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Embodiments of Science: “Gender-Based Issues for Women in the Natural Sciences”

May 7, 2015

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

During IRWGS’s final “Embodiments of Science” program of the spring semester, students and faculty gathered to hear a panel discussion on issues facing women in the natural sciences.

The four speakers began by discussing the “leaky pipeline” metaphor that is often used to talk about gender disparity in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Although men and women enter STEM fields at the undergraduate level at roughly similar rates, gender disparity steadily increases as the “pipeline” wends its way through graduate education, postdoctoral programs, junior faculty positions, and so on, until the pipeline—i.e. the number of women in these positions—has become just a dribble at the level of tenured faculty members. This holds true for both the academic and corporate worlds. Not only is the pipeline leaking—the plumbing itself is broken!

Maya Tolstoy, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, reported that Columbia’s Commission on the Status of Women has just completed a decade-long study revealing that the percentage of women in STEM—especially at the junior faculty level—surged in the early half of the decade, but has now plummeted back down to nearly what it was before. If the trend of small and steady increase at about 4% per decade continues, Tolstoy cautioned, it will take approximately seventy-six years to reach parity. It is a sobering thought.

Anne Taylor, Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia Medical College, pointed out that although the practice of medicine has had parity for about 20 years, advancement into academic medicine shows a similar pattern. Why does such disparity persist in academic STEM fields? And why, asked Tolstoy, did we see such progress a decade ago, and such backsliding shortly thereafter?

The panelists reflected on the kinds of social conditioning, biases, and stereotypes that contribute to the gender gap in STEM. Rajini Rao, Professor of Physiology at The Johns Hopkins University, emphasized the importance of mentoring and support for women in these fields. Take the example of awards: women tend to win fewer awards for their work not because their work is inferior, but because they are much less likely than men to apply for recognition in the first place. Outreach and encouragement, and above all strong networks of mentors and colleagues to whom women can turn for advice, are crucial for creating the conditions where gender parity can be achieved. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, enables new kinds of networking that can be especially beneficial to women working in these male-dominated fields.

But achieving gender parity isn’t just about women: men are implicated too. According to Liz Miller, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, “male advocates are essential” if we’re going to enact real change in the gender dynamics of academia. All four panelists agreed that it’s absolutely necessary for everyone to call out unacceptable behavior—whether deliberate or not—whenever it’s possible to do so. Miller reminded us that, in scientific experiments, simply reading a statement that bias exists can positively influence outcomes. In fields where gender parity can seem so distant—recall Tolstoy’s calculation of 76 years to achieve parity, at the current rate—there’s a lot of work still to do, even on the level of raising awareness of the gender gap.

There’s a long road ahead for women in the natural sciences. Taylor acknowledged how difficult it can be to forge forward in highly competitive, demanding fields when “the impostor syndrome that everyone feels, for women and minorities, is confirmed, emphasized, and amplified by external systems.” Yet, as Tolstoy pointed out, equally demanding and competitive fields like law reached gender parity a long time ago. The panel concluded with a consensus that, to fix the problem in STEM fields, intervention is required at nearly every level. As the report from the Commission on the Status of Women shows, it is possible to enact dramatic change in a relatively short period of time. But once progress is made, any slackening off of efforts can all too easily result in a negation of that progress. We need to plug the leaks in the pipeline, yes.  But above all, we need to fix the plumbing.

“Lesbian and Gay Rights in American Politics: Public Opinion and (Mis)Representation”

April 13, 2015

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

At last Wednesday’s installment of “Queer Futures,” Associate Professor of Political Science Justin H. Phillips asked a pivotal question for civil rights today: to what extent do changing public opinions influence policymakers’ votes on issues regarding our country’s most vulnerable citizens? Targeting LGBTQ citizens, Phillips’s research has come up with a provocative statistical model for quantifying congressional responsiveness to voter opinion in their districts. His findings thus far have been both startling for LGBTQ rights and all too predictable from the most cynical liberal perspective.

“Policy tends to follow public opinion,” Phillips said, “but in the case of GLBT rights, policy has been slower than public support.” He and his team, which includes Katherine Krimmel and Jeffrey R. Lax, decided to find out whether the political process has been failing queer Americans or merely working at a snail’s pace. They have been tracking roll call voting in Congress on five major gay rights issues (same-sex marriage, adoption, hate crimes, military service, and employment non-discrimination) from 1993 to 2011.

These researchers expected to find a strong correlation between public opinion and congressional votes. What they found was both obvious and surprising. Democrats’ votes regularly began to line up with public opinion after 1993, when LGBTQ rights first became a legislative concern. On the other hand, Republicans, as even laypeople would guess, became far less sensitive to public opinion on all hot-button issues— not just LGBTQ rights.

For me, this finding signaled an eye-opening, big-picture takeaway from Phillips’s research into the legislative obstacles facing minorities. On each of the five issues Phillips tracked, individual Democrats consistently responded to change, whereas Republicans upheld the rigid, conservative stereotypes that define their party despite public opinion.

By comparing results from national public opinion polls that asked questions in line with issues on which Congress was voting, Phillips and his colleagues were able to simulate congruencies between the public and Congress’s opinions on both state and district levels. Overall, they found that 67 percent of votes ultimately lined up with majority opinion. Conservatives were responsible for 75 percent of incongruent votes. On average, almost 30 percent of all votes in the five categories they researched would have been different if lawmakers aligned with median voters.

Within political parties, responsiveness hinged on the identity politics of particular policymakers. Public opinion did not once seem to sway Republican votes on LGBTQ issues. However, Democratic responses were far more diverse; whereas public opinion is most likely to sway white male Democrats, all black Democrats always vote pro-gay, regardless of opinions in their home districts. This could be because, Phillips reasoned, “legislators who belong to groups that have historically faced discrimination might draw an analogy between their group’s experience and that of gays and lesbians.”

Up next for Phillips is researching the extent to which LGBTQ citizens are a voting constituency worth courting in U.S. politics. Be sure to check out the next talk for “Queer Futures” with Professor Jack Halberstam this Tuesday, April 7, from 6-8pm in 102A Jerome Green Hall.


IRWGS Director of Undergraduate Studies Christia Mercer on Teaching Philosophy in Prison

April 1, 2015

IRWGS Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor Christia Mercer has written a piece on teaching philosophy to inmates in the Washington Post. You can read it here.

Call for IRWGS Graduate Fellows, 2015 - 16

April 1, 2015



IRWGS Graduate Fellowships

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) seeks applications for 2015-16 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, 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 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 2015-16. Applicants must indicate in their application any plans to apply for other fellowships and grants in 2015-16 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 Monday” 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 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 programs.

Please submit a brief letter of application, a CV, and a short writing sample to irwgs@columbia.edu by or before Friday, May 1, 2015. 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.  

Celebrating the IRWGS Executive Committee

February 25, 2015

We would like to recognize the distinguished faculty members of the IRWGS Executive Committee for their recent honors and publications. Congratulations to all! 

Patricia Dailey, Director of IRWGS and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

· Winner of the 2015 Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award


Laura Ciolkowski, Associate Director of IRWGS and Adjunct Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

· Editor and introduction, Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Race Point Publishing, 2014)


Rachel Adams, Professor of English and Comparative Literature

· Received the Delta Kappa Gamma Educator’s Award for Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery

·  Co-editor, Keywords for Disability Studies (forthcoming, NYU Press, June 2015)

·  "Privacy, Dependency, Discegenation:  Toward a Sexual Culture for People with Intellectual Disabilities," forthcoming in Disability Studies Quarterly


Ellie Hisama, Professor of Music

· “‘Diving into the Earth’: the musical worlds of Julius Eastman,” in Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship  (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, February 2015)

· Awarded fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation/Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities

· Will deliver a keynote address at the 2015 Music Graduate Students' Symposium at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University

· Recipient of the 2014 IRWGS Curriculum Development Grant


Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities

· Co-editor with Pamela Brown, William Shakespeare, As You Like It (Bedford-St. Martin’s 2014)

· Co-editor with Helen Foley, “Tragedy,” a special volume of Publication of the Modern Language Association 

· Co-editor The Norton Shakespeare, third edition (Norton 2015)


Justin Phillips, Associate Professor of Political Science

· "Gay Rights in Congress: Public Opinion and (Mis)Representation” with Jeffrey Lax and Kate Krimmel, forthcoming in Public Opinion Quarterly

·  “Are Survey Respondents Lying About their Support for Same-Sex Marriage? Lessons from A Recent List Experiment” with Jeffrey Lax and Alissa Stollwerk, forthcoming in Public Opinion Quarterly

· Recipient of the 2014 IRWGS Curriculum Development Grant


Carole Vance, Associate Clinical Professor of Sociomedical Sciences

· Presented at the Domna Stanton Annual Lecture at Wellesley College, Dept. of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, October 2014

· Received the 2014 Simon and Gagnon Award from the American Sociological Association (Section on the Sociology of Sexualities) for career contributions to the field of sexualities studies


Katherine Franke, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law

· Awarded a 2011 Gugenheim Fellowship

· Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights, 44 Columbia Human Rights Law Review 1 (2012)


Julie Crawford, Associate Professor of English and Comparative literature

· Mediatrix Women, Politics, and Literary Production in Early Modern England (May 2014)


Mana Kia, Assistant Professor of Indo Persian Studies

· Adab as Literary Form and Social Conduct: Reading the Gulistan in Late Mughal India,” in 'No Tapping Around Philology': A Festschrift in celebration and honor of Wheeler McIntosh Thackston Jr.’s 70th Birthday, ed. (2014)

· Imagining Iran before Nationalism: Geocultural Meanings of Land in Azar’s Ātashkadah.” In Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity: Histories Historiographies, ed. (2014, University of Texas Press)

· Recipient of the 2014 IRWGS Curriculum Development Grant


Hikari Hori, Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures

· Aging, Gender and Sexuality in Japanese Popular Culture: Female Pornographer Sachi Hamano and Her Film "Lily Festival" (Yurisai), " in Matsumoto, ed. Faces and Masks (Stanford University Press, forthcoming)


Josef Sorett, Assistant Professor of Religion and African-American Studies and Associate Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life (IRCPL)

· Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2015)

· Awarded grants from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Louisiville Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the Fund for Theological Education


Hillary Hallet, Assistant Professor of History

· Jensen-Miller Prize, best article in women’s and gender history for “Based on a True Story,” Western History Association, 2012

· Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood  (University of California Press, 2012)

· Recipient of the 2014 IRWGS Curriculum Development Grant

Feminist to the Core: Kristina Milnor on Vergil’s Aeneid

February 17, 2015

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On January 26, an excited group of students and faculty crowded into the IRWGS seminar room to hear Professor Kristina Milnor discuss Vergil’s Aeneid. Professor Milnor put forth a provocative challenge at the beginning of her talk: in this epic of empire that borders on the “comically patriarchal,” how can we uncover the “resistant voice of the text” and do a feminist reading of the Aeneid?

True to her roots as a classicist, Professor Milnor structured her talk around a few pivotal moments in the text and gave passages first in their original Latin, followed by translation. The first part of her discussion centered on the (in)famous “cave scene” in Aeneid IV: trapped by a divinely-wrought storm, Dido and Aeneas retreat to a cave where they consummate their union. But what exactly is the nature of that union? In his “breakup speech” to Dido at the end of Book IV, Aeneas puts forth the argument that he never consented to any sort of marriage with her, and so he considers himself justified in leaving Carthage, a departure that will lead to Dido’s suicide. But the narrative voice of the text complicates this argument. In fact, Dido and Aeneas’ tryst in the cave is described by the Latin word conubiis, which Alan Mandelbaum translates as “mating”: “fulsere ignes et conscius aether / conubiis summoque ulularunt vertice Nymphae” (Aeneid IV.165-6; in Mandelbaum “lightning fires flash, / the upper air is witness to their mating” [IV.221-2]). Conubia can in fact mean “marriage,” and the creation of the marriage bond in Vergil’s time was a much more fluid process than it is today, depending mainly on the consent of the two spouses and recognition by the family. As Professor Milnor pointed out, neither Dido nor Aeneas has a family to recognize their marriage, and Aeneas did indeed consent to what the narrative describes as “conubia.” Although Aeneas argues that he has no obligation to Dido, and that she should not object to his pursuit of imperial destiny, the narrative offers what Professor Milnor describes as an “ambiguous space” in which the reader can challenge Aeneas’ logic.

Moving on to the Book V, Professor Milnor turned to a line near the very beginning: “notumque furens quid femina possit” (Aeneid V.6; in Mandelbaum “the Trojans / know well the pain when passion is profaned / and how a woman driven wild can act” [V.6-8]). Yet, as Professor Milnor asked, do Aeneas and his men really know what fury a woman is capable of? Aeneid V is book-ended by two moments of such fury: first, Dido’s suicide at the end of Book IV (during which Aeneas is already sailing away, leaving it ambiguous whether he realizes the destruction he’s left in his wake) and second, the Trojan women’s burning of the ships at the end of Book V, which Aeneas and his men neither expected nor were able to control until it was too late. Professor Milnor argued that the “cultural trauma” of civil war and the violence of imperial conquest are projected on to inexplicable “female frenzy”: yet the text also allows us to question the blame placed on the shoulders of women. Professor Milnor argues that Vergil gives us both “assertions in the narrative voice, and the opportunity to question those assertions.” Aeneas, it turns it out, in her view, is dead wrong in thinking he knows what women can do.

Professor Milnor rounded out her talk with a dose of historical context for the Augustan regime’s program of domestic control. The so-called “Julian laws” passed by Augustus in 18-17 BCE concerned marriage and adultery, detailing the legally sanctioned punishments for the various situations in which women might be caught in adultery (for men, of course, adultery was not nearly so grave an offense). The formal outlawing of adultery in the Lex Julia de adulteriis is coupled with the state’s intervention in marriage in the Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus, which mandated remarriage for widowed Roman women and set out the ius trium liberorum, the “right of three children.” Professor Milnor pointed out that, according to the ius trium liberorum, a Roman woman who produced three or more children would be granted certain legal privileges, such as the right to inherit her husband’s estate. The ius trium liberorum was intended to create an incentive for Roman wives to fill up the decreasing population of the empire with new Roman citizens: under Augustus, “good domesticity is a state interest.”

