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A New Campus Initiative: Gender-Inclusive Bathrooms at Barnard

October 18, 2013

by Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC 2015

After a months-long process, the student-led initiative to have gender-inclusive bathrooms at Barnard has proved successful. Barnard’s Student Government Association, Barnard administrators, and Q, Barnard’s queer student group, have worked to have one single stall, gender-inclusive bathroom in every building on Barnard’s campus.

In a recent interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, Lauren Malotra-Gaudet, BC ’15 and current Q President, explained the reasoning behind designating the bathrooms as gender-inclusive instead of gender neutral. A gender inclusive bathroom can be used by anyone of any gender identity, and can offer a safer and more convenient restroom space for those who identify outside of the gender binary. Caleb LoSchiavo, BC ’15 and co-president of GendeRevolution, the trans* support and advocacy group of Columbia and Barnard, described the motivation behind the initiative as creating spaces on campus where “people who don’t feel safe in gendered restrooms can pee in peace.”

“Peeing in peace” in a public restroom is something most of us probably take for granted, but this experience can be stressful for those who do not fit narrow gender stereotypes. Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, explains in the Huffington Post, “most folks don't think twice about using the restroom, but for transgender people, accessing the restroom that matches our gender identity too often results in ridicule or violence.”

The Barnard team that made this initiative a success should be praised for making noticeable and meaningful changes that benefit all students, regardless of their gender identity. Talking about bathrooms can be uncomfortable, but it’s a conversation that we need to have to ensure that every student, or even any person who walks onto the Columbia campus, has the basic right to use a bathroom. This conversation should be continued with administrators and student leaders on the other side of Broadway, and hopefully will lead to the expansion of the initiative to create safer bathroom spaces for the entire Columbia University community. 

The Balancing Act Raises Questions about Women's Personal and Professional Lives

October 16, 2013

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

Women are often faced with the dilemma of how to achieve and maintain a successful career without sacrificing family life. At Monday's World Leaders Forum event co-hosted by IRWAG, The Balancing Act: Women, Work and Family in the United States and France, a vibrant discussion between Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s Minister for Women’s Rights, and Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of the New American Foundation and author of the popular 2012 Atlantic Magazine article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, centered around the challenges women face in attempting to balance a family life and a successful profession, and how the state, as the case of France illustrates, can serve a role in alleviating some of these burdens.

Alondra Nelson, Director of IRWAG and moderator of the event, presented the panelists with a series of questions about class, family compositions, sexism and gender policy. Dr. Slaughter emphasized the need in the United States to create an “infrastructure of care” in which men, women and the state value caregiving. This infrastructure would recognize the challenges faced by women balancing the demands of work and childcare. The infrastructure Dr. Slaughter described includes childcare, paid maternal and paternal leave, early education programs, and new   attitudes which place greater value on the profession of caregiving.

Minister Vallaud-Belkacem highlighted the important role the state can play by providing the proper institutional support required to enable women and men to balance work and family life successfully. The Minister described the impressive achievements made by France in regard to women’s rights and how promoting and defending gender equality in France is considered a responsibility of the state.

Both Minister Vallaud-Belkacem and Dr. Slaughter also discussed the importance of teaching about gender equality and challenging traditional gender roles within the education curriculum.

Most of the evening's discussion was limited by an implicit focus on the circumstances of middle class working  women, failing to take into consideration the different challenges faced by women of lower-incomes and women of color in the United States and France. An inclusion of the important issues of class, race and ethnicity would have increased the value of such a discussion. However, overall, the discussion provided interesting insight into the situation of working mothers in the United States and France, and challenged all attendees to consider the potential role that a more interventionist state with stronger gender policies can play in improving the lives of women and families.


Mark Anthony Neal Discusses Illegible Black Masculinities at IRWAG's Queer Futures Talk

October 14, 2013

Last Thursday, Mark Anthony Neal spoke at IRWAG regarding his new book, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Neal led an intriguing discussion, bringing up culturally relevant names such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, LeBron James, Tiger Woods and many more. His talk was further enhanced by the multimedia he brought along to supplement it, including commercials, music videos and TV show clips. Neal’s argument focused on the unexpected depictions of black men as queering the standard stereotypes of them.

