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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, Hilary Vandenbark at hilaryva@buffalo.edu.

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Gender Institute's "Summer Reads"

May 18, 2020

At the beginning of each summer, the Gender Institute invites faculty, staff, and graduate students to share their summer reading selections with us! Ranging from cutting edge scholarship to comforting classics to works that resonate with current events, this year's lists are sure to pique your interest! 

The Gender Institute would like to thank those who contributed their selections this year, including Glenna Bett Sharonah Fredrick, Stacy Hubbard, Carine Mardorossian, Kathleen Parks Marsh, Cody Mejeur, Randy Schiff, David Schmid, Kari Winter, and Victoria Wolcott. 

Enjoy!

Blue text in the center says "Summer Reads" surrounded by a collage of book covers.

A sampling of the selections for this year's Summer Reads.

Glenna Bett

Black and white sketch of a Roman leader in front of a crowd. The title, "Laughter in Ancient Rome," appears in red.

My summer quarantine reading list includes Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome (2015). Anything by Dame Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, is worth reading, listening to, or viewing. She has transformed our access to history, bringing a tangible sense of what life was actually like for the people. This looks to be a great book, as the first snippet I read was about a Senator who wanted to laugh out loud in response to the foolish behavior of his pompous leader, and had to chew vigorously on laurel leaves to hide his laugh. Laughing in the face of “Leaders”! That is what we need.

The second book on the list is Gaston Dorren’s Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages. Tracing the connectedness of people through the languages of the world is always fun. How similar we are, how different we are. Of course, the roots of “English” are an incredible fusion, reflecting all those who conquered the British Isles. The English language continues to be reshaped, reformed, and redefined for use around the world. The evolution of languages is interesting. This book was positively reviewed, but the few pages I have read center on Dorren, rather than on the evolution of language, which is disappointing. Babel has been abandoned in my car since quarantine began. Will I summon sufficient interest to retrieve the book before the lockdown ends?

Carrie Bramen

Gray book cover with blue text stating "Stop Telling Women to Smile" below a sketch of an unsmiling young woman.

At the top of my stack of summer reading is Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s long awaited Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We’re Taking Back Our Power (Seal Press 2020). A classically trained oil painter based in Brooklyn, Fazlalizadeh started a street art series a number of years ago featuring portraits of women with a single sentence describing how they feel about being harassed in public places. “My name is not baby, sweetie, sweetheart, shorty, sexy, honey, pretty.” There is a short documentary about this project that I show my first-year students in Creative Nonfiction, and I hope to have them read this book when I teach this course again in the Fall.

The second book is Harvard historian Walter Johnson’s latest The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (Hachette 2020). Beginning with Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition to the Ferguson uprising in 2014, St Louis represents “a crucible of American history,” where empire intersects with anti-Blackness. This book has already been deemed a masterpiece, in the vein of W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “The Souls of White Folk,” written in the aftermath of the 1917 massacre in East St. Louis.

Sharonah Fredrick

Book cover image depicting a stone cathedral with light coming through a circular window. The text La Catedral Del Mar appears in white letters over the image.

I am looking forward to diving into the Spanish-language novel by the great Catalan writer, Ildefonso Falcones, La catedral del mar. The book tells a powerful story of love, hate, religious intolerance, and female and male survival in the dark world of late medieval Barcelona. Its story focuses on women of the serf class and the men who loved or hated them, and the ways in which the stranglehold of the early Iberian Inquisition forced women into marginalized and victimized positions, which included having to marry their rapist if the rapist so desired. (Yes folks, the Inquisition started long before Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century). La catedral del mar is by a male author who has a magnificent power of empathy with his female heroines, and I find it uplifting to know that it IS thoroughly possible for men to comprehend, and support, women's struggles in any epoch. I've seen the impressive television series based on La catedral del mar which Spain's RTVE network produced a few years ago;  and now I can't wait to dive into that mar (sea for you all who don't yet know Spanish) with a cup of nice thick Mexican cocoa on a sunny soft day.

Stacy Hubbard

I've been enjoying front door delivery from Talking Leaves Books in recent weeks. In my latest bag are Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (a former UB undergraduate now teaching at Princeton); Ha Jin's A Map of Betrayal (the story of a woman's search for the history of her father, a Chinese spy captured in the U.S.); and Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men (the partner text to The Woman Warrior, based on her father's experience as a Chinese immigrant in the U.S.). I'm also in the middle of reading Elizabeth Outka's Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature, which I actually bought just before our current pandemic hit--the historical resonances between our present moment and the 1918-19 flu season are quite illuminating (though bleak).

