe to socialized gender roles. But for the most part, early socialization plays a major role in how women understand their social worlds. Girls aspire to become teachers, nurses, or perhaps stay at home mothers because these are the models with which they are familiar.
As Dean of Engineering Leisl Folks articulates, “It’s more socially acceptable for women to enter medicine because it’s a caring profession…We have managed to address engineering and computer science as not relating to the wellness and happiness of our community when they are completely vital.” Andrea Oaks, a Civil Engineering student, claims that her inspiration for pursuing engineering was Samantha Carter, a fictional astrophysicist and engineer from the television show Stargate SG-1. The show explained that Samantha’s father wanted a son, effectively naming her ‘Sam.’ Andrea finds Samantha inspiring because she defied her father’s expectations, as well as gender roles, and refused to be subservient to men. Even though girls might not be exposed to STEM women in real life, their representation on the television screen can create role models that shape future endeavors.
The small percentage of women that do end up pursuing engineering find themselves facing a new set of difficulties. Mansplaining, which is when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing manner, becomes an everyday routine for these women (3). When asked if she believes she is treated differently within the department because of her gender, Amelia Veitch, an Environmental Engineering student, responded, “Particularly, my freshmen year of college. Male peers have googled things I suggested or said to check if I was right, or I’ve had very simple things explained to me. At an internship I got asked if I was going to “redecorate” while I was checking for safety hazards around a warehouse.” These instances demonstrate how the intelligence of women is often doubted, and how domestic labor such as redecorating is viewed as an inherent ‘womanly’ trait. When men frequently mansplain, interrupt, or fact-check statements made by a female peer, the socialized power dynamic between men and women is reinforced. Women who encounter this must acknowledge daily that they are battling stereotypes that label them as ignorant and/or less intelligent. Considering that at UB, women are trying to learn in a program comprised of seventy-nine percent men, this patronization can be debilitating and exhausting. DePiro recalls the everyday misogyny she faced as an engineering student, “The male professors felt uncomfortable to be too friendly with me, yet they were inviting male students to their homes for family parties. I tried very hard to grow relationships with teachers but they were very short and cold. Male peers would be either rude or beyond shocked if I did better than them on a test or project, but would high-five their male friends for doing better than them.” Likewise, Folks expressed that, “The male faculty often do not know how to have a conversation with a teenage girl.” Not only do women in engineering need to compete and prove themselves to their male peers, but they must do so while receiving less support from their male professors. Women professors make up a small minority of faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, varying by department, which can create a “boys club” atmosphere. For DePiro, that included feeling awkward around male professors, while male peers developed personal relationships with them.
Women must develop a tough skin if they want to thrive within this major. It seems that the women in UB’s program learn to live with the onslaught of misogyny, and use it as motivation to succeed. DePiro explained that, “The best feeling is self-satisfaction, knowing you are breaking boundaries, and proving anyone wrong who believes women are less capable.” DePiro also claims that feminine appearing women in particular are often regarded as intellectually inferior, but that they should not, “hide [their] femininity to try to blend in or be more accepted by the men.” Her advice is to, “wear whatever you want and just be yourself, your mind is what should matter.”
Representation of women in engineering and standing up for each other is necessary in order to deconstruct stereotypes that have been holding women back for centuries. Oaks and Veitch both agreed that in order to succeed in a male-dominated space, you have to be willing to call men out when they are belittling you. This action sets the tone for one-on-one relationships within the class space, and empowers you within an unequal power dynamic. When asked what other advice she had for women considering a path in engineering, Veitch stated that, “I would say advocate for fellow women. If you’re in a group and a woman is being steam rolled speak up and ask them to repeat what they said. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I think sometimes women feel like they have a lot to prove in a male dominated field, but you’re just as entitled to struggling.” Solidarity with other women can help to create a more comfortable space, and gives women the opportunity to express their frustrations with others that face similar situations.
On the bright side of this issue, many companies are seeking women engineers to mend the gender disparity that is found so frequently. A diverse workforce mirrors a diverse client base and creates a healthier, more modern workplace (4). DePiro was wary of taking positions where she will be the only woman in the department. She believes that her gender has been beneficial in seeking a job, because companies are looking to increase the diversity of their workforce, yet at the same time, entering an engineering department where you will be a very small minority and are forced to struggle against socialized stereotypes is no simple task. DePiro is currently a mechanical engineer for missile defense at a company called Raytheon, and says she noticed that the company makes a strong effort to maintain gender balance.
Each of the women that make up the twenty-one percent of the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are leading the way for other women to pursue these types of career paths. Every woman engineer that succeeds provides vital representation our nation is lacking, and will without a doubt inspire future generations of women to pursue their ambitions, regardless of what society has to say.
All interviews conducted between October 2017 and March 2018.
(1) Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, 2011).
(2) Erica S. Weisgram and Lisa M. Dinella, editors, Gender Typing of Children’s Toys: How Early Play Experiences Impact Development, (American Psychological Association, 2018).
(3) Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things To Me, (Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL: 2015).
(4) Vivian Hunt et al., Delivering through Diversity, (McKinsey & Company, 2018).
Alyssa Biniewski graduated from UB in June 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Global Gender Studies and a minor in Political Science. She currently serves as the President of the UB Undergraduate Society of Feminists. In the future, she plans to pursue a Masters degree in Global Gender Studies.
May 7, 2018
Cheryl Emerson and Naila Sahar were the 2018 recipients of the Gender Institute's Duke Feminist Theory Workshop Travel Grant. The graduate students received travel sponsorship to attend the prestigious Duke workshop, which took place on March 23-24, 2018, at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Emerson and Sahar write about their experiences below.
This year’s Feminist Theory Workshop closed with a blunt and troubling question: “Can this world be salvaged?” It is an old question and I found it surprising that this question should be asked in the context of the four keynote talks. After all, why were we here, engaged in conversation, if there is nothing left to salvage of this world? I imagined each of the speakers sifting through a salvage heap of histories, bodies, institutions, and knowledge, contemplating the temporality of waste and its disposition.