The multimedia served the purpose of infusing perspective on the conversation at hand, which was the perceived societal view of black masculinity as well as its representation in the media. In the now canceled TV show The Wire (2002), which Neal referenced often, there are multiple dealings with black masculinity. The clips shown center around the program’s portrayal of the black man as stylish, smart and sought after. The show, says Neal, is an example of this now rare portrayal of African American men in the media.

Neal continued this discussion referencing the complex media persona of Jay-Z. He talked about the ways in which the performance artist has one foot in Hip-Hop and the other in multiple business ventures. In one of Jay-Z’s music videos, he’s shown performing in the video and then taking off his hip-hop “uniform” before stepping into his other role, “Sean Carter”. This symbolic act illustrates the performance of black masculinity as well as the performer’s longing not to be perceived only as a performer.

The cover art for Looking for Leroy was also part of Neal’s discussion. The image of a black man forcibly attached to a basketball is a powerful one indeed. Neal spoke about the image’s reflection of black masculinity’s portrayal in popular media. Neal posed a scenario to the audience: If you see a black boy with a violin, you have to look twice. If you see a black boy with a basketball, there’s a feeling that that’s the way it should be.

A video of the talk will be made available shortly.

by Eboni Boykin, CC Class of 2016

3 Questions for Mark Anthony Neal

October 10, 2013


Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where he won the 2010 Robert B. Cox Award for Teaching. He is the author of What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public CultureSoul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul AestheticSongs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation, and New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.  

Today, Mark Anthony Neal will be speaking for IRWAG's Queer Futures series on his book Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities at 4pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension. More information can be found here.

1. What are you working on right now?

This semester I'm a Fellow at the HipHop Archive and Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. I'm working on a book project tentatively titled 'What if the Greensboro Four Had Twitter?'.

2. What blogs are you currently reading?

I regularly read The Feminist WireThe Crunk Feminist Collective, and Dr Guy Presents MusiQology.

3. Feminism is...

an important and progressive intervention to the ways that we've been socialized to think about gender, sex, and sexuality.

Answers complied by Kaveh Landsverk.

IRWAG in ACTION Introduced New Columbia Students to IRWAG

October 4, 2013

Students and faculty gathered in the IRWAG seminar room for IRWAG in ACTION, our Undergrad Open House, on Thursday, October 3rd, 2013. Director of Undergraduate Studies Patricia Dailey welcomed the crowd and discussed the benefits of majoring, concentrating, and special concentrating in Women’s and Gender Studies. Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski praised the interdisciplinary and interactive nature of women’s, gender, queer and sexuality studies.

Attendees included first-year students interested in Women’s and Gender Studies, senior IRWAG majors, IRWAG professors, and representatives from various campus groups, such as the Gay Health Advocacy Project, GendeRevolution, and ROOTEd. Great conversations and delicious Italian food were enjoyed by all!

If you’re interested in majoring, concentrating, or special concentrating at IRWAG and weren’t able to make it to the Open House, we’ve got you covered! Check out more information about our undergrad program here, or contact Professor Dailey at pd2132@columbia.edu with any questions. 

by Alyssa Cannizzaro, class of 2015

The Global Landscape of Mira Nair: September 17, 2013

September 24, 2013

The Global Landscape of Mira Nair
September 17, 2013
By Andrea Crow

If there is such a thing as a global zeitgeist, Mira Nair has tapped into it. Her body of work over many decades has jumped time and place, from 16th-century India  (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, 1996) to 19th-century Europe (Vanity Fair, 2004) to 1990s Mississippi (Mississippi Masala, 1991). The Global Landscape of Mira Nair, a film screening and discussion on September 17th, sponsored by Women Creating Change, a CSSD global initiative co-directed by IRWAG Executive Committee members Professor Jean Howard and Professor Marianne Hirsch and co-sponsored by the School of the Arts, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, the South Asia Institute, the Middle East Institute, and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, opened with a stunning montage highlighting precisely this point about the filmmaker’s global reach.

Nair has managed to appeal to a wide variety of audiences without ever sacrificing authenticity. In the lively conversation with Professor Anu Rao (History, Barnard), Professor Mabel Nair (GSAPP) and moderated by Professor Lila Abu-Lughod (Director, Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference), Nair confessed that she would never make a film that was purely topical; her artistic ethics hinge on telling only stories that she feels are in some way hers to tell.

