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 email@example.com.
August 15, 2019: On Political Misogyny, Sexual Degradation, and "The Squad," by Hilary Vandenbark
May 13, 2019: IREWG—The Prequel, by Carolyn Korsmeyer
April 29, 2019: Sepideh.P and the Body as Desire, by Anne Marie Butler
October 17, 2019
New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
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.
[Please join us for our Lecture Series, On Misogyny, featuring Professor Moya Bailey and her work on misogynoir on October 3, 2019.]
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.
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 a PhD Candidate in the department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Buffalo. She is completing her dissertation, “Unintelligible Bodies: Surrealism and Queerness in Contemporary Tunisian Women’s Art,” under the direction of Jonathan D. Katz and will defend in July 2019. 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) and she is looking forward to joining the faculty of Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan this fall as Assistant Professor of Art History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
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.
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