On Tuesday, April 24th, the students in WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action will be hosting a Poetry Memorial in memory of Erica Knowles, a Gender and Women’s Studies and Journalism major at URI, who passed away on February 15th. Erica was a talented artist and poet who, in the words of her stepfather, “was passionate about singing and music.” Erica “sang Karaoke a lot and was not afraid of the microphone,” but her greatest love was her family. “She loved her sisters, Ashley and Sydney, and her brother, Vito, along with her mom, very much.” Erica was the beloved daughter of Shiela (Wood) Priore, and her husband John Priore of Alpharetta, GA; and the late John Knowles and his wife Carla Knowles of Wakefield. In addition to her parents and siblings, she is survived by her maternal grandfather, George Wood of West Kingston; and her paternal grandparents, Franklin and Phyllis Knowles of Cranston.
The Poetry Memorial is an open mic event, with many students already signed up to read selections of Erica’s poetry. All are invited to read, reflect, and celebrate the memory of this remarkable woman.
The Erica Knowles Poetry Memorial will be held on April 24th at the 193° Coffeehouse (URI Memorial Union) from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Erica’s poetry can be found online through the Origami Poetry Project at http://www.origamipoems.com/component/content/article/56.
Some of her artwork was displayed recently at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield, RI: http://heragallery.blogspot.com/2011/12/erica-knowles-displays-at-worlds.html
On Friday, March 30, students from WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action, along with URI students from the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies and the Political Science Department, attended the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s “Women Making Democracy” conference. Each year the Institute organizes a conference that highlights the significance of gender in relation to the human experience. This year’s theme brought together a selection of preeminent journalists, scholars, and activists to discuss the role of women and gender in movements for social justice and political change. Much of the discussion centered on the role of women in the “Arab Spring,” but there were also comparative perspectives that opened the dialogue to include democratic movements in Eastern Europe and South Africa. The mix of speakers and topics created a space for interdisciplinary conversations that not only informed, but also raised new questions while challenging previous assumptions regarding gender and political unrest.
While the scope and depth of the information presented at the conference could be the springboard to a multitude of important discussions, I will limit my thoughts to points and questions raised that relate most directly to the concerns of WMS 320. As the day’s opening remarks suggested, when thinking about how the Arab Spring is unique, we should also consider its broader implications and the ways in which as “unique cases,” these uprisings also share similarities “across cases.” And, in this examination, specific attention should be paid to the ways in which these democratic movements challenged notions of space (both physical and virtual), gender, and human rights, and larger connections to structures of political and personal power. As Dalendra Larguèche noted, the Arab Spring opened new solidarities and spaces, but it also reinforced old ones. If new spaces of revolution have emerged, will they remain open, and for how long?
Of critical concern is the complex power dynamic between gender and “the state.” Heba Raouf Ezzat noted in her thrilling talk that there is a need to not only re-consider the idea of “state feminism,” but also to re-think the need and/or utility of feminist governance. These thoughts further problematized Shireen Hassim’s discussion of South Africa’s democratic struggles and the unfortunate ways in which the language of feminism did not speak to the situation of “ordinary people” in more rural areas. Or, as Rima Khalef succinctly noted, it is “easy to change laws,” but much “harder to change customs and traditions.”
With this in mind, one of the larger questions to come out of the conference is the need to constantly be mindful of who has the right to narrate, define, and defend revolution. In relation to activism and social media, I have asked my students to consider whether things like Facebook and Twitter are new ways to say the same old thing, or are new things being said by the very use of these technologies? That is, how might social media allow individuals to create a space of possibility from more general notions of “public space”?
The thoughts, observations, and lively conversation that my students engaged in via Twitter during the conference speak to this possibility, and I am incredibly proud of their participation during the day’s events. Through the diversity of voices, views, and opinions presented by the panelists, I believe the most important lesson learned by my students is perhaps one of the most simple: we all have the power to make a difference when we make our voices be heard. It is not enough for women to make history; they must also write and record it.
Today, March 8, 2012, marks roughly the 103 annual International Women’s Day. It has been celebrated internationally on dates from the end of February to the middle of March since 1908, and March 8th is a now designated as an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia. Sadly, the United States does not officially recognize the holiday, which is probably why even after four years of dropping not so subtle hints to my friends and family, I have yet to get the day off from work or receive any cards, flowers, or small gifts like women in other countries do.
National recognition and lack of gifts aside, International Women’s Day is still one of my favorite days of the year. It is not only an opportunity to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women around the world, but it is also a great time to reflect on the wonderful women who have made a difference in our own lives. Last week students in my WMS 150 course presented their “Shero” projects, which involves them interviewing a woman who has inspired them, and then writing an essay that not only depicts the strength and spirit of their shero, but also reflects on their shero’s life in relation to our course. Each semester, the mix of touching, funny, and inspiring narratives that my students present always impresses me. They, in turn, benefit from not only sharing their shero’s story, but also from hearing about the amazing women that their classmates know and respect. Ladies, here’s to you!