Anne Allison’s opening talk, “The Matter of Death in Solitary Times,” explored Japan’s booming market in modern end of life services, a rapidly growing industry where professional disposers of personal belongings facilitate “the process of becoming waste.” The commercialization of “unmaking the making” of a life leads Allison to ask, what “does the work” of sociality today, when automated graveyards and robotic priests can now provide remembrance by proxy? For a price, one can and should plan ahead for a clean and orderly death, as the ethical (and aesthetically) responsible choice. In the wake of an increasing “solitarization of the social” in Japan, with the phenomenon of “lonely death” on the rise, those who are relationless or socially abandoned can “make themselves matter” by hiring the service of Ending Centers, virtual graves, and other forms of what Allison names “transactional intimacy,” in an exchange of virtuality in place of the (formerly human) social.
In a richly complex argument, Denise Ferreira da Silva proposed a radical break from linear thought and its temporal/spatial logics of “then” and “now” / “over there” and “right here,” as inadequate for thinking the racial event. Drawing upon Benjamin’s temporality of the image and Spillers’ understanding of the moment as “always a singular assembly,” da Silva analyzed the compositional unity of the “now” in two historically separate sites of total violence: the 1770 slave revolt aboard the Liverpool ship “Unity,” and the March 14, 2018 assassination of Brazilian politician and social rights activist Marielle Franco. In da Silva’s account, linear logics, including philosophies of consciousness and the analytics of historical materialism, are unable to think the atemporal. The racial event is enclosed within an economic structure, but “happens outside of time,” allowing da Silva to argue that Marielle Franco “was already dead” even before she was born. Her death (like Stephon Clark’s) was not the death of a single person, because “all the other assassinations are in this one.” The promise of black feminist theory, for da Silva, lies in its potential to cut through both the “transparent I” of the anglo-patriarchal subject and global, neo-colonial capitalist oppression, in ways that philosophies of consciousness and historical materialism cannot. If this world is to be salvaged, by da Silva’s argument, it will be through new instruments of understanding, beyond the confines of categorical thought bound by time and space.
Silvia Federici, in contrast, addressed today’s world epidemic of violence against women solidly within a feminist, historical materialist framework, concerned with a form of “expressive violence” that sends the message that “no mercy is to be expected.” Rather than hiding its atrocities, expressive violence seeks to show itself, instituting a regime of permanent warfare in a process of re-colonization that fences off communal lands for capital gain. Federici’s argument locates the common bond between domestic and public violence in the way that “micro-individual economics mimics macro: ‘Money is fertile, not the land.’” Her presentation also announced an initiative to launch a world think tank to investigate what the 1989 massacre of women in Montreal’s École Polytechnique, for example, has to do with modern witch hunts, sex trafficking, and attacks on women by military and police in the Southern hemisphere (as a start). What little hope remains for securing women’s safety in the world does not rest in stiffer institutional penalties for perpetrators; instead, Federici’s project calls for a rebuilding of the social fabric that protects women’s access to communal lands and permits women to communicate on the local level.
Jennifer Nash’s precis of her forthcoming book, Black Feminism Reimagined (Duke UP, 2019), offered an engaging, anecdotal account of the plight of intersectionality in the U.S. academy, from the “genesis narrative” (“God spoke and Crenshaw wrote!”) to the story of “gentrification,” in which the original inhabitants of intersectionality (black feminist theorists) have been displaced from their lodgings by an ongoing “whitening” of the neighborhood. In an effort to escape the agon of “ownership” (a paranoid read), Nash framed her talk in reparative terms, as a “love letter to a critic.” In the following break out discussion, moderated by Robyn Wiegman, it was apparent that discussions of intersectionality retain a predominantly U.S. feminist perspective, with more conversation to be had concerning intersections of race and gender across the globe.
The question “Can this world be salvaged?” is unanswerable, of course, but the conditions of possibility of salvage are certainly under discussion. After my first time attending Duke’s Feminist Theory Workshop, I understand why scholars participate year after year, with many having attended since the first workshop twelve years ago. Beyond strengthening the technical vocabulary and theoretical armature for my own dissertation project, it was important to join in the greater conversation and to consider the fundamental question – a question that haunts – what can or should be salvaged of this world?
Attending the Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke was an amazing experience for me. The speakers included Anne Allison, Silvia Federici, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Jennifer C. Nash. Where Anne Allison talked about the intersection between political economy, everyday life, the imagination in the context of late capitalist post-industrial Japan, and the innovations in dealing with death and loneliness, Silvia Federici talked about bringing a historical perspective to violence against women and discussing the relation between domestic and public violence and the policies that are internationally adopted to discipline women. In Denise Ferreira da Silva’s talk ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poetics,’ she addressed the need for a decolonization that requires the setting up of juridico-economic architectures of redress through which global capital returns the total value that it continues to drive from expropriation of the total value yielded by productive capacity of the slave body and native lands.
The talk that resonated with me the most was Jennifer C. Nash’s brilliant presentation about ‘Institutionalizing the Margins.’ In this talk, Nash discussed who owns intersectionality and who steals it, the gentrification of intersectionality, defensiveness as imagined agency, and the teaching of theory as aesthetic experimentation. Nash is the author of The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography, which was awarded the Alan Bray Prize by the GL/Q Caucus of the MLA. In her talk, Nash argued that intersectionality is imagined as a problematic “mantra of liberal multiculturalism” in an era where academic institutions rhetorically extol diversity. Yet, intersectionality is also treated as something that has already arrived, and feminism is imagined to have already institutionalized intersectionality. According to Nash, it is the variety of ways that intersectionality is now performed, which is often imagined as different than how it was originally conceptualized, that has led scholars to advocate moving beyond intersectionality toward new analytics that capture the complexity of personhood and structures of domination in new ways. Nash argues:
When intersectionality is imagined as feminism’s future, intersectionality sheds black women in a post-racial feminism that either presumes that black women need not be the center of intersectional work because intersectionality’s virtue is complexity not identity politics or that intersectionality is an endlessly expansive analytic that can—and should—describe all subjects’ experiences. When intersectionality is relegated to feminism’s past, its identitarian commitments are questioned, particularly in a moment in which identitarianism is “vilified by feminists of many different persuasions.” In both cases, it is intersectionality’s intimate engagement with black female that is treated as suspect.