Nair explained that she not only wants to tell these stories, but that she also feels that she must tell them. She described a kind of urgency to bring certain kinds of stories to the big screen, particularly after 9/11 when, according to Nair, so many films made in the US were marked by the distortion and misunderstanding that comes with directors and writers trying to represent something about the world that they don't really know or have a connection to.  Nair realized at that moment that “if we don't tell our own stories, no one else will.”  It was this conviction that led Nair to create her most recent film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012).  For Nair, this is the kind of story that is “rarely seen.”  She added, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is “a coming-of-age story about a young brown man through this globalized [lens].”

Nair continues to bring her creativity and her technical expertise into new territory. In the immediate future, she will adapt Monsoon Wedding into a Broadway musical while continuing work on other film projects.

Video of the event is available here.

Renovations in the IRWAG Classroom!

September 19, 2013

We at IRWAG are pleased to share photos of our newly renovated seminar room: 754 in Schermerhorn Extension! With support from the Office of the Executive Vice President, we spent most of the summer cleaning, painting and redecorating the seminar room to prepare for our 2013 - 2014 courses and events. Located directly across the hall from our office, Room 754 is now complete with a large video monitor and a new computer podium. We even have a high quality sound system! Everything is very easy to use, which all of our professors and guests seem to highly appreciate.

We're also pretty thrilled to have had the opportunity to donate our older equipment to the kids at the Broadway Presbyterian Church Nursery School. IRWAG is so glad they are being put to a great use! 

Stop by and peek your head into our new seminar room the next time you are on the 7th floor of Schermerhorn Extension! And, please join us for our next event planned for that space, Feminist Pedagogy with Professor Ann Cvetkovich, the Ellen Clayton Garwood Centennial Professor of English and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin on Friday September 27th at 12 noon.


IRWAG at the Academic Resources Fair

August 29, 2013

Yesterday the Academic Resource Fair was held in Lerner Hall and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender made a big appearance! This was the first chance for new Columbia University students to meet IRWAG Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski and Director of Undergraduate Studies Patricia Dailey to ask questions and learn more about our department. We provided students with lots of information regarding this year's course offerings, upcoming Fall events and opportunities to be actively involved with the IRWAG office. We also had an overwhelming amount  of candy, buttons and bookmarks to give away, which were a big hit as always!

IRWAG is very excited to welcome the class of 2017 to campus, and can't wait to get to know all of the new faces even more in the coming weeks. If you want to learn more about IRWAG's upcoming year, please visit our events and courses pages. We look forward to welcoming you to suite 763 in Schermerhorn Extension!

Welcome Tess Drahman

August 26, 2013

Please join us in welcoming our new IRWAG Program Coordinator, Tess Drahman!

Tess was born in New York City, but took the long route to IRWAG: she spent all of her school years at the International School of Bangkok in Thailand before getting her undergraduate degrees in Film Studies and Art History at the all-woman's Sweet Briar College in Virginia.  She earned her Masters in Media Studies at the New School, interned with the Upright Citizens Brigade (“I can tell you the tricks to getting tickets without waiting in line, but no, nobody knows when Amy’s going to be there”), and has spent the past two years working at the Office of Career Services at the Juilliard School.

“We had a great community of students there,” she says.  “We had an excellent space, and everybody would come there to hang out and have lunch and talk.  I’m excited to get to know the students here, and to see what I can do to help foster a community of people who want to be active and involved in the Institute.”

Stop by 763 Schermerhorn Extension to say hello to Tess and welcome her to IRWAG.

Two New Classes for Fall 2013 at IRWAG

August 19, 2013

This fall 2013, there are two new undergraduate seminar classes to choose from at IRWAG: Professor Marcellus Blount is teaching "Race and Sexuality: Black Queers," and new Visiting Professor Kirsten Leng is teaching "Feminist Sexual Politics in Historical Perspective."

Prof Blount's course draws upon feminist, African American, and queer theories and cultural practices to explore the relations of male masculinity and queer subjectivities.  This course will pay particular attention to the possibility of black queer texts and critical practices with an emphasis on deconstructing black masculinity through the languages of intimacy.

WMST V 3140 Race and Sexuality: Black Queers will be held on Wednesdays, from 12:10-2:00pm.  Instructor's permission is required.  E-mail Professor Marcellus Blount (mb33@columbia.edu) with the subject heading "Race and Sexuality seminar." In your message, include basic information: your name, school, major, year of study, and relevant courses taken, along with a brief statement about why you are interested in taking the course.