Ultimately, this is what International Women’s Day is about: sharing our own experiences as women, celebrating the women who have made a difference in our lives, and honoring the women whose voices have been silenced, lost, or forgotten along the way. I have been fortunate to have amazing women as mentors and friends, especially the wonderful colleagues and students I work with in URI’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program.
Republicans Honor “Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month” by Unanimously Voting Against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
Since being signed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorized by Congress in 2000 and 2005. Currently its reauthorization is being debated, and while passing this should be a “no-brainer,” not a single Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill last week. In addition to wanting to cut funding to existing programs aimed at combating domestic violence, Republican opposition is aimed at wording that ensures protection of gay and transgendered victims, as well as provisions for illegal immigrants who seek assistance for domestic violence.
The timing of this debate coincides with “Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month,” a result of the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. In response to the alarming rates of dating violence here in the U.S.— 1 in 3 teens is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, with girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experiencing the highest rate of intimate partner violence—in 2010 Congress declared the month of February dedicated to raising awareness to this often overlooked problem. Now, I realize that just last week I made an argument about the effectiveness of “awareness.” And while I stand by my earlier comments in relation to breast cancer, I do believe that we as a nation are woefully unaware and ill-equipped in dealing with and understanding intimate partner violence.
If you don’t believe me, we only have to look back to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards and the debates surrounding Chris Brown’s performances, to see the ways in which domestic violence is misrepresented and misunderstood by the media. As everyone remembers, Brown, 23, was arrested on the eve of the Grammy Awards in 2009 for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna, who was 21 at the time. This past Sunday, Brown performed at the Grammys for the first time since his arrest in 2009. For many, his two performances were too much, too soon. My point here, though, is not to debate the inclusion of Brown at the Grammys, but, rather, to stress the way in which reactions to Brown’s performances indicate our culture’s twisted relationship to violence against women.
Take, for example, this comment from Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich: “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years, and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” Umm, I’m sorry, the Grammys were the victim here?? How exactly did the physical abuse Rihanna’s body suffered hurt the Grammys? Oh, that’s right, it didn’t. Rather, this is just one way in which the depoliticalization of the battered women’s movement has shifted the focus away from women—who, let’s face it, are the overwhelming majority of victims in these situations—and instead redirected the problem into what feminist Nancy J. Meyer describes as “a hyper-individualist rhetoric of impartial expert knowledge.” Or, in other words, a “culture of victimization” that sees everyone as a victim, except of course, those who actually are.
Even more disturbing than Ehrlich’s comments, though, were the number of Tweets during the Grammys from young girls saying things such as “I’d let Chris Brown beat me up” (@DontDoubtDani), “Like I’ve said multiple times before, Chris Brown can beat me all he wants…. I’d do anything to have him oh my” (@kelllllx), and “Dude, Chris brown can punch me in the face as much as want to, just as long as he kisses it (:” (@KaylaMarieWatts). While many of these women have fired back that they were “joking,” regardless of their intentions or meaning, they speak to the very warped way in which violence against women is seen as a joke in contemporary society.
The battered women’s movement arose from the second wave feminism in the 1960s and the 1970s, turning what was once seen as a “private, family matter,” into something that challenged patriarchal institutions that naturalized and legitimized violence. With its emphasis on “women,” the battered women’s movement argued that this violence was rooted in misogyny and sexism, and what happens to one woman is an issue for all women. Fast-forward to 2012 where domestic violence has been “domesticated” to the point where girls can “joke” about being beaten by a celebrity, and Republicans proudly put politics before the welfare of women. Maybe I’m too old, or too much of a feminist, but the humor is lost on me.
This week, my students in WMS 320 are thinking about “Feminist Activism and Human Bodies.” It’s a fitting topic considering the recent controversy between Susan G. Komen for the Cure (formerly known as The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation) and Planned Parenthood. As anyone who has been on the Internet or watched the news in the last two weeks is aware, on January 31 Komen announced that it would no longer be granting money to help fund cancer screening services at Planned Parenthood.
In a heated election year where women’s health and reproductive freedoms seem to be at the front of battle lines, this move had many people quickly arguing that Komen was putting politics before the welfare of women’s health. It has been no secret that Karen Handel, a Republican who was appointed Komen’s senior vice president for public policy in April 2011, is against Planned Parenthood. Perhaps what no one expected was the way that Planned Parenthood—through social media—would fight back. Almost immediately, angry responses began popping up on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Planned Parenthood quickly joined in with its own official responses, as well as posting links to the media’s coverage of the story, re-Tweeting pro-@PPact Tweets, all the while reminding individuals how they, too, could help support Planned Parenthood.
