Wednesday, April 12, 2017

“Dear Miss Cushman”: The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

Cross-posted from
Explore Rural Women's Studies to learn more about rural women’s studies research and activism around the world and connect with scholars in the field. To learn more about the Rural Women’s Studies Association (RWSA), check out the website and visit RWSA on Facebook.

As an early republic historian working on the gender history of commercial entertainment, I am always on the lookout for Carrie Meebers, or women and girls who can open up the longstanding trope of the country girl seduced by the city. Carrie Meeber is the heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century novel. This is a quintessentially urban tale: Carrie is awakened to the seductions and possibilities of mass culture and urban life by her explorations of the city. Her rural girlhood and the dreams that brought her from Waukesha to Chicago are dispensed with in the first page as the rural landscape of her Wisconsin childhood rushes by on her train bound for Chicago. These gestures deploy familiar tropes, rural girlhood as ennui. Carrie releases a faint sigh for “the flour mill where her father worked by the day” and the “familiar green environs of the village,” but as then train picks up speed, “the threads which bound her so lightly to her girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.”[1]

Charlotte Cushman.  Half plate daguerreotype, ca. 1855.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-13410.

Dreiser does not give us a chance to spend more time with Carrie in Waukesha, to read her letters with sister Minnie in Chicago, survey the sheet music on her parlor piano or open the chest in which Carrie might have kept press clippings and women’s periodicals and catalogs. How might her rural girlhood have shaped her expectations about the world she would exit into at other end of the train line?
In Washington D.C. while researching 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, I briefly stumbled into the world of Eva McCoy, a girl from rural Illinois who penned a piece of fan mail to her idol in 1874.[2] The letter survives today taped into a red bound volume in the Charlotte Cushman Papers in the Library of Congress. It is likely that the letter was received and read by Cushman’s life partner Emma Stebbins, and later saved by Stebbins, who took on the weighty task of managing Cushman’s legacy after the actress’ death from breast cancer in February 1876. The letter was preserved and later mounted, along with miscellaneous fan mail, much of it from the 1870s and much of it from other women.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Gender Politics, Rape Culture, and the 2017 Election

Recently, I had the opportunity to appear on SDPB Dakota Midday to talk with Lori Walsh about the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies panel Gender & Politics, held on October 5. I was joined by  Dr. Emily Wanless, a political science professor at Augustana, to talk about how gender may be shaping this contest, and how gender shapes participation in politics more generally.

A week later, Lori invited me back to talk about the Access Hollywood footage of Donald Trump talking about sexually assaulting a woman, a conversation that he later insisted was merely "locker room talk." Here, I break down what, from a gender studies perspective, I would argue is really going on here. Listen for a discussion of rape culture and sexist double standards.

Very grateful for the opportunity to talk about these important issues on SDPB!
Trump and Secretary Clinton face off in the second presidential debate, October 9, 2016. 
Image Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Meditations on the "Black Swan," from 1850 to today

In 2002, while an undergrad History/Art History major at Rutgers College, I little imagined that over a decade later I would be an assistant professor of History at the University of South Dakota publishing my work on the mid-19th century black singer Elizabeth Greenfield, known as the "Black Swan."

I invite you check out my recent article with American Nineteenth Century History, coming out in Fall 2016 but available online: “Black Swan/White Raven: the racial politics of Elizabeth Greenfield’s American concert career, 1851-1855.”

(Email me if your research library does not have access to Taylor & Francis but would like to read the essay. I can provide a free download link.)

This coming year, another cohort of students at USD will be exploring possibilities for their research projects, whether for an honors thesis or capstone paper. The following post is a series of brief meditations on my early encounters with Elizabeth Greenfield, the questions that led me to her, the way her story continues to resonate in our culture today...

Monday, February 15, 2016

SD HB 1107

SB HB 1107 is also extremely discriminatory and is a distortion of US principles of disestablishment and religious freedom. I've included the text of the My Voices column from the Argus Leader. Please write to your SD State Senator and Governor Daugaard urging them to oppose this law!

My Voice: Say “no” to HB 1107: Protect 14th Amendment

As outlined in House Bill 1107, the lawmakers of the state of South Dakota want to permit public employees, public agencies and recipients of public monies, the right to discriminate on the basis of personal religious conviction against LGBTQ individuals, unwed parents, or individuals who engage in sex outside of marriage. This bill passed the South Dakota House and is currently being considered by the Senate. We must urge our South Dakota State Senators and Gov. Dennis Daugaard to oppose this bill.

S.D.’s HB 1107 is a flagrant violation of the 14th Amendment of our Constitution, which protects the civil rights of all citizens. HB 1107 would elevate the conscience of some above the civil rights of others. It suggests that this particular aspect of identity, faith, supersedes other aspects of our identities and can be used as a principle according to which we can discriminate against our fellow South Dakotans, based on gender and sexual identity, marital status, and family structure.

Consider how this law might affect citizens who seek public safety and medical assistance, marriage licenses, or public education. How might this law affect my ability as an educator at a public institution to pursue our vision of “inclusive excellence,” to fight for inclusiveness and against discrimination? How can I encourage my students to view diversity as a “tremendous benefit” to their educations and to pursue “equity and social justice” in their lives if our state law gives people with a particular faith, special privileges above anyone else in the state — namely the right to discriminate? According to this bill, police or emergency medical technicians could turn down requests for aid from gay or transgender individuals, single mothers, or unmarried co-habitating couples. It effectively allows S.D. Social Services to refuse aid on an ad hoc basis, based on religious convictions of employees. It means hospitals could turn away patients, or children could be barred from child care facilities. What about use of public facilities like parks and recreation areas? It means that some individuals could legally object to other citizens’ use of those spaces.