Prof Leng's course will explore the history of feminist sexual politics in Europe between the years 1789 and 1918, and ask: How have feminist attitudes towards sex changed over time, and how did attitudes vary amongst feminists themselves? And what are the legacies of  past feminist sexual politics for the present day?
WMST V 3137 Feminist Sexual Politics in Historical Perspective will be held on Wednesdays from 4:10-6:00pm.


More information on these courses and the rest of IRWAG's 2013-14 schedule is available on our Courses page.

Kaveh Landsverk and Abby DiCarlo are IRWAG's 2013-14 Graduate Fellows

July 29, 2013


Each year, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender sponsors two graduate fellowships.  Last year, we were lucky enough to have the wonderful Golnar Nikpour and Ronna Popkin, who brought a diverse range of speakers to their colluquiums, and hosted a screening of the documentary A Kiss for Gabriella and discussion with director Laura Murray and others.

For 2013-14, IRWAG is excited to welcome Abby DiCarlo, PhD candidate in Sociomedical Sciences and Anthropology, and Kaveh Landsverk, PhD candidate in English & Comparative Literature.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of such a diverse interdisciplinary feminist community,” Abby says of her fellowship, “and I hope Kaveh and I can organize exciting and relevant events that will help to bring new students to the Institute in the coming year.”

Abby earned her BA in Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, her MA in Gender Studies and Anthropology from Claremont Graduate University, and her MPH in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University.  She has worked as an adjunct lecturer in the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Rutgers University and with the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Health for the Latino BiCultural Project.  Her current research interests include gender and sexuality, public health and law, masculinities, sex work, sex tourism, stigma, HIV/AIDS, and  feminist theory.

Kaveh, who has previously been an IRWAG blogger and a Teaching Assistant for WMST 1001: Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, received his BA from Williams College, with majors in English and Political Science and a concentration in Africana Studies.  He is currently researching a dissertation that will engage with late 19th and early 20th-century black literature in terms of speculation, criminality and deconstitution.  

“Since I've been at Columbia,” Kaveh writes, “IRWAG has always served as an amazingly productive, safe space for those interested in thinking critically about gender and sexuality to come together and ask questions, present new work, and generally enjoy each other's intellectual company (over wine and assorted iterations of pita and hummus, of course). It's my hope that Theory Mondays and Research Fridays will both provide that sort of communal venue - one in which students, faculty and other community members regularly convene under a shared spirit of radical inquiry and generous collaboration.”


Theory Mondays and Research Fridays are the two events which together make up the IRWAG Graduate Colloquium.  During Theory Mondays, graduate students and faculty participate in a series of conversations about texts key for the study of gender and sexuality studies.  Research Fridays are an opportunity for scholars at various points in their careers to present and discuss current research and works-in-progress.

The first scheduled colloquium event for Fall 2013 will feature Evenlyn Fox Keller, Professor Emerita  of History and Philosophy of Science at MIT, discussing her seminal work Reflections on Gender and Science, with respondent Christia Mercer.  See irwag.columbia.edu/events for more information on this and future colloquium events.



IRWAG welcomes Visiting Scholar Tami Navarro

July 23, 2013


The Institute for Research on Women and Gender is pleased to welcome Dr Tami Navarro, currently a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Rutgers University, as a Visiting Scholar for 2013-14. 

Dr Navarro has earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wesleyan University as well as a Master of Arts degree and a Ph.D. from Duke University.  Her research interests include Caribbean Studies, Gender and Labor, Development, Identity Formation, Globalization/Transnationalism, Capital, Neoliberalism, Race/Racialization and Ethnicity.  She is the author of articles including “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology,” an exploration of the continuing salience of race in academia, in Cultural Anthropology and a review of Deborah Thomas’s Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica in Small Axe Salon, both out this August 2013.  

Dr Navarro's previous research has focused on the Economic Development Commission, a development initiative that offers dramatic tax incentives to businesses, primarily American financial management firms, willing to relocate to the island of St. Croix and the multi-layered effects on subjectivity and belonging this program has had throughout the island.  During her year at IRWAG, she plans to expand this research into a full-length manuscript.  She will be presenting a part of this work, which focuses on the ambivalent positioning of local women on St. Croix who work in the financial management sector, in an upcoming talk at the IRWAG.  (Check irwag.columbia.edu/events for more information.)


Prof Franke named one of GO Magazine's "100 Women We Love"

June 17, 2013

Professor Katherine Franke was recently named one of GO Magazine's "100 Women We Love."