Sepia tint book cover depicting a young Black child sitting on stone steps in front of a building. The text reads "Race for Profit" over the image.
Red book cover with the text "A Map of Betrayal" written in black.
Plain book cover with the title "China Men" displayed vertically in red. The two words are separated by a depiction of a small Chinese red dragon.

Carine Mardorossian

I needed to read something funny and light to help me bear the chaos that has been surrounding us in so many dimensions of our lives since the pandemic. So I picked up again A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, which is simply hilarious and was endorsed by none other than Jon Stewart. It is as funny the second time as the first, and speaks to every academic’s obsession with the nature of knowledge.

Kathleen Parks Marsh

Colorful chain of hashtag symbols beneath the title, "Hashtag Activism.".

#Hashtag Activism by Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, & Brooke Foucault Welles

After hearing these women speak about their book I am fascinated to read more about how marginalized and disenfranchised groups have used this social media platform to effectively and often times powerfully advocate for themselves and their causes.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner

In teaching Psychology of Aggression and Violence this Spring, I came across the Ted Talk by Leslie and subsequently purchased her book. She chronicles her experience as a young 22 year old woman whose seemingly perfect boyfriend/fiancé became the husband who pushed her down stairs and threatened her with a gun, and why it took so long to leave him.

Book cover of two women on the beach. A pink sunset sky where the title, "When We Believed in Mermaids" appears.

When We Believed in Mermaids: A Novel by Barbara O’Neal

I have read the first two chapters on-line and am hooked….this novel describes a woman who lost her sister in a terrorist attack 15 years ago and now believes she has seen her in a news broadcast half-way around the world.

It has all the elements I love, sisters, mystery, and a search for truth.

 

 

Cody Mejeur

Bright blue book cover image with various animated video game controllers underneath white text that states "Video Games Have Always Been Queer.".

I look forward to using the summer months to catch up on some publishing projects at a relaxed pace with plenty of breaks, and to that end I’ll be reading two recent books by colleagues in queer and feminist media studies. The first is Video Games Have Always Been Queer by Bonnie Ruberg. Ruberg argues that queer representation, narratives, and experiences are not something new just being added to games, but rather that video games have always had queer elements to them. For example, she argues in the first chapter that Pong can be read as a queer experience, and opens space for considering how other games without explicit queer content could further projects in queer world-building. I especially appreciate this sort of argument because it reminds me that queerness is everywhere, not just cordoned off in particular approved areas of society and   
                                           popular culture.

White book cover with six black and white icons with the text "Gamer Trouble" in gold lettering.

The second book is Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture by Amanda Phillips. Informed by queer and women of color feminisms, Phillips’ book tackles how issues (troubles) of difference, diversity, and online violence are not just issues of representation––they’re inherent to every part of digital technologies from the logics of computation and control to optimization of gameplay to hardware and software industry practices. Phillips’ work is also situated within digital humanities discourses and practices, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she traces the links between games and the many industries and technologies related to them. As I often tell my students, games are a microcosm of larger societal and cultural trends, and an especially important one given the ties between hate movements like GamerGate and the Alt-Right.

Randy Schiff

Summer 2020 seems like a great time to finally read Ice, by Anna Kavan. I have been eyeing this icy post-apocalypse narrative for a long time. Perhaps the confluence of environmental deterioration and political dysfunction will offer some strangely comforting escapism during these difficult times: it could, after all, be much worse. A second item that I plan to read this summer is The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. I’ve never gotten very far into what is regarded by many as one of the finest works of premodern world literature—and perhaps this will be the summer where I finally read it all the way through. My translated edition comes complete with wonderful woodcuts from a seventeenth-century edition of Lady Murasaki’s novel.

Black book cover with large white letters that says "Ice." Two large snowflakes appear in the upper right corner.
Book cover featuring Japanese-style art depiction of a woman wearing a kimono near the sea. The words "The Tale of Genji" appear in gold letters.