When all was said and done, Planned Parenthood received over $400,000 in just 24 hours, as well as a $250,000 pledge from Michael Bloomberg. As donations to Planned Parenthood continued to pour in, and amidst continued public pressure, Komen announced on February 3 that it “will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants.” On February 7, as a result of the controversy, Handel resigned from Komen. Discussing the matter in an interview with The Daily Beast on February 10 Handel conceded, “Komen doesn’t have the strength [of Planned Parenthood] in the area of social media.”
This statement is directly relevant to what I am trying to get students in WMS 320 to think about this semester: how social media has changed the landscape for personal and political activism. While some of them have jumped on-board the Twitter wagon, it has been surprising to me how reluctant many of them have been to use Twitter and this blog platform to partake in their own “feminist thought into action.” I am hoping some of them will comment their thoughts about this here. In the meantime, I have been thinking of ways to integrate social media into the classroom even more, not only for WMS 320, but also for WMS 150 and my courses at RISD.
The Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy also has me thinking about the role of “awareness” in social activism, especially as it relates to women’s health. Each semester in WMS 150 I have my students read Barbara Ehrenreich’s somewhat controversial essay “Welcome to Cancerland.” In it, Ehrenreich discusses what she refers to as the “cult of pink kitsch” and its infantilaztion of women. Komen, with its partnership with companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken (and their infamous 2010 “Buckets for a Cure” campaign), has long been accused of the type of “pinkwashing” that Ehrenreich refers to in her essay. Along with this article, I take the opportunity to educate my students on the business model of cause marketing, and ask them to consider the ways in which breast cancer, and its ubiquitous “pink ribbon,” has been used to sell everything from highlighters to hand guns. Students are routinely shocked to find out that the pink ribbon is unregulated in terms of marketing, and that companies routinely use it to sell products (particularly in October) without any consistent regulation on where funds raised for “Breast Cancer Awareness” actually go.
I then show students the following sets of images and ask them, how, exactly, do bracelets saying “i ♥ boobies” raise awareness of anything other than the fact that women’s breasts are constantly being exploited and fetishized? What do products such as these, or “high heel” races for charity, do other than capitalize on the sexist stereotypes that women are routinely subjected to in society? At this point, aren’t we as a culture already “aware” of breast cancer?
Now, I realize that thirty years ago breast cancer was a “women’s issue,” suffered in silence, rarely even discussed by those dying from it. I am certainly not advocating going back to this secrecy or shame. Fortunately, we have moved past this stage, and today breast cancer is one of the most highly visible diseases in American culture (heck, we even have a month set aside for its awareness). My point is, when does awareness move on to action?
In 2010 the National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the nation’s primary medical research agency, designated $631.2 million in breast cancer research, more than twice the amount allocated for any other disease. Yet, according to the CDC, between the years of 1998 and 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available) incidences of breast cancer in the United States have only decreased by 1.3% per year, with virtually no change in the rates of breast cancer among black women. Obviously money—and awareness—are not enough. While funding certainly needs to continue to go in to research and helping those who suffer from breast cancer and other illness, perhaps the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy can be productive in getting us to think about activism—and breast cancer—in new ways. Since 1990 Breast Cancer Action, a grassroots activism group out of San Francisco, has been arguing that “the breast cancer epidemic is a public health crisis, and a social justice issue.” They advocate for “systemic change that will end the breast cancer epidemic, while supporting women & men at risk for and living with breast cancer.” For those looking to take action aimed at prevention, or to learn more about their “Think Before You Pink” campaign, I highly encourage you to visit their website: http://bcaction.org/. Their priorities, which include creating a different kind of awareness, “that it is not just genes, but social injustices — political, economic, and racial inequities — that lead to disparities in breast cancer outcomes” speaks to the type of consciousness that can lead to real change.
I always start the first lecture of WMS 150: Introduction to Women’s Studies by tackling what seems to be the most obvious of questions: “What is Women’s Studies”? The majority of students sign up for the course with little knowledge of the discipline or what is expected of them. This is not surprising; most high school curricula do not cover the topic, and outside of academia Women’s Studies seems to fall victim to the same misconceptions and abuses that feminism does. Students do usually seem to have a vague sense that Women’s Studies has something to do with feminism, but again, without actually knowing what feminism is, this knowledge doesn’t provide them with much insight. This discussion of “definition” has become even more relevant this semester as WMS 150 has finally been approved as “Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies,” an exciting development that accompanies a faculty vote to begin the process to change the program’s name here at the University of Rhode Island to Gender and Women’s Studies. While courses in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program will still be committed to investigating women’s experiences, perspectives, and contributions, our proposed name change represents the program’s study of how the social construction of gender and the social relations of women and men structure our politics, culture, and everyday lives (or, as one student suggested on Thursday, our “self-identity” in a gendered world). Our new name also better reflects the ways that Women’s Studies has, and continues to, address issues of ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality, along with the fight for social justice and equality.