Franke is beloved for being "one of the nation’s leading scholars on feminist, queer, and critical race theory."

GO writes: "[H]er efforts toward full equality remain tireless. 'We also need to refocus on the challenges faced by gay single parents, the over-criminalization of trans and gender-nonconforming people, and the persistent employment discrimination that is unaddressed by federal law,' she says. 'Let’s get to work!'"

Prof Franke is teaching Gender Justice this Fall - details are available under IRWGS's cross-listed courses here.

Symposium: ‘Skin Matters. Gendered and Racial Economies of Skin Color’

June 11, 2013

In what ways does skin color work as difference written on the body? What semantic values are color differentiations laden with in different times and places? How do racialized desires attach to particular skin shades, and do they operate differently in the lives of women, men and those outside the gender binary? Are there cultural contexts where skin color doesn’t or didn’t matter? Taking these questions as its starting point, the symposium is interested in how ‘skin matters,’ and in the multilayered and complex ways that skin color is enmeshed in racial, gendered, sexual, (post)colonial and other power relations. The symposium thus focuses on the varying links between

1) race and color,
2) gender, sexuality, desire and color,
3) color and capital/commerce/commodities.

In addition, the symposium explores analytic frameworks that attend to how skin color matters in entirely other ways, investigating the connection between color and social categories that at first glance may not be significant for marking bodily difference. Examining regimes and representations of skin shades in different times and places, as well as analyzing color as embodied experience that encompasses – but is not limited to – ideology will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of what drives economies of color. It allows us to unpack historically specific formations of shadism, colorism, pigmentocracy, and how they relate to racism, (hetero)sexism, commodity spectacle (e.g. advertising, beauty and celebrity cultures), and other social identities and power relations.

Scholars from different fields will historicize and denaturalize white beauty ideals such as the English Rose, and discuss the various shades and tints that make up historically specific articulations of beauty, prison, entertainment and music cultures, investigating how masculinities as much as femininities are marked by skin shades. Herein, we consider the role of paradigms of aesthetics and beauty in skin color perception and racial formation, and connect beauty to gender, sexuality and race, and aesthetics to politics. What are some of the continuities and changes in perceptions of beauty and beautiful skin? How have they been upheld, contested, emulated, alienated or ruptured?

The symposium ‘Skin Matters’ is will be held on August 30, from 9:30am - 6:30pm, in 754 Schermerhorn Extension.  It will be preceded by the two-day working conference ‘Coloring Difference’ at CUNY Graduate Center, Room C205 (28-29 August, 9:30am). Admission is free.  Inquiries and registration at dg2755@columbia.edu.

Concept and organization: Dominique Grisard, Columbia University/University of Basel; Margrit Vogt, Humboldt-University Berlin/European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder); and Katyayani Dalmia, New School for Social Research.

IRWGS now accepting applications for Graduate Fellowships for 2013-14

May 9, 2013

IRWGS Graduate Fellowships, 2013-14

Applications due: Friday, May 17

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality seeks applications for 2013-14 graduate fellowships.  Graduate fellows will be expected to participate actively in IRWGS activities and to do a maximum of 60 hours of work per semester: they will coordinate the organizing committee of the IRWGS Graduate Colloquium (described below), and assist the IRWGS director and associate director, and the directors of graduate studies and undergraduate studies with occasional research and administrative tasks related to the program.

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 cannot hold other fellowships or grants (including the Whiting and the Kluge from Columbia) that restrict their ability to help run the IRWGS colloquium. Applicants must specify if they are applying for other fellowships and grants and should let the Institute know if they have accepted other grants that may conflict with the IRWGS Graduate Fellowship requirements. These are GSAS rules.

The IRWGS Graduate Colloquium

The Colloquium will meet monthly on a weekday evening, or a Friday breakfast or lunch, to be determined.  It will be administered by an organizing committee, coordinated by the IRWGS Graduate Fellows. The committee will determine meeting topics in consultation with participants and the Director of Graduate Studies.  Meetings could focus on readings of graduate student work-in-progress and recent published scholarship in the field, discussion of current research by faculty members, and workshops on professional issues such as preparing work for conferences and for publication, drafting dissertation prospectuses, and applying for academic jobs.

The coordinators will have significant input into deciding the content of the meetings, in consultation with colloquium participants and the Director of Graduate Studies.