David Schmid

Summer is the time I reserve for big books I don't have enough time to read during the academic year. This summer I'm planning to read two massive tomes by veteran and prolific Marxist theorists. First up is geographer David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital, the written version of the famous annual lectures Harvey has been giving on this subject for decades (and which are available on YouTube). I plan to read this alongside Capital itself, just as one might read Freud alongside Ernest Jones' The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. I'll then turn to Mike Davis' and Jon Wiener's Set the Night on Fire, the first comprehensive history of social and political movements in Los Angeles in the Sixties. Together, I hope these books will help me figure out how to configure the 'new normal' in a post-COVID world by combining local activism on the part of sexual, racial, and political minorities with global anti-capitalist struggle.

White book cover with two large red spots over which the text "A Companion to Marx's Capital" appears in black.
Blue tinted portrait image of Sigmund Freud. The title "The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud" appear in gold capital letters across his forehead.
Book cover of a black and white image of a protest underneath the title "Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties" in a black and red font.

Hilary Vandenbark

Blue and Purple book cover with the title, "Boys and Sex," in big white letters.

This summer, I'm looking forward to exploring new conceptualizations of masculinity and catching up on some of the great scholarship being produced here at UB. Starting with Dr. Ndubueze Mbah's Emergent Masculinities: Gendered Power and Social Change in the Biafran Atlantic Age. Next, I'm going to read Peggy Orenstein's new book Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.  I am also currently revisiting Deborah Gould's Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS because it feels particularly timely and insightful for how emotions are being mobilized for good or ill during COVID-19. 

I hope you also get a chance to read Lisa Downing's new book Selfish Women in anticipation of her webinar lecture with us on September 17, 2020. You can register here:  https://bit.ly/LisaDowningWebinar

Kari Winter

Black and white image of a woman facing a wall wearing black gloves and a black top with a deep V in the back. The book title, Recollections of My Nonexistence, appears in thin white letters.

Having just completed Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence, which articulates brilliant insights into how women are silenced through being denied credibility, I am now beginning her essay collection-cum-cultural- phenomenon, Men Explain Things to Me.

I am re-reading Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand nineteenth-century America, the horrific underside of women’s oppression, the reasons women turned to spiritualism for empowerment, and the genealogy of evangelical misogyny.  I’m planning to finish W.E.B. DuBois’s monumental Black Reconstruction, a masterpiece of historiography wrenched from unwilling archives and hostile institutions.  To lighten the mood, I plan to spend hours every day reading the nature in my garden.

Victoria Wolcott

Tinted images of a woman in the top half of the cover and a man in the bottom half. The title of the book, "The Princess and the Prophet" separates the images in a large square.

This summer I’m reading two dynamic works of American religious history that place gender at their center: Benjamin E. Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on an American Frontier uses recently available Mormon archival records to excavate a remarkable religious utopia. Jacob S. Dorman’s The Princess and the Prophet: The Secret History of Magic, Race, and Moorish Muslims in America tells the story of Prophet Noble Drew Ali who founded the Moorish Science Temple of America. I am also eager to read Buffalo-native Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s multiple-prize winning book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. And when I need a break I’ll be finishing Martha Wells’s Murderbot series, hilarious short science fiction novels about a robot designed to kill who would prefer to binge his favorite shows.

Lillian Williams: Trailblazing Woman Award

May 14, 2020

In March 2020, Professor Lillian Williams (African and African-American Studies/Transnational Studies) received one of the inaugural Trailblazing Women of Western New York Award for her dedication to ensuring Women of Color's contributions to WNY are not forgotten. Williams serves on the steering committee of the Trailblazing Women of Western New York Monuments Project. Below is a transcript of her acceptance speech which she has graciously allowed us to share as well as some photos from this and past Trailblazing Women events.

Lillian Williams gives a speech while wearing a red blazer.

Lillian Williams delivers her acceptance speech for the inaugural Trailblazing Women of WNY Award.

I am pleased to accept the Trailblazing Women’s Award.

I want to thank the Trailblazers for bestowing this honor upon me and congratulations to the other recipients.

Oberlin College Alumna and Educator Anna Julia Cooper wrote “it is not the intelligent woman v. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman v. the black, the brown, and the red, --it is not even the cause of woman v. man.  Nay ‘tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice.” What a gift it has been to work with such women of courage, commitment and compassion and to hear their diverse voices.

Four women post in front of a poster of historical women figures in Western New York.