Nash thus argues that we are always failing to do what intersectionality promises, and intersectionality is always failing to perform what we hope it might. She thus challenges the notion and presumption that intersectionality will perfect the field of woman’s studies in significant ways, as she treats intersectionality as a temporal project that cannot redress the aspirations of women’s studies. For her, intersectionality’s temporal labor is determined by the treatment of black women’s bodies as not the subjects of the present moment, but as constructions out of time as relic and as hope, as artifact and as aspiration and thus presuming that black women’s bodies are always already anachronisms. Nash’s talk resonated with me since I feel the same framework that is applied to black women’s studies, dealing with them as a temporal project beyond time, is applied to Muslim women as well by treating them as frozen in a certain Eurocentric discourse.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole workshop, as it not only gave me an opportunity to listen to the excellent presenters, but to connect with scholars with similar interests, who had come from all around the world. I have come back from Duke acquainted with many wonderful people in academia. Thanks to the UB Gender Institute for this great opportunity!
Content warning: This entry contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment.
April 9, 2018
The first few times I was catcalled around the age of fourteen, I simply blushed, muttered ‘thank you’ with my head down, and kept walking while hoping I wasn’t being followed. This experience would repeat itself over the course of my life as well as the lives of nearly every woman I know. It has also escalated increasingly to harmful situations. People experience harassment differently based on their intersectional identities. Many of my students of color report experiencing harassment as early as age 10. Poor women don’t have the luxury of quitting a job with a creepy boss. Some women still experience catcalling as a compliment, rather than a way to make women feel unsafe in public spaces as well as private ones. While conversations about harassment certainly predate #MeToo, this movement brought the conversation out of the shadows, out of the furtive whispers in the workplace, drunken nights out attempting to laugh it off, and out of women’s studies courses where we link our personal experiences to the power structures in which they take place. The conversation has reached a boiling point; now women are shouting that Time’s Up on this behavior. We need to listen.
During my first two years of undergraduate study at a community college, I attended a conference in San Diego for college journalism, as I was an editor of our newspaper. "Brian," another editor I worked with, came also. I told the women in our group not to leave me alone with Brian, not even for a second. On the public transit toward our hotel, Brian settled in behind where I was standing and used the close quarters to rub his penis against my backside. Later that night after some casual drinking, I went to the restroom. Everyone else went out on the roof to smoke except Brian. I heard him attempt to open the door but finding it locked, he knocked instead and asked if I needed help—I was in the bathroom less than a minute. I politely told him I was fine and would be out shortly. I waited in the bathroom, scared, until I could hear the rest of the group come back in the room. I was 17. He was roughly 24.
At a family friend’s wedding when I was 19 years old, my dad’s best friend stared noticeably at my large breasts and asked my dad, “You let her out of the house like that?” I replied, “I leave the house however I’d like.” When I was 22, we spent one of my last days before my move to Buffalo out on the dock of this man’s lake house. On seeing me in my shorts and t-shirt, he asked demandingly, “Why didn’t you bring your bikini?” I replied that my swimsuit had already been packed and that I didn’t wear bikinis anyways.
Shortly before my 21st birthday, I was sexually assaulted while studying abroad in France. I naïvely thought the man who touched my thigh just wanted to make out. Instead, he digitally penetrated my vagina and anus, forced me to perform oral sex on him, and forcibly performed oral sex on me, often biting me harshly.
This experience, which initially silenced me and filled me with shame, has now helped me find my voice and my power to stand up against the spectrum of sexual harassment and abuse that many women and LGBTQIA people, and some men, face. Currently, I research sexual violence, provide all my students with reminders of the on-campus resources for survivors, have spoken with The Spectrum about my experience, and lobbied my representatives to pass the New York State Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights.
I highlight these experiences of harassment and violence because they were formative in the development of my feminist consciousness and they continue to impact both my response to recent harassers as well as how I communicate my consent and sexual preferences to my current partner. I work part-time at a drug store to make ends meet (#livingwagenow). A few months ago, an older man came in wanting to know where a product was located. He started stroking my bare arm. I told him firmly, “that’s inappropriate and if you touch me again, you’ll have to leave.” As I showed him to the back of the store to find the product he wanted, he grabbed my breast. I yanked myself away from him and yelled, “I told you not to touch me! You need to leave right now.” He looked genuinely shocked that I had yelled at him, as though his age and frailty entitled him to be creepy. Another time near closing, a customer leaned over the counter, put his lips on my ears and said, “I just love beautiful, full-figured women like you.” A few days after that, he was waiting near my car when I got out of work because he “just wanted to say goodnight."
To some, these stories will seem minor. To others, they’ll be just isolated incidents but not indicative of a widespread problem. To others still, I must have invited these experiences in some way. This is why we need a #MeToo movement
But who is #MeToo for, anyway? Why was Tarana Burke, who founded #MeToo as a movement for Black girls and women to talk about their experiences, left off the TIME Magazine cover dedicated to #MeToo? Why have the dominant voices in the movement been white, wealthy, celebrity women? Why were Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek Pinault, both women of color, the only women Harvey Weinstein openly attacked in the press? Why are trans* people and sex workers left out of the conversation? Why was the Aziz Ansari story so divisive in the movement?
I want to linger on this last question.