The colloquium coordinators will be expected to book a meeting place for all events (usually the IRWGS seminar room), maintain a regularly updated email list, notify participants of upcoming events, copy and distribute precirculated readings to participants (in electronic and paper form), purchase light refreshments for each meeting, and write short previews or summaries of each meeting as well as a brief article summing up the year's events for the IRWGS blog.

Please submit a brief letter of application, a curriculum vitae and a short writing sample to irwag@columbia.edu by or before May 17th, 2013. Please include the names and emails of two faculty with whom you work and ask one of your professors to write a brief letter of support. 


Prof Alondra Nelson on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry Show

March 12, 2013

On March 10th, Professor Alondra Nelson, along with Georgia Tech professor Anne Pollock, Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care's Harold Freeman, and Vanderbilt University professor Jonathan Metzi, spoke on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry on "Racial health disparities: What’s cultural vs. biological."

Watch the full video at nbcnews.com.


WCC in the Columbia Spectator: "Initiative Spotlights Women's Issues"

February 28, 2013

Ying Chang wrote about Women Creating Change, the new initiative from the Center for the Study of Social Difference, in the Columbia Spectator today.  She writes:


Columbia launched a research initiative this month that will take advantage of its global centers to study issues that affect women across the globe.

Women Creating Change, led by professors Marianne Hirsch and Jean Howard, will support research on women and gender by faculty members, graduate students, and international scholars, and will attempt to integrate these themes into Columbia classrooms.

Read the entire article at columbiaspectator.com.

Successful Launch of Women Creating Change Initiative

February 13, 2013

On February 5, 2013, Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference (CSSD) celebrated the launch of its latest global initiative, Women Creating Change. The event featured a screening of the award-winning film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and a discussion with producer Abigail Disney, ’94 GSAS. This film is part of the critically acclaimed PBS documentary series, Women, War and Peace.

Women Creating Change is a new CSSD initiative that utilizes the expertise of Columbia’s many distinguished feminist scholars to focus on how contemporary global problems affect women and the role women play in addressing those problems. Before the screening of the film, Abigail Disney spoke at the podium at length, explaining her motivation for creating Pray the Devil Back to Hell and her academic career as a feminist scholar. Disney’s film tells the true, awe-inspiring story of how Liberian women started a peace movement to end the civil war between their country’s violent dictator, Charles Taylor, and the rebel warlords. For years, children were recruited to join militias, women were raped, and families were torn apart as they were forced to live in displacement camps. However, these women—armed only with prayer, solidarity, and a passion for peace—were able to create change. After months of protesting, they successfully met with Taylor to voice their concerns on the need for peace, and forced the warring factions to negotiate peace talks in 2003.

The question and answer session with Abigail Disney was moderated by Jean Howard, Director of Women Creating Change, and Saidya Hartman, Director of IRWGS. Abigail Disney explained that her primary motive in creating the film was simply to share the Liberian women’s story. The astonishing and courageous acts of these women, who singlehandedly established peace in Liberia, went relatively unnoticed in the international news scene, and Disney wanted to ensure that this story is marked in the history books as an extraordinary demonstration of female power. Audience members thanked Disney for her incredible work in documenting the Liberian peace movement, and many asked how they could help inspire women create change and foster peace in conflict zones in the United States and around the world. Disney’s urged us to work to raise awareness of the social inequalities that face women, and together create solutions that put women at the head of the policy-making table.

Leymah Gbowee, leader of the Liberian women’s peace movement and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, is featured primarily in Disney’s film. Gbowee will speak at Columbia’s World Leader's Forum on February 18th, 2013, in an address entitled True Leadership Requires Accountability: The Way Forward for New African Leadership.

To view Pray the Devil Back to Hell, as well as the entire Women, War and Peace series, please visit http://www.pbs.org/wnet/women-war-and-peace/

-- Alyssa Cannizzaro

Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC '15, is an Administrative Assistant at IRWGS and is majoring in Political Science.

State of the Nation on C-SPAN

November 13, 2012

IRWAG's State of the Nation: Gender, Sexuality and the 2012 Elections was broadcast November 12th on C-SPAN.  If you missed it, you can watch it now at C-SPAN.org.  

Columbia University's Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality hosted a discussion on women’s issues in this year’s election and how those issues may be addressed during the upcoming Congress.