Trailblazing Women honorees pose with Erie County Commission of Public Advocacy Karen King at the awards ceremony. Left to Right: Kelly Hayes McAlonie, Lori Quigley, Lillian Williams, Karen King.

My journey as an historian probably began in first grade when my teacher Mrs. Fisher encouraged students to bring books to school to share.  I was fascinated by my father’s book collection and I chose to share Historian J. A. Rogers’ 100 Little Known Facts about the Negro. Rogers wrote about African kings and queens, warriors and scientists. Much to my surprise Mrs. Fisher told me that my father’s books were a pack of lies and I should not bring them to school. She informed the class that Africans had not contributed anything to civilization and that they were only slaves.  But the clincher for me was that she said Africa was the dark continent. I was on the verge of tears at that point because I thought the sun didn’t shine in Africa.  This experience posed a conflict for me—my Dad, my hero v. the establishment educator. Nevertheless, I secretly continued my clandestine studies
                                                                                      and shared my findings only with trusted classmates.

My secret pursuits continued and were encouraged by my eight grade English teacher Miss Kelly who urged me to learn about the experiences of African Americans, especially women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. She assigned me to teach what I had learned to the class, for she said she would be penalized, if she taught those texts. But she contended that I could because her students had to do oral presentations and could select their own topics.             

Two women pose in front of a poster depicting Mary Burnett Talbert.

Lillian Williams (left) in front of a poster of Mary Burnett Talbert, for whom Williams fought to name Talbert Hall on UB's North Campus.

These experiences taught me to dig deeply, to conduct research and to persist in my pursuit of the truth. They also taught me what an important tool history is. There was no doubt that I would major in history when I went to college. But they also imbued in me the desire to make the knowledge that I was acquiring available to a broader community of lay and academic populations. Service was a critical component in making this happen.  My parents were active in their communities. They took me to lectures, introduced me to civil rights organizations and provided role models and road maps for civic engagement which later produced lectures, museum exhibitions, publications, etc.

The Trailblazing Monuments project is a culmination of the work of many individuals to honor women who battled racism, gender inequity and classism. As Buffalo suffragist and human rights activist Mary Burnett Talbert observed, it is important that our children know that these women dedicated their lives to transforming their world; thus, they prove that persistent struggle yields progress and they, too, can thrive and make a difference.

 I thank you for this award and I accept it in memory of my mother, Ada Lucille Williams.

           Lillian Serece Williams

Finding Our Foremothers: Recognizing Dorsi Raynolds’ Contribution to Women’s Athletics

By Jeanne Skotnicki

April 13, 2020

Dorsi Raynolds, a woman with short brown hair, carries a clipboard in front of a swimming pool.

Former UB Women’s Swimming & Diving Head Coach Dorsi Raynolds.

Women’s Collegiate Sports in the Nineties

            If you are a college athlete, you might have heard this one: “You aren’t going to the Olympics, so why are you still competing?” If you are a female athlete, you have heard that line a few times. If you were a female athlete competing in the late nineties, it was a refrain. Collegiate women’s sports did not make sense to outsiders then. But for those of us who were the early beneficiaries of Title IX, sports mattered. 

I swam at the University at Buffalo from 1989-1995, competing for four years—two at Division II under Head Coach Emily Ward and two at Division I under Head Coach Dorsi Raynolds. Both women established a path for their athletes to follow, challenging us to see beyond the gender boundaries that permeated American culture in the early nineties. 

On a smaller scale, swimming provided me with a stable platform on which to ride out the turbulent currents of my adolescence. I relished and, in retrospect, needed the twice-daily dose of endorphins to balance my emotions. My swim teams had always been my surrogate families, providing a safe space, a routine, an opportunity to excel, and teammates more like sisters than friends. Not swimming in college simply was not an option for me. I did not always consciously make decisions as a young woman; my instincts led me toward the experiences necessary for my own survival and growth. Swimming at UB under Emily Ward and then under Dorsi Raynolds was no exception. 

Transformational Women Coaches

The story I share today is about Dorsi Raynolds, and this chapter of Dorsi’s story is an intersection of stories: in particular those of Emily Ward, Kelly P. Sahner, the women athletes who swam for her, and others at UB whose lives she impacted on her journey. Dorsi’s passion for swimming, for the empowerment of women, and the positive energy she brought to every aspect of her life transformed all of us. Dorsi’s belief in the young women she coached challenged us to see beyond the boundaries we set for ourselves. Her energy and passion pushed us through grueling workouts, giving us the chance to surpass the limitations we placed upon ourselves. 