People whom I respect greatly came down on both sides of the story. Some insisted it was not assault at all and some insisted that sexual violence is so normalized that we can’t spot it unless it’s extreme and pervasive. Some also highlighted Ansari’s feminist persona as well as the importance of the representation his work brings to men of color, particularly South Asian and Muslim men. I want to posit that these things are not necessarily in opposition to each other. It is possible that Grace, the accuser, experienced their interaction as a violation and assault while Ansari experienced a consensual encounter. What was traumatic for her, was dismissed as “bad sex” for him. We have such poor language around consent, violence, and assault that it makes sense that we do not speak of such things. If we had more nuanced language available beyond just “Consensual” and “Rape,” would Grace have a different understanding of her experience? Would Ansari? Would their perceptions meet in the middle to acknowledge a violation took place? The language we use to talk about sexual violence obscures power differentials. These power differentials show up in ways that make sexual violence a mundane and everyday thing, not just something a few extreme monsters do.
So how do we broaden our conversations around sexuality and violence? It will take a huge culture shift that hopefully #MeToo can deliver. We need a culture shift not just toward believing victims and offering support systems to hold abusers accountable, but we need to shift toward a culture that discusses sex openly. We need to listen to women; not just when they say no or come forward, we need to listen to women when they communicate their desires as well. Sex education needs to be mandatory and evidence-based in schools. We need to practice ongoing consent with our partners. Men need to learn to accept rejection without questioning or threatening the person they desire. As the saying goes, men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.
Hilary Vandenbark is a Ph.D candidate in Global Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her research examines how the judicial system discursively excludes particular people from justice through the management of victimhood narratives. Hilary is interested in the relationship between theory, method, and praxis and its implications for feminism, and does community advocacy for those who experience sexual assault.
March 14, 2018
With gender identity and expression seemingly becoming an ever-expanding, decadent splash pad of personal freedom in today’s tightening political backdrop, it would make logical business sense that fashion – the long advocate of wearable art and self-articulation – would join in. H&M, Diesel, Zara, Mother Denim, and other “trendy brands,” as the Wall Street Journal put it not too long ago, have aggressively entered into the space in order to vie for consumer dollars.
However, many recent attempts by fashion companies, most notably, H&M, with its latest line of gender neutral clothing, Denim United, have fallen flat. They seem to miss the point of a concept as vast as gender expression completely, and as a result, fall prey to old and outdated ideas.
The Swedish fast fashion giant’s collection, which features cuts, lines, and styles of denim we immediately understand as “masculine,” sadly and strangely conforms with what gender theorists, such as myself, would argue defaults to a culturally male articulation of style, even if that male style is still a trendy aesthetic. In other words, most of the time when clothes are marketed as “gender neutral,” they are still predominantly designed with our overwhelming understanding of masculine, since it is socially acceptable for women to wear men’s clothes in our society, but not the reverse.
H&M is not selling denim skirts for men and labelling them as gender neutral. Similarly, it is not attempting to advocate for any expansion of our current definitions of gender expression through innovative cuts or recast ideas about perceived notions of wardrobe choice. This is something for which the now bankrupt American Apparel was well known, despite its challenging reputation.
Instead, H&M is simply selling oversize men’s denim and hoping to capitalize on existing social movements and the political consciousness of their consumer in a move that stands to insult the very transgender and gender non-conforming individuals it seeks to reach.
Flaws are further evident in the color choices of many “gender neutral” collections. H&M, for instance, chose to use a predominantly beige, grey, and denim color scheme to highlight its seemingly smart ideas about what it thought gender neutrality was, giving many of the garments the illusion of being sack-like on female models and unflattering on their bodies. H&M executives are quoted as saying they wanted the garments to be large as to fit both body types, but I cannot help but think about the feminist implications of a female-bodied person who is physically lost in the masses of fast fashion fabric in an outfit that has not been made for their body. This project made to cover bodies, not celebrate them. Gender diversity is about embodying gender in all of its intricacies. Denim United aimed at a flat line.
When Zara created its Ungendered line in 2016, the Spanish giant took a similar approach, using denim as the key point of entry for the customer, as well as unassuming color choices for hoodies and tee shirts. Female models drown in huge tee shirts, jeans, and hoodies, while male models fill them out nicely, creating an unequal power dynamic in advertising due to the fact it appears the female models simply have borrowed the male models’ clothes. Yet, where are their own clothes? Why do women never get to own things, only borrow, even in design?
Gender diversity in fashion does not need be a complete erasure of all gendered markers or an automatic deflection to the seduction of masculinity. It should be a call to arms for vibrancy, for excitement, and for fashion to see the beauty of all genders and gender expressions in the hands of ALL consumers. So, when the world’s second largest global clothing retailer tells us the future is mute and masculine, we have to see this as a battle cry to reclaim the feminine within this specific conversation. We also need to hold fashion brands accountable for their role in the contemporary curation of gender.
Change in fashion – whether it be in a gender sense or otherwise – is at its most subversive, dynamic, and influential when it is not in the form of an exploitative campaign. It is rather the authentic moments – red nails on a masculine person, structure on a feminine person, for instance – that stand to have the most impact. These moments do not ask for anything; they are powerful because they stand to support a larger conversation.
By attempting to sell “gender neutral” clothing in accordance with H&M or Zara’s narrow model, fashion fails to promote gender diversity in a way that invites productive conversation about gender or its vast expressions. Whereas it is generally accepted that couture – and even designer ready-to-wear– is unattainable for the vast majority of consumers, mainstream fashion has become the norm for more consumers.
With this in mind, those at its helm of these brands have the responsibility to set the goals higher and with more social consciousness, which would not only be good for business, but would demonstrate a commitment to designing for our new real and widening gendered world.
Seth Arico is received their PhD in Gender Studies from the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, in 2018. Their work examines the processes of reading and other forms of cultural consumption as a means of dealing with gendered trauma.
