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2017-2018 Graduate Fellows

June 27, 2017

Congratulations to our 2017 – 2018 IRWGS Graduate Fellows Erica Richardson (English and Comparative Literature) and Syantani Chatterjee (Anthropology). Fellows are selected annually, based on the excellence of their scholarship and their commitment to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Erica Richardson is a seventh year PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature. Her research explores “how black authors and intellectuals from the 1890s through the 1930s use aspects of sociology in their literary production as a means of representing black social life during a time of racial violence and constraint.” Richardson explains that in her work “categories of gender and sexuality are central to defining and theorizing black racial uplift.”  Richardson hopes that as a graduate fellow at IRWGS she will have “the opportunity to cultivate a conversation about black women’s agency, intellectualism, and symbolics within American political discourse that might benefit the IRWGS’s community.” According to Richardson, IRWGS has always been a place where she can let her thoughts “unfold, wander, and linger.” Richardson said, “I hope in that spirit to encourage the broader Columbia community to really consider what feminist practice means to them as scholars, teachers, and activists.”   In the fall, Richardson will also serve as a Literature Humanities Preceptor in Columbia University’s Department of Core Curriculum.  When Erica isn’t teaching or working on her research, she spends her time enjoying healthy Southern cooking (it does exist!), weight training, and making collages.

Syantani Chatterjee is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology. She has recently concluded her fieldwork in Mumbai, India. As a graduate student at Columbia, Syantani says she has primarily been interested in “how processes of embodiment interact with mechanisms of power.” Her current research focuses on “what modes of life, endurance, and politics materialize amid exposure to almost imperceptible everyday toxicity in Mumbai’s urban periphery.” Syantani’s master’s thesis focused on commercial gestational surrogacy in India. Her concern was “to understand the manner in which the “perfect surrogate mother” is produced.” Syantani says that she has spent many years in India politically mobilizing and organizing around the rights of marginalized and gendered labor. Thus, working at IRWGS will, she says, “be an extension of several political and intellectual commitments close to my heart.”   Syantani is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer (Indian classical dance), and considers herself to have been a professional dancer in a previous life. She has helped curate dance festivals involving dancers from India and the United States to perform in New York at Barnard, Columbia, and the Asia Society.

Pride of Lions: Fifty Years of LGBT Activism at Columbia

June 12, 2017

"Pride of Lions: Fifty Years of LGBT Activism at Columbia" celebrates activism at Columbia from the Beat Generation to GendeRevolution and marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the first officially recognized LGBT student group--The Student Homophile League--here at Columbia in 1967.  The exhibition was created by Columbia and Barnard students as a final project for the Telling LGBT History seminar taught David Eisenbach, History Department, and Sarah Witte, Columbia Libraries.

The exhibition is on display Monday-Friday from 9am-4:45pm through June 30th at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, 6th Floor East,  Columbia University, 535 West 114th St.  

IRWGS Essay Prize Winners

May 16, 2017

Congratulations to Rebecca Claire Fisher (CC '17 and American Studies major), winner of the 2017 IRWGS Women’s and Gender Studies Award for "The Separate Spheres Argument Against Women's Jury Service: A Review of the Literature,” and Sona Armenouhi Quigley (GS '18 and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies major), winner of the 2017 IRWGS Queer Studies Award for "Quelle Surprise!”

We interviewed both students to learn more about their work and their plans for the future.

1. What inspired you to focus on the shift in women’s civil responsibilities and the “separate spheres” ideology as your senior thesis?

In the Fall of 2014, I took Professor Nadasen’s history course, American Women in the Twentieth Century.  Professor Nadasen framed her narrative of history through separate spheres ideology, problematizing historical events for their perpetuation of a biological hierarchy of gender with social and political implications. 

In research for another course, I came across a timeline of Supreme Court cases on women’s jury service.  While I had studied women’s suffrage in many classes, I had never learned about the women’s jury service movement.  I became interested in applying the separate spheres analysis that I learned from Professor Nadasen to jury service, because I viewed jury service, like voting, as an expression of women’s participatory citizenship and civil responsibilities.

For my thesis, I studied the legal history of exclusions and exemptions of women from jury service, tracing the separate spheres ideology through the Supreme Court jurisprudence.  Using jury service as an example, I examined the development of women’s citizenship from embracing women’s domestic role in the private sphere to challenging the premise of gender difference as a pretext for sexism.   

When I embarked on my research for this project last summer, I could not foresee the magnitude with which women’s rights and questions of American citizenship would impact the election of 2016.  I could not have imagined a more critical moment at which to grapple with the intersection of women and citizenship, as well as the role of history in shaping American ideals.  I am humbled by the opportunity to interpret the stories of women who fought for their full rights as American citizens.

2. You are graduating this month with a degree in American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. How have you been able to integrate your interest women's studies in the work you have done here at Columbia?

In my first semester at Columbia, I was placed in a Women’s and Gender Studies-themed University Writing section.  Having never formally studied theories of feminism and intersectionality, I enjoyed reading and writing about feminist scholarship, and decided to pursue the Special Concentration in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, to complement my major in American Studies.  My major and concentration give me the freedom to pursue an interdisciplinary education, and I have taken courses in numerous departments, including History, Political Science, English, Economics, Religion, and Sociology, all relating to either American Studies or WGSS, and sometimes both!  Both IRWGS and the Center for American Studies are small departments with passionate, approachable faculty and hands-on advising, which has enabled me to tailor my studies to my interests.  I am grateful to have had the freedom and academic support to focus my thesis around a topic in American women’s legal history, culminating my coursework in both departments.  After four years of an excellent education, my randomly assigned University Writing section is still one of my favorite classes!

3. What are your plans for the future?

After graduation, I will be working as an analyst at a law firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in research for international disputes and government enforcement investigations.  After working for a few years, I plan to apply to graduate programs in legal history, to teach at either the undergraduate or the law school level.  I am excited to build on what I have learned at Columbia and contribute to the developing field of American women’s legal history.



1. What inspired you to focus on the “zero” and nothingness as it relates to queer theory for your paper?           

I wrote this paper last semester for Professor Jack Halberstam’s “Introduction to Queer Theory” class. We read Gender Trouble early in the semester and Judith Butler’s arguments about the power of language and signifiers, their ability to create and confer value, fascinated me. I began thinking about numbers and how they are not only signifiers, but also a kind of language. Like language, numbers have disciplinary power, especially in the present moment, when we live in a world of coding and computers that relies on a “language” of zeros and ones.

Butler also writes about unstable subjects. Zero is an unstable number; it is both a value and the absence of a value. It is a destabilizing signifier, and nothingness (what zero often signifies) is a destabilizing concept. From these curiosities, questions such as “How does one signify nothing?” and “What power do such significations have?” became starting points for this project.

2. How have you been able to integrate your anticipated degree in Women’s and Gender Studies with the work you have done here at Columbia?     

Towards the end of this semester, I was sitting in French with a friend who goes to Barnard. She is a newly declared WGSS major and I asked her how her intro classes had gone. She turned to me and said, “I feel like I’ve been let in on this huge secret. And it’s great, but it’s also overwhelming, because I’m not sure what to do with it now.” I thought her observation was brilliant. I felt similarly when I began my studies. WGS has radically altered how I see the world; it’s affected the things I notice, what I pay attention to, even what I value and care about. My WGS work has given me a vocabulary that I take with me as I listen, talk, think and write in all my other classes. It is so much more than “what I study.” It has been, and continues to be, a profoundly transformative experience – personally, academically, intellectually, interpersonally and politically. Most importantly, it’s taught me the importance of interrogating my position in the world, a process that will continue for the rest of my life.

3. What are your plans for the future?

            I do see academia as a possibility for the future. I see myself going to graduate school at some point; there’s a Gender Institute at the London School of Economics that appeals to me, but I can also see myself applying to a PhD program for Women’s and Gender Studies. I plan to take some time off from school and work after I graduate. I did an internship last summer with an independent publishing press, Discipline Press, that focused on the intersection of art, subculture and sexuality. It ignited an interest in activist/radical/subversive art that I would like to explore further. I can see myself working in a museum, such as the Brooklyn Museum or the Museum of Sex. I would also be excited to work for another publishing press, like CUNY’s Feminist Press for example. 



This year, we are also offering an honorable mention for both prizes. Congratulations to Audrey Vardenaga (CC' 17 and Political Science major) the Women’s and Gender Studies Prize Honorable Mention for essay titled, "Refiguring the Romantic Body: Chinese Women Pianists in the American Conservatory," and Claire Chen (CC'17 and Physics major) the Queer Studies Prize Honorable Mention for essay titled, "No Homo, No Hetero: On the American Queer Lexicon and Indigenous Redefinition."

1. What inspired you to focus on Chinese Women pianists for your senior thesis?

I was struck by the lack of academic attention on the politics of western classical musicians in the US, particularly given the Orientalist and gendered ways that critics and audiences understand Chinese women pianists. The classical music world almost insulates itself from critique given the dominant logics of pure/absolute music and norms for performances. As a pianist myself, I was fortunate enough to meet and chat with a multitude of Chinese women in American conservatories about their lives and experiences as transnational subjects. Hearing what they had to say about their transnational lives as performers and interpreters inspired me greatly, and I hope to provide a means of sharing their stories through my article. 

2. You are graduating this month with a degree in Political Science. How have you been able to integrate your interest women's studies in the work you have done here at Columbia?

To be honest, it was very difficult to bridge my Political Science studies with my interest in women's studies. Most of my Poli Sci courses rely heavily on dominant frameworks that provide little room for the critical work of women's studies. I wouldn't say that I integrated women's studies and my work in Poli Sci together as if I've come to some sort of unified understanding of each; rather, I generated my own ways of unlearning and critically rethinking frameworks that tend to be reified in the political science curriculum. 

3. What are your plans for the future?

I am attending Mannes College in The New School for the next two years to pursue a Masters in piano performance under pianist Richard Goode. I hope to eventually undertake a PhD in musicology or performance studies so as to continue my inquiries on the social and political worlds of western classical music.

1.. What inspired you to focus on queer discourse and indigenous identity for your essay?

I’ve always been really fascinated by the ways we can trace histories and legacies within language—the way the names we have for ourselves in our language implicitly carry narratives and cultural meaning. In spaces for queer and Asian people, I’ve had conversations about how the language of gender and sexuality used in America can sometimes feel ill-fitting or alienating. And in some cases, for those with heritage from places where binary gender and heterosexuality were violently enforced by European colonizers, to use these labels can even be violent. Last semester, I took Native America in the Anthropology department with Professor Audra Simpson. The course focused intensely on the legacies of violent cultural erasure in America, and we spent a lot of time talking about how the suppression of language and tradition played into American expansionist agendas. For the final research paper, we were asked to write on a topic of our choice, and I decided to explore on this intersection of race, nationality, sexuality, and language.

2. You are graduating this month with a degree in Physics. How have you been able to integrate your interest women's studies in the work you have done here at Columbia?

It’s definitely been a balancing act. For most of my college career, my academic work was focused in physics and mathematics, and discussions about identity, activism, and dynamics of power were things I explored in extracurricular activities. I’m very thankful to have been able to work closely with the Office of Multicultural Affairs on programs like Under1Roof and QTAB, which allowed me not only to explore and develop my understanding of identity within society, but let me work towards applying these conversations towards bettering in environment for marginalized students on campus. My senior year, however, I found myself with much more space in my class schedule, and I tried to fill those spaces with courses that let me delve into these interests in an academic space. 

3. What are your plans for the future?

Columbia’s definitely put me through the wringer, so I’m showing myself some compassion and taking it easy for a year or two. In order to keep the time productive, I’m using it to get some research experience up at CUMC to facilitate a move from physics into neuroscience between undergraduate and graduate studies. I’d love to continue exploring the topics of queer theory and its intersections with identity, so you might catch me sneaking into some classes next year!

IRWGS Honors Graduating Seniors in 2017

May 9, 2017

IRWGS Honors Graduating Seniors in 2017

Best wishes and Congratulations to these IRWGS students!

Students graduating with a Major in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies:

  • Alexandra Diaz-Aleman
  • Henna Rustamiy

Students graduating with a Special Concerntraion in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies:

  • Carolyn Binder
  • Meredith Dubree
  • Molly Engel
  • Evy Exime
  • Rebecca Fisher
  • Irene Garcia Banuchi
  • Rayaan Anil Khatau
  • Mirnada Litwak
  • Jing Qu
  • Allison Sawyer
  • Audrey Vardanega
  • Rochelle Wilbun
  • Bennet Wilcox
  • Noelle Wyman


Feminist to the Core: Bernard Harcourt on Nietzsche and Jack Halberstam on Freud

May 5, 2017


Leah Werier, Art History, PhD ’18 and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow and Alessia Palanti, Italian, PhD candidate and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is one of the texts that is intrinsic to the syllabus of the Columbia core class “Contemporary Civilizations”. Nietzsche was a German philosopher famous for his critical writing on morality, religion, philosophy, and prevalent social and political ideas of the late 19th century. On April 21st, Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Political Science, Columbia University, spoke to core students, instructors and graduate students on Nietzsche as part of IRWG’s Feminist to the Core Series.

Feminist to the Core is a series which aims to give the audience feminist tools to challenge, critique, rethink and engage with Core texts.  Spring semester programs featured , Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Political Science, on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jack Halberstam, Visiting Professor of IRWGS and English and Comparative Literature on Freud.

In his program on Nietzsche, Professor Harcourt sought to question how one could engage with Nietzsche’s texts as a feminist. Nietzsche is not a scholar known for his feminist leanings. At the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes, “Suppose truth is a woman—what then?” “Woman” is presented as a metaphor, a means for Nietzsche to present gender driven reflections. With this in mind, Harcourt discussed Jaques Derrida, the French philosopher known for developing deconstruction, for it is Derrida who wrote Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Derrida notes that “woman” in Nietzsche’s writing is a challenge; using deconstruction he aims to shed light and move beyond Nietzsche’s writings about women as only sexist. Harcourt explained that interpretations impose on practices, and Derrida’s deconstruction elucidates that statements can be a reflection of what we as readers are doing.

Harcourt also introduced Luce Irigaray whose book, Marine Lover: Of Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 1980, is a written confrontation with Nietzsche’s text and ideas. Irigaray addresses Nietzsche, as if she is his lover, as if he were present, she writes: “You have always trapped me in your web.” Irigaray, would go on to write, This Sex Which is Not One (1985), in which she rethinks “female sexuality” in western philosophical and theoretical discourse. Her questioning results in a reading of Nietzsche, Harcourt argues, where “woman" should really be read as “an object of desire” be it sexual, jealous, or personal. In understanding “woman” in Nietzsche’s writing as an object of desire, one could first confront this, then substitute “object of desire” for woman in the question, “Suppose truth is a woman—what then?” This interpretation allows us to take the passage and reread it, to encounter Nietzsche in new ways.  Harcourt concluded that these readings offer ways to confront the question of “woman” in Nietzsche’s writings, and to find a way to “go somewhere productive with it.”