A concern with women’s behavior, within the domestic sphere and outside it, is evident in Vergil’s text. And though the Aeneid is not a straightforward critique of Augustan empire, neither is it straightforward praise. In Professor Milnor’s estimation, Vergil may not be an unqualified critic—unlike Ovid, he saw how bad things could get during a civil war—but he nevertheless shows a keen awareness that, in Professor Milnor’s words, “the cost of the drive to imperial glory is paid by women.”

Image Credit

3 Questions for Jeffrey McCune

February 5, 2015

Jeffrey McCune is Associate Professor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Performing Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.  He received his PhD in Performance Studies in 2007 from Northwestern University with a focus on African-American Studies and Gender Studies. His research interests include popular culture; masculinity; critical/race/gender/sexuality theory; performance studies; queer theory; contemporary African-American Literature, Culture and Media communication. His book, Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing, was published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press. Join Professor McCune on Thursday, February 5th at 4pm in 754 Schmerhorn Extension for his Queer Futures talk here at IRWGS.

1. What are you currently working on?

I am presently working on READ!: An Experiment in Seeing Black, a monograph which explores and offers other ways of “knowing” black people beyond what I call “canonical prejudices.” This work provides a new lens to approach the study of race, gender, sexuality, and class toward an ethics of care and critical generosity. This book moves from hip-hop to neo-slave to Ferguson narratives, developing a rigorous method of reading black texts and performance in ways that deliberately defy academic and cultural training, to arrive at a hermeneutic of generosity, which demands that blackness is always worth attending to with rigor and reverence (what it may offer). READ! is an experiment which challenges the way a set of institutions have carefully crafted, or been used to craft, how it is that black people are understood.

I am also developing a stage play, An Archive of Violence, which takes Ferguson as a centerpiece, to unveil how anti-black violence permeates the everyday lives of black people. This play offers a broader conversation for how the “reproduction of misery” within black life forms, manifests, and erodes life energy and spirit in the lives of black people. At the same time, it illustrates the pre-post/existence of psychical and physical violence in the lives of communities, while also acting as a mobilizing agent for deeper, intrinsic passion for life, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. This one-man show, at present, introduces multiple figures who each embody, manage, and contain excessive amounts of “stuff” which get exacerbated by encounters with anti-black violence within their community and families.

2. What blogs are you currently reading?

I often engage the following blogs: The Feminist Wire, New Black Man, and The Black Youth Project. These are real powerful engagements with contemporary cultural issues.

3. Feminism is…

Lately, I have been thinking of Feminism as the study and practice of critique and contest which challenges inequalities rooted in understandings of gender. However, I am also inspired by the #blacklivesmatter movement, to think that feminism is a radical notion which advances that women, their lives and contribution, and well-being MATTERS! Women of all races, sexualities, genders, matter…..and their health and well-being is fundamentally tied to our world’s livability.

Answers complied by Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC '15

Responding to Sexual Assault

December 5, 2014

by Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC '15

On Thursday, October 23rd, Columbia students, faculty, and affiliates gathered in the Jerome Greene Annex for a teach-in on responding to sexual assault. IRWGS Director Patricia Dailey introduced the panel speakers and spoke on the need for an educational event to discuss various aspects of responding to rape and sexual assault in light of Columbia’s new policy changes and the increased public discussion on the issues. Each speaker gave a presentation on a specific aspect of sexual violence response, and audience members participated in a Q&A at the end of the event.

Saswati Sarkar, a Prevention Program Manager at the Center of Excellence in Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence, spoke about the importance of bystander intervention in preventing sexual assaults. The Center of Excellence is a citywide initiative sponsored by the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, which offers many resources for survivors online and at centers across the five boroughs. Programs like Sarkar’s teach potential witnesses safe and positive ways to intervene when there is a risk of sexual violence. Sarkar also recommended using smartphone apps (Circle of 6, BSafe, Hollaback) with notification systems designed to check in with friends or family if you are feeling unsafe.

Christina Brandt-Young of Legal Momentum spoke next about the legal options a survivor faces after a sexual assault. Brandt-Young explained that survivors who want to pursue legal action may choose from one of three methods: criminal law, civil law, or Title IX. Criminal cases go through the court system, while civil cases are more driven by the needs of the victim. Results from civil cases can include family offense petitions and orders of protection. Under Title IX, a school is obligated to create an environment free from discrimination, violence, and harassment (including sexual harassment and sexual violence). Brandt-Young also explained that survivors can confidentially report a rape or sexual assault to the New York Police Department without prosecuting, and recommended speaking directly to the Special Victims Divisions at police precincts.

Suzanne Goldberg, the newly appointed Special Advisor to President Bollinger on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Columbia University, provided a detailed presentation on the updates to the university’s new policy. Changes to the official policy on Gender-Based Misconduct include: the opening of a second Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center with increased hours, improved bystander intervention training for incoming students and current faculty and staff, and the creation of new case manager and investigator positions involved in the adjudication process. The Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center (run by Columbia staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) is a confidential service that can be contacted at 212-854-HELP. Goldberg urged everyone to read the updated policy, examine the resources available on the new Sexual Respect website, and share with her any policy suggestions.

Licensed social worker Monica Pombo works at the Crime Victims Treatment Center (CVTC) at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, the largest and most comprehensive hospital-based victim assistance program in New York State. CVTC offers treatment for survivors and family members of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, and other forms of violence and crime. Pombo wanted students especially to know that they can access free, confidential resources off campus, and such resources include emergency medical treatment, counseling, and support groups.

Dr. Jill Hill, a licensed psychologist who has worked with survivors of sexual violence, spoke about the common reactions and emotional responses of survivors, such as guilt and self-blame. Dr. Hill emphasized that the most important thing a survivor needs after experiencing an assault is support from friends and family. With time and support, survivors will come to realize that their trauma does not define their characters or life experiences.

Two current Columbia students who are survivors of sexual assault on campus gave the final presentation. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr (CC ’15) and Sarah Yee (CC’16) shared their personal stories and also spoke of their activism through the student group, No Red Tape.  No Red Tape works to end sexual violence and rape culture at Columbia and fights for transformative, sustainable, survivor-centered solutions. In addition to running survivor support groups, No Red Tape organizes large-scale protests and activist events. No Red Tape held a rally and survivor speak-out on Low Steps in September that garnered national media attention, and they organized a second rally in partnership with Carrying the Weight Together on Wednesday, October 29th.

Resource Recap

Columbia University:

·      Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center

o   Free, confidential resource for all Columbia students available 24 hours, 7 days a week: 212-854-HELP

·      Columbia University Gender-Based Misconduct Policy for Students

·      Sexual Respect at Columbia

·      No Red Tape


Outside Organizations:

·      Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital

·      Legal Momentum

·      New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault

·      Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)

o   National Sexual Assault Hotline, Free, confidential hotline available 24 hours, 7 days a week: 1-800-656-HOPE


Phone Apps:

·      Circle of 6

·      BSafe

·      Hollaback

IRWGS Grad Fellow Grace Delmolino on "Life Outsourced: Globalization and Transnational Surrogacy in India"

December 2, 2014

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On November 6, 2014, Vaishali Sinha and Sayantani DasGupta spoke on a panel titled Life Outsourced: Globalization and Transnational Surrogacy in India, co-sponsored by IRWGS and the Heyman Center for the Humanities.  Sinha is director and producer, with Rebecca Haimowitz, of the recent documentary Made in India, which chronicles “the human experiences behind the phenomenon of ‘outsourcing’ surrogacy to India.”  The film recounts the journey of Lisa and Brian Switzer, who seek to have a child through an Indian surrogate in Mumbai. 

DasGupta read selections from her co-edited collection of essays Globalization and Transnational Surrogacy in India, and Sinha screened several clips from her film, putting these two texts—one written and one visual—in conversation with each other. DasGupta discussed the implications of globalization for the outsourcing of labor, including birth labor. Many Western couples, who for whatever reason cannot or do not want to carry a child of their own, go to India in search of “affordable parenthood”: while a couple might pay anywhere from $80,000-$100,000 or more for a gestational surrogate in the United States, the same service can be bought in India for around $25,000-$40,000 (including the travel and lodging expenses incurred by having the procedure abroad). Meanwhile, Indian surrogates themselves are usually paid $2,000-$5,000 per successful pregnancy, meaning a pregnancy that results in a live birth.

DasGupta discussed the growing genre of parenting blogs written by Western couples who have hired an Indian surrogate to carry their child. A seemingly ubiquitous image in this corner of the blogosphere, often accompanied by captions like “million rupee baby,” “chai baby,” or “from India with love,” is the picture of a brown-skinned woman, often wearing a sari, nearly always veiled or with her head cropped out of the photo, displaying her naked “baby bump.” These belly-bump images, DasGupta argued, serve a “rhetorical agenda” that goes beyond just privacy protection. Gender, race, class, sexuality, embodiment, reproductive technology, and nationhood are implicated in these faceless depictions of female Indian bodies carrying white children, provoking what DasGupta terms “xenophobic national anxieties about breached borders and veiled bodies.”

In the context of such “technologies of surveillance” that erase the identities and faces of the Indian surrogates who are carrying others’ children, work like Sinha’s documentary Made in India is especially important, for it brings into focus these women and their stories. Aasia, the Indian surrogate featured in Haimowitz’ documentary, is already mother to three children of her own when she agrees to become a surrogate for Lisa and Brian. Her husband works as a mechanic and Aasia says of herself, “I used to clean people’s homes before. I’m not educated.” They live in a slum in Mumbai.

Aasia’s story draws attention to the dire lack of regulation in the field of gestational surrogacy. Though Aasia signed a contract stating she would be paid $2,000 for the child she would carry, the Switzers signed a contract stating they would pay her $7,000, and it is not clear how or where, along the line of many intermediaries between Aasia and the Switzers, this figure changed. Furthermore, when Aasia realized she was in fact carrying twins, she asked for additional compensation for the second child, and was refused. There are no legally binding regulations for this sort of situation: the ICMR offers guidelines, but it is not mandatory that they be followed.

In a lively Q&A session, members of the audience brought up crucial issues and questions: is a woman’s “choice” to become a surrogate really a decision when it is so often motivated by economic exigencies? How are agency and ownership of the body manifested in the practice of gestational surrogacy? According to DasGupta, some feminists see gestational surrogacy as a way to “de-essentialize, queer, and disrupt” traditional modes of motherhood. At the same time, it is necessary to look at surrogacy within the framework of class, caste, gender, and economic status. In an increasingly globalized world, surrogacy rests at a fraught and complex transnational intersection.

2015 IRWGS Senior Thesis Presentations

December 2, 2014

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

Mentors, students, friends and family from the IRWGS community packed every seat at senior thesis presentations on Thursday, November 20. This spring, four Columbia seniors will be graduating with a degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from IRWGS. The diversity and depth of their insights perfectly exemplified the kind of rigorous feminist scholarship that the IRWGS undergraduate program encourages.

Xavier Jarrett (CC ’15) opened with a presentation titled “(mis)Reading Trauma: The Supernatural, Possession, and Catharsis.” Xavier situated the church as a site of “community restoration” for African Americans in the South. Spiritual possession, he posited, offers congregants a temporary release from the trauma of “black flesh [being made] a commodity through the transatlantic slave trade.” However, Xavier showed that even such an ephemeral reprieve remains unavailable to black queer bodies in his analysis of the self-destructive relationship between Randall Kenan’s black queer protagonist and his church in A Visitation of Spirits.

To my pleasant surprise, the next presenter, Samantha Moody (GS ’15), was a former student from the discussion section I led for Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies two years ago. Samantha’s project, titled “Power Dynamics and Labor Induction,” is a Foucauldian critique of natural childbirth. Samantha’s study centers on obstetricians, chiefly the problem that “the excessive use of unnecessary medical interventions during labor” poses to safe childbirth. She concluded that failures of communication, owing to both obstetric training and technology, render it “incredibly difficult for a patient to argue with the institutional power that the white coat represents.”

Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood (CC ’15) turned to another problem related to public health and social justice: the relationship between sexual violence and the prison-industrial complex. She coined the term “justice paradox” to describe the hypocritical tendency in political discourse to conflate “justice” with mass incarceration—a system which is steeped in uneven, neoliberal power dynamics inherently opposed to egalitarian justice. She gave a compelling number of reasons why “justice for sexual violence must not center on state institutions,” which are committed to punishment, not healing or prevention. Invoking a familiar activist chant on campus— “Even with CUID, rape is a felony!”— Morgaine illustrated that a “felony” conviction would not level out the asymmetrical power structures that foster rape culture in the first place.

A deft presentation on the insidious messages that body books send to young girls in American culture closed out the afternoon. Rosalind Bazett Watson (CC ’15) led her audience through a series of close readings of hair-raising moments from The Care and Keeping of You series, published by the American Girl doll company (see above image). Roz argues that body books operate under the guise of empowerment but actually seek “to maximize the social value of the female body” through advice for mental and physical health. In effect, she says, these books teach “young girls to value themselves from an external, physical perspective” rather than for their self-worth as human beings.

As IRWGS DUS Christia Mercer put it, all four of these presentations “modeled commitment, unity, and community” as truly riveting examples of the work that characterizes our majors in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at IRWGS.

Feminist to the Core with Anne Higonnet

December 1, 2014

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

An overflowing audience of students and faculty gathered—some sitting on the floor, some standing in the doorway—to listen to Anne Higonnet, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History at Barnard, deliver the first IRWGS Feminist to the Core lecture to focus on the Art Humanities curriculum. Her talk, titled “Impressionism Interrogates Itself,” offered both a challenge to the Art Hum curriculum, as well as a model of precisely the kind of critical perspective that Columbia’s Core encourages in its students and teachers alike.

Higonnet began her talk by showing Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863): a painting that depicts a high-end Paris prostitute, attended by a black woman who is bringing her a client’s payment in the form of a bouquet of flowers. This painting offers “challenges to accepted norms about sexuality, about class, and about race, all at once”: from the black attendant, whose presence invites reflection on the recently emerged class of free, black, money-earning women in Paris, to the prostitute’s “dark, almost monstrous hand” at the center of the painting, clenched over her genitalia, to the “tense, poised stance” of her body that exhibits a challenging kind of masculinity. The masculine qualities of the image may be hard for the modern eye to recognize immediately, but they are strikingly present against the background of Manet’s cultural norms. Indeed, Higonnet encouraged her audience to see that even Manet’s “flat, confrontational” way of painting accomplishes a “challenge to the status quo.”