Twenty-five years later, the experience of swimming under Dorsi’s leadership motivated me to volunteer my time, money, and energy for the Friends of Dorsi Raynold’s Swimming & Diving Campaign, a $100,000 fundraising campaign to name the competition pool at UB’s Alumni Area after Dorsi Raynolds. We succeeded. On Saturday, February 29, 2020, the finals of the Mid-Atlantic Conference Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships began with a ceremony honoring Dorsi’s legacy in women’s swimming and representing a new vanguard of women athletes coming into their own. 

Group of people posing for a photo. UB Women’s Swimming Team.

UB Women’s Swimming Team during Dorsi Raynolds' first year at UB.

Ramifications of Title IX

            This story began with Title IX, an educational amendment granting women athletes the same Federal funding opportunities as their male counterparts that was signed into law on June 23, 1972. Dorsi Raynolds was eight years old. As an early beneficiary of this law, she would go on to a storied career as a collegiate swimmer at Ithaca College, earning sixteen Division III All-American honors among others. She was inducted into the Ithaca College Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996

            Dorsi started coaching college swimming right after she graduated, and in doing so pushed back against a disturbing trend occurring in collegiate women’s sports. Prior to 1972, ninety percent of collegiate women athletes were coached by women. Following the enactment of Title IX, that number dropped by fifty percent. A study done by the NCAA found that as more money and higher coaching salaries became associated with women’s sports, more men became interested in the opportunity. 

Dorsi held the position of Head Coach of Women’s Swimming & Diving at UB for thirteen years from 1992-2005, racking up dozens of victories and three Mid-Continent Coach of the Year awards. Subsequently, she coached age-grouper Hannah Cox (Upper Valley Aquatic Center) to an eighth place finish in the 400-free at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Coaching an Olympic athlete was a long-term goal of Dorsi’s, but one that would remain unrealized. She passed away in the spring of 2018, following a lengthy bout with cancer. 

The Playing Field Shifts

A year prior, the University at Buffalo eliminated the Men’s Swimming & Diving Team from its complement of Division I teams. Unlike football or basketball, collegiate swimming seldom generates revenue for the university. After the men’s team was disbanded, Emily Ward approached a number of her former swimmers to form a core alumni group. Our goals were simple, to support and strengthen the current Women’s Swimming & Diving Team. 

We purchased personalized deck towels for the freshmen. We wrote inspirational cards for each athlete before the championship meet. We formed a multi-platform social media presence to promote the team, started a database of swimming and diving alumni, and established professional ties between alumnae and current athletes. Swimming, always so central to our lives, generates few waves outside of its community. Through our small acts, we hoped our presence would be felt and the future of the team assured.

Enter Kelly P. Sahner, former UB Basketball player, UB SA President, and close friend of Dorsi Raynolds. Looking for a way to memorialize Dorsi and the team that had been so central to Dorsi’s coaching career, Kelly approached UB Director of Athletics Mark Alnutt about naming the pool in her honor. The figure provided was $100,000. All funds raised would go directly to UB Women’s Swimming & Diving. When Kelly floated the idea of naming the pool for Dorsi, we realized the tribute aligned perfectly with what we hoped to accomplish as alumnae of Women’s Swimming & Diving. Dorsi represented everything that we believed in—the continued opportunity for women athletes to pursue swimming and diving at the collegiate level.

Our path was set. 

A group of women stand in front of a column that reads "Dorsi Raynolds Competition Pool" while hold a blue and white ribbon that has been cut.

UB Women’s Swimming & Diving Alumnae Group (pictured from left to right). Back row: Colleen Donovan Boal, Emily Ward, Martie Duffet Staser, Lieselle Trinidad, Kelly P. Sahner, Lisa Lamey, Dana Anello White. Front row: Maranne McDade Clay and Jeanne Skotnicki. Not pictured: Jennifer LeForce.