In his program on Sigmund Freud on April 27th, Jack Halberstam argued that Freud creates a language from which we cannot get away, and we have an obligation to contextualize his work and understand our linguistic and theoretical legacy. More directly, according to Halberstam, Freud’s contribution of psychoanalysis to the world is unparalleled, and fundamental in a Gender and Sexuality course.

The most recurrent critique of Freud is of his sexism, which Halberstam challenged by reminding us that, in fact, Freud exposes us to existing systems of thought.  Halberstam shared several film and musical clips in order to illustrate Freud’s influence on contemporary popular culture, including a clip from the Pixar animated film, Inside Out.  Halberstam further explained that for Freud, no one can arrive at a normative adulthood because there are too many stages that we traverse since childhood that influence our development. Freud exposed us to repression as a mechanism training us to conceal what we are not supposed to feel and express what people want to hear, and furthermore, that this very mechanism is deeply gendered.           

Halberstam also shared a clip from the television show, The Sopranos, in which the main character discusses his discovery of repetition compulsion with his psychoanalyst using the example of a bus—wanting to catch the bus but needing to learn to let it go. For Freud, humanity is born immature, which partly explains why things stay the same—we construct systems that are sustained and perpetuated. Tony Soprano parses the very mechanisms of psychoanalytic epiphany followed by disappointment: there is no “cure,” psychoanalysis is an ongoing process.

Halberstam explained that Freud’s Oedipus complex—fear of castration—neatly explained behavioral patterns for boys, but fails to find a correlative paradigm for girls. According to Halberstam, Freud doesn’t know what women want, and never was truly able to exit his own masculine position. However, he devised an understanding of girls as identifying with the mother and desiring their fathers, ultimately wanting to have children.

Halberstam concluded by emphasizing that we cannot excise psychoanalytic thinking—we can explode it on behalf of thinking differently. Halberstam reminds us that we do not live in Freud’s context, but that we inhabit what Paul B. Preciado calls the “pharmaco-pornographic” era, a regime of power and pleasure in which, for example, masculinity is not defined by the fear of castration but by the loss of sexual prowess, which is easily remedied by pharmacological means like viagra; all frailties of masculinity can be fixed with a pill. Finally, Halberstam emphasized that we should not focus our critique of Freud on his misogyny or his sexism, but rather, on his lack of critique of the very gender systems that he exposed; he revealed the mechanisms of the status quo but never challenged them.

Winners Announced!

May 5, 2017

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 22nd annual Queer Studies Award and 10th annual Women’s and Gender Studies Award:

Queer Studies Prize:

  • Winning Essay: Quelle Surprise!
    • Winner: Sona Quigley GS '18

Women’s and Gender Studies Prize:

  • Winning Essay: The Separate Spheres Argument Against Women's Jury Service: A Review of the Literature
    • Winner: Rebecca Fisher CC '17

This year, we are also offering an honorable mention for both prizes. These students/essays are:

  • Queer Studies Prize Honorable Mention: No Homo, No Hetero: On the American Queer Lexicon and Indigenous Redefinition
    • Name: Claire Chen CC '17
  • Women’s and Gender Studies Prize Honorable Mention: Refiguring the Romantic Body: Chinese Women Pianists in the American Conservatory
    • Name: Audrey Vardenega CC ‘17

IRWGS is Hiring! Postdoctoral Research Scholar

March 27, 2017

Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Columbia University

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality invites applications for a postdoctoral research scholar position to begin July 1, 2017. We seek an innovative scholar whose work focuses on gender and sexuality, is informed by feminist and queer theory, and is rigorously interdisciplinary in its approach to the world. We are particularly keen to consider transnational research in such fields as critical development studies, law and social justice, environmental studies, migration, indigeneity, human rights, science and technology studies, visual cultures, and performance studies. Scholars in the social sciences, as well as those trained in interdisciplinary fields, whose work focuses on peoples, institutions, discourses, and practices outside North America and Europe are especially encouraged to apply. 

Fellows are expected to pursue their research on gender and sexuality in an interdisciplinary context, teach one course per semester (1-1 load) in our core curriculum, be available to advise undergraduates, and organize one public program per year, connected to their research.  The initial appointment will be for one year, renewable for up to three years. Starting salary will be $60,000 with benefits. 

Applicants should submit a letter of application, CV, writing sample, a sample syllabus, and contact information (email addresses) for three individuals who will provide letters of reference. Review of applications will begin on April 14th and continue until the position is filled. Please send application materials to irwgs@columbia.edu.

Qualifications: Ph.D. in hand or defended and deposited by June 30, 2017.

Nicole Kaiser CC '20: A Response to Shades of Intimacy: Women in the Time of Revolution with Hortense Spillers

March 3, 2017

A Response to Shades of Intimacy: Women in the Time of Revolution with Hortense Spillers          

by Nicole Kaiser CC '20

            Hortense Spillers introduced her talk with one of the greatest ideological paradoxes of the 18th century, involving the United States, France, and their imperialist domination over African states: how can a nation that stands for freedom practice slavery? In her lecture, Spillers complicates conceptions of 18th century politics, Western powers, and the history of the African slave trade by challenging the idea of what is means to be human.

            With a masterful manipulation of language, as exemplified in the title of her talk, Spillers played with different associations of the word “labor” to describe both the manual labor of slaves and the labor of bearing children in coercive sexual relationships. Explicitly defining the separation between the master’s family and the “shadow family,” she argued that a master’s ownership of his own enslaved children cannot allow for intimacy in a system that encourages the differentiation between the family and the “other.”

            Spillers also discussed the destruction of the “cultural history of touch” at the onset of the 18th century, using the powerful binaries of body and flesh, and belonging citizen and alien body. Spillers asserted that if a body cannot prevent or ward off another's touch, if it can be invaded, entered, or penetrated by coercive power, then the touch is no longer intimacy, but now defined as violence. How can intimacy, a word associated with love and healing, also describe relations that violate and wound? In her discussion on captive bodies, Spillers drew on the alienation from lawful protection and the blurred lines between animal life and human life that characterized master-slave relations. She also considered how sex, gender, and race function differently in private and public settings, arguing that the public master-slave social contract outweighs any private personal sentimental feelings if one partner involved is not self-willing or self-owning.

            Spillers focused on the relationship, or lack thereof, between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson. How, she asked, can love and intimacy possibly exist at this inter-racial crossing between a master and slave? Close proximity, she argued, is not reliable as a measure of social cohesion and does not constitute as “intimacy.” A consensual, intimate relationship is not possible between master and slave if the master can sell off his sexual partner and shadow children for profit. Spillers claimed that this social order is not conducive to feelings of love and intimacy. Love under conditions where there is no law, no protection, and an arbitrary abuse of power is not love. Love does not and will not matter if it is not free.

            Spillers’ evaluation of master-slave relations and redefinition of intimacy made me question the implications of historical events I previously thought I understood. Through this critical lens of gender and sexuality, Spillers demonstrated the ways we can examine the fractured gender and power dynamics of other political movements, historical trends, and societal patterns. 

Allison Sawyer (CC 17): Seeking the True Face of “Hookup Culture” with Professor Lisa Wade

February 23, 2017

Allison Sawyer (CC 17): Seeking the True Face of “Hookup Culture” with Professor Lisa Wade

Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, has identified a phenomenon that she believes to be unique in the history of sex: she labels it “hookup culture,” and what is new is not that young people are having casual sex, but that this sex has become the norm and the expectation on college campuses. Professor Wade came to Columbia to discuss her research and insights on this topic in a February 7, 2017 talk entitled “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.”

I appreciated Professor Wade’s commitment to not succumbing to the generalizations or moralistic pronouncements that often pervade discussions of this topic. By presenting the fraction of students who, according to her research, love hookup culture, choose not to partake in it, or feel ambivalently about it, she sought to complicate the generalized surface-level view of this phenomenon and expose the complex system of actual relationships people have to it. She made the critical distinction between “hookup culture” and actually “hooking up”; while one can “opt out” of the latter, if one wishes, there is no avoiding the cultural expectations and pressures that surround it. It was refreshing to hear the often relatable, incredibly personal student accounts that she had gathered and to see myself and my peers reflected in different aspects of this multi- faceted college student portrait. While I think Columbia has its own particularities, such as the extreme amount of academic stress many students are under and the relatively limited free time this leaves for romantic and sexual exploits, many of her observations resonate strongly here as well, and thus presumably generalize well on a national scale.

Another of Wade’s points that I found particularly interesting is the idea that women are encouraged to embody stereotypically “masculine” behaviors their whole lives—within the strict limitations of gender norms, of course—and thus when they get to college, they naturally gravitate toward a more “masculine” way of having sex. I recognized this to be true in my own life: I was always encouraged to play sports and pursue math and was always praised more for these behaviors than for my activities in the more “feminine” realms of dance and visual arts. Today, when I tell people I am majoring in computer science, it is not rare to get nods of approval and comments to the effect of “That’s such a great field for women to get into.” I have observed this expectation that women embody the “masculine” in other realms as well, and it has bothered me by its double standards and impossibility to navigate. For example, women in politics are expected to exhibit the “masculine” virtues of strength and conviction, yet they are not freed from expectations of “feminine” qualities like being nurturing and smiling liberally. Although “tech culture” varies greatly by company, it seems to often exhibit a related paradox whereby women are encouraged to participate in company culture in the abstract, but then frequently stigmatized for—if not outright blocked from—participating in “masculine” activities like discussing video games and playing flag football. Wade did not claim that women are categorically disadvantaged by participating in hookup culture, but she did point to the ways in which women, as usual, need to tread a finer line of socially expected gender fluidity: in hookup culture, “desperate” is the worst thing you can be, a label that is stereotypically feminine and much more readily applied to women. Thus women must again navigate a thin range of “acceptable” behavior within which they must completely avoid certain aspects of “traditional” feminine sexual behavior while retaining others (since clearly, the gender binary is not being demolished here), a challenge that some women find liberating and others find anxiety-inducing, plus a whole range of emotions in between.



February 23, 2017



IRWGS Graduate Fellowships

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) seeks applications for our 2017-18 Graduate Fellowship.  Graduate fellows will be expected to participate actively in IRWGS activities and to complete a maximum of 60 hours of work per semester.  Fellows will coordinate the IRWGS Graduate Colloquium (described below), organize the Graduate Student Open House, and assist the IRWGS Director and Associate Director, and the Directors of Graduate Studies and Undergraduate Studies with occasional research and/or administrative tasks.

Stipends will be $3000 per semester.

Selection will be based on academic distinction in feminist and departmental scholarly work, and a proven commitment to IRWGS and its activities. IRWGS Graduate Fellowships generally go to Ph.D. students who have completed or are planning to complete the IRWGS graduate certificate.  Please note that IRWGS graduate fellows may not hold other fellowships or grants (including the Whiting and the Kluge from Columbia) in 2017-18. Applicants must indicate in their application any plans to apply for other fellowships and grants in 2017-18 and must inform the Institute if they accept other grants that may conflict with the IRWGS Graduate Fellowship requirements. These are GSAS rules.


The IRWGS Graduate Colloquium

The Colloquium consists of two ongoing programs: “Theory Salon” and “Graduate Colloquium.”  IRWGS Graduate Fellows coordinate these programs and, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, have significant input into determining the content of both programs. In past years, meetings have focused on graduate student works-in-progress; recently published scholarship in the field; faculty-led discussion of particular texts or a body of work; current research by faculty members; and/or professional issues such as preparing work for conferences and for publication, drafting dissertation prospectuses, and applying for academic jobs.

Graduate Fellows will be expected to secure space for all events (usually the IRWGS seminar room), maintain a regularly updated email list, notify participants of upcoming events, copy and distribute any pre-circulated readings, purchase light refreshments for each meeting, maintain a Colloquium budget, and write IRWGS blog posts for public programs.

Please submit a brief letter of application, a CV, and a short writing sample to irwgs@columbia.edu by or before Friday, April 14, 2017. Please include the names and contact information of two faculty members familiar with your work and ask one of these faculty members to write for you a brief letter of support.  


February 23, 2017




The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia announce their search for Teaching Assistants for the spring 2018 course V1001 – Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies.

Graduate students currently enrolled in a PhD program in any Arts and Sciences Department are eligible to apply, with approval from their home department.  Please note that Columbia TAs may not hold more than one TA position in any one semester and may not accept additional fellowship or departmental support during the term of the TA appointment.

Candidates should send a letter of intent (including background, experience, and fields of interest), an updated CV, and the name and contact information for one academic reference to Professor Laura Ciolkowski c/o irwgs@columbia.edu, by Friday, April 14th.  Application materials may also be dropped off at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, 763 Schermerhorn Extension.

American Hookup

February 22, 2017

by Alessia Palanti, Italian, PhD candidate and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

Lisa Wade, Associate Professor of Sociology at Occidental College, delivered a magnetic lecture to a packed lecture hall on February 7th on her book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.

Wade’s research incorporated first-hand experiences shared by students from several college campuses via in-person interviews and in writing. Wade’s book seeks to detangle the social codes and practices of “hookup culture” and circumvents a moralizing stance. Her research yielded some surprising data: according to Wade, approximately only eight students “hook up” throughout their college years, a figure that does not reflect the so-called epidemic of “hooking up” on campus.  According to Wade, therefore, the problem is not the behavior, it is the culture.

Wade clarified the meaning of “hooking up” as a casual sexual encounter with no interest in the pursuit of a more committed relationship. While not unique to the 21st century, what distinguishes casual sex practice today is that, in her view, it has become an expectation and/or obligation on the college campus; one should be having casual sex, and the institution in itself is set up to systematically endorse this kind of culture.

Wade discovered a set of specific “do’s and don’ts” to properly hooking up. For example, casual sex with a friend is dangerous, better to hook up with stranger or someone you actively dislike; alcohol is the social signifier for a hookup: it is best to be inebriated because sober sex implies intention and meaning. Students articulated the differences between a “hot” hookup, which is spontaneous and entirely commitment-free, and a “warm” hookup, which implies elements of affection and tenderness in a sexual encounter; it is protocol for a period of aloofness, or acting “cold” and unkind, or to even mistreat a partner after the hookup to minimize any assumption of an emotional connection. Sex itself—a tremendously intimate exchange—Wade warns, is understood and prized to be as meaningless as possible, whereas any small gesture, like holding hands, kissing, caressing are extremely meaningful.