The current Art Humanities curriculum features a unit on Monet; Manet has no such prominent place on the syllabus. Of course, the process of constructing a survey course like Art Hum always involves a series of choices, omissions, and inclusions. And it is therefore essential to critique what is gained and lost when these choices are made. Higonnet boldly suggested that the privileging of Monet might really be “a hidden way of refusing to address the issue of gender.” Rather than Monet, a unit on Manet and his artistic collaboration/correspondence with Berthe Morisot would offer a substantial opportunity to interrogate issues of gender, issues that do not receive sufficient emphasis on the Art Hum syllabus. To illustrate her point, Higonnet showed Manet’s Bouquet of Violets (1873), a painting given as a gift to Morisot and featuring a red fan and a bouquet of violets—images from Manet’s The Balcony (1869-70) and Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872) respectively. In Bouquet of Violets, Higonnet argued, Manet has “extracted the signs of femininity” and placed them in the foreground; the painting elicits a deep conversation about signs, signifiers, and the construction of masculine/feminine identity.

Higonnet concluded her talk with a compelling interpretation of Mary Cassatt’s A Corner of the Loge (1879). This painting interrogates the idea of “seeing and being seen in a feminine mode” within the space of the theater, a place where “women were on display, available to the public gaze,” even—especially—when residing in the audience. Apart from the two female figures that are the focus of the painting, Cassatt has “abstracted the entire audience into curving force-fields,” which intensify the power of the women’s gaze on the image’s right side. Though there is a pair of opera glasses in the image, they seem to merge into the background, subverting the idea that women need prosthetic help in order to look powerfully. In this painting and elsewhere, Higonnet argues, Cassatt subverts traditional iconography of the feminine—fans, opera glasses—in a “turning of iconography on itself.” Higonnet insists that this turning-on-itself, so beautifully explored in the works of Manet, Morisot, Degas, Cassatt, is essential to the Core itself: though the content of the Core may contain omissions and elisions, its very form, in Higonnet’s view, facilitates its own interrogation. Drawing an analogy between what these impressionist painters do in their work and what the Core does to itself, Higonnet made the powerful argument for the inclusion of impressionism’s self-interrogation—and its interrogation of gender—in the Art Hum curriculum.

Image Credit

Gendered Futures with Emma Kaufman

November 19, 2014

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

Over one dozen undergraduates crowded around the IRWGS seminar table on November 13 to meet Emma Kaufman (CC ’08) in the second “Gendered Futures” event of the semester. A Marshall Scholar, Kaufman is an emerging authority on mass incarceration.

Kaufman, who lectured at philosophy professor Christia Mercer’s “Philosophy and Feminism” course earlier in the day, led an animated Q&A about resistance, indefinite detention, and possibilities for reform. Specializing in U.K. detention centers, Kaufman described both the conditions and implications of mass incarceration and the professional trajectory that led her to engaging these issues academically.

To the first point, Kaufman resumed a theme discussed at length in Mercer’s class: embodied resistance. Prisoners sewing their mouths shut, hunger striking, and self harming endeavor to rouse attention in order to give voice to their own injustice. “If you make yourself a problem, they [the institution] have to deal with you,” explained Kaufman. She went on to assert that such extreme reactions occur perhaps because “indefinite detention is infinitely more cruel than prison.” The unknowability of the length of one’s detainment renders the experience of captivity all the more intolerable.

The conversation shifted to issues of public health in prison systems. When one student asked about what makes psychiatric facilities or detention centers more desirable, Kaufman offered a particularly salient insight into the social contradiction that undergirds the prison-industrial complex at large. “You want to be able to say deep things about the culture of the institution”—whether it be an asylum or a prison—“and the way it reflects on society,” she began. But, at the same time, you must see that “the institutional culture” of a particular site of captivity “is its own,” and often, “who’s running the prison” can determine the humanity of the treatment it offers.

At a particularly impassioned moment, Kaufman insisted on positioning such sites of captivity as being rife with potential for new social interrelations. “Prison is an underappreciated place of love, and affect, and friendship,” she said. “If we studied that a little more, we might be better able to change [stigmas surrounding] it.”

She went on to explain how the omnipresence of border control in U.K. detention centers blurred and complicated supposedly established racial lines; subjecting people across races to the same threats opened unexpected avenues for empathy. Prison guards, Kaufman explained, also deserve sympathy; rather than being scions of absolute authority, they are also often socioeconomically underprivileged. “Imagine what it would be like to hire a next generation of guards that were not from families who have always done this,” she challenged.

Kaufman then turned the conversation towards the professional turning points that led her to law. After interning at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office as a sophomore, she interned in the Juvenile Rights Division at Legal Aid and the Correctional Association of New York during her junior year and beyond, citing the Justice Initiative as a dependable entry point for young academics interested in criminal justice.


Even as she detailed her coherent “self-narrative,” she also cautioned against “emotionally draining work” and “self-flagellating martyrdom.” She encouraged students to seek support systems and self care. “Whatever the thing is that makes you live and breathe and be able to keep going through your day, do that thing,” she said. “Something will sing to you, and you should just listen to it when it does.”


An accomplished scholar, Kaufman completed her Doctor of Philosophy in Law at Oxford and is now in her third and final year at Yale Law School. She has a book on mass incarceration set for publication in April 2015.

IRWGS Grad Fellow Grace Delmolino on "Gendered Futures"

October 31, 2014

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

Joey Shemuel, CC ’11 and IRWGS concentrator/major, returned to Columbia last Thursday, October 23 to speak at IRWGS’s inaugural “Gendered Futures.” The “Gendered Futures” series aims to put IRWGS graduates in conversation with current students in order to explore how the study of gender and sexuality studies at IRWGS continues to resonate after graduation and to examine what it means to have a “gendered future.”

Shemuel led an informal conversation about his studies, life, and work. He credits Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life with sparking his interest in gender and sexuality studies as an undergraduate and leading him to where he is today: working as an activist and educator for issues of health and sexuality. He talked about developing a program for rapid HIV testing at the Berkeley High School Health Center in California, discussing issues of legal liability in realizing the project, as well as the systemic problems of racism and ageism that put young men who have sex with men of color at highest risk for contracting HIV. Shemuel encouraged his audience to think beyond just the epidemiology of HIV, which he said only “scratches the surface” of more complex, intersectional problems and questions.

Shemuel’s description of his senior thesis generated a lively discussion about complicated issues surrounding the ethics of viewing, distributing, and producing mainstream pornography. What makes pornography “misogynistic” or “feminist”? Given that so many societal conceptions about sex are shaped by the mainstream porn industry, is there an ethical obligation for filmmakers to depict consent, or to censor certain acts, and how should that be done? In a similar vein, Shemuel stressed the importance of sex education that goes beyond “how not to die,” arguing for the necessity of sex ed programs that deal with topics like pornography, pleasure, and consent.

Shemuel never expected to find himself writing a thesis on pornography, shame, and legal philosophy, but his work at IRWGS led him to discover a passion for academic research on issues of gender and sexuality. At the same time, Shemuel is deeply engaged with real-world applications of that research. There can be difficulty, he said, when it comes to balancing the “removed” nature of academic study with a desire to pursue on-the-ground activism—a tension felt by many scholars in a field as politically engaged as women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Shemuel considers his current work as a health and sexuality educator to be profoundly informed by his studies in IRWGS, and his passion was evident in the lively discussion at last week’s “Gendered Futures.”

Please join us for IRWGS’ next “Gendered Futures” with Emma Kaufman on November 13, 2014, from 6:00 to 7:30pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension.

3 Questions for C. Riley Snorton

October 29, 2014

C. Riley Snorton is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. He is also a 2003 graduate of Columbia College, majoring in Women and Gender Studies at IRWGS. Snorton's research and teaching expertise include cultural theory, queer and transgender theory, Africana studies, performance studies, and popular culture. Snorton's first book, Nobody Is Supposed To Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), traces the emergence and circulation of the down low in news and popular culture. He has also been listed as one of "Ten Transgender People You Should Know" by BET. Professor Snorton’s Queer Futures talk, "Trapped In The Epistemological Closet: Black Sexuality on the Down Low," is scheduled for Thursday, October 30th at 12:30pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension. Professor Snorton will also be at IRWGS shortly before the program, available to meet with interested students.

1. What are you currently working on?

One of the examples I will discuss in my talk on October 30th is drawn from a project that I have very recently completed on the question of "who's out in hip hop?" as symptomatic of contemporary ideologies about race and sex. 

​​However, I'm also in the midst of a new book project, tentatively titled Black on Both Sides: Race and the Remaking of Trans History, which traces the transitive relationship between blackness and transness across the long 20th CenturyFeaturing an eclectic archive of materials, including late 19th century sexological texts, plantation medical records, Afro-modernist literary productions, documentary films, and mid-20th century journalistic accounts of black trans people, and critically engaging black queer studies, black feminist theory, disability theory, and transgender studies, this study demonstrates how race figures prominently in the development of the category of transgender. ​

2. What blogs are you currently reading?

My knowledge of blogs is heavily filtered by social media, but I frequently find myself on The Feminist WireCrunk Feminist Collective​and academically inflected blogs, like the IRWGS blogCornell's Africana blog, or the Chronicle for Higher Education.

3. Feminism is…

I dare say, the formulation "Feminism is" is better than anything I might try to add. Perhaps, I might also offer up: "Feminism does."

Carry That Weight Day Of Action Happening TODAY!

October 29, 2014

Today, Wednesday, October 29, students, staff, and faculty of colleges across the country will stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual and domestic violence by carrying mattresses together.

This national Day of Action is inspired by the activism and art of Emma Sulkowicz, who is boldly carrying a dorm mattress around campus with her as long as her rapist continues to attend Columbia University. Central to the importance of Emma's art is the collaborative and supportive nature of the project. Carrying a mattress with others brings us together to collectively help carry the weight, shows our shared support for survivors, and our collective commitment to working together toward cultural and community-level change to end sexual and domestic violence.

Through this powerful demonstration of solidarity, participants will tangibly express their commitment to lift the burden of sexual violence from the shoulders of survivors—to carry the weight together.

Will you join us to help carry that weight?

Please invite your friends, family, and colleagues!

Please visit www.carryingtheweighttogether.com for more information.

If you are are unable to carry a mattress with others on the 29th, we encourage you to carry a pillow with you throughout the day as a symbol of your support for survivors.

Facebook Event here.

If you are on Columbia's campus today, there will be a rally in support of Carrying The Weight Together at 4pm on Low Library Steps. More info here.

IRWGS Grad Fellow Grace Delmolino on "Gender & Justice with Sarah Haley"

October 28, 2014

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

Sarah Haley, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at UCLA, delivered this year’s first “Gender and Justice” talk on Thursday, October 16. Haley began her talk, “Punishing the Black Female Body: Gender and Imprisonment in the Jim Crow South,” with the story of Amy Carter and Mary Fitzpatrick. Amy was the daughter of then-governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter. Mary Fitzpatrick was the black female convict who served part of her sentence caring for Carter’s daughter in the early 1970s. Her story became a national sensation: Fitzpatrick’s journey from prison to the governor’s mansion was treated by various news outlets as a “modern Cinderella tale.”

Haley brings us back to the reality of Mary Fitzpatrick’s life: she was one of many black female prisoners in the Jim Crow South who were forced to provide domestic care for a white family as part of their prison sentence. Many black women in this period were required to serve a final part of their prison term working in white women’s homes, a model of labor that, according to Haley, served to reinforce “patriarchal notions of white women’s dependence” on the labor of black women. Haley identifies forced provision of care as a technology “deployed to sanitize the carceral state.” As in the story of Amy Carter and Mary Fitzpatrick, black women in prison were exploited not just for their domestic labor in white homes, but as a sensational way to show how a “convicted murderess” might be transformed, through the rehabilitative powers of the carceral state, into a loving governess for a young white child.

Haley’s archival research explores the lives of black female prisoners, such as Carrie Scott, who received a life sentence for murdering the abusive husband who tried to kill her, or Dora Haley, who at 17 was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who attempted to rape and kill her. In the early 1900s, Haley said, the majority of black women convicted of manslaughter and murder insisted that their actions were in self-defense. It was also not uncommon for black women to be sent to prison for seemingly minor offenses of “disorderly conduct,” such as cursing in public or throwing dirty water in the street.

In the Jim Crow South, Haley argued in her talk, black women’s labor was exploited not just to paint a domestic veneer on the brutal realities of the carceral state (by means of forced provision of care), but also to fuel the economic development of the South during that period. Criminalized black women, often working in chain gangs, built much of the infrastructure for a spate of new restaurants, shops, amusement parks, roads, and railways. The use of black women’s labor in contexts perceived as masculine generated complex tensions, Haley argued, whereby “gender normativity and aberration were the material resources for Southern economic development.”

In her conclusion, Haley brought up the issue of resistance. She discussed the burning of the Milledgeville penitentiary by inmates in 1864, one of very few known examples of prisoner resistance on such a scale. Haley stressed the importance of considering sabotage and other forms of resistance in the history of black female prisoners, describing sabotage as “the hidden history of an incendiary subject we are only beginning to understand.”

Haley also addressed the difficulties inherent in her deeply archival research. There is so much information about black women’s lives that still remains to be discovered in the archive, but the archive offers less of a perspective on their desires and beliefs: “We don’t know everything there is to know about black women’s imaginaries,” said Haley, nor can we, and this is a lack that must be acknowledged. At the same time, Haley is doing deeply important work to shed light on what the archive can tell us about these women’s lives and stories—and there is much work to be done.

3 Questions for Sarah Haley

October 15, 2014

Sarah Haley is Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and African American Studies at UCLA. Professor Haley’s talk, “Punishing the Black Female Body: Gender and Imprisonment in the Jim Crow South” is the first lecture in IRWGS’s 2014-15 Gender & Justice series. Come out to hear Professor Haley on Thursday, October 16th at 4:00pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension.