February 14, 2018
Toward the beginning of my new book “American Niceness: A Cultural History,” I recount Cuban writer José Martí’s 1894 essay “[The Truth About the United States]". In it, he argues that polarities shape all nations, the United States included. There are “generous Saxons” and “generous Latins,” as well as egotistical and cruel ones. Consequently, history is an ongoing duel between generosity and greed, he says.
In his 1869 comic sketch “The Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins,” Mark Twain used the metaphor of conjoined twins to describe the duality of the country’s character. One is belligerent, aggressive, and fought for the Confederacy; the other is angelic, amiable, and fought for the Union.
Both writers describe two competing national types: the vulgar American (later known as the “Ugly American”) and what could be described as the “nice American.” Since the early 19th century, the pairing of the nice with the nasty has encapsulated the contradictions at the nation’s core.
Today, the topic that brings this duality into sharp relief is immigration – and especially the polarized national debate on the fate of nearly 800,000 young immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The nice and nasty side of U.S. immigration policy is not only seen in terms of this polarized debate, but also in the split personality of President Trump himself. The same day in September 2017 when he decided to suspend DACA, he announced, “I have a love for these people.”
Twain’s conjoined twins are an apt metaphor to describe the Jekyll and Hyde history of U.S. immigration policy.
Is the U.S. a nation of immigrants? Or is it a nation that shuts out, expels and criminalizes immigrants through walls, surveillance and deportation?
This tension between hospitality and exclusion has defined the nation from its beginning. The origin of American niceness occurred three months after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, when an Abenaki named Samoset greeted the strangers in English by saying “Welcome, Englishmen.”
The desperate Puritans had witnessed nearly half of their group die. Concerned about their own survival and safety, they were anxious to establish friendly relations with the natives, and they showered them with gifts. The Puritans quickly signed a peace treaty with the chief sachem, Massasoit, and the Native Americans taught them how to grow corn and catch eel.
But as the Puritans grew in strength and their settlements expanded, they no longer needed Indian hospitality. They eventually killed Massasoit’s son Metacom in King Philip’s War, put his head on a spike and took it to Plymouth, where it remained for over 20 years.
This origin story of the nation illustrates the complexity of American niceness, which appears here in two competing forms: Native American hospitality toward the stranger, and the mercenary “niceness” of the Puritan settlers.
The tension between these two opposing forms can be traced etymologically in the word “hospitality,” which derives from the Latin root “hostis” – the same root of the word “hostility.”
This tension between hospitality and hostility surfaced again during the first major wave of migration to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, which consisted primarily of Irish and German immigrants.
Following the Panic of 1837 and a subsequent recession, jobs were scarce. This – combined with anti-Catholic sentiment and fears that Rome would undermine republicanism – resulted in a nativist movement that aimed to curtail suffrage for immigrant men while stopping the “foreign invasion.”
This nativist rage – which blamed Europe for sending their crime-ridden and poor masses to the United States – crystallized into the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, whose slogan was “Americans should rule America.”
Seeing in nativism’s political rhetoric the same hatred that inspired racism, abolitionists directly challenged the Know-Nothing Party.
An anonymous 1844 article in the anti-slavery newspaper The Pennsylvania Freeman referred to nativism as a “narrow spirit of selfish patriotism” that portrayed foreigners as “intruders.” According to the article’s author, such toxic patriotism would only lead to a situation where hatred would “beget more hatred.”
In 1855, Abraham Lincoln identified the connection between nativism and racism.
“I am not a Know-Nothing,” he wrote to his close friend Joshua Speed. “That is certain.” Lincoln noted that if the Know-Nothings got control of the government, the Declaration of Independence would read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics (sic).”
In his 1984 book “Send These to Me,” immigration historian John Higham observed that many of these nativist feelings persisted in 20th-century America. He noted that the only thing that seems to change is the level of emotional intensity.
What struck him was how quickly mild indifference toward immigrants could morph into xenophobic fury. Although Higham’s claim was made nearly 20 years before the 9/11 attacks, it nonetheless describes what happened to Muslims in the U.S.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program, hate crimes against Muslims before 9/11 ranged between 20 and 30 per year. After the 9/11 attacks, the number rose more than tenfold to nearly 500. Since then, hate crimes against Muslims are approximately five times higher than the pre-9/11 rate.
Today, we see both aspects of American character on display in the deserts from California to Texas, where undocumented immigrants risk their lives to cross into the United States. While some Americans fill water stations, others – from ICE agents to armed civilian militias – will empty them.
Scott Warren, who works with the Tucson-based aid group No More Deaths, was arrested in January and charged with harboring two undocumented migrants in a humanitarian aid outpost, where they were given water and fed.
In a recent article, journalist Charles Pierce wondered, “It’s a felony to leave water for thirsty people? This is not America.”
As Congress debates the future of DACA recipients, the meaning of this word – America – continues to be a point of conflict.
The outcome of this conflict depends on which legacy of American niceness the nation wants to honor. Is it the unconditional and accepting niceness exemplified by Native American hospitality? Or the self-interested niceness of the Puritan Separatists that evolved into nativist exclusion?
At stake is not only the fate of the Dreamers, but also how the country and the rest of the world understands the idea of America.
October 25, 2017
What is CEDAW?
“The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women”- also known as the “Women’s Equality Treaty” or “CEDAW” for short (pronounced “see-daw”)-is the most important international human rights treaty focused specifically on the rights of women. It requires governments and society to proactively address gender-based discrimination in all areas of public and private life, including employment, wages, job security, public safety, child-care, domestic violence, and reproductive health. For more information on the UN's CEDAW...
What is Cities for CEDAW?
Cities for CEDAW is a movement of city and local activists across the United States who are aiming to incorporate the gender-equity principles and obligations of CEDAW into city governance and local city policies. For more information on Cities for CEDAW...