Wade describes college as an erotic marketplace where the status of the people one hooks up with will directly influence one’s own status. Overall, Wade asserts that all disadvantaged social groups in American society (outside the college scene) are reproduced in hookup culture, where intersections of privilege tend to have more successful hookups. Wade discussed heterosexual men’s experiences with hookup culture as a form of initiation into male relationships, a means to navigate the world of masculinity and learn to make negotiations.

Wade took a number of questions from the audience, ranging from the cultural demands placed on men and homosocial bonding, to the rise of online dating and dating apps, the role of pornography and media representations of sexuality and sexual acts, issues of consent, the racialized experienced of hookup cultures, and, more pragmatically, how can this be changed? Ultimately, Wade argues that if we want to “fix” hookup culture, we must improve American culture.

Are you interested in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?

January 12, 2017

Are you interested in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies? Read more, below, about how you can find the specific program to meet your needs:

IRWGS Holiday Hours 2016

December 19, 2016

Issues Tank | Episode 13: Locker Room Talk with Laura Ciolkowski

December 7, 2016

IRWGS Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski discusses #RapeCulture on WFUV podcast "Issues Tank" (segment begins at 14:41)




We all know about the Access Hollywood tape of our president-elect. It also struck a nerve with some athletes who felt like Donald Trump disrespected the locker rooms they know. So this month, we decided to dive into what the locker room means to athletes, and the sorts of things they generally talk about.

But the tape also sparked a national conversation about language and sexism. Later in the episode, we explore the relationship between power, gender, and the words we use. Listen in!

iTunes download available here.

Music Credit

“Driveby” Podington Bear

“I’m Going for a Coffee” Lee Rosevere

“Funky Element” Bensound

Photo Credit

flattop341, Flickr


Feminist to the Core Goes to the Opera: Sexual Violence Onstage in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni

November 15, 2016

by Leah Werier, Art History, PhD ’18 and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

On October 24th, a large lecture hall in Butler Library was overflowing with eager spectators attending the first “Feminist to the Core” program of the 2016-2017 academic year.  Faculty and students as far away as Ireland and El Salvador joined the program via live stream. “Feminist to the Core Goes to the Opera” featured distinguished faculty Micaela Baranello (McPherson/Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow, Smith College), Bonnie Gordon (Associate Professor of Music, University of Virginia) and Elaine Sisman (Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music, Columbia University).  Organized by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS), Feminist to the Core is intended, according to IRWGS Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski, “to spark feminist conversation and rigorous debate about Core texts and to transform the critical conversations within the classroom.” In last week’s program, produced in collaboration with the Department of Music, speakers addressed the question of sexual violence onstage in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, the opera that this semester’s Music Humanities students will attend as part of their Core requirement.

            Professor Micaela Baranello focused her attention on operatic staging practices, where “idea and practice collide,” as a means of linking the past and the present. She reminded us that no production has “neutral staging” and argued that staging has the power to “create, destroy, or renovate the promesse du bonheur.”  Baranello argued that, in so far as the bodies of women figure prominently on stage, Don Giovanni puts women’s suffering on display, in spite of the fact that women are rarely granted a voice or agency.

            Professor Bonnie Gordon linked Mozart’s 18th century opera to the contemporary moment, specifically what she described as the “wretched presidential election.” Gordon discussed the contemporary resonances for teaching Don Giovanni and for thinking about sexual violence onstage.  How might one think about Don Giovanni’s violations against women? Gordon argued that opera gives one the tools to understand rape culture. For example, in her view, the aria Batti Batti (beat me, beat me) is “more about rape culture than rape in some ways.” Gordon explained, rape culture blames its victims and propagate the belief that if women are careful enough they can “avoid rape.”  A spectator of the opera can be swept away by the gorgeousness of the melodies. However, a closer analysis necessarily leads to critique. The parallel between the “Two Dons” -- Don Giovanni, and Donald Trump – can be found in the entitlements that “allow groping, touching and choosing not to vote at all.”

            Finally, Professor Elaine Sisman argued that the character of Don Giovanni is evil.  She pointed out that he wears a mask, a sign of carnival, when he tricks Donna Anna into sleeping with him so that Donna Anna believes that he is her betrothed. Later, an impassioned Donna Anna sings the aria Or Sai chi l’onore (you know for sure) Sisman called attention to how this opera draws on specific temporal modes: in this instance it is narrative time, the time of storytelling. Sisman explains that in Don Giovanni time can also be understood as the mythic time of the opera: here, a single day in the life of Don Giovanni. Using this version of mythic time, Sisman drew a connection between the opera and Dante’s InfernoThere is no question that Don Giovanni is evil, Sisman explains -- it is clear “that the opera condemns him from beginning to end -- but we could question which circle of Dante’s hell he would have been sentenced to.

Mark your calendars for upcoming Feminist to the Core programs, featuring Professor Jack Halberstam on Sigmund Freud (April 27) and Professor Bernard Harcourt on Nietzsche (April 14).


New York City Party Culture 1980-83 Conjuncture, Queers, Women with Professor Tim Lawrence

October 26, 2016

by Alessia Palanti, Italian, PhD candidate and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

Professor of Cultural Studies and co-director of the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London, Tim Lawrence spoke at IRWGS about his most recently published book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983.

Prof. Lawrence related a fascinating historical outline of New York City’s party culture from the late 1970s into the 80s, and attributed the forging of queer subcultural communities to New York’s (and the US’s more broadly) socio-economic and political atmosphere. In the 1970s, according to Lawrence, New York City already distinguished itself from other cities musically; but 1980 marked a sharp escalation in creativity resulting from the interaction of dance and musical cultures.

In the late 1970s, New York City was considered a “cesspit,” an “imperfect paradise,” and hub for “dysfunctional dread.” Lawrence described how New York had the highest concentration of queer people, and diverse cultures, and became a more accessible nexus for artists, largely due to its affordability. Deindustrialization in the 1980s, New York’s dire economic condition, and the flight of the white middle class into surrounding suburbs left the post-industrial generation in New York to live, socialize, collaborate and forge a mix of music, visual arts, and performance that came to define the city in this period.  New York, as Lawrence put it, “was like Halloween every night”; there was an explosion of activity and the blossoming of a “post-disco, post-punk, and yet to be named hip-hop scene.” Taking place in large garage spaces, parties lasted as long as 18 hours and were sensorially immersive environments whose goals were to foster transformation and exploration. Dance parties were staged 6-7 nights per week and involved a combination of live bands, DJs, screenings, and immersive happenings. In this way, the party was akin to a gallery, a multi-sensorial museum space. Unique to these scenes was also the constant movement between musicians and visual artists who would contribute to one another’s arts—paradigmatic of the party scene’s collaborative bedrock.

Lawrence claimed that queers of color were crucial to the creation of New York’s party culture, in fact, alienating white gay men who had dominated those spaces during the disco era. While personal antagonisms occasionally poison the atmosphere—for example between East and West Villages, or Uptown and Downtown scenes—it generally was all about openness and collaboration, where the geographically and socially polarized backgrounds of white suburban “refugees” and people of color from the Bronx were no grounds for the curtailment of DIY art collaborations. DJs facilitated such collaborations by crossing musical genres throughout an event, sticking by their commitment to creating cross-cultural communication via music.

In 1983, the end-bracket year of Lawrence’s study, the conditions that enabled the party culture scene shifted dramatically. The AIDS virus reached epidemic proportions, encouraging already inward-looking groups of dancers to become more closed, shifting their music choices—for example, ceasing to play African American music in 1984—facilitating the Reagan Era’s agenda to shut down queer party cultures. A number of phenomena, including the corporate reentry into New York City’s music market, and intensifying regulation of party spaces, trumped the spontaneity and unity upon which the party culture was based, and creativity became evermore tied to consumerism.

The music scene is often overlooked by historians, and Lawrence’s project offers an exhaustive and captivating cultural perspective. For Lawrence,1980s New York gives us a sense of a city’s potential, of the ways in which communities and cultures can flourish under different social organizations.  As Lawrence put it in closing, “the future will always be ours to make.”


October 26, 2016

Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality &

The Department of Music



·      Baranello, Micaela. “When Cries of Rape Are Heard in Opera Halls.”  New York Times, 26 July 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/arts/music/when-cries-of-rape-are-hear...

·      Curtis Liane. “Let’s Call a Rapist a Rapist.” San Francisco Gate, 9 June 2000. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Don-Giovanni-Let-s-call-a-rapist-a-rapist-3057915.php   [+ her related NWSA Journal article.]

·      Gordon, Bonnie. “What Don Giovanni, an Opera About a Charismatic Rapist, Can Teach Us About Don Trump.” Slate, 21 October 2016.

·      Sisman, Elaine, “The Marriages of Don Giovanni: persuasion, impersonation and personal responsibility.” In Mozart Studies, ed. Simon P. Keefe 163-192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.



Also a brief, interesting discussion of a performance of “La ci darem la mano” at the Cornelia Street Café appears in:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching.” Diacritics, Vol. 32, No. 3/4, Ethics (Autumn - Winter, 2002): 90. 

“Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference” with Grace Kyungwon Hong

October 12, 2016

by Leah Werier, Art History, PhD ’18 and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

            IRWGS began the 2016-2017 academic year with a thought-provoking presentation by Grace Kyungwon Hong, Professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies at UCLA. Professor Hong discussed her recently published book: Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference.

            Hong began by discussing the context of the project, which she describes as the “ubiquity of death”: the death of her colleague Nellie Yvonne McKay in 2006, and the death and disaster in so many places in the world, including the thousands killed in August 2014 in the Israel-Gaza conflict and, that same summer, the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, Hong stressed that brutality continues and asked: What resources do we have that can help us understand and challenge racial, gendered and sexualized violence and death? Hong finds some answers in the work of women of color feminists, and the theory of “difference.”

            A key thinker for Hong is Audre Lorde, the black lesbian feminist writer. Hong referenced Lorde’s 1982 address “Learning from the 60s,” delivered at Harvard University as part of Malcom X weekend. Hong argued that Lorde’s feminism demands, “that we all take in our own complicity of power.”  Hong emphasized Lorde’s attempts to craft an alternative vision of politics that is not self-interested. Black feminism becomes a comparative method for Hong; it is a tool for critique. 

            Hong also pointed to the important ways in which “difference” is utilized throughout the work of women of color feminists as a means of challenging the violent erasures caused by neoliberal ideologies. While neoliberalism implies a break with the past, there is no “clean break” with history, in Hong’s view. Rather, she explained, gesturing to the work of Avery Gordon, we are haunted by the phantoms, traces and residues of the past.  For Hong, the work of women of color feminists allows us to find those residues and the memories of death and precocity that neoliberal ideologies attempt to erase.


September 22, 2016

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia and the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Barnard announce their search for Teaching Assistants for the spring 2017 course V1001 – Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies.

Graduate students currently enrolled in a PhD program in any Arts and Sciences Department are eligible to apply, with approval from their home department.  Please note that Columbia TAs may not hold more than one TA position in any one semester and may not accept additional fellowship or departmental support during the term of the TA appointment.

Candidates should send a letter of intent (including background, experience, and fields of interest), an updated CV, and the name and contact information for one academic reference to Professor Laura Ciolkowski c/o irwgs@columbia.edu, by or before Tuesday, November 15th.  Application materials may also be dropped off at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, 763 Schermerhorn Extension.


July 20, 2016

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality is saddened to report the death of IRWGS faculty affiliate and Professor of Anthropology M. ELAINE COMBS-SCHILLING (1949-2016)

Margaret Elaine Combs-Schilling died quietly in her bed from the effects of a brain tumor on the morning of July 7, 2016 in the loving company of her husband, Rev. David Schilling, and son, Prof. Jonathan Combs-Schilling. She was 67. 

A subversive but proud daughter of the south, Elaine was born on February 13, 1949 in Knoxville. She grew up in Appalachia and in 1967-8 spent a year in Belgium before returning to the United States and attending Stanford University, where she obtained her BA with honors in 1972. Having met and married her husband in 1969, she continued on to graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving her doctorate in anthropology in 1981. The focus of her Ph.D. research was the impact of a new road on merchant culture, and her dissertation was entitled “Traders on the Move: A Moroccan Case Study in Change.” Over the years, and in tandem with new directions in anthropology, Elaine became progressively more interested in how ritual informs daily life, and in 1989, published the highly acclaimed book, Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice, which examines the relationship between ritual, state and the gendered politics of a Moroccan national imaginary. 

Elaine continued to undertake field research in Morocco into the 1990s, focusing especially on the life of Lalla Aziza, a little-known fourteenth-century female “saint” from the High Atlas Mountains who resisted gender, political, and cultural norms in her own time and whose memory lives on in the region, having served as a figure of empowerment and struggle during the French colonial period. Elaine’s far-ranging interest in the praxes and power of performance also led her, in 1998, to shadow a production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera to examine how operas can give sound, sight and material form to “unofficial versions of reality,” which became the main focus of her scholarship in later years. 

Elaine’s awards and honors included 3 different Fulbright fellowships and grants from the Social Science Research Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among many others. In 1993, she was named the 49th annual Tannenbaum Lecturer. 

At Columbia, Elaine Combs-Schilling’s 33 year-long career commenced with her hiring as assistant professor in 1983. She was tenured in 1991, one of only two women to have achieved that status in the department since 1937, when Ruth Benedict was made Associate Professor. In the same year she became Vice-Chair, going on to become the first female chair since the department was founded in 1896. During her tenure, the department was significantly transformed, with new hires that focused on both the aesthetic dimension of cultural life in modernity and the historical production of social power. 

During the 90s Elaine was also a teacher and active participant in The Institute for Research on Women and Gender where she team-taught a number of interdisciplinary graduate courses and provided wise counsel in the formative years of the Institute’s history. 

A devoted teacher of both undergraduates and doctoral students, Elaine taught courses on a wide range of topics, from the traditions of North Africa and the Middle East, to ritual and religion (especially Islam), feminist theory, theories of language and subjectivity, and operatic performance. For many years, she also led the anthropology department’s undergraduate thesis seminar, and over the years, helped dozens of young scholars to arrive at projects inflected by their personal passions and reflective of their best intellectual selves. 

