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.
The Gender Institute welcomes new potential authors. Those interested should contact the blog manager, Anne Marie Butler, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
September 6, 2018
By Ana Grujić
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.
Next up for the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project:
She Walked Here is the latest ongoing endeavor of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. Few Americans think of Buffalo as a national historic center of LGBTQ culture. But Buffalo is famous for producing two books that account for most of what we know about working-class gay culture prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots. One, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, has become an internationally renowned cult classic. The second, Madeline Davis and Liz Kennedy’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, is commemorated in She Walked Here, an event series launched at the Historic Colored Musicians Club on July 21, 2018.
We invite Buffalonians of all backgrounds not only to read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold along with the History Project, but also to actively enter the world it describes, with walking tours, dance lessons, and several upcoming surprise activities. The July 21 Project Launch saw a packed Historic Colored Musicians Club celebrating queer and butch and femme oral histories, with community members across generations sharing the microphone and sharing personal histories. The event offered copies of the book at sliding scale prices, featured an interactive map and art installment and a curated archive exhibit, showcased live performances inspired by the book, and included a party with historically accurate music. Madeline Davis honored us with her presence and brilliant memories of butch and femme sex lives.
September 15, 2018 will see the first of our Boots of Leather street tours of Buffalo’s historical lesbian bar locations in the downtown area and the East Side’s Fruit Belt neighborhood. The 3-mile tour is self-directed, and estimated to take about 3 hours on foot (though you can travel by bike, bus, or car if you wish). Each former bar site will feature a combination of tour guides, archival photo and audio, and artists from Buffalo’s LGBTQ community, offering an artistic interpretation of Buffalo’s lesbian bar history. We’ll also be hosting the tour on Saturday September 29, 2018 and Saturday, October 13, 2018. To participate, just sign up here.
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. Some of the projects she works on with the group are a video series about Buffalo’s oral trans history, a documentary about Buffalo’s black trans community and ballroom scene, and most recently, She Walked Here: a community read and a walking tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold,” the iconic oral history of Buffalo’s lesbian bar scene before the Stonewall riot.
Ana was born in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, a city which since then has changed several countries (today it is the capital of Serbia). She is an immigrant in the U.S., trying to make sense of the condition of diaspora and dislocation.
Black in Time could not happen without the help and love of:
Denise and Tinamarie Sweet
The staff of Sweets Lounge and Restaurant
Black Intelligent Ladies Alliance
Mother Ebony Talon
Rev. Gerard Williams
The congregation of Unity Fellowship Church
Anthonie D. King-Brooks
The House of Escada
University at Buffalo Visual Studies Program
University at Buffalo Wellness Education Services
University at Buffalo Gender Institute
Special thanks to Bill Thomas for the “Black in Time” event name
About the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project: The Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project is a volunteer-run activist group focused on generational memory in Buffalo’s LGBTQ community. The History Project preserves the actively erased histories of all local LGBTQ community members. We conduct interviews, assist in donation of materials to the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archives of Western New York, and otherwise document the legacies of LGBTQ Buffalonians of all races, genders, ages, and abilities, across the LGBTQ identity spectrum. We seek to bridge generational gaps and promote LGBTQ history outside of large cities. We believe knowing our histories will guide us to meaningful political action and encourage others to join us in the archives and the homes of our elders and peers.
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 will graduate from UB in June 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.
Cheryl Emerson, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Literature
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?
Naila Sahar, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of English
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.
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