1. What are you working on right now?

I am finishing my book manuscript on imprisoned women in the Jim Crow South. I’m also working on a piece on the representation of a formerly enslaved woman in 1950s television, which considers the convergence of slavery, memory, and civil rights, gender and labor politics. 

2. What blogs are you currently reading?

There are so many important blogs, definitely too many to follow scrupulously.  But I like Black Girl Dangerous, the Feminist Wire, Corey Robin, The Public Archive, The Black Youth Project, tressiemc, Incite!, The Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss.  The one I probably keep up with most is Prison Culture.

3. Feminism is…

Contested.  But my feminist imagination has always been captured by a quote from an enslaved woman who said in response to her mistress’s command to answer the door during the Civil War, “Answering bells is played out.”  I first read this line in Tera Hunter’s inspiring history To ‘Joy My Freedom and I know it is also quoted an essay by Armstead Robinson, part of Thavolia Glymph and John J. Kushma’s anthology Essays on the Postbellum Southern Economy.  I’m always blown away by how it resonates in today’s context.  It is powerful because it captures feminism as a challenge to a nexus of power relations that includes race, gender, sexuality, class.  Much like this quote, feminism’s directness may be deceptive.  It is complex.  It is abolitionist.  It is a paradigm shift borne from material and historical conditions, but flexible enough to imagine a new world and new forms of knowledge; it animates and organizes action (which paradoxically sometimes takes the form of inaction), but is always counter-normative and unruly.  So it is both resistant and productive, much like the enslaved woman’s refusal.  Like the quote, feminism both recognizes the magnitude of social, economic, representational, and gender violence and vows to make a way out of no way.

IRWGS Grad Fellow Grace Delmolino on "Feminist To The Core with Christia Mercer"

October 15, 2014

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

Christia Mercer, Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, gave the first in this year’s series of Feminist to the Core lectures on Monday, October 6. In her talk on “Aeschylus, Euripides, and Plato,” Professor Mercer went far beyond the three authors in her title, exploring the philosophical concept of agency through textual examples from across the Lit Hum curriculum.

Professor Mercer began by asking what it means to be an agent, which she defines as something that “produces its own activity.” Action, Professor Mercer reminds us, was heavily gendered in Ancient Greece and Rome (and arguably remains so today). This can be illustrated by Clement of Alexandria’s (150-215 CE) citation of an axiom that was already old in his time: “to do is the mark of the man; to suffer is the mark of the woman.”

But what does it mean to suffer? Mercer reminded her audience that to suffer, in Latin, is the deponent verb pati (passive in grammatical form but active in meaning), whence we get the noun passio, etymologically linked to passion. Mercer defines passio as a loss of control, a moment when emotions and desires take charge of our more rational faculties  Pasio is a state that can be experienced by men and women alike, but it works differently for men and for women.

According to Mercer, texts like the Oresteia and Medea disrupt some of the traditional, gendered characterizations of passion, agency, desire, action: Clytaemestra, for example, has “male strength of heart.” Other texts, in Mercer’s view, allow women less ability to actualize their own desires: Penelope, in the Odyssey, is able to actualize the potential of her husband Odysseus (by giving him the idea to use the bow when he returns to Ithaka), but her own agency is less clear in the text. In the Metamorphoses Ovid’s Latin verbs are almost never active when their subject is a woman, unless the verb describes a woman running away or plotting.

Professor Mercer explains that action and passion, actio and passio, exist along a continuum of agency, which we can use as a tool, as she put it, to “excavate gender dynamics in the text.” Though feminism can often and importantly include the study of women, it is also much more than that: it is useful to think of feminism as offering various tools that can be used to examine the mechanisms of gender, race, class, ability, etc. as presented in these “canonic” texts. With her exploration of agency and action, Professor Mercer has offered a valuable tool to students and readers of the Core.

Please join IRWGS for the next Feminist to the Core program, “Art Humanities: Impressionism Interrogates Itself,” with Professor Anne Higonnet on November 12 (12-1pm) in 754 Schermerhorn Extension.

IRWGS IS HIRING: Manager, Finance and Communications

October 9, 2014

IRWGS and CSSD are hiring. Please click here to apply, description below:

CSSD / IRWGS Manager, Finance and Communications

Reporting to the Associate Director and to the Faculty Director of CSSD, the incumbent provides administrative and financial support to the Institute and Center. He/she is responsible for administering all the details of CSSD’s projects and initiatives, including research projects involving Columbia’s Global Centers. The incumbent provides support to the CSSD faculty working groups at Columbia and abroad; coordinates and provides administrative support to postdoctoral or faculty fellows; works with the graduate fellows and Global Center staff to organize international workshops, arrange visas and travel for working group members and international fellows, visitors, and speakers, and integrates Visiting Fellows into the life at Columbia. 

The incumbent is responsible for the day-to-day financial management of both CSSD and IRWGS. He or she manages the budgets of both, generates financial reports including annual reports and budgets, advises faculty on available financial resources, monitors accounts and budgets, prevents overdrafts and clears suspense, supervises transactions to the Office of the Controller, Payroll and Purchasing; approves cost transfers, salary distribution, and all other transactions through labor accounting. Resolves all budget related problems. Incumbent will have signature approval authority of all financial transactions and will be responsible for all p-card transactions. He/she manages any government or foundation grants won by CSSD or IRWGS for its research and teaching programs; advises faculty on the status of related expenditures; assists the Associate Director in the preparation of grant submissions and reports. Supervises the financial assistant work of the Coordinator. 

The incumbent will be responsible for the Center and Institute websites, will work closely with the Coordinator on websites redesigns, maintanence, and will supervise development and production of content for both websites; oversees production of and content for the Center’s blog; oversees publicity and outreach on social and digital media; oversees production of and provides content for brochures, printed materials, and event descriptions.

Minimum qualifications: BA or equivalent experience and 2 to 4 years of related experience. Excellent interpersonal, communication, and organizational skills required. Strong experience in financial management and/or accounting required. Must have or be able to acquire quickly a detailed knowledge of University policies, procedures, and systems. Strong writing and computer skills required, including spreadsheets; and experience with website design and management. Must have initiative, discretion, and an ability to work under pressure with good judgment. 

Preferred qualifications: Experience with the administration of research projects in the field of global feminist and/or race studies preferred, along with experience with drupal, and grant management. 

Congratulations to Zoe Ridolfi-Starr (CC '15) and Emma Sulkowicz (CC '15)

October 9, 2014

Congratulations to Zoe Ridolfi-Starr (CC '15) and Emma Sulkowicz (CC '15) for winning 2014 Susan B. Anthony Awards.

To attend the ceremony, email contact@nownyc.org or call 212-627-9895.

More information here.

Congratulations to IRWGS '96 major Ai-jen Poo on her MacArthur Genius Grant

October 8, 2014

IRWGS congratulates former major Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, on winning a 2014 MacArthur Genius Grant, which will endow a fellowship to domestic workers.

Please read more about Ms. Poo from the New York Times here, and an article from Columbia's Spectator here

Nicole Gervasio on “Jasbir Puar: Debility/Capacity”

October 6, 2014

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

Jasbir Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutger’s University and author of the oft-cited queer critique Terrorist Assemblages, opened IRWGS’ Queer Futures series on October 2nd with a number of provocations. In her talk, “Debility/Capacity: Narrative Prosthesis to Disaster Capitalism,” Puar urged her audience to rethink disability as “debility.” She argued that disability in liberal humanist discourse too often collapses difference in deference to an individualized, Euro-American subject. In contrast, “debility” connotes a system of disablement, “a reminder,” as she put it, “of entire populations living in a state of precarity.”

In contrast to debility, disability too easily absorbs other kinds of social difference—sexuality, race, gender, and nationality—into a simple distinction between the visible and the invisible. The visibility of disabled subjects who are also raced or gendered merely serves to create a “privileged class of disabled citizens,” in Puar’s view— a class whose debility is read as exceptional rather than intrinsic to an interconnected collective.

Puar raised several convincing reasons for the need for such a paradigm shift. Chief among these was the bond between the rise of disability studies and what has been called “the affective turn,” a renewed attention to considering conditions like disability in light of affect, not identity formation.

Puar’s call to embrace the affective turn in disability studies would have implications for feminist scholarship more broadly: we, as feminist scholars, would be compelled to think about other categories of social difference, such as race and sexuality. We could move away from intersectionality, which reifies rather than troubles identity categories. And we could, as Puar has urged, move towards “leveraging [the] affective capacities” of social differences as conditions for being in the world.

Puar asks, what would happen if we saw ourselves as “relationally entrenched” rather than “individually positioned” as raced, sexed, or dis/abled subjects? Puar develops the notion of “conviviality” to describe this relational entrenchment. Although she voiced reservations about the efficacy of the term, given its associations with merriment and harmony, she emphasized that conviviality is political; it is, for her, principally about “being in alliance with those who have less by deciding to have less ourselves.”

Conviviality is about a willingness to embrace loss, not only joy. Puar bravely insinuates that “conviviality” as some measure of both “living with” and “dying with” might be necessary for rewriting disability as we know it and for acknowledging our complicity in shoring up capitalism, a system of economic control that has sustained and produced debility through war and its costs, much to the benefit of the U.S. and at the expense of so many elsewhere in the world.

Please join IRWGS for the next Queer Futures event featuring C. Riley Snorton, “Trapped In The Epistemological Closet: Black Sexuality on the Down Low” on October 30th at 12:30pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension.

Carrying That Weight Together: Activism, Sexual Violence and Tranforming Justice at Columbia

September 22, 2014

by Bryant Brown (CC ’15), majoring in African American Studies and History

Transformative Justice (n.): A liberatory approach to violence that seeks safety and accountability without relying on State or systemic violence. Transformative Justice seeks to transform the conditions that allow violence to occur in order to achieve justice.

Student organizers, activists, and artists have made Columbia University the subject of much scrutiny over the past few months (or rather, decades).

As the recently published campus Disorientation Guide suggests, Columbia has a long history of practicing sexist, racist, and classist policies that have prompted a wide range of student actions in response. In many instances, these actions have pressured the university administration to at least acknowledge the matter – policies have been rephrased, new offices have been established, and - according to the university - various institutional processes have been instituted to address the concerns of marginalized students on campus. Emma Sulkowicz (CC ’15) and the students that organized the “collective carry” last week in support of Sulkowicz’s “performance art piece” are presently proving the ineptness of such procedures that promise to guarantee justice and safety on campus.

In solidarity with Sulkowicz’s aptly titled “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight” - in which Sulkowicz has promised to carry a mattress to each of her classes so long as she attends school with the same student who sexually assaulted her – Allie Rickard (BC ’15) and a group of students have committed to organizing a series of what they consider to be “collective carries.” The group, organized under the name Carry That Weight Together, hopes “to help Emma carry the weight of the physical mattress, give her and other survivors of sexual assault in our community a powerful symbol of our support and solidarity, and show the administration that we stand united in demanding better policies designed to end sexual violence and rape culture on campus.”  

During the first organized collective carry last Wednesday, a large group of students, alumni, IRWGS faculty and staff, and community members met Sulkowicz outside of East Campus on her way to class. After an initial exchange of smiles and hugs, the group quickly moved toward the mattress – awkwardly but steadily lifting it above their heads until the weight was evenly distributed – and slowly made their way to Schermerhorn Hall. At times the group followed Sulkowicz, and at other times it led; nevertheless the short walk represented a rare instance on Columbia’s campus during which individual interests took a back seat to communal healing and support.

Columbia University’s (in)action toward ending sexual violence on its own campus demonstrated the necessity for a different type of justice – one encompassing a fundamental transformation of our values and ways of being – that does not rely on institutional practices (which are often, if not always predicated on violence and punishment) but on communal responsibility. As Feministing editor Alexandra Brodsky suggests, the call for a type of transformative justice requires us – especially heterosexual cis-men – to both listen to and follow the leadership of artist/activists such as Sulkowicz and other members of marginalized communities not only to class, but also toward new models for organizing society. 

Still, the point is not to participate in a collective carry (as important as these certainly are) in order to fulfill one’s “responsible student quota” for the month and continue moving through the world as usual. Rather, the combined actions of Sulkowicz and Rickard should encourage us to ask, at all times, serious questions about the root causes of sexual violence, and Columbia’s role in promoting a culture of rape in a patriarchal society. Who does Columbia’s policies protect? At what expense? And whose voices might still be marginalized in the dominant narrative told about the fight to end sexual violence on campus (i.e. trans and gender non-conforming students as well as women of color)? These questions might not yield concrete strategies, but transformation can only occur in the pursuit of their answers. 

Disappointments: On the NFL and Ray Lewis

September 10, 2014

by Fatimatou Diallo, CC 2015

By now, you have probably heard about the video that rocked the NFL Monday. The tabloid website TMZ released footage of Ray Rice delivering the punch that left his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer unconscious in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. I am quite disturbed and shocked by Rice’s behavior. Furthermore, I am even more shocked and disappointed that more wasn’t done about this situation in February, when video showing Ray Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator was first released. For me, that earlier video footage was shocking enough to warrant suspension, even before seeing Rice actually deliver the blow. 

When the first video was released, Rice received a paltry two-game suspension from the NFL; with the release of the second video, Rice had his contract terminated by the Ravens and is now indefinitely suspended from the NFL. In my opinion, the switch from two-game suspension to termination has nothing to do with the severity of the crime, but is a direct response to the storm of negative publicity set loose by the video. The NFL isn’t punishing Rice for his actions.  Rather, the NFL as an organization is only committed to punishing its players for committing acts of domestic violence if there is video evidence that puts the organization’s public image in jeopardy.  Nation columnist David Zirin made this point loud and clear this week in arguing that the NFL understands Rice’s violent act as essentially “a public relations crisis, not as a crisis about the ways in which the violence of the game spills over into people’s families.”

This is a larger problem that isn’t localized just to the NFL, but can be seen in how we deal with crimes of domestic violence committed by public figures generally. If the Ravens were going to terminate Ray Rice’s contract, they should have done so when the first video came out in February. By waiting until now, they have shown that this decision is a publicity move regarding the organization’s image and not a statement about the organization's stance on domestic violence. Which is more important: keeping a player around to win games, or taking action to show that acts of domestic violence should not be condoned, regardless of who the perpetrator is?