Further information about Elaine and about future memorial services may be obtained at the following website: hatsoffelaine.com. In addition, a memorial fund is being set up through the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality that will support graduate work in feminist scholarship. Contributions to the Elaine Combs-Schilling Memorial Fund can now be sent directly to the Institute, as checks written to COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, but with the tagline "Elaine Combs-Schilling Memorial Fund.” They should be addressed to: 

Terence Roethlein
Manager, Communications and Finance
Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality 1200 Amsterdam Avenue
763 Schermerhorn Extension MC5510
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027 

University Memorial infromation is available below:

IRWGS is Hiring! 16-17 Work Study Opportunity

July 14, 2016

IRWGS is hiring! See below for details. If interested, please email our program coordinator, Khadija Belly (k.belly@columbia.edu)


Work-Study Position Description – AY2016-17

Work-Study Responsibilities:


  • Write 2 blog posts per semester
  • Contribute to IRWGS social media accounts

o   Facebook, twitter – help maintain active presence and frequent interactions

  • Cultivate and maintain networks with student groups and solicit student organization events and news.


  • General front-office reception.  Greet guests, answer phones, check irwgs@columbia.edu, check and send mail.
  • Provide support to the Institute (Director, Associate Director, Finance Manager, Program Coordinator and faculty) including photocopying, scanning, research, drafting correspondence, etc.
  • Maintain various Google calendars (update calendars by entering on campus events to Affiliated Events calendar)
  • Maintain files, scans, Dropbox files, libraries (pdf, syllabus, 754), archives
  • Maintain office, seminar room, storage spaces, copier room and announcement areas in hallway


  • Publicity: Hang posters, distribute fliers and other advertising

o   Add calendar/event listings to IRWGS website, Facebook, Twitter, Columbia events calendar. Send to other departments/schools/groups/listservs as applicable.

o   Make buttons and other promotional materials.

  • Assist during events: Set-up and break-down of seminar room (or other space).  Help serve wine (if applicable), clean throughout event, help where necessary
  • Take photos/video, live tweet
  • Create event listings to advertise programming.  Post edited photos.

Academic Coordination

  • Check different class listings  (Bulletin, UNIFY, irwgs.columbia.edu, Summer Studies site, etc) for errors.
  • Research lists of cross-listed and related courses.  Solicit cross-listed and related courses from professors.

IRWGS Welcomes the 2016-17 Graduate Fellows

May 31, 2016

Congratulations are in order for our 2016 – 2017 IRWGS Graduate Fellows Alessia Palanti (Italian and ICLS) and Leah Eve Werier (Art History). Fellows are selected annually, based on the excellence of their scholarship and their commitment to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

            Alessia Palanti is a fourth year, PhD candidate in the Italian department and ICLS. She is writing her dissertation on 21st century Italian women’s cinema that focuses on women’s lives from a female perspective. Her project traces the development of Italian feminisms and their place in the international landscape of feminist inquiry into gender and sexuality through an analysis of contemporary films.

            Alessia’s commitment to feminisms, and to issues related to gender, and sexuality reach beyond academia. She performs acrobatic movement and dance at Lava Studios in Brooklyn, NY, which is a feminist, gender-fluid arts space for individuals of all ages and abilities, committed to community building. She is also a consultant for UN Women’s HeForShe Initiative, for a project that investigates gender bias in cinema. As a graduate fellow, Alessia is interested fostering further dialogue on the impact of media and representation on the forging of a gendered and sexed subjectivity, by including more media and arts-related events and conversations in the IRWGS program. She is eager to create more alliances with activists, artists, philosophers, and communities outside of academia to cultivate reciprocal intellectual and activist enrichment.

            Leah Werier is a fourth year PhD candidate in Art History, who focuses on 20th and 21st century art informed by feminist theory. She has recently completed an IRWGS graduate certificate. Leah has attended IRWGS events since she began studying at Columbia. She has also organized events in Art History with a focus on gender, including the program Works in Progress: Gender Stages // Staging Gender.

            For Leah, being involved with IRWGS has been one of the “most enriching experiences for me” as a graduate student.  As a graduate fellow, Leah is interested in promoting IRWGS across different departments and growing the IRWGS community. She believes that “it provides a stimulating interdisciplinary meeting space for students and faculty. I look forward to organizing events that focus on the relationship between visual culture and feminist, queer and intersectional theory.” Leah hopes to invite artists to present their work to students and faculty and engage with the academic community at Columbia.

Recap: IRWGS/WGSS Joint Senior Thesis Presentations

May 26, 2016

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On May 3, IRWGS closed out its programming for the year with a celebration of the senior theses completed by majors in IRWGS (Columbia) and WGSS (Barnard). Evocative of the spirit of community fostered by the collaboration between Barnard and Columbia’s programs, the students cheered each other on as they presented their projects to a room packed with enthusiastic and supportive friends, faculty, and mentors.

The first panel, titled “Gender, Sexuality, and Cultural Production,” considered how various media—whether it’s an artistic medium or type of social media—represent a particular cross-section of female and/or queer experience. Tara Coury (BC) and Clara Butler (BC) examined how female artists appropriate revise art forms typically the domain of white, heterosexual men.  Coury argues that the visual yet fragmented medium of the comic panel offer graphic memoirists like Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel a tool for making their experience as marginalized persons visible without the demands of linear, coherent storytelling, whether that story be growing up in revolutionary Iran or a young lesbian’s working through her relationship with her closeted gay father. Turning to live performance, Butler argues that female stand-up comics use humor, especially abjection, to articulate what it’s like to inhabit an identity not widely understood or even legible within dominant culture.

The panel was rounded out with Dorian Barnwell (CU) and Amy Halperin Zimmerman (CU). In her thesis on Toni Morrison’s Sula, Barnwell routes her broader examination of how black queer experience is felt as being “out of sync” with the world through the novel’s representation of female orgasm. Turning to social media outlets like Tumblr, Halperin Zimmerman queries the growing interest in witchcraft in “queer, feminist spaces” populated by teenage girls.  Crafting their identities after the “feminized but not entirely feminine” figure of the witch allows teens to negotiate the damaging expectations of adult womanhood, and the rituals they practice operate as acts of “self-care” crucial to maintaining physical and mental health.

The projects presented in the second panel, “Biopolitics,” explored how the social and hard sciences as well as political decisions mobilized by scientific research reproduce dominant understandings of gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Researching the effects of US nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, G. Pe Benito (BC) argues that “proximity to harm” differentiates those excluded from the full rights and recognition granted by the state from US citizens. Peter Bruno (CU) next critiqued scientific searches for a “gay gene” for relying on a “false dichotomy” between biological determination and social construction. The premise guiding this research and its appropriations by gay rights activists is a “consumer model of social theory” which assumes that any part of human experience not determined by genetics or anatomy is freely chosen. Bruno challenges this dichotomy. Sarah Elizabeth Stern (CU) concluded the panel with her transhistorical examination of how various sites of colonial power erase Native American understandings of gender. 

The third and final panel, “Responding to Violence,” showcased theses which queried whether the state can offer justice and recognition to persons who have been harmed because of their sexuality, gender, and/or race. In her thesis on queer black women artists working in South Africa, Thando Mlambo (BC) started with the claim that the freedom following the dissolution of apartheid was actually “exclusive,” granted only to heterosexuals. Mlambo situates artists who provocatively ask such questions like “what do you see when you look at me, a black lesbian?” within the state-sanctioned “invisibil[ity]” of the “black queer body,” ultimately arguing that these artists work to “carve out a discursive space” where queer intimacy and desire can assert their presence in South African history.

 In the next two presentations, Sienna Walker (BC) and Ella Every-Wortman (BU) critiqued the appeal to criminal law in LGBT and feminist activism. Walker argues that the mainstream gay rights movement identifies gay people according to their “vulnerability to harm,” which enables them to successfully fight for “political[ly] palatabl[e]…pro-criminalization methods” without reflecting on how criminal law perpetuates the denial of rights and reduction of opportunities for people of color. Combining interviews with survivors of sexual assault at Columbia with quantitative research methods, Every-Wortman shows how survivors frequently define justice as a “healing process” oriented toward resolution and closure, and for this reason largely prefer “transformative justice”-based solutions like the “acknowledgement of harm” and reparations instead of punishment.

The evening concluded with Natasha Camille’s (BC) reflection on her goals and experiences designing a curriculum for black female high school students. In crafting a curriculum which, in her words, presented a “direct threat to the state,” Camille aimed to challenge the “silencing of black girlhood” by having students use womanist and black feminist texts as a vehicle for cultivating “autonomous, sexual selfhood.”

Interviews with Thando Mlambo and Sarah Faith Thompson, winners of the 2016 Award Prize Essays

May 20, 2016

Congratulations to Sarah Faith Thompson (CC '16 and Political Science major), winner of the 2016 IRWGS Women’s and Gender Studies Award for "Sexual Violence in Civil Wars: Strength, Organizational Control, and Rebel Groups,” and Thando Mlambo (BC '16 and Africana Studies & Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies double major), winner of the 2016 IRWGS Queer Studies Award for "Destabilizing Nation and Culture: How Zanele Muholi and Queer South African Women are Creating Discursive Space through Visual Culture.”

We interviewed both students to learn more about their work and their plans for the future.




What inspired you to write your senior thesis on sexual violence in civil wars?

Initially I just wanted to learn more about how various organization-level factors (hierarchy, leadership, resource access, etc.) might affect rebel groups' general levels of violent output. However, after reading Dara Kay Cohen's 2013 article on rape in civil wars, seeing the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset she created, and getting to hear Elisabeth Wood speak at Columbia, I was struck by the gendered differences in wartime experiences of violence and how this has impacted political science research. For example, male civilians are more likely than female civilians to be killed during conflicts, but women are more likely to experience certain forms of non-lethal violence, including rape and sexual enslavement. What this leads to is a bias in quantitative analyses toward analyzing and theorizing the more easily measured forms of violence against men.

I wanted to contribute to this emerging general quantitative direction of sexual violence research, and found that a combination of case studies and regression analysis using the SVAC was a good way to start.

You are graduating this month with a degree in Political Science. How have you been able to integrate your interest in women's, gender, and sexuality studies in the work you have done here at Columbia?

Columbia's Core Curriculum provides a common textual base from which to approach many topics. I’ve had the opportunity to write about everything from the women in Monet’s Parc Monceau (in Art Hum), to Mandeville’s contradictory categorizations of femininity in the Fable of the Bees (in CC), to how paintings in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse reflected the lack of agency of female characters (in Lit Hum).

The same is true about the political science department. I am appreciative to have had the freedom and academic support over the past year to orient my thesis around a phenomenon in armed conflict that disproportionately affects women, and which holds long-lasting consequences for these survivors’ physical and mental health.

What are your plans for the future?

Writing this thesis has made me even more sure that I would like to eventually pursue a career in research and teaching, so after working for a few years at a law firm specializing in international disputes I’ll be applying to Ph.D. programs in political science. Once there I hope to continue my study of armed conflicts, contentious politics, and the experiences and roles of women in both of these.




What inspired you to write your senior thesis on Zanele Muholi’s work and Queer South African Women?

I am from Zimbabwe and have lived there, in South Africa, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, so I knew I wanted to write a thesis surrounding an African country. As an artist and musician, I also knew my thesis would have a creative subject matter. After having seen Zanele Muholi's work in Cape Town and at the Brooklyn Museum, everything came together beautifully. I was fascinated by the braveness and beauty of Muholi's participants (portrait subjects) who boldly and unapologetically claim a queer identity--given the recurring rhetoric of homophobia and hate crimes when it comes to discussions of non-heterosexuality in South Africa. I dug deeper and was able to find a host of queer South African artists and media-makers creating work that highlighted the dissonance of the legal inclusion of LGBTQI persons amidst persistent homophobia. Inspired by their work, I embarked on this year-long project which culminated in a visit from Muholi herself at my apartment in Harlem. 

You are graduating this month with a degree from Barnard College in Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. How have you been able to integrate your interests in the work you have done here at Columbia?

My academic training and personal interest in studies of women, genders and sexualities has allowed me to observe, experience and navigate the world acutely aware of axes of power, gender, race, class, ethnicity and sexuality (the list goes on). From running an artists workshop through my New York City Civic Engagement Program (NYCCEP) fellowship to singing in Barnard's all-female acapella group Bacchantae, I am always working to ensure that I am in some way engaging in, and contributing to, new understandings of social and cultural relations. I am deeply indebted to Barnard WGSS and Columbia IRWGS for allowing me to explore the various interdisciplinary theoretical frames that have guided my thesis, my work on Columbia's campus and continue to shape my everyday life. 

What are your plans for the future?

As I have graduated in three years, I am planning on taking it really easy over the next few months: babysitting and hanging out with my new cat. I hope to do some travelling across Southeast Asia during the winter and return to New York to apply to graduate school to further my studies in the field of gender and cultural studies. 

3 Questions for Rosi Braidotti

April 8, 2016

Prof. Dr. Rosi Braidotti, who holds Italian and Australian citizenship, was born in Italy and grew up in Australia, where she received a First-Class Honours degree from the Australian National University in Canberra in 1977 and was awarded the University Medal in Philosophy and the University Tillyard prize. Braidotti then moved on to do her doctoral work at the Sorbonne, where she received her degree in philosophy in 1981. She has taught at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands since 1988, when she was appointed as the founding professor in women's studies. In 1995 she became the founding Director of the Netherlands research school of Women's Studies, a position she held till 2005. Braidotti is a pioneer in European Women's Studies: she founded the inter-university SOCRATES network NOISE and the Thematic Network for Women's Studies ATHENA, which she directed till 2005. She was a Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor at Birkbeck College in 2005-6; a Jean Monnet professor at the European University Institute in Florence in 2002-3 and a fellow in the school of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1994. Braidotti is currently Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University and founding Director of the Centre for the Humanities.

1. What are you currently working on?

I have just co-edited, together with Paul Gilroy:Conflicting Humanities, which will be published in the next few months. It is the first volume in a new book series I am editing for Bloomsbury Academic, called, quite simply ‘Theory Series’, which aims to present cartographic accounts of emerging critical theories and to reflect the vitality and inspirational force of on-going theoretical debates. This first edited volume is impressive: Conflicting Humanitiesaddresses the provocative question of how we might reinvent the humanities. Taking the intellectual and political legacies of both feminist theory and of Edward Said’s work as a point of departure and frame of reference, the contributors – working in a range of disciplinary settings – assess the current condition of humanism and the humanities. We argue that the definition of the core task of the humanities as the pursuit of democratic criticism remains more urgent than ever, though it needs to be supplemented by feminist, environmental, and anti-racist perspectives as well as by detailed analysis of both digital mediation and the necro-political governmentality of our time.

I have also pursued my posthuman critical theory work by editing the Posthuman Glossary, a volume co-produced with Maria Hlavajova from BAK (The Centre for Contemporary Art in Utrecht). The book will provide an outline of the critical terms of posthuman critique in present-day academic, artistic and intellectual work. It also builds on the concepts that we discussed during a series of four international symposia in May-June 2015, focusing on the broad thematic topics of anthropocene/capitalocene, eco-sophies, digital activism and algorithmic cultures and security.