By Professor Carrie Bramen, UB Gender Institute
My name is Carrie Bramen; I am a professor of English at the University at Buffalo and the Director of the UB Gender Institute. I have also been a resident of the city of Buffalo since I arrived in 1994. On August 29, 2017, the Trump Administration announced that it had cancelled the collection of data on the wage gap, as well as differences in pay based on race and ethnicity. With these Obama-era rules now ended, businesses with over 100 employees will no longer be required to collect pay data. This is a cruel and deliberate attack on women in the workplace, especially Black and Latinas who are currently paid only 63 cents and 54 cents to every dollar white men are paid.
Now that the federal government has washed its hands of documenting gender-based discrimination, it is imperative now more than ever for local governments to collect data that Washington does not want us to see. And this includes the collection of data that goes beyond the pay gap to include gender violence, poverty and discrimination across communities. Our city suffers from a lack of publicly available data, and we cannot solve problems that we don't understand. One of the biggest benefits of the CEDAW ordinance is its trigger to generate data that is not currently available on pressing social justice issues necessary for our city's advancement, and the ordinance will also help to facilitate data analysis and collaboration across government/university/non-profit sectors that can lead to better public policies.
Why is data collection important? Why do numbers matter? If there is no way to document discrimination, then it is invisible. We need to see the problem in order to fix it. Without data, we only have isolated incidents of discrimination and violence. We need to understand patterns and connections in order to address the scale of gender-based discrimination.
For the Gender Institute at the University at Buffalo, the CEDAW ordinance would foster university-public policy collaboration. UB researchers could work with the city government to facilitate the collection of data that would result in more effective public policy.
I urge the Common Council to follow other cities with a CEDAW ordinance such as Pittsburgh, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Washington, DC.
Make Buffalo the first city in New York State to pass the CEDAW ordinance.
By Tara J. Melish
The persistence of chillingly high levels of gender discrimination and gender-based violence across the U.S. despite decades of national level advocacy has taught advocates an important lesson: If meaningful progress on gender rights is to be achieved, participatory processes for identifying, understanding, and proactively targeting the multiple, complex, and localized barriers to equal rights need to be institutionalized at the city level, closest to where people live, work, and exercise their rights. Buffalo has a singular opportunity to do this now.
Proudly supported by the Erie County Democratic Committee and dozens of allied community-based organizations, the Cities for CEDAW-Buffalo campaign has proposed a new law to the Buffalo Common Council that would make proactively fighting gender discrimination a city policy and priority. The new law – the Buffalo CEDAW/Gender Equality Ordinance – would incorporate the gender equality and human rights principles of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”) into all city operations.
The law has two primary ends. First, on the understanding that we can only fix what we make efforts to empirically know and understand, it would require all city agencies and departments to undertake an annual gender analysis of the impacts of their operations across Buffalo’s diverse communities: Who benefits? Who doesn’t? And why? Targeted agency-specific action plans for redressing identified disparities would then be created, with all associated data made public and accessible.
Second, to foster transparency, accountability, and high levels of community participation, the law would create a politically-independent oversight body, the CEDAW Task Force, to assist city officials with their gender analyses and action plans and serve as a focal point for community-led problem-solving on gender issues.
Such city-based mechanisms are deeply needed. Women in Buffalo suffer a massive wage gap, high rates of family and community violence, disproportionate poverty rates, a startling array of gender-related barriers to accessing essential goods and services, and significant underutilization in all areas of city government except administrative support. The Queen City has never had a female Mayor. Its entire Common Council is currently male.
There are no quick or easy fixes to such inequities. Rather, the aims of the Buffalo CEDAW Ordinance are both more subtle and more enduring: to create regularized city processes through which residents’ real-world experiences with gender injustice can be brought to public attention and meaningful solutions identified, planned, and implemented through coordinated and participatory action.
The proposed law is thus not a critique, but a celebration of who we are, what we want for our city, and where we see Buffalo’s current renaissance taking us: to greater inclusion, security, responsiveness, and prosperity for all. It would put Buffalo on the map as a state-wide and national leader in the fight for gender rights as human rights. It’s our time, Buffalo.
Tara J. Melish is a Professor of Law and Director of the Buffalo Human Rights Center at the University at Buffalo School of Law. She is a Steering Committee member of the Cities for CEDAW-Buffalo Campaign.
Global Issues: Gendered Challenges of Forced Migration
September 25, 2017
As the global refugee crisis continues, policymakers, researchers, and the media are increasingly focused on the experiences of displaced people. There is an increase in the number of displaced people fleeing war zones and environmental catastrophe as well as in the number of individuals seeking permanent resettlement outside their country of origin, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).(1) While the United Nations officially protects refugees through the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and the United States through the Office of Refugee Resettlement and comprehensive refugee resettlement policy established with the Refugee Act of 1980, these frameworks have failed to acknowledge the role of gender throughout the stages of displacement, flight, and resettlement.(2) The UN began a “gender sensitivity” program in 1990, in which women have more voice in matters impacting them in camps and resettlement, and another program was put in place to protect the most vulnerable women “at risk” due to sexual assault, pregnancy from rape, and other criteria.(3) In this study, women reported traumatic experiences including “systematic rape; sexual torture; forced witness of the rape of family members including their children; forced engagement in survival sex; birth of one or more children of rape; and rejection, violence, and isolation from their own communities.”(4)
Women’s experiences as refugees reflect multiple, compounding events that are uniquely gendered in nature. Transnational policy and literatures have largely treated the process of forced migration, or any involuntary movement of people due to violence or disaster, as a gender-blind experience in which the aggregated life events and concerns of women, children, and men are not critically examined. In fact, transnational policies have traditionally favored assignment of refugee status for oppressions and dangers predominantly experienced by men, such as war and state violence. Until recently, the impact of war on the everyday experiences of women was not considered. Women were often characterized as dependents (along with their children) of their husband or male partner, reflected in immigration policy and migration discourse during the 1960s and 1970s.(5) This framing of women, in both the country of origin and the destination country, limits the roles, employment, and potential for women to make decisions and establish themselves.