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ANNOUNCEMENT: Office Closed Today in Support of "Carrying The Weight"

September 9, 2014

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality office will be closed Today, Wednesday September 10th, from 1:45pm to 2:00pm in support of "Carrying The Weight's" first collective carry. 

Please click here for more information. 

New Course for Fall 2014: Seminar in Sexuality, Gender, Health, and Human Rights

August 19, 2014


Days and times: 4:10 - 6:00pm
Instructors: Carole Vance
Location: 754 Schermerhorn Extension
Points: 4

This seminar uses the new scholarship on sexuality to engage with ongoing theoretical conversations and activism in human rights, gender, and health. Pressed by the increasing recognition of the importance of sexuality in a wide range of rights and advocacy work (for example, HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health, and sexual violence), theorists and advocates alike have struggled with complex, sometimes fluid and elusive nature of sexuality. What is this "sexuality" in need of rights and health? How does it manifest itself across a range of persons and cultures? And how can culturally and historically situated work about sexuality inform and improve legal and advocacy interventions? The seminar also turns a critical eye on recent scholarship, in light of current issues raised by policy interventions and advocacy in many countries and cultures. Finally, the seminar aims to promote dialogue and exchange between academic, activist, and advocacy work.


Got Something To Say?

August 19, 2014

Do you have something to say about:

popular culture
queer politics
the body

...on campus or beyond?


We're looking for students, faculty and alums to contribute posts to our blog here at IRWGS.columbia.edu.  Posts run 300-500 words and may be edited for clarity.  Photography and video are also welcome.

Send your submissions to irwgs@columbia.edu, with subject line: "IRWGS blog."

We can't wait to hear from you!

Congratulations to our new IRWGS Graduate Fellows!

August 19, 2014

Hearty congratulations to fourth-year PhD candidates Grace Delmolino (Italian) and Nicole Gervasio (English and Comparative Literature) for their selection as 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellows. Fellows are selected annually, based on the excellence of their scholarship and their commitment to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

                                                      Nicole Gervasio                                         Grace Delmolino

Nicole Gervasio already has a long history of academic and community engagement in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at IRWGS. A TA for Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies in spring 2013, Nicole is also a graduate student fellow in the Women Mobilizing Memory project at the IRWGS-affiliated Center for the Study of Social Difference. “IRWGS has served as an intellectual home for the kind of adventurous, interdisciplinary feminist scholarship that I am most invested in doing,” Nicole explains. “My affinity with IRWGS has been unspeakably rewarding in so many ways. Coordinating events and facilitating activities as an IRWGS Graduate Fellow feels like the least I could do to give back to the vibrant intellectual community that has been most indispensable to my own growth as a scholar at Columbia.” Nicole’s work focuses on cross-cultural intersections between queer, postcolonial, and feminist theory in relation to embodiment, trauma, and histories of disappearance in literatures of the Global South.

Grace Delmolino describes herself as something of a feminist-medievalist-Italianist-comparatist, given her entanglement with three different academic homes here at Columbia: Italian, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS), and IRWGS. Grace’s current work deals with the intersection of law, literature, and gender in medieval culture. Her dissertation focuses on 14th-century Italian author/poet Giovanni Boccaccio, offering a reading of classic texts like the Decameron within the context of medieval law.

“I’m excited to get to know more of the community of feminist scholars at Columbia and to be more involved with all the amazing events sponsored by the Institute,” Grace says. “I will also be teaching Lit Hum next year, and I think there’s a great synergy between IRWGS and the Core Curriculum: for example, the Feminist to the Core lecture series offers many ways to think about feminist approaches to these texts that go beyond a simple critique of “dead white men,” and that kind of feminist perspective is something I intend to bring to my teaching next year.”

As part of their new role as 2014-15 IRWGS Grad Fellows, Grace and Nicole will host a range of events over the course of the academic year, including: Theory Mondays and Research Fridays. Go to our website for more info on these and other IRWGS programs and events.

Summer Opportunities in NYC!

June 3, 2014

by Kylie White, CC '15

Looking for something to do this summer in the New York area? IRWGS has found some great women, gender and/or sexuality opportunities for Columbia students interested in what we do here at The Institute.

For those of us interested in law or who have any, let's say, qualms with the current American justice system, the American Civil Liberties Union has openings for their summer legal internships.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an organization that works to achieve equal legal protection for all people and finds itself on the frontier of nearly every major civil liberties battle.  What battles are they fighting now? Racial justice, reproductive freedom, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ and AIDS projects, and the list goes on.  And there are even more opportunities in this field.  Lambda Legal is a non-profit organization that works to achieve civil liberties for LGBTQ people and people with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy.  Like ACLU, they have a wide range of volunteer and internship opportunities.  These are an awesome opportunity to assist in social change through legal advocacy!

Interested in advocacy and social justice minus the legal bit? Many of us have heard of Planned Parenthood-- even sat in subway cars with Planned Parenthood’s posters on every wall-- but briefly, Planned Parenthood offers health, counseling, and education services, regardless of insurance status, to individuals and families surrounding issues of family planning and much more. Their college student internship program looks for students to become campus representatives for Planned Parenthood and to learn about community organizing.

For those of us interested in reproductive rights, NARAL Pro-Choice New York is an organization of advocates working to protect and expand reproductive rights and reproductive health.  This summer could be a great opportunity to volunteer with the Pro-Choice Action Team (P-CAT) or apply for one of their internships!

And finally, we have our social butterfly, community builder, people-person types!  This city has a ton to offer in terms of summer opportunities that will allow you to work on a person-to-person scale, including outreach, canvassing, building organizing and facilitating skills all with attention to serving people who have experienced gender oppression. The Audre Lorde Project, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and GEMS all have internships, and even some fellowships, that will give you the opportunity to make connections with other organizers, learners, and NYC community members.

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IRWGS Visiting Scholar Francesca Ferrando Wins Major Prize

May 15, 2014


A big congratulations to IRWGS Visiting Scholar Francesca Ferrando, who has won the “Premio Sainati” Prize from the President of Italy for the Oustanding Doctoral Dissertation in the area of Philosophy.

More information can be found here

Francesca Ferrando is a professional philosopher and an international lecturer, actively involved in the posthuman scene as a thinker and an organizer. 

To find out more about becoming an IRWGS Visiting Scholar, please visit our page!


Interviews with the 2014 IRWGS Women's and Gender Studies and Queer Studies Award Winners

May 2, 2014

IRWGS is happy to announce the 2014 winners of the 6th Annual Women’s and Gender Studies Award, and the 18th Annual Queer Studies Award.

This year, Taylor Clarke (CC '14 and WGS major) has won the Women's and Gender Studies Award for her essay "'My Career As A Machine': Siri and Human Bodies in Servitude." Harris Mercer (GS '15 and English and American Studies Major) has won the Queer Studies Award for his essay "Out Of The Shadow Of Plague: Transmission, Protection, and Tony Kushner's Queer Tomorrow." We interviewed Taylor and Harris to learn more about their work and their plans for the future.


Taylor Clarke, CC ’14:

1. You wrote about Siri for your senior thesis.  How did you settle on that topic?

In Spring 2013, I took Feminism and Science with Professors Jordan-Young and Moore. I really enjoyed my first experience with feminist technology studies, and I wanted to expand my research on feminine robots to include programs like Siri, which disassociate gender from both humanity and the body. A comparison to human laborers in service work came later, as I began to interrogate service work and the dehumanization it creates more in depth. 

2. How has majoring in women's and gender studies informed your time at Columbia? 

Majoring in WGS has been one of my favorite experiences while at Columbia. I have truly appreciated getting to know my peers in the department as well as its professors, and I feel as if these connections have broadened my mind and forced me to question the ways I approach the world and my studies. The interdisciplinary nature of the major allowed me to explore topics that I truly love, and my studies have been greatly improved by the passion of those around me. 

3. What are your plans for the future?

After graduation, I will be working with Turner Broadcasting, Inc. as a Research Analyst with CNN Digital. I'm excited to experience market research in the digital space, and I plan to apply to Ph.D. programs in Sociology in the next two years to continue in feminist technology studies.


Harris Mercer, GS ’15:

1. What is it about Tony Kushner's work that inspired you to write your prize-winning essay?

Like many people, I first discovered Kushner through the superb Mike Nichols film of his play Angels in America, a work which in many ways changed my life. I then jumped at the chance to take a seminar on his work here at Columbia with the great Professor Jean Howard and an amazing group of students, all passionate participants in a semester of inspiring discussions of his many brilliant plays.  The course culminated in a chance to actually meet the author during one of our final classes. He showed up forty minutes late and was a bit dazed, but we got to quiz him about some of the questions that had bugged us about his work; it was a wonderful experience. This paper emerged from that course last spring.

2. You will graduate in 2015 with a major in English and American studies.  How have you been able to integrate your interest in queer studies in the work that you do?

An interest in queer issues and in gender have independently informed all my studies at Columbia, including classes in both my majors. As an English major primarily interested in the early modern period, especially the work of Renaissance playwrights like Shakespeare, questions about sexuality, cross-dressing, and gender roles are central to my explorations of these texts.

The relationship between queer studies and my other major is more complex. American Studies is in many ways a field always in search of its own self-definition: what constitutes what we call “American,” and what it might mean to study that? My sense of those questions is deeply informed by an understanding, partly learned from reading Tony Kushner, that heteronormativity and homophobia, and the struggle against them, are core themes in the American experience. Like W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, Kushner puts a hated minority at the center of national life and shows how the majority’s attempts to define itself in opposition to that minority, as not-colored, as not-queer, paradoxically and accidentally unlock the latent possibilities for real democratic change that are greater in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

What happens, these writers show, is that the reactionaries (rather like Voldemort, guaranteeing Dumbledore’s victory by attaching Harry’s life to his own through acts of murder), define themselves through the persecution of a certain group and, thereby, actually make that group’s salvation essential to the contingent salvation of the nation.  They do this not as an act of charity on the part of people of color or members of the LGBTQA community, but because it is the sole means of healing ourselves.  James Baldwin wrote that only by ending the racial nightmare could we achieve our country; my essay is about how Tony Kushner shows that through winning the struggle between what he calls the psychotic individualism behind an ideology of Reaganism, and the possibilities for solidarity that the fight against homophobia and AIDS taught us, we can seize the possibilities of the Obama era, rebuild the American labor movement, and reverse the decades-long counterrevolution that has kept progressives, until recently, out of power.

3. You are currently in your junior year at Columbia.  Are you planning to pursue Sexuality Studies in your academic work next year?

Absolutely. This fall I hope to do an independent study with Professor Howard, for whose class I wrote the first draft of this paper, and in the spring I hope to write more about Tony Kushner’s work for my Senior Research Project in American Studies.

Women in the World Summit 2014: The Power of Storytelling?

April 29, 2014

by Jing Qu, Columbia College ‘17

I had the privilege of attending the Women in the World Summit, presented by Tina Brown and The Daily Beast on April 3rd – 5th, 2014. I knew this would be a big event from the start and had been doing a lot of thinking this semester about some of the conference issues and questions in my spring Intro to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course.  I was interested in hearing from women like Mellody Hobson, who, like me, is also from Chicago, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rashida Jones (I am a huge Parks and Recreation fan), among others. These unique groupings of participants on a wide range of topics, moderated by seasoned journalists and correspondents and coupled with meticulously produced media clips and files, truly made for an impressive and powerful conference. It was, in a sense, a real coming together of women in the world.

However, there were aspects of the program that made me feel uncomfortable and question its purpose of “journalistic storytelling.” Upon entering Lincoln Center, I realized quickly that Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign and Merck, a research-driven pharmaceutical company, were large corporate sponsors of the event, with their logos and promotion booths throughout the venue. One panel sponsored by Dove was titled “Mirror Image: The New Way to Self-Esteem,” and included Uniliver Executive Vice President Gina Boswell. Unilever owns Dove, among other brands such as Axe, and Slim Fast. More unknown to the public is that Unilever also owns a skin lightening cream marketed in India called “Fair and Lovely.” Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, which aims to “challenge beauty stereotypes” and “broaden the definition of beauty,” seems to be in conflict with these products that feed off consumers' insecurities about body size and skin color (in the case of Axe, ostensibly objectifying women in explicitly sexist commercials). For a company to market different types of products makes sense. But for one product to ostensibly attempt to change societal norms while its co-owned products encourage the same norms is of concern to me.

Merck also sponsored a panel at the conference, titled “Breakthroughs in the Fight Against Maternal Mortality.” The panel included, between a surviving mother of birth complications and activists of maternal health, Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck. While Frazier talked at length and quite eloquently about the contributions Merck has been and will be making in the field of maternal health, including $500 million in research spending, he failed to mention that NuvaRing, a hormonal contraceptive vaginal ring, is manufactured by Merck. It should be noted that bodily contraceptive devices have had questionable implications for women in the past. In February, Merck agreed to pay $100 million to settle hundreds of lawsuits from users who believed Merck failed to publicize serious health risks associated with NuvaRing. As Dorothy Roberts notes in her book Killing the Black Body, there have also been instances of clinics and policies targeting young Black women to implant Norplant, a contraceptive, in their arms to prevent them from having children in impoverished neighborhoods.

On the topic of cross-cultural feminism, I felt uncomfortable sitting through several of the panels focusing on violence against women, especially the ones pertaining to foreign countries and cultures. One panel featured young activists from Pakistan, another was about anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria, and the last one I attended discussed epidemic rape in India. While I understand that 30 minutes is not a very long time, it seems as if the moderators were more interested in showcasing acts of violence (which was usually met by a collective gasp) instead of interrogating their causes.

In contrast, some of the topics that were contextualized in greater detail were enlightening and truly provocative. Senators Susan Collins and Kirsten Gillibrand surprised me with their outspoken desire for more female representation in Congress in order to meet the needs of women. As someone from the suburbs of Chicago, I especially appreciated the panel with activists within Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods to provide alternative options for the youth. It was shocking to me to be so unaware of issues that are occurring an hour’s drive from my house. I also appreciated the panel on sexualization in pop culture, an issue that surrounds us yet seems difficult to understand or grasp.