Besides my current research projects and teaching as a University Professor, I am also the director of the Centre for the Humanities. We organize seminars and events that explore and enhance the social relevance and the impact of the Humanities today through intensive cooperation not only with other faculties, but also with the City space, its cultural institutions, festivals and artists communities. We also focus on pioneering research projects that aim at assessing new directions for the Humanities in the contemporary world, mostly the Digital, Environmental and global Humanities.

Finally, what is also really important for me, is the international dimension of the work I do, institutionally, socially and intellectually. For instance my brief but highly productive visiting professorship at Columbia University allowed me to expand the connections with so many colleagues and programmes in the humanities. Moreover, as a board member of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and at the European level the network of Humanities Institutes and Centres (ECHIC), I am very active in building the international dimension of discussions in the field of the humanities.  Throughout all this work, I find myself applying and translating the epistemological and methodological insights of feminist theory to different fields. Our key concepts and ideas, for instance the politics of location, or embodied and embedded perspectives, is extremely relevant to contemporary discussions on neo-materialism, the affective turn and the posthuman predicament. Feminist theory remains the conceptual core of my work because it has developed original tools and methods of analysis that allow for more incisive accounts of how power works in discourse, inn institutions and individual research practices.

2. What blogs are you currently reading?

Huffington Post and a few random others. Nothing systematic.

3. Feminism is…

The gesture – visceral, intellectual, emotional and always socio-political – that consists in saying:

 “NO I WOULD PREFER NOT TO !” to all the instances of oppression, marginalization, neglect and disqualification of women, LGBTQ+ and other gender-marked individuals and organisms. It is a collective, trans-national and trans-species movement for social justice, that fights for the respect and  empowerment of both human and non-human agents who are discriminated on the basis of their sexed and gender being. Profoundly emancipatory at heart, feminism also expresses a fundamental aspiration to freedom on the part of subjects whose existence is not valued adequately and not cared for fairly. Feminism is also transformative in that by pursuing its aims, ends up challenging and redefining in an affirmative and innovative way our shared assumptions about what it means to be ‘human’ today.  

This project requires visionary power or prophetic energy, qualities which are not highly valued scientifically in these times of coercive pursuit of quantified academic ‘excellence’. Yet, from the very early days, Joan Kelly typified feminist theory as a double edged vision, with a strong critical and an equally strong creative function. Faith in the creative powers of the imagination is an integral part of feminists’ appraisal of lived embodied experience and the bodily roots of subjectivity. This creative dimension constitutes the affirmative core of the radical epistemologies of feminism.  

Call for IRWGS Graduate Fellows

March 23, 2016



IRWGS Graduate Fellowships

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) seeks applications for 2016-17 graduate fellows.  Graduate fellows will be expected to participate actively in IRWGS activities and to complete a maximum of 60 hours of work per semester.  Fellows will coordinate the IRWGS Graduate Colloquium (described below), organize the Graduate Student Open House, attend and help with IRWGS public programs, and assist the IRWGS Director and Associate Director, and the Directors of Graduate Studies and Undergraduate Studies with occasional research, administrative, and social media.

Stipends will be $3000 per semester. 

Selection will be based on academic distinction in feminist and departmental scholarly work, and a proven commitment to IRWGS and its activities. IRWGS Graduate Fellowships are generally awarded to Ph.D. students who have completed or are in the process of completing the IRWGS graduate certificate.  Please note that IRWGS graduate fellows may not hold other fellowships or grants (including the Whiting and the Kluge from Columbia) in 2016-17. Applicants must indicate in their application any plans to apply for other fellowships and grants in 2016-17 and must inform the Institute if they accept other grants that may conflict with the IRWGS Graduate Fellowship requirements. These are GSAS rules.  Occasionally the position is divided between two fellows who share duties and the stipend.


The IRWGS Graduate Colloquium

The Colloquium consists of two ongoing programs: “Theory Salon” and “Graduate Colloquium.”  IRWGS Graduate Fellows coordinate these programs and, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, have significant input into determining the content of both programs. In past years, meetings have focused on graduate student work-in-progress and recent published scholarship in the field, faculty-led discussion of particular texts or a body of work, current research by Columbia or visiting faculty members, and/or workshops on professional issues such as preparing work for conferences and for publication, drafting dissertation prospectuses, and applying for academic jobs.

Graduate Fellows will be expected to secure space for all events (usually the IRWGS seminar room), maintain a regularly updated email list, notify participants of upcoming events, copy and distribute any pre-circulated readings, purchase light refreshments for each meeting, maintain a Colloquium budget, and write IRWGS blog posts for all IRWGS public programs.

Please submit a brief letter of application, a CV, and a short writing sample to irwgs@columbia.edu by or before Friday, April 29, 2016. Please include the names and contact information of two faculty members familiar with your work and ask one of these faculty members to send a brief letter of support to irwgs@columbia.edu by April 29, 2016.  

Feminist to the Core with Ellie Hisama

March 18, 2016

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On March 2, Ellie Hisama delivered the latest installment of IRWGS “Feminist to the Core” with her presentation on teaching Music Humanities. Hisama is Professor of Music as well as Director of Graduate Studies at IRWGS.

Hisama opened by suggesting how feminist critique compliments the goals of Music Humanities. If Music Hum aims to teach students how to practice “critical listening,” then feminist questions and provocations can expand and refine our sense of what it means to listen critically and actively. One way to do this is to consider how the choices made by the syllabus—what works to include and which to exclude—shape our understanding of the history of Western music, specifically with regard to the criteria which establishes a composer as worthy as representing a coordinate on the timeline of music history.

The first composer Hisama discussed was Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who already ranks among Music Hum’s required composers. Hisama singled out Schubert’s “Heidenröslein,” a lieder (or song) which sets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Rose on the Heath” to music. Unlike the later works Hisama introduced, “Heidenröslein” has had a formidable place in music education: it is often used to teach ear training and is common in recitals. Yet, for Hisama, a feminist teaching of this song wouldn’t consider Schubert’s music in isolation from the words of Goethe’s poem, which details a coercive and violent encounter between a little boy and a beautiful rose which attempts to resist the boy’s plucking. How might recent discussions of campus sexual assault prompt us to listen to this song differently?

A specialist in 20th century American music, Hisama then considered what two later composers, Julius Eastman and Ruth Crawford Seeger, would add to the Music Hum syllabus. Absent from both music history at large as well as histories of black and African-American music, Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was nonetheless a central figure in the downtown New York experimental music scene in the 1970s. Eastman provides us with the opportunity to consider the relation between form and personhood as a black gay man: he saw his controversial, improvised music—unapologetically given titles like “Gay Guerilla”—as a vehicle for self-understanding, writing that “it’s through art that I can search for the self.”

Hisama then turned to the case of Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), whose career allows us to reevaluate the gendering of American musical modernism and our designation of what musical genres fit under the banner of “modernist.” Hisama’s point of departure was the shape of Seeger’s career. A composer of incredibly “forward looking” modernist pieces in the 20s and 30s, Seeger retired from composition after having a family but continued to collect and arrange folk music. In what ways, then, can we consider arrangement an act of composition, Seeger’s later career as arranger of folk music thus seen as an extension of her earlier work as a modernist composer? And what place does folk and traditional music have in making the canon of musical history, especially given how widely reproduced and circulated Seeger’s folk arrangements had?   

Hisama’s last example was hip-hop singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill. Hip hop pieces like Hill’s would enable students to analyze music in precise, technical ways without requiring them to know how to read music, given how hip hop’s emphasis on rhythm provokes us to think critically about how and why beats align with certain lyrics. Hip hop also opens up discussion of race, gender, sexuality, and the relation between art and power and to view “contributions [to musical history] beyond the canons of the greats.” In her concluding remarks, Hisama prompted us to reflect critically about what criteria govern who gets taught in the Core.  She also urged her audience to interrogate the division between popular and classical music, as well as to think about teaching the history of musical practices (such as 18th century opera divas or the circulation of Seeger’s folk arrangements) as key sites of feminist intervention into teaching Music Humanities.

Call for Teaching Assistants -- Spring 2017 V1001: Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies

March 2, 2016




The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia announce their search for Teaching Assistants for the spring 2017 course V1001 – Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies.


Graduate students currently enrolled in a PhD program in any Arts and Sciences Department are eligible to apply, with approval from their home department.  Please note that Columbia TAs may not hold more than one TA position in any one semester and may not accept additional fellowship or departmental support during the term of the TA appointment.


Candidates should send a letter of intent (including background, experience, and fields of interest), an updated CV, and the name and contact information for one academic reference to Professor Laura Ciolkowski c/o irwgs@columbia.edu, by or before 4pm, Monday, May 2nd.  Application materials may also be dropped off at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, 763 Schermerhorn Extension.

Posthuman Feminism with Rosi Braidotti

February 25, 2016

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

                On February 18, Rosi Braidotti delivered her talk “Posthuman Feminism” to a packed crowd, many of whom sat on the floor and stood in the hallway in order to hear her speak. Currently Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Braidotti is perhaps Europe’s foremost feminist philosopher.

            Braidotti began by outlining the method that informs her approach to the concept of the “posthuman.” She aligned her analysis with what Michel Foucault terms “genealogy,” a way of analyzing the present by reconstructing “how we got here” through identifying the multiple and often contradictory traditions of thought which come together in our current understanding of a concept. For Braidotti, current scholarly interest in the posthuman extends the critique of humanism associated with the biggest names in 20th century philosophy: Theodor Adorno, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze and Foucault, among others.

                  Yet, Braidotti’s genealogy doesn’t only consist of continental philosophy and critical theory. For Braidotti, post-colonial and critical race theory, and especially feminist critique, illuminate how certain kinds of bodies have historically been excluded from the category of the “Human” and, moreover, challenge the notion of a universal “Humanity” by emphasizing the different ways embodiment is experienced. She expanded her genealogy still further through reference to non-academic cultural and social movements like punk, second-wave feminism, and David Bowie, all of which respond to the exclusiveness of the category of the Human by “opting out” from the species altogether. Though I’m an avid reader of French critical theory, and though I am consistently captivated by what Braidotti calls the “vitriolic, satirical” energy of second-wave feminism and am a longstanding Bowie fan, it never quite occurred to me how these three separate cultural formations occurred during the same historical moment.

            In her lecture, Braidotti paired the term “posthumanism” with the term “post-anthropocentrism.” Just as women, people of color, and bodies marked by other forms of difference have been excluded from humanity, so too have non-anthropod organisms, such as animals and even the global environment. Yet, for Braidotti, the posthuman and post-anthropocentric are distinct terms with quite different genealogies. While the “posthuman” has an expansive and diverse genealogy, “post-anthropocentrism” does not. The legacies of fascist violence have generated extensive critiques of humanism, but the Nazis’ use of biology to justify their genocidal program has discouraged us from thinking biologically, from thinking specifically about ourselves as a species. As Braidotti put it, “Darwin is the missing part of critical theory.” In response to our impoverished vocabulary for thinking critically about species, Braidotti encourages collaboration with scientific modes of intellectual inquiry that wouldn’t simply reproduce a universalizing concept of the human which critical theory has sought to displace.  

            For Braidotti, feminist thought is central to this project. She concluded her talk by considering the ways capitalism in its current form has responded to destabilizations of the category of the Human. This category’s coherence has been undermined by identity politics and post-colonial activism, but also by the speed of technological innovation. Whether in the form of consumer products like smartphones or data-mining surveillance mobilized by counterterrorism, technology has become inextricable from contemporary experiences of embodiment. Capitalism can embrace this epidemic “posthumanism,” or it can reassert humanism through the ideology of “we are all human” or “we’re all in in this together” as exemplified in the United Colors of Benetton advertisements or the “We Are All Africans” campaign. However, by emphasizing the embodied nature of experience, Braidotti argues that feminism highlights and allows us to interrogate how power and difference shape yet are also made invisible by the ways “human” and even “posthuman” currently operate in politics and the marketplace.

Rubens Paints Rape: A Feminist to the Core event with Margaret Carroll

December 15, 2015

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On December 7, 2015, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality hosted its final “Feminist to the Core” lecture of the semester. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of Art History. In her presentation “Rubens Paints Rape,” Margaret Carroll -- Professor of Art at Wellesley College and a specialist in 16th and 17th century Dutch painting – focused on both the political and artistic contexts of Peter Paul Rubens’ painting The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1615-17).

Carroll started her lecture by discussing her personal history of viewing this painting. Her gradually shifting response to Rubens’ painting was inspired by a 1985 lecture on late Titian which never touched upon the “problematic depiction of rape” in paintings such as the Rape of Europa. During this moment in the history of art criticism, evaluations of Renaissance painters such as Titian and Rubens continued the tradition of raising questions about style and form, while largely ignoring content. Carroll mentioned how the innovative work of feminist art historians in the 1980s helped her reevaluate the initial enthusiasm which she, first viewing the painting as a teenager, had for Rubens’ vivid colors and the “dynamic contradictions” organizing the painting. Inspired by these feminist critics, Carroll sought to develop a new method for interpreting visual art, which would allow her to address the “painting as a problematic cultural phenomenon.”

According to Carroll, what mattered most to Rubens’ contemporaries in connection to rape was not so much the genital act itself but rather the ‘use of force” and the presence of an “unwilling partner.” This emphasis on force structured not just understandings of the relationship between men and women, but also a series of hierarchical binaries: force establishes sovereignty the same way that “form dominates matter, soul dominates body, man his wife, master his slave, king his subject.” Many classical and Renaissance thinkers saw the use of force as pleasurable not just for the sovereign but, problematically, for the dominated subject as well; it’s no wonder, then, that the erotic charge rippling across the painting’s surface might make 21st century readers uncomfortable.

Carroll argued that Rubens’ painting is an allegory for the double marriage between France and Spain’s royal families, which was often compared to the myth of the Leucippus daughters.  She emphasized that this double marriage consolidated the political strength of both countries by conjoining the two kings in a “fraternal bond.” That they both symbolically “acquired their wives in a joint sexual adventure” vividly literalizes what Carroll had said about same assumptions about power undergirding both political sovereignty and relations between men and women.

In her lecture, Carroll didn’t vilify Rubens for eroticizing the forced abduction of women and for “misrepresenting the lived experiences” of actual women. Rather, she turned to a later painting, Rubens’ 1622-25 The Exchange of Princesses at the Border, which renders the future queens’ conquering husbands invisible and thereby suggesting, for Carroll, “Rubens’ own process of maturation,” his attempt to “accommodate the wishes and fantasies of female patrons” by “try[ing] to understand what a woman could not bear to watch.”