This question of “naming” has been on my mind for some time, and apparently I am not alone in my thoughts. In the recently published Rethinking Women’s and Gender Studies (Routledge 2012) editors Catherine M. Orr, Ann Braithwaite, and Diane Lichtenstein have compiled a strong collection of essays that address this very question. In exploring the “genealogy” of key terms associated with Gender and Women’s Studies (such as “feminism,” “activism,” “interdisciplinarity,” and “institutionalization”), the essays in the collection not only speak to the changing dynamics of the field of Gender and Women’s Studies, but also asks those engaged in this field of work to consider how “questioning any of these terms lead[s] us to issues we may not want to face, stakes we might not want to acknowledge, conclusions that may challenge us too deeply” (3). It’s a provocative challenge, and one that I hope to purse over the course of the semester, particularly in my instruction of WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action.
With this course, again, I’m brought back to this idea of “naming” as I, along with my students, consider the implications of “feminist thought” and “action.” What can be expected from such a course? My query speaks directly to Orr’s, Braithwaite’s, and Lichtenstein’s concerns, as they ask, “Why, for example is a term such as ‘feminism’ so easily assumed to be a requisite” for Gender and Women’s Studies, and likewise, why do “we repeat so widely and often” that Gender and Women’s Studies “is ‘activist’ yet seldom articulate exactly what we mean, or do not mean, by that term, or how it might function to propel the field in directions that should, at the very least, require further investigation” (2). While the catalog description of WMS 320 as “political thought, analysis, and activism campaigns for women’s rights” offers some direction, it seems to me that true “feminist thought into action” should require some type of active component, while at the same time, interrogate the very assumptions that Orr, Braithwaite, and Lichtenstein draw our attention to. Therefore, in this course I hope to not only have my students engage in their own forms of personal activism, but to push analysis even further into a critical engagement that questions the very relationships of feminism, activism, and Gender and Women’s Studies. That is, what is the value of these terms on their own, and how do they (or not?) contribute to the changing dynamics of Gender and Women’s Studies here at the University of Rhode Island and beyond?
Here’s a copy of the email I sent to the students in WMS 320 welcoming them to the course.
Welcome! If you are receiving this email it means you are currently registered for WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action. I am excited by all the names I recognize on the roster, and I am looking forward to meeting all of you that I do not yet know.
This is my third time teaching WMS 320, and I am extremely excited to be teaching it in a hybrid class format for the first time. I’m also excited about the updates and changes I’ve made to the course, as well as the additional credit opportunity that is being offered. I imagine that this course is going to be very different than any other Women’s Studies course (and perhaps any courses in other disciplines) that you have taken. I encourage you to visit our Sakai site as well as jennbrandt.net for more details. Please do not feel overwhelmed or confused by the outline or requirements of the class. I will explain everything in detail on Tuesday. My goal is to make this class as informative, useful, and FUN, as possible. All you need to bring is an open-mind and enthusiasm; the rest we will figure out together.
Please note that there is a text required for the course. It can be ordered online at Amazon.com, directly from the publisher, or at the URI bookstore. There is a also a copy of the text on reserve at the URI library.
Please email me directly with any questions. I will be in my office on Monday and on Tuesday before class if anyone would like to meet with me. I also encourage you to post on the blog a welcome hello to your classmates and our readers.
Enjoy these last few days of break!
With the semester less than a week away, it’s time for me to finalize my syllabi and get moving with things. The course description and syllabus for WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action are now available. Since I am requiring students in this course to participate and comment on the blog, I imagine that most of the activity here will be related to this course. In addition to undertaking a semester long research project, students will also be using social media to put the “action” into feminist thought. I’m excited to see what my students find and how they relate this aspect of the course with their research projects.
Students in WMS 320 also have the unique opportunity to register for an additional credit by participating in the Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study’s “Women Making Democracy” conference on March 30 at Harvard University. Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies students from a number of classes at URI will be traveling to Cambridge to participate events. The Gender and Women’s Studies Program is also in the process of contacting conference speakers about a suggested reading list for students. Once classes begin and the conference nears, I will be posting more details.
This semester I will be experimenting with online tools and social media in the courses I am teaching at the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island School of Design. I will be using Twitter to send my students updates about class, links to articles, and to facilitate classroom discussion. I will also be blogging about my experiences here on this site, and will encourage my students to comment and add to the discussion. While I do not have a specific goal in mind for this site and exercise, I am hoping that it will expand my pedagogical toolbox, enhance the learning experience for my students, and foster fun and creative dialogues. I have no idea how well this will work, but I am excited to see where things go. I welcome suggestions from anyone who has integrated similar technology into the classroom, as well as general thoughts and comments.