While refugees of all genders may experience trauma, loss, and violence in their countries of origin and through transit, refugees who are women are particularly vulnerable to having adverse experiences before and during war, during flight, while in refugee camps, and face new challenges in resettlement.
Even more troubling given this gender-blind policy context, forced migration has become an increasingly gendered phenomenon.(6) Pittaway and Bartolemei focus on the intersectional experiences of refugee women, who not only experience sexual assault and violence as a systematic element of war, are targeted for robbery and trafficking while fleeing, and may be newly widowed and caring for children, but are also likely stigmatized based on religion, race, and ethnicity in addition to gender.(7) Hynes and Cardozo (2000) describe the role of rape as a tool of warfare and the risks posed to women who engage in sexual work in order to survive during transit and in refugee camps.(8) The specifically gendered traumas experienced by refugee women may be compounded over time and impact how these women experience resettlement.
The gendered experience of forced migration has only recently been acknowledged by transnational organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has begun to implement gender-conscious programming and raise awareness around the differential experiences of refugee women and girls in transit, refugee camps, and resettlement. Women fleeing gender-based violence and oppression can seek refugee status (for such reasons as the threat of female genital mutilation or being targeted for their pro-feminist political views).(9) The new focus on women’s needs, however, has yet to effectively include women’s input or translate into substantial changes that could improve the lives of refugee women.(10) As 80 percent of refugees are now women and their dependent children, the gendered nature of migration and specifically forced displacement requires that scholarship, policy, and practice center women’s gendered experiences in these contexts. While resettlement poses significant challenges and opportunities for anyone experiencing forced migration, women may face additional barriers to connection, wellbeing, and success in their new context. In their qualitative study of refugee women and girls deemed “at risk” by the UNHCR program in Australia, Bartolomei, Eckert, and Pittaway found that women’s experiences of rape, sexual assault, and trafficking and their subsequent trauma persisted in the resettlement context, impacting their feelings of safety, wellbeing, language-learning, and other critical elements of adjustment to a new setting.(11) Goodkind and Deacon (2004) describe three areas of tasks that refugee women experienced due to their “multiple-marginalization”: (a) work in the home, such as caregiving and household tasks; (b) work outside of the home for income, employment; and (c) acculturative tasks such as language learning, cultural awareness, and adjusting to a new environment.(12)
There is little research that focuses specifically on the resettlement processes and needs of refugee women in the U.S. However, a number of studies conducted in Australia and elsewhere suggest that refugee women experience greater levels of social isolation, unemployment, limited English language ability, and unmet physical and mental health needs than do their male counterparts.(13) In a study of refugee women in resettlement who were sole heads of their household, Lennette, Brough, and Cox identify refugee women’s resilience processes as being an element of their everyday activities and experiences, rather than coding resilience as a “trait” that the individual may possess. For example, their work reflects on the lived experiences of refugee women whose daily survival, activities, and capacities represent a dynamic, ever-changing picture of resilience in the quotidian tasks and roles they must enact.(14) As women are left without social supports, family members, and spouses due to war, conflict, and separation during flight, the resettlement policy and practice context should include mechanisms and opportunities that support refugee women’s social connectedness, multiple identities and roles, and promote their agency and resilience.
Local Perspective: Refugee Women in Buffalo
Buffalo, NY is a resettlement city that has enjoyed population growth and economic improvement due to the work of four local resettlement agencies.(15) Refugee women in Buffalo can access specific resources for their health, mental health, and social needs through organizations including the Priscilla Project, which promotes prenatal care and mentorship for women giving birth to their first child in the U.S.; the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services; Resources and Help Against Marital Abuse (RAHAMA), an Islamic program for survivors of intimate partner violence, Stitch Buffalo, a textile-arts workshop where refugee women come together to create crafts and talk with one another, and Supporting and Empowering Women Neighbors (SEWN), a weekly group that meets at Journey’s End Refugee Services for a structured curriculum of English language learning, self-care, and self-sufficiency training.
The formal structures in place for resettlement represent only a part of the picture for adjustment and support in the refugee communities, however. Formal and informal organizations, often organized around ethnicity or religious identity, play a critical role in the resettlement process. The gendered experiences of refugee women also take place within a matrix of ethnic community affiliation, resettlement agency contexts, and their home life.
One example of a grassroots, community-driven program is the annual World Refugee Day in Western New York Event, now in its 9 year, which is organized by a committee of community volunteers. The event began through the efforts of community leaders from a range of backgrounds, including Iraqi, Rwandan, Bhutanese-Nepali, Burmese, and others, and was created as a celebration of locally-settled refugee and newcomer communities. Activities include an all-day soccer tournament, cultural performances, and a shared potluck meal. This was my third year on the planning committee for the July 1, 2017 event, and I coordinated the Family, Youth, and Women’s Activities for the day. I noticed that while some women have participated on the planning committee, their voices were peripheral. This year, with the encouragement and support of the communities, we started a new tradition of a women-only volleyball tournament. Because of some cultural considerations, in the past when co-ed activities were offered, women and girls were not able to continue playing or participating if men or boys joined them. The planning committee also created a Family Activities space for women with small children to sit and interact.
Teams and coaches signed up for the volleyball tournament in overwhelming numbers, and many team supporters and family members enjoyed attending. The Family Activities tent became a center for children to play, but also for their parents to sit down and enjoy one another’s company. There was a restorative justice talking circle that held community-building activities, and women from different refugee backgrounds volunteered in advance to lead activities, songs, and games from their home countries. Resources from local organizations such as Stitch Buffalo and RAHAMA were placed in the tent as well. Feedback from community members was very positive, and the organizers hope to expand our emphasis on women at next year’s event.