S.D.’s HB 1107 declares that some individuals, by virtue of matters of conscience, should be able to deny rights and privileges guaranteed to other citizens. This is more than an accommodation of religion. It effectively elevates the religious convictions of some and imposes them through law. We are an incredibly diverse and dynamic nation that has struggled to realize one of the most cherished principles of civil democracy, that the state as an entity distinct from religion should seek to protect the civil rights of all, including our individual rights of conscience and worship. This is a moment in which, while reflecting how much our nation has changed in 250 years, we can look to our founding principles for guidance. I want to live in a nation in which matters of conscience shared by some, do not disrupt the ability of others to enjoy the benefits of our civil society.

We must urge our lawmakers to vote against HB 1107. It does not stand for who we are as South Dakotans, or who we are as Americans.

SD HB 1008

There are a series of extremely discriminatory laws that have passed the SD House of Representatives and are now up for a vote in the SD Senate. Here is a fantastic editorial from Vermillion Equalizer's managing editor David Lias about HB 1008: Between the lines: Hello, Jim Crow; Welcome to South Dakota.  

My colleague and friend Mandie Weinandt composed a sample letter to send to your SD State Senator and to Governor Daugaard, who signs all bills passed by the SD State Legislature into law. I've included it below. Please send an email ASAP! 

Who are My Legislators
Contact Govr. Daugaard

Sample letter: 
Dear Senator/ Governor <insert name>,

My name is <insert name> and I am <insert title and affiliation> from <insert town>. I am also a/an <insert relationship> to the LGBTQQIA community.

I am writing to urge you to oppose HB 1008. I am opposed to HB 1008 for a number of reasons.  First, this bill targets transgender students for systemic discrimination.  Forcing transgender students to out themselves and seek "reasonable accommodation" through official and public means is akin to painting a target on their backs.  It also sets a precedent, backed by state government that it is acceptable to single out or target individual students for not fitting a hypothetical norm as dictated by the state.  I would not want the state to dictate which elements of my being I have the right to own and which I do not; therefore, I would not want this for others.  That this bill has been sold as a "protective measure" to ensure the safety of K-12 students is an unacceptable lie to convince individuals that systemic discrimination and persecution are an acceptable means to an end.  The falsely touted negative repercussions of not passing this bill are already illegal making this bill solely to treat those the state deems unworthy differently from those the state deems socially acceptable.  

While I feel this bill should be rejected for the reasons of treating people with respect and not discriminating against a segment of our population, I would also like to point out the obvious legal and financial repercussions of passing HB 1008.  As with many bills initiated in our state legislature which target members of the LGBTQQIA community, passing HB 1008 will result in costly legal battles and nation-wide negative publicity.  Transgender students are protected by Title IX legislation and the national DOE has vowed to protect their rights.  Do we really want to put South Dakota's head on the proverbial chopping block by outing ourselves as a state who would go against federal regulation so we can discriminate against K-12 transgender students?  I hope this is not the case.

Member of the transgender community are active citizens and contributors to our state and communities.  To be accepted for who they are and not have to face constant persecution is a hope transgender persons face every day.  These brave souls have no malicious intent and no hidden agenda.  Their only hope is to live a full life as who they truly are without having to hide, lie, or be treated as though they do not have rights.

I am asking you to please oppose for HB 1008.

<your name>

Friday, April 17, 2015

What Honor Diaries Did to My Amazon

About a month ago, my algorithm for recommendations took a sharp turn. I was suddenly ordering books with titles like Gender and Violence in the Middle East,  Gender and Islam, and Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I found myself digging around in boxes in the basement for my college copy of Fatima Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil. I found myself confronting the question of how I, as a scholar of American women’s history moving into a position as coordinator of our Women and Gender Studies Program, should handle the problematics of staging a conversation here at USD about gender and violence in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in the context of a screening of the film Honor Diaries.

When the film was proposed as a feature for our biennial Women and Gender Studies conference, members of our university community responded by raising questions about whether this was an appropriate vehicle for inaugurating a discussion of the topic of “honor violence” against women and girls in the nonwestern world. After I learned of concerns about the film, I logged onto Netflix to watch it, and began to investigate some of the media responses to the film, including the critique from CAIR that the film was Islamophobic. CAIR and others called attention to the major funding source for the film, the CLARION project, which had produced films criticized for inflammatory and misleading portrayals of Islam.

I approached the film with the wariness I frequently bring to the blockbuster style of documentary filmmaking that has become popular, the kind honed by Michael Moore, with sensationalistic claims, alarming (but often misleading) statistics, fast switches between different human-interest stories, and of course the scary music we all know so well.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this style of documentary filmmaking. Now, does that mean we shouldn’t screen these types of films in a university setting? Of course not. But it does mean that we need to think carefully about the way we present documentary films, which, often by virtue of the emotional and narrative power of cinema, are taken as authoritative text.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Feminist Politics of Work

Last night at the Oscars in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette delivered a rousing call for women’s rights. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  

The crowd (and social media) goes wild. 

AND then in her follow-up press interviews, Arquette continued on in this vein: “It's time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now.”  

It was, to say the least, a disappointing moment, an embarrassing moment, and I think a teachable moment in the challenges of thinking intersectionally. The fight for gay rights and black civil rights is not mutually exclusive from the struggles of gender equality but rather these struggles are connected. Likewise, not all women experience their gender the same way, nor do they experience structures of inequality in the same way. Ever since Kimberle Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on the legal barriers black women workers faced bringing suit over both race and gender discrimination, scholars and activists have called attention to intersectional oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and social status.