Thinking of You

December 11, 2015

by Joo Kyung Lee, Emma Volk, Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence

One of the speakers on the “Legacy of Rape” panel was Anna Di Lellio, a sociologist and policy analyst who partnered with artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa to produce “Thinking of You,” a participatory art installation in Kosovo that paid tribute to survivors of sexual violence during the Kosovo War. The evening after the panel, Di Lellio screened a documentary on “Thinking of You” and answered further questions about the project.

“Thinking of You” played with the idea of “airing clean laundry”—using clean clothing to respond to the crisis. The project featured thousands of donated dresses hung on clotheslines in a football stadium. Di Lellio explained that its installation in a football stadium suggests penetrating a male world and showing a sense of active response, in a space that is both public and private (confined). This form of response is shown through airing laundry. Airing laundry is a banal scene from everyday lives of people. It is simple laundry hanging on clothesline, and while it is a scene that may have disappeared from the urban landscape, it is still visible and a large part of everyday life. The project takes this ordinary, everyday practice and object and gives meaning to it. In using simple clothing and not an obscure object, the project is able to reach out to everyone who has been violated.

The usage of clothing is an interesting one too. During the panel discussion of “The Legacy of Rape: Art, Law and Social Justice,” artist Patricia Cronin (“Shrine for Girls”) and Di Lellio discussed the presence of clothing in their works. Cronin suggested that clothing served as a kind of reminder of the absent body; that in viewing a piece of clothing, one could imagine that “the body had touched the clothes.” In her arrangement of clothing for her work, she explained that they were presented as if “bodies have just left” the clothing. This significance of clothing seems to resonate with Xhafa Mripa’s “Thinking of You.” The body is a witness to the trauma. In viewing over 5,000 dresses of women—both victims and their supporters—the viewer is able to imagine the bodies that have touched the clothing, the women, their stories, their traumas, all presented so casually yet neatly in a stadium. In viewing, we get to “think of you:” all the women who have been violated during the war.

Yet a difference from Cronin’s work is that in “Thinking of You,” clothes are put up so that they resemble clean laundry; the aspect of physical cleanliness and organization is emphasized. Clothes are not arranged to represent the corporeality of the object. Rather, while the clothing embodies the traumatic experience of women, it does so in a way to exonerate them. That is, the cleanliness of laundry serves to restore honor to women socially disgraced by their rape. As many of the project’s participants noted, “Thinking of You” was successful in not portraying the survivors as victims. “Thinking of You,” both in its installation and presentation, allows the viewers including survivors to experience the project as a moment of empowerment and community without glorifying victimhood or retraumatizing the survivors.

“Thinking of You” as a project was not just an artistic response to genocidal rape, but was also highly participatory by design. Indeed, according to Di Lellio, mass participation was the project’s primary goal. For sixteen years, no one spoke about the estimated 20,000 women who were raped during the Kosovo War. For the month when Di Lellio and Xhafa Mripa travelled across Kosovo collecting dresses, the nation as a whole could no longer feign forgetfulness. The participatory and high profile nature of the project created space for Kosovars to confront the silences surrounding the sexual crimes that occurred during the war and to initiate the formation of a collective memory—both social and institutional—honoring the victims of these crimes.

The installation’s success depended on the donations of over 5,000 skirts and dresses, given to the project by both women and men. This collection process was arguably as important a part of “Thinking of You” as the installation itself was. Xhafa Mripa and Di Lellio visited towns across Kosovo to hold a series of collections that were themselves commemorative, even ceremonial events. At each event, Xhafa Mripa had the chance to individually speak to and thank each person who donated a dress. The documentary on the making of the project shows each donated dress being laid out with great care. Solidarity and respect was evident everywhere, even in the small gestures of women smoothing the wrinkles from the fabric of their dresses before giving them to Xhafa Mripa.

Many of the clothing items had special meanings for those who donated. The Kosovo ambassador to the United States donated the dress she wore on the day she signed the declaration of independence, telling Xhafa Mripa, “I want to give back to those women for whom the war has not yet ended.” A woman who gives psychosocial assistance to survivors donated a dress the women she works with gave to her in 2001. “Now,” she said, “I am giving it back to them.” Other dresses were donated by survivors themselves, including two dresses with messages from survivors handwritten on them. The multitude of stories told by the various dresses highlighted the project’s focus on creating a space for memory that was at once individual and collective.

Above all, the participatory aspect of “Thinking for You” facilitated the creation of a very tangible solidarity of all Kosovars with the silenced survivors of sexual crimes during the war. The collection events and the installing of the project featured laughter and tears alike, with space for both quiet reflection and collective acts of remembrance. Through its participatory nature, “Thinking of You” was able to realize its goal of remembering and honoring survivors.

Shrine for Girls

December 10, 2015

by Erasmia Gorla, Flavia Lagnado, and Ximena Vial; Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence

The first installation of Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls appeared in the 56th International Art Exhibition, All the World’s Futures, organized by la Biennale di Venezia. The Exhibition, devoted to addressing “the disquiet of our time,” displayed the works of artists from 53 different countries, each of which aimed to represent, in curator Okwui Enwezor’s words, “the ruptures that surround and abound around every corner of the global landscape today.” 

At the panel event organized by Columbia IRWGS on December 1, Cronin described how she first conceived of the idea for her project. The space she had acquired for her exhibit, la Chiesa di San Gallo, didn’t allow her to hang anything on the walls and required her, instead, to use the three existing altars to display her work. Simultaneously, three recent events highlighted by the media filled her mind: the rape and murder of two Indian girls, the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram, and the exploitation of “fallen women” in the Magdalene asylums—institutions that operated in the 18th-20th centuries but were more recently brought to public consciousness by the 2013 film, Philomena. She decided to turn the altars into three shrines dedicated to each of these groups of women—shrines for girls.

In the small, deconsecrated church in Venice, Patricia Cronin placed a pile of clothing on each of the three shrines found within, one to represent each of the events that were so embedded in her mind. Next to each pile was a small photograph, indistinguishable from a distance, more specifically depicting their respective group of women. At the IRWGS panel, Cronin stressed her decision to put the brightly colored saris on the one altar that could be seen from the street, recognizing how eye-catching they could be to a passer-by. And there is certainly something profoundly haunting and visually arresting about the huge piles of clothing.  As the visitor walks through the door and approaches each altar, they encounter a photograph: by the saris, the two girls raped and murdered in India; the emblematic group photo of the Nigerian girls beside the pile of hijabs; and the women from the Magdalene asylums next to the aprons they wore. Cronin compels the public to make connections between the clothing on the shrine and the girls in the images: these are the clothes they are wearing. In parallel the violence and objectification of the girls, their bodies disappear, rendered invisible, and we are left with a shapeless and indistinguishable mass of fabric. Cronin’s work emphasizes a gradual process of understanding—it starts from the moment the visitor catches a glimpse of the beautifully colored saris, followed by a shocking confrontation with the photographs that reveal what the exhibit is truly about. 

At the panel, Cronin highlighted the strong emotional responses visitors had to her piece, mentioning a group of Indian women that was so moved that they later returned with a black mourning sari to donate to the exhibit. This contribution to the shrine added a new and valuable participatory element to the piece; a group of women who were previously passive audiences to the exhibit became artmakers themselves, enhancing the artwork with an artifact from their own lives. In this act, the group of women expressed solidarity with the girls enshrined and with the artist. Cronin stressed the personal, intimate connection that she, an American artist, felt with this group of Indian tourists in Italy. This dynamic reflects Cronin’s stated goal to forge larger-scale ties across international communities, which is depicted in her art piece. Cronin brings three events—coming from three different regions, invoking three different religious traditions, and affecting women who wear three different types of clothing—together under one roof.

The atmosphere and siting of the piece does promote a pronounced sense of thoughtfulness and introspection; the church is a literal interpretation of the “reverential conditions” identified by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others as important to enable careful and critical consideration of the work. The visitor is surrounded by the shrines everywhere she looks, likely finding it impossible to turn away, which suggests an insistence on looking and bearing witness. The piles of clothing themselves are large and prominent, occupying a place of importance and attention by virtue of being placed on top of the altars. The church setting, however, has another effect: it complicates Cronin’s global mission for her piece by siting it within a fundamentally Christian milieu, both in terms of location and iconography. Additionally, the church setting and use of the altars contribute to the martyrdom of the girls.  In designating them as martyrs, Cronin aligns these women with a tradition of celebrating suffering with the goal of promoting some greater world good. Such a generalized depiction of suffering can create or perpetuate the idea that the “disquiet” facing women and girls is irrevocable and unchangeable, and that the best we can do is honor the lives who have suffered because of it.

Cronin’s work does follow in the tradition of politically engaged art; her project includes the promotion of three human rights organizations that work toward repairing and eradicating the kinds of abuses illustrated by her exhibit. However, we must question the extent to which Cronin’s piece really does compel us to act and produce change, or how much it teaches us about the events it depicts. A photo of two girls hanging from a tree with the backdrop of a pile of vibrant, crumpled saris is certainly arresting; it makes us stop and stare and it makes us feel bad. Cronin’s piece is beautiful and tragic and moving. But to use this picture of the girls without their consent and without a narrative description of who they were, where they came from, or what happened to them feels sensationalizing and exploitative. It feels like an instrumentalization of their suffering for shock factor, an element that Cronin herself identifies as instrumental to her piece. Rather than compel us to consider the individual narratives and realities of the women represented, Cronin’s exhibit forces us into a global and generalizing framework that risks not doing justice to those whom the piece enshrines.

Legal Issues in Legacy of Rape

December 10, 2015


by Rowan Hepps Keeney and Ayah Tahrah Eldosougi; Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence

"To see something in the form of an image is an invitation to observe, to learn, to attend to. Photographs can’t do the moral or the intellectual work for us. But they can start us on our way.”

Upon entering the 7th floor of Schermerhorn extension, stair climbers are confronted with a warning announcement. From Dec.1st through 15th this corridor has become home to the Legacy of Rape, “a moving series of first hand accounts from women who have survived sexual violence during times of armed conflict.”  Put on display by the joint efforts of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) and PROOF: Media for Social Justice, the exhibit runs the length of the hall the IRWGS Institute shares with the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS). Greeting elevator goers, at the center of the hall, stands the exhibit's name piece, complete with a mission statement and haunting image of a survivor's outstretched hand. Flanking the title piece to the right and left are displays complete with the photographs of survivors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal, their faces absent from the photographs, as well as more traditional portraits of survivors from both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Colombia. Alongside these images are personal testimonies provided by the women photographed. 

A discussion of the exhibit and similar projects was presented as a part of an accompanying panel entitled, Art, Law and Social Justice. Speakers included Leora Kahn, founder and Executive Director of PROOF, Patricia Cronin, the artist behind  the Venice Biennale installation Shrine for Girls and New School Professor Anna Di Lellio who presented her work, Thinking of You. IRWGS Professor Marianne Hirsch moderated the conversation, which ended with an analysis of The Legacy of Rape by Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke. Franke turned an analytic eye on the exhibit, drawing parallels to law and asking probing questions on the role of the exhibit for its viewers.

Speaking as a professor of law, Franke commented on the relationship between testimonies of sexual assault in legal settings, such as courts, and the testimonies within the  exhibit of photographs and testimonies. According to Franke, the “undoing” that is enacted upon the body in cases of rape and sexual assault is so visceral and raw that attempting to verbally convey such an experience, in a court of law, not only further detriments the survivor, but infringes on the legitimacy of the legal system. In her book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self, Susan Brison discusses a similar dynamic, in which she was forced to recall the details of her assault so many times in exactly the same manner that she became so distant from her own experience that she could no longer recall which of the details were her own memories and which were shaped through regurgitation. She states that “my story was shaped by what the listener needed to know most urgently… the point was not, exactly, to get the truth unless ‘truth’ is defined purely instrumentally as that which will help accomplish a goal, in this case, the goal of getting the suspect convicted” (Brison, 106-107). Franke identifies the testimonies of the Legacy of Rape exhibit as of a similar regurgitative vain. Assuming the validity of Brison and Franke’s arguments, do exhibits such as the Legacy of Rape or even testimonies in a court of law distance both the survivor, as well as the viewer, from the gruesome details, or even the reality of such traumatic events? What is the exhibit asking from the viewer? 

Franke does not distinguish between the narrative excerpts in the Legacy of Rape exhibit and those that are recounted in court; to her, they both function as dissociations from the actual event. According to Brison, however, testimonies can help grant survivors subjectivity. She states that, “...just as one can be reduced to an object through torture, one can become a human subject again through telling one’s narrative to caring others who are able to listen” (Brison, 57). One could argue that the testimonies in the Legacy of Rape exhibit offer such an avenue, though one may ask then, what are the limitations of creating subjecthood out of narratives? Must the narratives be told verbally? Must they be told directly and personally, or can a second party quote and then distribute said narratives to a more universal audience? What is the difference between these types of testimonies and those told in courts? Does the intent and purpose of a legal system inherently disassociate and, in some ways, simplify these narratives? 

Both the exhibit and the panel grappled with the difficulty of representation and self-consciously took up the task of questioning how to present the testimony of others without appropriating their narratives or re-victimizing the victim. Yet, the issue of identity and the clear racial delineation of those heard (particularly considering the panel conversation) versus those who were merely seen, was not a point of focus. Franke drew a parallel between photographs in the exhibit that displayed women with their backs to the camera and similar work of African American artist Lorna Simpson, who implicated herself in her photography of African American women. Concerning Simpson’s work, Franke said, “The act of looking was informed by the identity of the artist and the work. Not so with The Legacy of Rape where the photographers’ identity is a marginal fact about the exhibit,” then asking, “Or is it?” Similarly, we can ask the same question concerning the identities of the speakers in relation to the identities of the photographed subjects. In her remarks, Franke discussed the unspeakability of rape and the use of testimony as a tool of law and politics. Does the erasure of identity politics, beyond that of gender solidarity, within both the Legacy of Rape and Art, Law and Social Justice, perpetuate the use of testimony as a political tool? In an effort to give voice to the unspeakable, have the victims of sexual violence also been made victims of political violence?

Narratives of sexual assault survivors deserve and demand to be spoken and heard in order to stop the ubiquitous silencing of such experiences. The Legacy of Rape exhibit certainly takes steps forward to speak about these dynamics, though there is also a presence of controversy around the best platform to do so. There will always be difficulties in the representation of such complex and politically charged issues, particularly in the forums of law and exhibition. It is crucial that in expressing the testimonies of survivors, artists, activists and legal representatives are careful to “not speak, for other survivors of trauma in order to speak with them” (Brison, 30). The Legacy of Rape, as is evident by Franke’s points, tows the line between the two. While art, activism and law seemingly reside within separate realms, Franke’s commentary demonstrates the ways in which these fields converge when called upon to make speakable that which is not, and do justice to rape.