Refugee women in Buffalo and community responses
Buffalo is one of many cities benefiting from refugee resettlement. According to Jesse McKinley of the New York Times, numerous cities in New York State are benefiting from the hard work of refugees.(16) While this neoliberal framing of refugees as “workers” and sources of labor must be examined through a critical lens, the economic impact of resettlement has been adopted as a counterargument against xenophobic national dialogue. Given that Buffalo benefits from refugee communities, we must consider how refugee women are faring in our local context.
As described in an ethnographic study of refugee women’s employment and gender identity, resettlement policies that require employment inadvertently coincide with gendered experiences and expectation of paid work outside the home. Women’s identities as workers, employees, and breadwinners conflate, collide, and are complexly intertwined with other roles.(17) In addition to the work of local resettlement agencies, some of the economic and social needs of refugee women are being addressed by a range of groups. For example, the West Side Bazaar, part of the West Side Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) business incubator, and the fiber arts workshop Stitch Buffalo founded by textile artist Dawne Hoeg, each take a holistic approach to economic and social entrepreneurship among refugee women.
In the West Side Bazaar, most entrepreneurs are women who sell clothing, jewelry, and meals, and engage with one another in a cooperative atmosphere.(18) At the Stitch Buffalo workshop, as described in a news article by Briana Fuss, refugee women from numerous backgrounds meet weekly to make crafts, some of which they choose to sell. As Bhutanese-Nepali community member Rabi Rai explained, "You won't know the people if you sit at home but, when you come here you know the people from all the different countries.”(19) This description of social interaction and self-determination among refugee women highlights how many refugee women may be fearful or uncomfortable about interacting with their neighbors and venturing outside of their homes.(20) Yet their lives are enriched when they are welcomed and engaged by surrounding communities.
These programs represent promising beginnings that I hope will continue to benefit refugee women and all our communities. By centering the voices and capacities of refugee women in resettlement policy and daily decisions on a local level, we can better understand and interact with our new neighbors.
All World Refugee Day images credit www.snsvsnphotography.com
Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW, is a PhD student in the UB School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the social and economic resettlement experiences of refugee women, how refugee women develop social capital, and applications of transnational feminist theory in forced migration studies. Her writings also include cultural humility, human rights in social work education, and health outcomes of refugees and immigrants.
Sarah has connected with refugee women since the age of 14, when she tutored Somali Bantu women, and continues friendships with Karen Burmese women in her hometown of Ithaca, NY, as well as many communities in Buffalo. Sarah is an affiliate of the UB School of Social Work’s Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute
Other links: cultural humility module for the School of Social Work
(1) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Figures at a Glance,” June 9, 2017, accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.
(2) United Nations General Assembly, "Convention relating to the status of refugees,” United Nations Treaty Series 189. July 28, 1951: 137, accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.refworld.org/docid/3be01b964.html; Richard Black, "Fifty years of refugee studies: From theory to policy," International Migration Review 35, no. 1 (2001): 69.
(3) “UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 1990, Accessed June 20, 2017. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/women/3ba6186810/unhcr-policy-on-refugee-women-1990.html.
(4) Linda Bartolomei, Rebecca Eckert, and Eileen Pittaway. "“What happens there... follows us here”: Resettled but Still at Risk: Refugee Women and Girls in Australia." Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 30, no. 2 (2014): 48.
(5) Monica Boyd and Elizabeth Grieco, "Women and migration: incorporating gender into international migration theory," Migration information source 1 (2003): 2; Zermarie Deacon and Cris Sullivan, "Responding to the complex and gendered needs of refugee women," Affilia 24, no. 3 (2009): 273; Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei, "Refugees, race, and gender: The multiple discrimination against refugee women," Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 19, no. 6 (2001): 27.
(6) Randy Capps and Kathleen Newland, The integration outcomes of US refugees: Successes and challenges (Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2015), 19.
(7) S. C. Pearce, E. J. Clifford and R. Tandon, Immigration and women: Understanding the American experience (New York: NYU Press, 2011).
(8) Michelle Hynes and Barbara Lopes Cardozo, "Observations from the CDC: Sexual violence against refugee women," Journal of women's health & gender-based medicine 9, no. 8 (2000): 820; Deacon and Sullivan, 272.
(9) Deacon and Sullivan, 280; “UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women.”
(10) Doreen Indra, "Some feminist contributions to refugee studies." Gender Issues and Refugees: Development Implications (presentation, Canadian Anthropological Society Annual Meetings, York University, Toronto, May 9-11, 1993): 13.
(11) Bartolomei, Eckert, and Pittaway, 54.
(12) Jessica R. Goodkind and Zermarie Deacon, "Methodological issues in conducting research with refugee women: Principles for recognizing and re‐centering the multiply marginalized," Journal of Community Psychology 32, no. 6 (2004): 729.
(13) Deacon and Sullivan, 282.
(14) Caroline Lenette, Mark Brough, and Leonie Cox, "Everyday resilience: Narratives of single refugee women with children." Qualitative Social Work 12, no. 5 (2013): 650.
(15) Organizations include: International Institute of Buffalo; Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County; Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., Refugee Assistance Program/Catholic Charities. Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement website.
(16) Jesse McKinley, “A Surprising Salve for New York’s Beleaguered Cities: Refugees,” The New York Times, February 20 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/nyregion/a-surprising-salve-for-new-yorks-beleaguered-cities-refugees.html.
(17) Jill Koyama, “Constructing gender: Refugee women working in the United States” Journal of Refugee Studies 28, no. 2 (2014): 274.
(18) Nicole Schuman, “Refugee women build community in Buffalo business incubator,” Salt, a Fresh Perspective (blog), March 15, 2017, http://www.saltofthegreatlakes.com/refugee-women-build-community-in-buffalo-business-incubator/.
(19) Briana Fuss, "Women Refugees Share Buffalove One Stitch at a Time,” TWC Spectrum News, May 24, 2017, http://www.twcnews.com/nys/buffalo/news/2017/05/24/refugee-women-spread-love-in-buffalo-one-stitch-at-a-time-at-stitch-buffalo.html.
(20) Deacon and Sullivan, 281.