In the future, I hope to see more conferences revolving around women, gender, and sexuality-themed topics. There was a sense of empowerment for me in the coming together of so many powerful, inspirational, and motivated women. However, I would also like to see conferences that promote on an even deeper exploration of so many of our world’s most pressing issues: how and why are these things happening? Exposing and showcasing the lives of amazing women are powerful, for sure, but doing the same to issues in our world without correct edification seems to be at best, useless, and at worse, invoking pity. In order to truly “solve” some of the problems in our world, we need to understand their underlying causes and the forces that exist to maintain their horrific existences.

Photo credit.

3 Questions for Robin Bernstein

April 9, 2014

Robin Bernstein is a Professor of African and African American Studies and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University. She is author of the award-winning book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. Her interests include formations of race, age, gender, and sexuality, and her research integrates the study of theatrical, visual, material, and literary evidence.

Professor Bernstein will be speaking in IRWGS's Queer Futures series on Thursday, April 10, at 4:30pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension. Her talk is titled "PARADOXY: Lesbians and the Everyday Art of the Impossible."

1.   What are you working on right now?

I have several projects in the works.  Probably the most important is a book titled Paradoxy: An Everyday Lesbian Art.  It's about lesbian performance practices in the long twentieth century.  I show that there's a longstanding lesbian tradition of performance that transforms paradoxes from a problem into a resource.  My goal with this project is to recover and identify an embodied mode of thought that can offer some alternatives to contemporary queer theory and politics.  My other big project is a co-edited book series that will publish books at the intersection of American studies and performance studies.  My scholarship, at its core, uses theories of performance to think historically, with the goal of producing new knowledge about race, gender, sexuality, and age.  I'm editing this book series so I can foster more books that will do that.

2.   What blogs are you currently reading?

The only blog that I read assiduously is Alison Bechdel's, and part of the reason I'm able to do so is that she doesn't update it too frequently.  I like the Crunk Feminist Collective and Black Girl Dangerous.  I also regularly read Karen Kelsky's Pearls of Wisdom.

3.   Feminism is…

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people!  I'm always surprised by how powerful and clarifying this simple definition is.  So much popular culture and scholarship casts women as female people, or as the mothers or love interests of people.  Even in texts that are focused on women, those women are too often cast not as people but as white people.  Feminism, in my view, has to be as complicated, embodied, material, historical, interesting, and vast as people are.  We deserve nothing less.

Answers complied by Xavier Jarrett, Columbia College, 2015

Plants, Queerness, and the Destruction of Patriarchy: A Review of Catriona Sandilands’ Lecture ‘Botanically Queer’

April 1, 2014

by Bryant Brown, a Columbia Undergraduate (CC ’15) majoring in African American Studies

As a Chicano growing up in the Southwest, stories of ancient Aztlán and Indigenous relationships to the land have instilled in me a special appreciation for non-human forms of life. While I have become fond of a special attention given to plant life and green spaces at home in Denver, I still struggle to come to terms with New York’s endless fascination with slabs of concrete and steel. As if on cue, it was particularly refreshing to attend Catriona Sandilands’ talk Botanically Queer, part of IRWGS’ Queer Futures series.  The Environmental Studies professor’s critical approach to understanding plant life and its implications for how we socially organize society left me appreciating the mysteries of vegetation – and also acknowledging that these mysteries have much to tell us about ourselves.

It is a rare opportunity to witness a field of study in its early stages of theorization, and last week’s installment in the Queer Futures series was an occasion to do just that. As Professor Alondra Nelson herself suggested in her introduction, Professor Sandilands’ work on critical plant studies has effectively created a new field of inquiry. Yet, contrary to what some might assume, this field of academic inquiry is far from limited to the familiar realms of the natural sciences – there is much more at stake in Sandilands’ research that should pique the interest of any queer studies or women’s, gender, and sexuality studies scholar.

Critical plant studies emerges out of a tradition of critical animal studies, which has posited that the relations between human and non-human animals are now at a point of crisis, and deserving of scholarly attention. Sandilands explained early in her presentation that the study of queer animals in critical animal studies has recently been used to complicate heteronormative assumptions about sexuality. According to Sandilands, these theorists have found that queer animality is ubiquitous, and that animals do many things that upset our tightly held understandings of human gender and sexuality, like quickly shuffling through flexible categories of sex and taking on different gendered behaviors at different times. While the field of animal studies has been used for a variety of ends (e.g. to tell stories about humans, or to justify the implementation of same-sex marriage), Sandilands affirms that the point is not to naturalize any given human expression of identity, but to call into question arguments about embodiment and authenticity that have come to inform our current notions of gender, sexuality, and life. The characterization of barnacles as queer, for example, is far more exciting when it is used to challenge the familiar human conceptions of queerness then when it is put in the service of making the barnacle more understandable in its comparison to humans. In other words, critical animal studies has a very political role in challenging how we understand ourselves and our relationships with each other.

It is with this weight, and out of this spirit that Sandilands suggests we speak of botanical queers, and critical plant studies. This field of study is meant to be an investigation into the ways in which plants suggest possibilities of life and relationships that render human social and cultural understandings of queer as less familiar, and also an expose of the ways that paying attention to plants offers opportunities to reflect on life that other animal-centric approaches ignore. At stake in this research are more encompassing outlooks on life and social organization.

Sandilands’ analysis was divided into three sections: the first begged the audience to consider the ways plant histories call us to rethink how we coexist with plants; Sandilands suggested that we should approach plant life with a desire for their existence. The second section explored how plant life holds the potential to complicate heteronormative understandings of identity, kinship, and time. The third and final section offered specific examples of what these affinities might look like.

While Sandilands paid little to no attention to the various Indigenous relationships to land that her work is essentially replicating (and that also inspired me to consider more seriously the implications of plant life in the first place), I still found her analysis to be useful. If you are interested in plants, queerness, and deconstructing patriarchy, I would recommend going to the IRWGS website and giving her lecture a watch. There was no lack of jargon and academic rhetoric in her talk, but I think it is well worth the effort to sift through it all.  Critical plant studies is an important new area of inquiry that can be used by students and organizers to better incorporate plant life and animals into our everyday politics. 

Barnard Sophomore Creates Buzz With Photo Project "Feminism Is..."

March 14, 2014

Barnard sophomore Ilana Greenstein recently stopped by the IRWGS office to tell us about her photo project “Feminism Is…” A Psychology major with a focus on elementary education and the Events Coordinator for the Columbia University Democrats, Greenstein’s idea was to hand Columbia students a whiteboard and a marker and ask them to write their thoughts and opinions on feminism. She photographed each student, whiteboard in hand, and posted the collection on Facebook. The project quickly attracted the attention of Buzzfeed, which reposted the photos that now have been seen by over 100,000 people.

IRWGS asked Greenstein about the origin of the project, and about her views on feminism and the rewards and challenges of being a feminist at Columbia.

What is feminism?

In the “Feminism Is…” project, my goal is to convey that feminism is gender equality.  A lot of people shared the article on Facebook once it went out, and someone commented, “Can I support equality, and not be a feminist?” I thought, did you see any of the pictures in the exhibit? A lot of people wrote “equality” on the whiteboards! I just think there’s a huge misperception out there.  For me, feminism really is gender equality, period.

How did the “Feminism Is…” project come about?

I’ve always been interested in feminism. I was looking at my old yearbook from elementary school.  In 5th grade we were asked, “what do you want to be in 20 years?”  I wrote: “women’s rights activist.” So clearly it’s been in me for a really long time!

I also wanted to attract a new group of people to the Dems because we do political activism in every realm. But for women’s rights we’ve been focusing a lot on reproductive rights.  Reproductive rights are extremely important in the modern political climate, but I always want to go back to basic feminism, and women’s rights in general, and in a broader way.  

Why is a project like this necessary on Columbia’s campus?

I think the responses to the BWOG article about the project clearly show why we need feminism here. I couldn’t believe some of the comments. When I saw the Buzzfeed comments I thought, okay, this is Buzzfeed, that’s the general public. But then I saw the BWOG comments, and I was like, people here really think that! Some people commented, “Oh, they’re just putting equality under a mask of superiority.”  Others said, “I can’t believe people think women are actually equal now.” They question all the really, statistically proven things, such as the fact that women make 77 cents to the man’s dollar, and that 25% of women are sexually assaulted on campus. Not just one study made this claim, but multiple studies have introduced this data, over and over.

The things I hear women and men say on this campus every single day reinforces the need for feminism here. I hear people joke about rape and sexual abuse all the time. That points out to me that even though there are very intelligent, and both liberal and conservative people here, it can still be an extremely sexist environment. I don’t think my project is going to stop that, but I want to bring awareness to the fact that it does exist here.

What was the day of the project like?

We actually had a lot more people stop by than I was expecting. I was aiming for 50 photos, and we had more than 85 people come by to be photographed. There were lines of people waiting for the whiteboard, which again, I was really surprised but very happy about.

How did the Buzzfeed article happen?

Someone from Buzzfeed is a Columbia alum, so I guess she had some friends on Facebook and saw them in the pictures.  She messaged me and asked if she could do an interview.

I wish, now, that I had helped select the pictures for the Buzzfeed article because I don’t think it is an accurate representation of the project.  There are 85 pictures and the Buzzfeed article includes the three that talked about bodily functions, which attracted a ton of attention. I wish the piece had included some of the more serious pictures.  Nonetheless it was really, really cool to have my work out there and it was really great to see the article reach 100, 000 views!

What is next?

On March 31st we’re co-hosting a screening of Miss Representation with the Women’s History Month committee group, so that’s really exciting. When I saw that film for the first time last year in Professor Laura Ciolkowski’s Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies course, it really opened my eyes.  Ever since I took the Intro class with Professor Ciolkowski, I just can’t look at things in the same way! My whole entire lens of viewing the world has changed. I think that’s the point of college, you know? You see things you can’t forget and you just view everything a new way. That course really added a new frame of mind for me. I was already a feminist, but I guess I didn’t realize how blatant sexism was in every form of media that we encounter every single day.

All photos credited to Ilana Greenstein, with thanks!

Change on the Horizon for Sexist Hollywood?

March 11, 2014

by Eboni Boykin, CC 2016

There must be something in the air in Hollywood, because the number of big-name actresses who have been blowing the whistle on sexism in the film industry has been steadily increasing. Any number of events could have sparked this sudden outcry against the machine, but we’re just glad it’s happening at all.

Renowned actresses Meryl Streep, Keira Knightley, Olivia Wilde and Cate Blanchett have all sounded the alarm within the last few months on the perpetuation of sexist stereotypes in film and the lack of women cast in leading roles. For once, women of color were not entirely left out the conversation, as Lupita Nyong’o shed light on colorism both in her personal life and in the movie industry.

But will anything come of their comments? In 2011, only 11% of film protagonists were female. Of the mere 13 female film protagonists in animated films between 1937 and 2005, only one had a goal that did not include romantic love. Only six of the top 500 films of all time have a protagonist who is a woman of color: Pocahontas, Mulan, Spirited Away, Lilo & Stitch, The Princess and the Frog and Sister Act.

Though the timely outspokenness of the aforementioned leading ladies is helpful, it is going to take a lot more to brighten the bleak picture that these statistics present. Many of these actresses have careers that have spanned years, so the sexist representations they protest could not have been lost on them. To the optimistic, the fact that these actresses are finally speaking up shows that change is on the horizon.

In a country where American teenagers watch 34 hours of movies and television per week, obviously there needs to be major changes if 51% of the U.S. population is not adequately represented (or adequately represented in all types of life situations). This work should begin with casting directors, who write casting calls and character descriptions (or “breakdowns,” as they’re called) that are most always race-specific and that also routinely promote the sorts of sexism that actresses like Meryl Streep are calling out.  Sexism is actively perpetuated through these “breakdowns,” reminding us that the fight for equal representation in Hollywood is far from over.

Photo credit

3 Questions for Professor Kirsten Leng

February 27, 2014

Professor Kirsten Leng is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow teaching at IRWGS and in the History Department during the 2013-14 academic year.  Most recently a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN), she received her PhD from the University of Michigan in History and Women’s Studies.  Her research and teaching interests are in the histories of gender and sexuality, Modern European History, and the history of science and medicine.

This Monday, March 3rd, Professor Leng will be speaking as part of the IRWGS Embodiments of Science Series at 4:30pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension. More info can be found at the event page here.

1. What are you working on right now?

A number of things, small and large!  The smaller projects include draft entries on “Sexual Reform Movements” and “Feminism” for a forthcoming Encyclopedia on Human Sexuality (Wiley-Blackwell), as well as a book review of Cheryl Logan’s wonderful Hormones, Heredity and Race: Spectacular Failure in Interwar Vienna.  The larger projects include a proposal for my book, Sexual Knowledge/Sexual Politics: Contesting Truth and Power in the Early Twentieth Century, which illuminates the gender politics involved in the creation of sexual knowledge in Central Europe (and beyond) between 1890 and 1933.  I’m also beginning work on a new project.  It examines the international dispersion of German sexual science following the forced emigration of many sexologists due to the rise of the Nazis.  In this project, I am interested in understanding the cultural, political, and temporal contingency of scientific knowledge and expertise about sex, and explore this subject through the life histories of a diverse group of German sexologists.

2. What blogs are you currently reading?

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’m not a big blog reader.  Online I read the British newspaper The Guardian, which is one of the few places within the mainstream media where feminist voices are prominently featured.  In terms of blogs, I follow NPR’s “Code Switch” and “Monkey See” (which also does a good job of highlighting gender politics).

Though not a blog reader, I am a huge podcast listener and public radio devotee!  Among the programs I regularly follow are NPR’s “On the Media” and “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and the CBC’s (the Canadian Broadcast Corporation) “Definitely Not the Opera,” “Q,” “The House,” and the satirical “This Is That.”

3. Feminism is...

For me, feminism offers lenses through which to make sense of the world, past and present.  Specifically, it helps me understand the creation and operation of social inequalities.  I also approach feminism as a worldview that is committed to achieving conditions of social and sexual justice for all people both through formal political change, and through the transformation of attitudes, ethics, behavior, and relationships.  My conception of feminism is constantly evolving and expanding as a result of new encounters, conversations, and experiences—be they classroom discussions, conference workshops, new and exciting texts, or impromptu chats with strangers.  It is an endless source of fascination.