PROOF's The Legacy of Rape Exhibit

December 10, 2015


by Egon von Conway, Andrea Duerr, Alay Syed; Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence

In the silent and desolate halls of Schermerhorn Extension, an intervention is being made. A tale of violence and violation, trauma and memory, testimony and witnessing, unspeakability and legibility, refusal and empowerment, is being told. A space of collective acknowledgement, grieving, accountability, and healing is being created. If you make your way up to the seventh floor before December 15, you’ll come face to face with five looming panels displaying text and photographs, breaking the silence that we’re so often confronted with when talking about rape and gender-based violence in the everyday.

The panels comprise a photography exhibit curated by PROOF: Media for Social Justice, in collaboration with UNHPR and hosted by Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS). The exhibit, titled Legacy of Rape, interrogates and displays the use of rape as a weapon of war. Attempting to highlight a global phenomenon, the exhibition focuses on rape and sexual violence during war in four different regions, depicting groups of women in Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bosnia and Herzegovina and Colombia. The exhibit presents sixteen photographs of rape survivors and accompanying selections from each of the survivors’ testimonies and stories.

The aim of PROOF’s exhibition is multi-faceted. As described by PROOF’s founder and executive direction Leora Kahn, the Legacy of Rape project aims to assist in building strategies and tools for activism and social reform with groups of women in the four regions. For this project, PROOF partnered with survivors of rape and sexual abuse in these regions to produce images, testimonies and stories. The organization and the groups of women worked with documentary photographers to take portraits of the individual survivors. PROOF has organized a number of different exhibitions from these materials. The groups of women, with the help of PROOF, organized exhibitions within their own communities that function as catalysts for testimony and activism. In each country, stated Kahn in an accompanying panel discussion on December 1st, the exhibit was designed differently, maintaining cultural sensitivity and optimizing impact. For instance, in the DRC, relatable testimonies were selected with the hope that the exhibition would provoke a response amongst a hidden community of survivors, whereas the one designed for Colombia aimed to provoke political action and reform. Furthermore, PROOF is engaged in a long-term project to organize the materials into traveling exhibitions aimed to educate and target different populations. The instantiation of Legacy of Rape being presented here at Columbia University, is designed to educate university students. This exhibit, states Kahn, is supposed to serve as a “springboard for discussion,” not only for the communities documented and directly impacted, but for the wider international audience in order to educate, build solidarity, and meticulously chip away at the silence surrounding issues of rape and gender based violence.

The takeaway question of the photography exhibit, along with the accompanying panel discussion, is one that holds both the artist and viewer responsible in bearing witness to the stories of these survivors: how does one narrate or portray a victim without further victimizing them? What is the role of the artist in presenting a narrative that is not only provocative and impactful, but also respects the boundaries of these victims? In this respect, the photographers/artists included here found a way to pay homage to the wishes of the victim in what is allowed to be shown of them and what is bearable for them. According to Kahn, the subjects of these portraits were actively involved in the process of selecting testimonies to be presented within the exhibit. The portraits on the other hand, attempt to give voice to something beyond language, providing a sharp contrast, as well as accompanying visual evidence to the testimonies laid out.

The provocative exhibit captures something beyond words, as texts and images function as different forms of testimony and recognition. There seems to be no official or standardized way to show victims or bear witness to their testimonies. Each photographer involved utilizes different styles of portraiture. What seems important within this exhibit is to keep the dignity of the victims and portray them in a respectful manner. All sixteen portraits seem to reference this wish. This is directly highlighted within the portraits of the women in Nepal and the DRC, in which their faces and therefore identities are hidden from the camera, in order to prevent any further social stigma, humiliation, and repercussions that this visibility may cause for their children, spouses, family, and social standing.  However, the choice to hide the faces of the victims does not take away from the gravity of their testimonies, but further invites the viewer to bear witness, to read the testimonies, to hear the silences these bodies have been enshrouded in.

Presenting a different modality of testimony and photography, the Bosnian women are shown in everyday settings with their full names accompanying their portraits and stories. There seems to be an indication in these portraits and texts that the personal stories of these women are well known and documented. These women have been trying to get justice and reparation from the government for years, some successful, others not. Yet their poses in the photos demonstrate resilience, determination and awareness of their legal rights, even if bringing their perpetrators to justice is not always possible and is often painful. The four Colombian rape victims are portrayed at a very close range. Only their faces are shown, their faint smiles central to the photographs that have been cropped just below the neck. This makes for a very intimate moment between viewer and subject. These portraits look destined to be shown in a gallery show. In the narratives, all the women reference the unimaginable that was inflicted on their body over and over again. Not showing their body in the portraits underlines the atrocities committed against them. An accompanying blurb presenting the overarching theme of the panel states that four million Colombians are considered to be “internally displaced” within the country, and gender-based violence is the cause of the displacement of two of every ten women by some estimates. “These women” reads the blurb, “have yet to receive any compensation or justice.” This exhibit presenting the stories and portraits of survivors of rape and sexual assault, aims to open up conversations about these issues in order to educate and build international awareness, solidarity, and pressure on state governments to provide resources and assistance to these victims.

Tuesday night’s panel discussion, titled Art, Law, and Social Justice, echoed some of the concerns and questions provoked by PROOF’s exhibit. The panel comprised of Kahn, artist Patricia Cronin (Shrine of Girls), professor and curator Anna di Lellio (Thinking of You), and Professor Katherine Franke of the Columbia Law School. The panel was moderated by Professor Marianne Hirsch of IRWGS. Along with how to portray the story of a victim without further victimizing them, the evening’s discussion centered on the role of art as a medium for social justice, awareness, and reform, interrogating the role of testimonies and legal systems within the processes of healing and accountability. Cronin highlighted the importance of finding a “solemn way to talk about women.” The power of art, stated Cronin, “can work across language and geographical barriers to move people to care, think, and feel.” The aim of her work was to “unnumb people” from the violence of the 24 hour news cycle. Anna di Lellio agreed with Cronin in her belief that art can reach and move individuals across cultures, language, and even gender demarcations. Hers was not just an artistic project but a “participatory project” which promoted community building, not only for survivors, but also their families and allies. 

The works of Cronin, di Lellio, and PROOF, all deal with the erasures and silences surrounding the issues of sexual assault and rape. One way to grapple with the idea of erasure, stated di Lellio, is to answer by visibility. In addition to visibility these projects engage ideas of legibility, requiring interpretation and presenting more than just what the image or exhibit depicts. Furthermore, these projects make arguments about “rendering forms of human suffering legible,” leaving a lot to the viewer to digest and process. This project of legibility, agreed the panelists, is a political project in its own terms. Whereas in many societies, law is the highest form of recognition and legibility, it can also do “epistemic violence at times to subjects it is supposed to be serving and protecting,” stated Franke. Thus in order to once again grapple with the question of how to present a victim’s narrative and provide some semblance of justice and healing with sensitivity, care, and responsibility, it is important for artists, activists, academics, and audience alike, to engage with the intersection of law and art critically and effectively.  

In these so often silent halls, exhibits like these force us to engage, disrupting business as usual.

Familial Undercurrents: A Lecture by Afsaneh Najmabadi

November 25, 2015

by Elizabeth Dolfi, Department of Religion PhD and 2015 – 16 Graduate Fellow


Afsaneh Najmabadi’s lecture ‘Familial Undercurrents,’ on gender, sexuality, family structure and modernities in Iran, provided a fascinating introduction to a work-in-progress that is part theoretical meditation, part historical-sociological investigation, and part family history.  Najmabadi is interested in the rapid transformation of conceptions of marriage and the family among educated and upper class Iranians during the early and mid twentieth century, and the everyday practices and affects which allowed people to live with and through the gaps left by these shifting social and ideological possibilities. 


This project began with the unearthing of Najmabadi’s own family secrets and her attempts to account for their consequences in her life and the lives of her kin. She did not grow up in a “combined” house, and neither she nor her mother knew about her father’s second household until well into adulthood. In dealing with the emotional fallout from this discovery, Najmabadi asks how “a form of family life that would have been normal for my mother’s generation could have become a shameful family secret only a generation later?”  Najmabadi wonders how the imperial “love marriage” generated “family unspeakables” and, often, “the will not to know.”


In her effort to track historical shifts in the construction of, in Najmabadi’s evocative language, “the kin who count and those in their shadows,” Najmabadi is particularly interested in the affective lives of those who wrestled their way through these incomplete transitions. She asks what the promises of modernity and companionate marriage were, and how, when the practical realities of marriages failed to live up to the romantic ideal (as when a second family exists, but as a secret rather than a naturalized part of the home or the family structure), people lived with, through, and in between the inheritance of social and ideological changes wrought by imperialism. Using oral histories and archival material, she investigates the fall-out from silences and secrets – the ways that relatives become strangers, that monogamy’s promises are broken, and that kin are exiled to the margins in order to posit a center for the nucleated family. 


Najmabadi’s analysis of family photographs as sites where never-fully-realized modernities are enacted, resisted, and “lived with” in quiet, quotidian ways was particularly compelling. She connected the arrival of photography in the Middle East with the Europeanization of marriage ideals, describing the camera and the photograph as objects of everyday life through which these changes were negotiated and “off-modern” practices were generated. She spoke about oral history interviews with older Iranian women who lived through these transitions and rejected the narrowing logics of the nucleated family (because, of course, these were never quite nuclear families). When looking at a family photograph with three women labeled as “mother” in pencil on the back, for instance, these women would rebuff Najmabadi’s request to identify their mother by insisting that the photograph identified “all of their mothers.”  Family photographs recapture, for Najmabadi, familial logics in which aunts, uncles, siblings, and mothers were called by these names without any “half” or “step” modifiers.  They also suggest some of the patterns of affect and sentiment that went along with these family systems. 


Wedding photographs, on the other hand, give us access to something a little different. In the 1930s and 40s, wedding photos were often taken at a photographer’s shop on a different day from the wedding.  They were typically taken in western-style wedding clothes (white dress, black suit) that were only worn for these photos and not for the actual wedding ceremony or celebration. In marking the couple as sartorially and spatially separate from the wider family, the bride and groom in these photos were ritually presented as different from their parents and their parents’ generation. Going to the photographer’s studio became a crucial way for brides and grooms to stage coupledom and their investment in the bourgeois conjugal family (no matter what kind of home they actually lived in). These photographs might be displayed in homes in which the companionate couple and monogamous romance existed in an unresolved juxtaposition to a household full of many mothers and (half) siblings.

Najmabadi concluded by addressing the difficulty of excavating these pasts without, one the one hand, slipping into nostalgia and, on the other, imposing anachronistic terms on her subjects.



Theory Salon with Linda Zerilli, “The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment”

October 29, 2015

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 Graduate Fellow

On October 19, graduate students and faculty from in and outside Columbia came together to discuss Linda Zerilli’s recent article “The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment.” A professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, Zerilli is also currently the Faculty Director of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality

Zerilli’s opening remarks situated her article within debates in political theory and philosophy, specifically the “mind-body” problem associated with René Descartes. Cartesians view the mind—that is, processes like reason and judgment—as independent from the matter of the body, though the mind can influence the body. Many political theorists and philosophers have questioned both the extent to which reason can be disentangled from the body’s material processes as well as the importance of conscious, rational judgments to the analysis and crafting of political projects. Feminists in particular have asked how people interact with the world through impulses other than disembodied reason; given the Western tradition of negatively associating women with sentiment and irrationality, it’s unsurprising that feminist thinkers have sought to reevaluate the importance of emotion to politics. Yet, Zerilli distinguished these critiques from the “affective turn” of the last decade. Instead of viewing reason and the affective responses of the material body as interdependent, many key figures in affect theory have continued to separate affect from reason and judgment. They argue that the affective responses of the material body preexist the cognitive functions which produce knowledge; what distinguishes their approach from Descartes’ inheritors is that they privilege the pre-rational body over the rational mind. Zerilli calls this approach “layer-cake ontologies.”

Though critical of these “layer-cake ontologies,” Zerilli seeks to understand why affect theory has been so attractive to scholars across disciplines. According to Zerilli, many are frustrated with how analyses of the socially constructed nature of heteronormative gender haven’t yielded significant progress in displacing these social norms. Why are we still attached to these norms given that feminist and queer theory have revealed them to be harmful and arbitrary? Zerilli sees affect as offering an explanation: even if we “know” these norms are bad, perhaps below our conscious awareness we’re still attached to the enacting of these norms. Still, unlike many affect theorists, Zerilli asks how we might think about how a person acquires knowledge and grasps concepts through their bodily interactions with the world. Just as we learn what a chair is through learning what to do with a chair, perhaps we learn the norm of sexual differentiation not by being told the linguistic proposition “male and female are binary terms” but by learning how to perceive other persons as fitting the aspect of either masculine or female. In exploring these possibilities, Zerilli turns to ordinary language philosophy in the vein of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell. 

Call for Teaching Assistants: Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies

October 14, 2015

The Department of Sociology, in coordination with the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia seeks Teaching Assistants for V1001 – Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies.

Graduate students currently enrolled in a Columbia University PhD program in any Arts and Sciences Department are eligible to apply, with approval from their home department.  Please note that Columbia TAs may not hold more than one TA position in any one semester and may not accept additional fellowship or departmental support during the term of the TA appointment.

Candidates should send a letter of intent (including background, experience, and fields of interest), an updated CV, and the name and contact information for one academic reference to Professor Shamus Khan c/o irwgs@columbia.edu, by or before 4pm, Friday, December 11.  Application materials may also be dropped off at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, 763 Schermerhorn Extension. 

Feminist to the Core: Julie Crawford on Homer’s ILIAD

September 18, 2015


by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 Graduate Fellow

            IRWGS’ “Feminist to the Core” series kicked off its fall programming with Professor Julie Crawford’s lecture on Homer’s The Iliad. The series aims to not only explore Core Curriculum texts from a feminist perspective but also to introduce feminist interpretive frameworks, which can be carried over to other Core readings and courses outside of the Core Curriculum.

            In her talk, Professor Crawford, Mark van Doren Professor of English and Chair of Literature Humanities, considered the ideological premises which we might assume structure The Iliad: the privileging of warrior masculinity and the exclusion of women from the values and practices central to this definition of masculinity. Crawford troubled this reading by focusing on the formal elements, which gradually develop alternative principles (namely that of “care” and co-feeling) across the arc of the poem.