Recognizing Dorsi Raynolds

You already know the end of this story. In two years, we reached our goal of $100,000 raised and pledged to the Friends of Dorsi Raynolds Campaign. All money received will support the current UB Women’s Swimming & Diving Team, and the competition pool at Alumni Arena will henceforth be known as the Dorsi Raynolds Competition Pool

Our mission was personal: we wanted to memorialize a coach who would have relished our leadership more than the limelight. And, knowing Dorsi, she would have expected that we reach our goal, having taught us to aim high, work hard, push through the inevitable setbacks, and succeed. We did not know that women raising money for woman-centered campaigns was rare. We did not know that so few university buildings and spaces have been named for women that no one has bothered to document them, nationally or locally. 

The University at Buffalo fares no better. There exist just four external spaces named for women by women: a softball field named in honor of former UB Softball Coach Nan Harvey, Talbert Hall in honor of Mary Burnett Talbert, Townsend Hall named in honor of Harriet Townsend, and Knox Hall named in honor Grace Knox who wished to memorialize her husband, Seymour Knox. The University does not have centralized library archives on the naming of internal spaces. 

In pursuing this goal, we acted on our own desires. We are, to borrow a line from Chaka Khan, every woman. We are directors, a small business owner and coach, an FBI agent, teachers, a chief commercial officer, and a business manager. We are single, married, divorced. Heterosexual and gay. Mothers and childless by choice. Which is to say, we are no different than the thousands of other women athletes. We anticipate that they too will find reason to honor the women who came before them.

What were the keys to our success? Decentralized authority. Shared passion. Regularly scheduled videoconferences that took into consideration the challenges unique to professional mothers. Valuing and utilizing unique skill sets. Setting examples for our peers, and finding insider support in the Athletic Department at UB. 

There is a strand of feminist literary theory that believes in the importance of uncovering our literary foremothers. Those women who were the first, who created a path for other women writers to follow. Dorsi is one of our athletic foremothers. She was a leader in women’s sports, both as an athlete and as a coach. She cut a trail that led us to where we find ourselves today, empowered to celebrate and honor her memory. Dorsi Raynolds deserves to be remembered here at UB because her path will lead the way for all who have the opportunity to study, swim, and compete here. 

Research assistance contributed by UB Research Archivist William Offhaus.

 

 

Are You a Modern Day Typhoid Mary?

By Sarah M. Glann

March 30, 2020

Newspaper Article depicting Typhoid Mary.

Mary Mallon never believed she was sick. In spite of the recommendations of health authorities that she self-quarantine or put others at risk, she continued to reenter society, mainly to work in order to support herself. Eventually, Mary Mallon was forced into quarantine, but not after infecting dozens of people, many of whom died. History remembers Mary Mallon as the first documented case of a “healthy carrier” of infectious disease, someone who can exhibit no symptoms of illness but who sheds highly contagious germs wherever they go.

The case of Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary,” strikes an eerily familiar chord in the midst of COVID-19. In fact, devoid of historical details, it could be a story out of today’s news, a cautionary tale for why we should all do our parts to “Flatten the Curve.  How many countless people are walking around in public right now, flouting the warnings of health officials, because they “don't feel sick”? In spite of warnings from the CDC that symptoms may not present for up to a week after infection, many people are attempting to go along with business as usual.

Black and white photo of Mary Mallon in her hospital bed.

Mary Mallon, a poor Irish immigrant living in Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century, can be forgiven in retrospect for lacking an appreciation for the nuances of germ theory. Although she was demonized at the time, feminist authors and historians have shed a more forgiving light on Mallon as a victim of circumstance. Mallon’s status as an Irish immigrant, and a woman, as well as a member of the working class who served primarily rich families, made her an intersectional triple threat and easy target for blame for the spread of the typhoid virus.

But how will history remember those of us who unwittingly spread the coronavirus to others because we didn’t stay at home? The college students who headed for the beach during Spring Break while the virus closed restaurants and cancelled flights? The Saint Patrick's Day revellers who crowded bars against the advice of public health officials? The people who still insist that this is “overblown” or a hoax as they go about their day, regardless of the knowledge that at this very moment bodies are piling up in NYC morgues? How will history remember them? Over one hundred years after the discovery of germ theory, we can do better.

Sarah M. Glann holds a Master's degree in Sociology from the University at Buffalo. After teaching for nearly a decade, with an impressive course catalog including sociology of gender, medical sociology, and environmental sociology, she transitioned to working in the public sphere.

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