Feminist Porno in the Columbia Library

February 17, 2014

Do we have our very own Pussy Riot?  A rampage wreaking havoc in the hallowed halls of Butler Library instead of a sanctified Moscow cathedral? For those of you who are still in the dark, a group of women filmed a guerilla style “feminist porno” entitled Initiatiøn that they have posted online.  The film depicts a group of women, studying in Butler, who then proceed to undress and engage in a series of bizarre rituals that includes eggs, S&M, twerking and dead chickens.  Coco Young, one of the creators of the video, told the Huffington Post that the women were attempting to construct their “own society and invent fake rituals…and through those rituals we basically reach a state of being absolutely hysterical and crazy.”  The reactions to this video from Columbia and Barnard students I’ve talked to, as well as from many online viewers, have been mostly negative. When I mention the film to classmates, I get a lot of  “eews” followed by, “I just don’t get what they were trying to do,” or,  “Why did they have to do it in our library? Now I don’t want to study there.” According to Young, the women made the film to address “the idea of female hysteria.  As female artists we’re trying to open up the dialogue and pose questions on how men perceive women, especially on the Internet.”

My take?  Initiatiøn is brave and funny and subversive.  It brings to mind not only Pussy Riot’s brand of punk feminist protest, but also the transgressive art of Karen Finley and Paul McCarthy. By appropriating and subverting the tropes of pornography, the film does indeed open up a much needed dialogue not only about men’s perceptions of women, but also about our collective cultural fictions around female bodies and sexuality.  We live in a culture that surrounds us with images of highly sexualized female bodies that are used to reinforce patriarchy.  Advertising, fashion, music videos, and all forms of media often represent women as passive, pretty receptacles of patriarchal norms.  Initiatiøn appropriates those norms and then subverts them.  The women in Initiatiøn expose their breasts, kiss each other, and pour liquid on their bodies.  Yet, instead of becoming another instance of women performing according to a masculine narrative, these women go off-script.

I can’t help relating my classmates’ repugnance to the reaction that the general public has had to Miley Cyrus and her recent stunts. She too has been accused of acting “inappropriately,” and of being “slutty”. Don’t get me wrong:  I am not defending Miley on artistic grounds.  Rather, I’m defending her right to use her body in a manner that makes us all a bit uncomfortable, that makes us question why we think it’s okay for girls to be sexual decorations in male music videos, but not sexual actors themselves.  Maybe it’s time for society to reconsider why we find women who go off the culturally acceptable script so upsetting.  When “wombs wander,” why do we feel the need to label them pathological and call the male doctor? Initiatiøn raises all kinds of questions, such as, what constitutes pornography? Is something pornographic if it isn’t meant to arouse male desire? Many of my female classmates have responded to Initiatiøn by asking, “How are they feminists? Look at them, naked.  They’re just asking for men to objectify them.” My response: Slut shaming in the guise of feminism is not feminism.  What should be criticized are the cultural roots that spur objectification, not the women who allow themselves to be sexual outside of culturally permissible boundaries. There is a range of female sexuality that we find perfectly acceptable: nudity, girl on girl, even masochism and dominatrixes are all authorized as long as they are produced with the male gaze in mind. When women such as Coco Young, Karley Sciortino, Carly Mark, Alexandra Marzella and Sarah Grace Powell, the creators of Initiatiøon, appropriate the conventional tropes of porn in order to subvert them, when their sexuality is employed to question how female sexuality is regulated, then too many of us are baffled, outraged and repelled instead of inspired to congratulate the transgressors.  I, for one, will enjoy studying in Butler more after having seen this video. 

by Juliette Kessler, Barnard ‘16

3 Questions for Shamus Khan

February 13, 2014

Shamus Khan is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and a member of the IRWGS Executive Committee. His work is primarily within the areas of cultural sociology and stratification, with a strong focus on elites. Khan is the author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton 2011); The Practice of Research (Oxford 2013, with Dana Fisher), and is completing Exceptional: The Astors, Elite New York, and the Story of American Inequality (Princeton, forthcoming). With Dorian Warren, he is the director of a Russell Sage Foundation working group on “The Political Influence of Economic Elites;” Khan also serves as the principal investigator on a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project using the New York Philharmonic archives to uncover the character of their subscribers from the 1870s-present.  In addition to his primary focus, Khan also writes in the areas of gender theory, deliberative politics, and research methodology. He recently served as an opinion columnist for Time Magazine and continues to write about sociology in the popular press.

This Monday, February 17th, Professor Khan will be speaking as part of the IRWGS Theory Monday Series on Bourdieu's "Masculine Domination" at 6:00pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension. For more details, please visit the event page.

1. What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing up a book that tells the history of New York from the perspective of an elite family, the Astors. The training I received in graduate school from feminist scholars like Myra Marx Ferree has really influenced me. Reading through all these business histories, I noticed that the men are away traveling a lot of the time. And an often unasked question is, “who was actually running the business while men were off for months at a time?” The answer is wives (sometimes on their own, and often through guiding their sons and daughters). Doing mostly historical work is a departure for me, but a fun one. I’m also overseeing a more quantitative project on who has attended the New York Philharmonic for the last 140 years. It’s on class formation and the spatial dynamics of elite cultural institutions. http://incite.columbia.edu/subscribers-to-the-ny-philharm/

2. What blogs are you currently reading?
I don’t really read a lot of blogs anymore. Twitter demands more of my attention these days. It can be an echo chamber, but it’s also a good way for me to see what my colleagues are reading and thinking about. I’ve also made a commitment to get offline and read more books with my free time. I just picked up a collection of Balzac’s short stories; they’re wonderful. It led me to look up some of his diary and eventually, to gems about Balzac by Graham Robb. I think most grad students and faculty will appreciate the approach to writing: "What does a novelist need? Balzac’s letters suggest the following: a peaceful place to work; a home full of beautiful, expensive objects to create ‘happiness and a sense of intellectual freedom’; coffee strong enough to maintain the flow of inspiration for two months; debts and publishers’ contracts with draconian penalty clauses to reinforce self-discipline with compulsion; several aliases and hiding places to prevent the creditors’ bailiffs from confiscating the expensive objects; and a constant state of romantic excitation without the time-consuming consequences of love… the [novel] writing advice 
that can be gleaned from Balzac’s letters amounts to very little: be grammatically correct, don’t start writing until the first flush of enthusiasm is past, write as though your reader is a woman, work at least twelve hours a day, never read reviews, and treat your printer or your publisher as you would a lazy servant."From Graham Robb, "Balzac's business" in TLS, March 14 2012.

3. What is does feminism mean to you?
 Feminism is a belief in the fundamental equality of all people, and the moral commitment to make that belief a reality.

Answers complied by Abby DiCarlo.


3 Questions for Premilla Nadasen

February 5, 2014


Premilla Nadasen is a visiting associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of several books on welfare, including the award winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States as well as numerous scholarly and popular articles on the subject.  She has published in the Journal of Policy History, Feminist Studies, Race and Reason, Feminist Formations, Working USA, and Ms. Magazine and she blogs regularly for Ms.  She has won fellowships and honors for her work, including the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Book Prize, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize, and has served as Visiting Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College.  

This Thursday, February 6th, Professor Nadasen will be speaking as a part of the IRWGS Gender and Justice Series on "Domestic Work and Politics of Black Freedom" at 4:30pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension.  For more details, please visit the event page.

1. What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I am finishing a book on the history of domestic worker organizing in the 1960s and 1970s. I chronicle the lives of African American women household workers--nannies, cooks, and cleaners--who organized to transform the character of their occupation and lobby for labor protections such as the minimum wage.  

2. What blogs are you currently reading?
Finishing a book is pretty intense work, so I'm not reading a lot of blogs these days.  But I do occasionally write for the Ms. Blog.  And I enjoy reading Jezebel and Crunk Feminist Collective.

3. Feminism is...
 "Feminism is..." a very difficult term to define.  There are many different definitions of feminism and I resist tying myself down to just one.  Feminism, like gender, is historically contingent, so the definition of feminism depends on social and political context. Domestic worker activists in the 1970s defined feminism in terms of revaluation of their labor.  But, of course, other women in that era had different definitions of feminism. 

Answers complied by Kylie White, SEAS 2015

What kind of IRWGS student are you?

January 30, 2014

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality offers three different types of undergraduate tracks:

The IRWGS Major offers a culturally and historically situated, theoretically diverse understanding of feminist and gender studies scholarship and its contributions to the disciplines.  The Senior Seminar is the capstone for the Major, providing an opportunity for  mentored thesis writing.

The IRWGS Concentration, much like the Major, includes sequentially organized courses in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, as well as electives in the humanities and social sciences. There is no Senior Seminar requirement for the Concentration, freeing up concentrators to pursue their studies in another field.

The IRWGS Special Concentration provides a solid grounding in feminist and gender studies scholarship for students majoring in another department.  The Special Concentration is compatible with the departmental requirements of a wide range of majors at Columbia.  Required classes for the Special Concentration include feminist- or gender-related electives drawn from a pre-selected list or approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies.  IRWGS takes a very broad view of feminist- or gender-related electives.  (e.g., electives may feature a feminist method without having women or gender as object).


Taylor Clarke is graduating in the spring of 2014 with a double major in Women's and Gender Studies and Political Science.  Last summer she interned with the Office of the First Lady at the White House, and this summer she is interning with Nickelodeon International Research at Viacom.  At Columbia, she plays women's club rugby, and she was a first-year RA for two years.  She is a Scholar with the Point Foundation, an organization that provides leadership training, mentorship, and financial assistance to LGBTQ+ students.  Taylor is also the coordinator of Columbia FemSex, a peer-facilitated, semester-long discussion group dedicated to the empowerment and fulfillment of the sexual self.

Taylor says she especially appreciates the Major's focus on interdisciplinary learning.  "I feel prepared to take on a multitude of careers, whether they are explicitly focused on gender or not."

Roz Bazett Watson, on track to graduate in the spring of 2015, is a pre-med Women's and Gender Studies Major.  She is involved in Q, Barnard College's group for LGBTQA students, and is a member of the Women's Ultimate Frisbee team at Columbia.

"When I realized I wanted to be a doctor and be pre-med," she says, "I wanted to find a major that complimented/contrasted the rigmarole of problem sets and fact-based learning that comes with those courses.  After taking a class called 'Gendered Controversies,' I realized that the Women's and Gender Studies Major fulfilled my love of critical thinking, reading, and writing."

When asked how her IRWGS Major would affect her future medical degree specifically, Roz said: "One of my favorite things about this major is the time and attention given not only to 'gender' but also to race, class, and sexuality. After I graduate, I plan on working towards my medical degree, and so some might say I won't be 'using' my major, but the truth is that I use the things IRWGS has taught me every single day as I interact with the world around me. As a doctor who is also female, queer, and a feminist this will be helpful no matter which medical field I choose to focus on. One only needs to open a newspaper (or a computer) to see how gender affects the medical community, and more importantly how ignorance can distort it."

Morgaine Jovan Gooding-Silverwood is an IRWAG major graduating in May of 2014.  She commented on the interdisciplinary nature of the IRWGS Major:

"The structure of the Major is intentional in giving undergrads a strong theoretical base of knowledge, while striving to be fully intersectional as well as self-reflective and critical.  Being able to define my own concentrated course of study through elective courses has empowered me to bring a gendered analysis into other departments, which has pushed me to engage my ideas in spaces outside of my normal comfort zone."

Gerardo Romo, graduating in the spring of 2014, is a Women's and Gender Studies Concentrator.   His major is in Ethnicity and Race, with a track in Latina/o Studies.  He interned this summer at the LGBTQ Justice Project at Make the Road NY.  He's the Gender and Sexuality Chair of Chicano Caucus and a board member of Proud Colors.  After graduation, Gerardo plans on getting his masters in social work and becoming a community organizer with a focus on creating emotionally supportive spaces for queer/trans people of color.

"I chose Women's and Gender studies along with Ethnic Studies," he says, "to understand the histories of power and privilege that structure this country and our lives so that I can learn how to dismantle those hierarchies within my communities and also myself."

We asked our students if they had any advice for undergrads thinking about an IRWAG Major, Concentration, or Special Concentration.  Taylor's advice is:  "Find what you love and explore it. I discovered I loved feminist science and technology studies, and IRWGS gave me plenty of opportunity to push this passion further.  'Feminism & Science' with Professor Jordan-Young and 'The Politics of the Family in the Post-Genomic Era' with Professor Nelson rocked my world!"

"I am so grateful to have found the IRWGS Major," Morgaine says.  "I can confidently say that I have found a department at Columbia College that I am proud to be a part of, and that is genuinely invested in each and every one of its students."


IRWGS Welcome 2013-14: "What is Feminism?" from Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski

January 30, 2014

In 1990, Angela Davis published a terrific essay titled “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” In it, she wrote, “Politics do not stand in polar opposition to our lives. Whether we desire it or not, they permeate our existence, insinuating themselves into the most private spaces of our lives.”  I take these words very seriously and, along with my friends and colleagues at IRWGS-Columbia, I am always looking for new and more creative ways to expose, interrogate, and reinvent the politics of the everyday, both in the classroom and outside it.  This work is one version, a thumbnail sketch of sorts, of the feminism that is alive and well on the 7th floor of Columbia’s Schermerhorn Extension.

But what is feminism?  I’m frequently drawn into conversations about “feminism” (and I just as frequently open up those conversations myself) and, so, as a way of welcoming new and returning members of our IRWAG community to this 2013-14 academic year, I’d like to use this space to meditate on one of my favorite questions.

What is feminism?

Feminism is a messy, mind-bending, thought-provoking conversation.  It is a spirited debate about inequality and social difference, about gender in its complex intersection with race, class, and sexuality, among a host of other things.  Feminism is not about Men-as-the-Problem (Men with a capital “M”, a wholly fictitious universal category); feminism is not about Women-as-the-Answer (Women with a capital “W”, another fictitious universal).  Rather, feminism is deeply engaged in the project of unraveling those tangled-up webs of inequality and difference that shape the ways we think about who we are (our infinite capacities as well as our infinite limitations), the ways we move through the world, and the ways we make sense of the seemingly most insignificant pieces of our everyday life. 