            Crawford began her lecture by performing the feminist move of looking for evidence of female voices and agency in a text reputed to largely exclude them. The Iliad is one of the Western Canon’s most famous stories of the traffic in women: the event which catalyzed this narrative of the Trojan War, is, of course, Paris’s abduction of Menelaus’s wife Helen. The exchange of women for material and immaterial gain is thought to be foundational to patriarchy because it consolidates bonds between men, although Crawford qualified that in Ancient Greece the traffic of women also puts them in competition with each other. Yet, Crawford used the rubrics of narration and female artistry in order to challenge the reading that characters like Helen and Chryseis are merely objects or chattel. Crawford moved from discussing how men in the poem authorize themselves to speak of Helen’s desire to demonstrating how Helen asserts her presence as a narrator of her own story. Through the figure of Helen, Crawford illustrated, references to social and political bonds between women (such as the Amazons) encroach upon the narrative’s apparently male homosocial world.

            Crawford emphasized how the poem exposes the tremendous amount of labor necessary for creating warrior masculinity. Not only does the poem displace warrior masculinity by locating it in an idealized past, but the constant imperatives to “be a man” also show that this ethos is something that is produced through threat and discipline. Crawford pointed out that even the narrator of the Homeric poem takes on the labor of reproducing this ideology by saying, “be a man, dear friend.”

            In demonstrating evidence of female agency, Crawford offered a way of reading The Iliad that can easily be transported to analyses of a much wider range of literary texts. She rounded out her talk by considering elements of The Iliad which, to me, felt more specific to the epic poem itself. She listed the many ways the poem analogized warriors to both mothers and children and noted the parallel between Andromache’s ignorance about the fate of her husband and Achilleus’ ignorance about the death of his beloved friend Patroclus. Crawford’s concluding remarks emphasized that The Iliad gradually develops an alternative ethos of “co-feeling” typically associated with female nurturers.

            Please join us on Monday, October 12th for the next “Feminist to the Core” event, Professor Margaret Carroll’s lecture on rape in Baroque art.


IRWGS Work Study Job Call

August 26, 2015

IRWGS is hiring! See below for details. If interested, please email our program coordinator, Khadija Belly (k.belly@columbia.edu)

Work-Study Position Description – AY2015-16

Responsibilities include these FOUR components:


·      Write 2 blog posts per semester

·      Contribute to IRWGS social media accounts

o   Facebook, twitter – help maintain active presence and frequent interactions

·      Cultivate and maintain networks with student groups and solicit student organization events and news.


·      General front-office reception.  Greet guests, answer phones, check irwgs@columbia.edu, check and send mail.

·      Provide support to the Institute (Director, Associate Director, Finance Manager, Program Coordinator and faculty) including photocopying, scanning, research, drafting correspondence, etc.

·      Maintain various Google calendars (update calendars by entering on campus events to Affiliated Events calendar)

·      Maintain files, scans, Dropbox files, libraries (pdf, syllabus, 754), and archives

·      Maintain office, seminar room, storage spaces, and announcement areas in hallway


·      Publicity: Hang posters, distribute fliers, and other advertising

o   Add calendar/event listings to IRWGS website, Facebook, Twitter, Columbia events calendar. Send to other departments/schools/groups/listservs as applicable.

·      Make buttons and other promotional materials.

·      Assist during events: Set-up and break-down of seminar room (or other space).  Help serve wine (if applicable), clean throughout event, help where necessary

·      Take photos/video, live tweet

·      Create event listings to advertise programming.  Post edited photos.

Academic Coordination

·      Check different class listings  (Bulletin, UNIFY, irwgs.columbia.edu, Summer Studies site, etc) for errors.

·      Research lists of cross-listed and related courses.  Solicit cross-listed and related courses from professors.

Christia Mercer writes op-ed for Washington Post on Prison Divestment

July 16, 2015

IRWGS Executive Committee member and Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosphy Christia Mercer has published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today on schools and prison divestment.

Please click here for the article.

Jack Halberstam's Queer Futures: “Zombie Humanism at the End of the World"

July 6, 2015

by Nicole Gervasio, English Ph.D. '17 and 2014 - 2015 IRWGS Grad Fellow

Jack Halberstam closed out “Queer Futures” for this year by playfully politicizing several seemingly disparate aspects of contemporary culture— zombies, biopolitics, wilderness, prisons, and even pet ownership. A professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies, Comparative Literature, and English at the University of Southern California, Halberstam will be hosting a master class at IRWGS for the next two weeks.

The adventurous trajectory of Halberstam’s arc towards “zombie humanism” started with the concept of “wildness” as an occasion for “aesthetic rupture.” Thinking in terms of aesthetic rupture involves overlapping genealogies that normally would not be read together but nevertheless make sense aesthetically and historically. Halberstam staged “wildness” as a substitute for “queer,” which, in his view, “no longer signifies the wild array of embodiment and utopian projects that it once did.”

In the space of what was once queer, wildness encompasses all that is chaotic, reckless, and intense to the point of violence. Halberstam shifted discourse from queerness as a polemic against normativity to monstrosity itself—“the entropy of life, stuff, matter, and worlds.” By queering subjectivities that compulsorily inhabit that space of “living death,” we can fathom the ways in which the state imposes scripts on lives that don’t assimilate with normative views of what “living” means. 

Having enumerated black men in prisons and seniors in retirement communities as conscripts of living death, Halberstam chose one subjectivity that we would not as readily associate with regulatory violence to illustrate his thesis: household pets. “Your pet is not really alive,” he explained. “Its life script is determined by you… It is, in fact, a prosthetic extension of the human that owns it.”

Despite being a devoted pet owner myself (Halberstam would probably point out that my choice of the designation ‘owner’ is key), I couldn’t deny some of the obvious truths to his bone to pick with man’s best friend. I particularly appreciated his blistering critique of “the colonial narrative” regarding “rescue” dogs: humans cannot logically “domesticate, abandon, and then rescue again” the very creatures whose conditions of captivity they created in the first place.

Having disillusioned many an audience member with “the carceral intensity of pet-owning,” Halberstam moved into a more theoretical discussion of biopolitics and zombie humanism. He noted the racialized history of zombie mythology, particularly the fear that zombification would re-enslave free Haitians in their sleep. Zombies therefore began as “a political narrative about holding slavery at bay, but also recognizing it as a living memory and potentially a part of the present.”

By the 1960s, zombies in films like Night of the Living Dead allegorized the intensification of American viewers’ relationships to consumer capitalism. Now zombies work in a neocolonial mode—whether through fantasies of de-extinction or television shows like The Walking Dead and In the Flesh. The dominant ‘zombie imperialist’ logic, Halberstam said, works like this: “You create the conditions of rupture and disaster, and then you become the redemptive force” to reverse the very disaster that your race has enabled.

For more Halberstam, check out this Thursday’s “Keywords” interdisciplinary roundtable discussion, where Halberstam will be theorizing “trans” with Yvette Christiansë, Jack Pula, Yasmine Ergas, and Jean Howard from 4:30-6:30pm in 1512 International Affairs Building.

Image Credit: from AMC's The Walking Dead

IRWGS Welcomes our 2015 - 2016 Graduate Fellows

July 6, 2015

A hearty congratulations to our 2015 – 2016 IRWGS Graduate Fellows Liz Dolfi (Religion), Victoria Wiet (English and Comparative Literature), Andrea Crow (English and Comparative Literature), and Alyssa Greene (Germanic Languages). Fellows are selected annually, based on the excellence of their scholarship and their commitment to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Liz Dolfi, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Religion Department, has a strong background in gender studies. She has a B.A. in Women’s Studies and an M.A. in Religion and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She has also recently completed her Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies here at IRWGS and was a TA for Professor Ciolkowski and Professor Jordan-Young’s Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies course this past semester.

Liz says she is “interested in developing workshops on research methods and prospectus writing that address the particular needs of students working across multiple academic disciplines.” She also believes that “making feminist scholars more familiar with the critical language of religious studies is a politically urgent project, and critical studies of religion and secularisms are too frequently neglected in feminist scholarship.”  As a Graduate Fellow, Liz hopes to invite to IRWGS guest lecturers who “explicitly engage questions about religion and are able to make these subjects accessible to students from other fields.”

Victoria Wiet, a fourth-year doctoral student in the English and Comparative Literature Department, has been a part of the IRWGS community since she started at Columbia.  Last semester she was a TA (with Liz) for Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, and she has also taught the Gender and Sexuality-themed section of University Writing.

As a graduate fellow, Victoria would like to “promote teaching in affiliation with IRWGS as a building block for teaching in one’s home discipline.” She also looks forward to developing pedagogical workshops and continuing to attend IRWGS events, which she says have provided “surprising points of contact between my work and those working in different disciplines and time periods.”

This year, IRWGS has also appointed Andrea Crow and Alyssa Greene as Graduate Conference Fellows.  Andrea and Alyssa will be organizing the February 2016 conference “Practicing Utopias: Feminism and Activism in Institutional Contexts.”

Andrea Crow, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, is currently in the process of completing the IRWGS graduate certificate. Andrea notes, “feminist and queer theory have been central to my work both as a researcher and teacher throughout my time in academia.”  Andrea has served as Graduate Assistant to the CSSD working group “Women Mobilizing Memory” and has also been heavily involved with IRWGS events since her arrival at Columbia.

Alyssa Greene, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Germanic Languages is also pursuing the IRWGS graduate certificate, and has been involved with IRWGS since her first year at Columbia. Like Andrea, Alyssa is a part of the CSSD working group “Women Mobilizing Memory.”  Alyssa says that “IRWGS is one of the few truly interdisciplinary spaces she’s encountered at Columbia” and as a grad fellow she hopes to “continue reaching out to students and faculty from a wide range of disciplines and departments.” 

Columbia Law Professors Katherine Franke and Suzanne Goldberg React to Supreme Court Ruling

July 2, 2015

Following the landmark decision by the Supreme Court last Friday, there has been plenty of discussion about how the ruling will affect gay rights in America. Katherine Franke, IRWGS Executive Committee member and Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and Suzanne Goldberg, EVP for University Life and Director of the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, have responded to the news:

"Dignity" Could Be Dangerous At The Supreme Court by Professor Katherine Franke

A Progressive Agenda for Married Queers by Professor Katherine Franke

How We Changed Our Thinking on Gay Marriage featuring Professor Katherine Franke

What The Landmark Ruling on Gay Marriage Means for Higher Education featuring Professor Suzanne Goldberg

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2015 IRWGS Curriculum Development Grant

July 2, 2015

IRWGS is happy to announce the recipients of the 2015 Curriculum Development Grants. More information about the grant, offered with the generous support of The Heyman Center and the Mellon Foundation, can be found here.

Recipients are:

Rachel Adams
Professor of English and American Studies
“Illness, Disability, and Gender in Graphic Narrative”

Patricia Dailey
Director, Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
“Historical Approaches”

Yasmine Ergas
Director, Gender & Public Policy Specialization, SIPA,
“Challenging The Boundaries of ‘Work’: Sex, Care, and Procreation”

Marianne Hirsch
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
“Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony and Violence”

Hikari Hori
Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures,
“Japanese Animation and Beyond: Gender, Power and Transnational Media in Visual Cultural Studies”

Eliza Zingesser
Assistant Professor of French and Romance Philosophy
“Reading and Writing (On) the Body in the French Middles Ages”

Congratulations to Lucie Vagnerova (IRWGS/GSAS Teachers Scholar Program) on winning the 2015 Mayerson Award!

July 2, 2015

From Columbia's Music Department:

Lucie Vagnerova (Historical Musicology) has been chosen to receive a 2015 Meyerson Award for Excellence in Core Teaching. This award, which carries a stipend, is given annually in Art Humanities, Music Humanities, and Literature Humanities to an outstanding graduate student preceptor in each course. 

Lucie's achievement will be recognized at the Spring Core Party, Friday, May 8, 3-6pm (ceremony about 4pm), Core Curriculum Office, 202 Hamilton Hall.   

Lucie was also selected for the 2015-16 GSAS Teaching Scholars Program. With the support from a curriculum development grant awarded by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality--made possible by the Heyman Center for the Humanities--Lucie will offer the new undergraduate course "Sexing Sound Art" in fall 2015. For the IRWGS course list see http://irwgs.columbia.edu/courses/fall-2015.

Congratulations, Lucie!

Interview with Caitlin Lowell, winner of the 2015 Women's and Gender Studies Award

July 2, 2015

IRWGS is happy to announce the 2015 winner of the 7th Annual Women’s and Gender Studies Award.

This year, Caitlin Lowell (CC '15 and Political Science and American Studies major) has won the Women's and Gender Studies Award for her essay "Justice Is Not An Institution: The University of Michigan and the Alternate Responses to Sexual Violence on Campus." We interviewed Caitlin to learn more about her work and her plans for the future.

1. What inspired you to focus on The University of Michigan and sexual violence on campus as your senior thesis?

Throughout my work doing sexual violence organizing, I was struggling to find models that worked for transformative and restorative justice within the university. I had been inspired by community-based literature that grappled with how to create transformative responses to violence, especially Andrea Smith's preface in The Revolution Starts at Home. As we're facing a moment where some lawmakers are calling for greater police involvement in college adjudication processes, I wanted to find a case study of a school that had engaged with socially just restorative and transformative approaches to violence. 
I focused on the University of Michigan because it is one of the few schools nationally that has a long and established history of using restorative justice approaches in response to sexual violence. It also is a school that has received much praise over the past few years for its responses to sexual violence, as well as a great deal of backlash from some survivors and an ongoing Title IX investigation during this same time period. This made the University of Michigan a useful case study to examine this pivotal moment that's happening nationally as colleges are reexamining their responses to sexual violence.
2. You are graduating this month with a degree in Political Science and American Studies. How have you been able to integrate your interest women's studies in the work you have done here at Columbia?
One of the reasons why I loved American Studies as a major is that it allowed me to be truly interdisciplinary in the work that I did here. I focused my courseload on intersections of gender, queerness, and race in America, and was able to take many women and gender studies classes this way. These classes have in turn affected my activism around sexual violence, mental health, and LGBTQ issues on campus throughout my time at Columbia.
3. What are your plans for the future?
I'm going to spend the year following graduation as a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow through the Congressional Hunger Center. This is a fellowship that addresses issues of economic justice and hunger through a social justice and anti-racist lens. I'm going to spend the first half of the fellowship doing direct work in field site somewhere in the U.S. and the second half of the fellowship continuing to work on these issues in a policy placement in D.C. In this fellowship, I hopefully will get to work in placements that address how issues of gender and sexuality intersect with economic justice work.