I absolutely love any and all opportunities to think with others about the question “what is feminism” because I strongly believe that being a feminist today means negotiating between a political commitment to social change and the ever-practical necessity to live in a universe that insists, every day and in three thousand and two different ways, that feminism is wholly unnecessary.  We are told, daily and with conviction, that we live in a “post-feminist” world.

After all, who needs feminism when we already have gender equality in the workplace and when we enjoy economic justice outside it?  Nevermind that the US is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid parental leave.  Nevermind that most women still work in female-dominated industries like “care work,” the fastest growing sector of the economy, and have long been underpaid and forced to work without benefits.

Who needs feminism when we have universal access to contraception and abortion and when all people enjoy reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom, regardless of race or class location, sexuality or religion?  Nevermind the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California or the battle over the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, under which only victims of so-called “forcible rape” would qualify for federally funded abortions. Nevermind the twenty-nine states with no LGBTQ rights protections.  Nevermind the epidemic levels of rape in the US military.

Who needs feminism when we live in a “post-racial” America free of discrimination and inequality? Nevermind Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, Rachel Jaentel and racist and classist business-as-usual. Nevermind the racial caste system of mass incarceration in the US, what Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow.” Nevermind.

In short, despite the many signs around us of the critical work that is still to be done, feminists today must live and breathe and act and think in a world that insists that feminism is unnecessary.  We must work amongst the acutely troublesome language of “post-feminism” (as well as amongst those other troublesome languages of “post,” including “post-racial”).  This is an ongoing challenge.  But it is a challenge that must energize rather than exhaust us; it should spur us on to more writing, more thinking, more talking and more acting rather than shut us down because, as we will be told, over and again, our work is done here.

I’d like to invite you all to join us at IRWAG in this work.  Please join us in the writing and thinking, talking and acting at IRWGS in 2013-14 by contributing to our rapidly expanding blog, featuring students, faculty and also CC alums.  Participate in IRWGS programs and series; consult the events calendar on our website and enroll in our academic courses.  Declare yourself an IRWGS major, concentrator or special concentrator.  Attend our graduate student events – Theory Mondays and Research Fridays. Enroll in our IRWGS Grad Certificate program.  Become a part of our vibrant, strong and growing community.

Together with our illustrious new IRWGS Director Alondra Nelson, our Director of Undergraduate Studies Patricia Dailey and our Director of Graduate Studies Beth Povinelli, and with deepest thanks to our beloved outgoing Director Saidiya Hartman, I’d like to welcome you all, once again, to Columbia-IRWAG 2013-14.


Laura Ciolkowski, Associate Director

IRWGS Undergrad Spotlight: Taylor Clarke, CC 2014

January 13, 2014


IRWGS Major and Columbia College senior Taylor Clarke opens up about why she chose Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as her major, and discusses her senior thesis topic, Apple's Siri. 

Follow this link to our vimeo page to watch Taylor's video. 

To learn more about the IRWGS undergraduate program, please visit our page here.

IRWGS Undergrad Spotlight: Maya Meredith, CC 2014

January 8, 2014


IRWGS Major and Columbia College senior Maya Meredith talks about why she chose Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as her major, and opens up about her senior thesis topic. 

Follow this link to our vimeo page to watch Maya's video. 

To learn more about the IRWGS undergraduate program, please visit our page here.

Happy Holidays from IRWGS!

December 20, 2013

Everyone at IRWGS wishes you the happiest of holidays! Thank you for a great 2013, and we look forward to seeing you again in 2014. 

As a reminder, our offices will be closed from Monday, December 23rd - Wednesday, January 1st. We will re-open on Thursday, January 2nd.


PETA says: too “fat” for Plan B? GO VEGAN.

December 9, 2013

by Juanita Ibanez, Graduate Student at the Institute of Latin American Studies 2013 

The latest message for women from the big-name animal rights organization PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is that going vegan will not only save the animals, but it will also help women regain control of their reproductive rights – a message PETA expressed in a sexist publicity stunt featuring a thin naked woman covered in BBQ sauce, lying lifeless on an oversized dinner plate.  PETA’s latest campaign  -- “Plan V” (Plan Vegan) -- capitalizes on the recent warning from HRA Pharma, the French manufacturer of the emergency contraceptive pill Norlevo, which is the European version of Plan B, an emergency contraceptive that needs to be taken within the first 72 hours after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.  HRA Pharma informed consumers that Norlevo would not be effective on women weighing more than 176 pounds.  PETA’s patently offensive “Plan V” urges “overweight” women to embrace a vegan diet in order to regain their reproductive rights.  PETA’s Vice President Tracy Reiman is quoted on PETA’s webpage: “If extra pounds are thwarting a woman’s ability to use Plan B, PETA’s ‘Plan V’ could be the prescription they need.”

PETA’s “Plan V” program is just the latest in PETA’s long history of using sexist gimmicks to advocate for animal rights at the expense of women. Past advertisements and publicity stunts also objectify women and, in the case of the infamous Valentine’s Day ad launched in 2012, play with images that explicitly promote violence against women.  The Valentine’s Day ad featured a woman sporting a neck-brace who, according to the advertisement, “suffers from ‘BWVAKTBOOM,’ ‘Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me,’ a painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.”

The fat-shaming in the “Plan V” campaign is also a familiar PETA strategy.  PETA billboards declaring “SAVE THE WHALES, lose the blubber: go vegetarian” which appeared in Jacksonville, Florida in 2009 ridiculed larger women in bikinis by comparing them to whales.

PETA’s objectification, degradation and humiliation of women completely tarnishes their work in support of the ethical treatment of animals.  Such tasteless advertisements and publicity stunts do far more to offend women and encourage sexist and misogynist behavior amongst men than they do to save animals.  In a media landscape filled with sexist content that objectifies and degrades women, PETA’s campaign is not only disappointing, but also fundamentally contradictory, for a supposedly progressive non-profit organization ostensibly motivated, as they insist, by ideals of justice and compassion.  The true intention behind such campaigns is to generate controversy for controversy’s sake, so that blog posts like this one are written.  But while such publicity stunts may generate attention, an otherwise legitimate message is lost amongst the shock-value and crude misogyny of the campaign strategy.  PETA is more likely to leave women questioning the motives and ethics of PETA, than contemplating the virtues of a vegetarian diet

Read more: http://www.peta.org/media/news-releases/peta-launches-plan-b-lifeline-overweight-women-plan-v-vegan/#ixzz2mw54BRBw


Image Credit

Know Your IX Movement: Empowering Students to Stop Sexual Violence

December 4, 2013

by Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC 2015


Trigger warning.

Rape happens here.

Sexual harassment happens here.

Many rape survivors suffer from PTSD.

“We’ve had sex before” is not consent.

If they aren’t sober, they can’t consent.

No means no.

Survivors are beautiful and strong.

These sentences are just a sample of what was written on signs held up by allies and survivors during Columbia’s Anti-Sexual Violence Freeze Mob. On Tuesday, November 19th, participants froze in place in the center of campus on College Walk, standing in silence for five minutes and holding large signs with these important statements about rape and sexual assault that happen on our campus. The event was organized by the newly created Title IX Team at Columbia, and was designed to have a campus-wide impact and bring attention to the Team’s ongoing Anti-Sexual Violence and Title IX Awareness campaign.

I participated in the Freeze Mob, along with IRWAG Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski, and about twenty other supporters. Being a part of the event was incredibly powerful—standing in solidarity and holding a sign that represented the silent voices of rape survivors and allies, I felt that I was helping to start a conversation about rape on campus that we should be having more often. Why is rape still such a taboo topic of discussion on Columbia’s campus and on campuses across the country? It happens to men and women of all ages, but the statistics are revealing that it happens rampantly among women in college—the latest finding is that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of rape during her time in college.

The Know Your IX movement is trying to open the discussion about rape and ensure that all college students know their rights under Title IX. Many people aren’t aware that Title IX is not just about sports and female athletes—Title IX is a federal law that also stipulates that colleges and universities must guarantee students the civil right to an education free from discrimination, violence, and harassment—and that includes sexual harassment and sexual violence. The Clery Act, another federal law discussed in the Know Your IX movement, requires colleges and universities to disclose campus safety information, and imposes certain basic requirements for handling incidents of sexual violence and emergency situations.

Know Your IX was started by rape survivor Dana Bolger, a senior at Amherst College, after her frustration at the handling of her sexual assault case by the Amherst administration. In her moving editorial for the Huffington Post, Dana writes that she wish she knew about her rights under Title IX so that she could have stood up to the administration’s “cruel response” to her reports of sexual violence. Dana and Alexandra Brodsky, a writer for the popular blog Feministing.com, together founded the Know Your IX organization to ensure every college student knows about their fundamental civil right to an education free of sexual violence and harassment.

This semester, Columbia students have been openly questioning the administration on its policy towards gender-based misconduct and sexual violence, as seen in the efforts by the Title IX Team and also the Columbia Democrats. The CU Dems launched a petition, which has now reached over 1000 signatures, to bring transparency to Columbia’s campus assault policy. Currently, the administration releases an annual public safety report that includes the number of rapes and sexual assaults that have occurred on campus. But a lot of vital information is missing from these reports, and the CU Dems are demanding that we have access to that information—specifically, the following:

·      What portion of accused assailants are found guilty?

·      What kind of punishments do convicted assailants receive?

·      How long does it take for a reported case to be adjudicated,?

·      How are Public Safety officers trained to respond to sexual assault and support survivors?

The basic, aggregated information that student activists are demanding will hold the administration accountable for protecting the safety of their students, which is required under Title IX.

I met with one of the coordinators of the Title IX Team, Smita Sen, CC’16, to discuss the Freeze Mob and the upcoming projects of the Team. Smita explained that the Team has worked together with the CU Dems to bring attention to their petition, as well as with the International Socialist Organization to increase dialogue about Title IX, the Clery Act and sexual assault on campus.

But a fundamental part of the Title IX Team’s work is outreach to student survivors. The Title IX Team offers support, listens to and documents the stories of student survivors, and also helps them determine their options (including legal action) in moving forward with their cases.

The next phase of the Anti-Sexual Violence and Title IX Awareness Campaign is a magazine, Silent No More, which is currently accepting (anonymous) submissions from rape survivors and allies.

Rape and sexual assault needs to be addressed in a more meaningful way at Columbia and at schools across the country. Students must be aware of their civil rights under Title IX, and our efforts should be focused on making our campuses safer spaces for dialogues about rape and demands for transparency in the administration’s responses. But most of all, we cannot forget that rape survivors have voices that need to be heard. In our efforts to educate one another about our civil rights and, especially, about our right to an education and a life free from sexual violence, these voices will not be silenced or forgotten. 

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire: a Small Victory for Feminist Cinema

November 26, 2013

by Eboni Boykin, CC 2016

The latest Hunger Games installment is quickly sweeping the country and the box office, to the excitement of fans of the book series turned movie franchise. Katniss Everdeen, the film’s quick witted warrior protagonist, is the kind of warrior woman character that audiences seem to take a liking to but don’t see much of (The Resident Evil franchise comes to mind).

As we saw with the Twilight movie/book series, teen stories with a woman at the center usually have something to do with which guy she’s going to choose. What’s interesting about Catching Fire is that, although it doesn’t deviate from that teen love triangle narrative, it presents Katniss as the hero. It’s about time that this kind of story is being told in the cinema.

Katniss is the person whom everyone in the story relies on, often to her dismay. She represents a different way of being for women on screen. Newsflash America: there are plenty of women in the world who are not naturally emotional, but have to be pushed to talk about their feelings; there are lots of women out there who are not cared for or rescued by men, but have to take care of and even rescue the people in their lives. I know it defies the most common representation of women on screen, but it is representative and true. Katniss makes us look that truth right in the face, and we should all thank the heavens that she does.

But why does it matter? Who cares whether the hero is a man or a woman in a movie? It matters because the conventions of cinema include identification (or dis-identification) of spectator and character on screen. If women characters are frequently cast as the “damsels in distress,” and this is the identification that is actively cultivated by the film, then a kind of conditioning is created that may discourage women from reaching their potential as fully active and fully human subjects. This of course becomes even more complicated (and perhaps more unfortunate) for women and girls of color.

The question of “color” in The Hunger Games films has come up before.  There was outrage when Amandla Stenberg, a thirteen-year-old with an African-American mother and a Danish father, was cast as the character Rue in the first Hunger Games installment released in 2012. Although the novel explicitly describes Rue as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” angry viewers tweeted things like, “When I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad” (from the account @jashperpara, which has since been deleted). In terms of conditioning and identifying with on-screen female characters, the landscape is pretty bleak for brown girls. Not only are the few on-screen heroines almost never brown, but audiences are angry when they are asked to identify with a brown character like Rue.

Though I am happy to see any woman cast as the hero on screen, let’s face it: Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, a Caucasian woman, even though the character in the book is decidedly more ambiguous, described as having olive toned skin (some have interpreted her description in the novel as biracial). That isn’t to say that her role as Katniss is any less important, but it is interesting to think about why Katniss can’t appear on screen the way she was written. If Rue can’t be brown, we can only imagine the outrage that would have occurred if Katniss were played by Zoe Saldana (Colombiana) or Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow).

What if Katniss was played by an actress with the olive skin of the character in the book, or by an African-American actress? Well, firstly The Hunger Games franchise would probably be deemed by USA Today as “race-themed” as was The Best Man Holiday, a film in theatres now that has less to do with race than it does with life and relationships in general. Women of all skin tones are heroes in their own lives and to others, but we don’t want to see it in cinema. What are we afraid of?

What makes this such a big problem is the large role that television and cinema stories play in our lives today. From the time they are little, children are presented with these media images. Particularly in regard to girls of all colors, where their representation is often a demeaning one, it is our responsibility as a society to support and create positive, empowering images. Hunger Games: Catching Fire does a little bit of that, and we can only hope that characters like Katniss will one day share the spotlight with women of color in cinema.

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