Panelists focused on women's health, reproductive rights, marriage equality, poverty and political participation. They also considered what issues should be at the top of the feminist and LGBT political agenda and how these communities can best affect change in the new presidential administration.


State of the Nation: Gender, Sexuality & the 2012 Elections

November 13, 2012

On Friday, November 9, 2012, crowds scrambled to find seats in the packed lecture hall for IRWAG’s event, State of the Nation: Gender, Sexuality and the 2012 Elections. The distinguished panel included three leading feminist thinkers: Darlene Nipper, Deputy Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Rebecca Traister, author and columnist for Salon.com; and Patricia J. Williams, Columbia University Law School Professor and columnist for The Nation.

The panel discussion, moderated by Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, kicked off to a great start when the speakers offered their perspectives as to why gender and sexuality were critically important factors in the 2012 election cycle. Williams argued that there was an increased media attention and focus on women due to the political gaffes made by candidates, mentioning Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” and Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock’s now infamous comments about rape. Nipper discussed how LGBT issues have become more commonplace to talk about in recent years, leading to a natural emphasis on related issues in this election. According to Traister, women’s progress is more of a cyclical story of issues and reactions, and the focus on gender and sexuality was a natural progression in the current political arena. All were in agreement that social media had a great influence on the discussion of women in this election, citing evidence of widely popular political memes, YouTube campaigns, and Facebook and Twitter posts among liberals on the web.

The speakers were vocal in their support of President Obama’s reelection, the 20 newly elected female members of the United States Senate, and passage of same-sex marriage in four states. Praise was especially extolled for Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay Senator, and Williams commended Elizabeth Warren, former Harvard Law professor and newly elected Senator of Massachusetts for her hard-fought campaign. As a law professor about the same age of Warren, Williams recalled how times have changed — few women and women of color law professors were teaching in the United States when they started their academic careers.

Despite these historic victories, the panelists acknowledged that there are still many challenges facing our lawmakers. The women’s movement is being acknowledged and making some political waves, but the message needs to be loud and clear, according to Traister. Democrats and progressives have been far too conservative about being vocal and “owning up” to women’s and LGBT rights—for significant legislative reform and social change, lawmakers need to assert such issues as civil rights issues. Many politicians have started to do this already, including President Obama when he declared his support for same-sex marriage in May 2012. It’s a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

When asked about what issues are of concern to the LGBT community besides the most discussed task of legalizing same-sex marriage, Nipper explained that the queer identity is virtually invisible, and that the queer community faces the same problems as other Americans: poverty, healthcare, unemployment. The queer identity traverses all demographics, and the federal government can take action to protect LGBT rights once the dialogue and meaningful conservations about love, equality, and acceptance have become even more common and ingrained in our concept of civil rights.

During the question and answer session, the panelists fielded questions about reconciling religious arguments with women’s rights, and comparisons between the women’s rights movement of the 1970s with the political “war on women” of our generation.

Although some audience members were initially disappointed to hear MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry would not be able to attend and participate in the panel, the State of the Nation was a tremendous success. The panelists effectively communicated their ideas, and engaged in meaningful dialogue with one another to predict what the political climate might look like for women in the upcoming years. All were, without a doubt, optimistic for the future, and foresee the role of gender and sexuality becoming more prominent in the American government.

 -- Alyssa Cannizzaro
    Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC '15, is majoring in Political Science.


Columbia Political Review: Political Minutes: The State of the Nation

November 12, 2012


Columbia College freshmen Eboni Boykin and Ella Every-Wortman wrote for the Columbia Political Review about "the distinguished panel of women scholars and activists" who participated in IRWAG's recent State of the Nation: Gender, Sexuality & the 2012 Elections.  

Given the usual sad tone surrounding discussions on women’s and LGBTQ representation in government, it seemed as though this one would be no different. However, with the recent elections, which increased the amount of women in Congress to 20 senators and about 81 representatives, this discussion had a more positive tone. Moderator Professor Nelson began the discussion saying, "We thought we would be having a rather depressing conversation, and yet, given the events of the last week, we’re here to have a celebration."

Read the entire article at cpreview.org.


Columbia Spectator: Panelist calls conservative gaffes ‘froth of ridiculousness’

November 12, 2012


"In light of the election results, leaders from the LGBT community and women's studies experts gathered to discuss the changing political landscape concerning women's and LGBT issues."

Spectator Staff Writer Shayna Orens recently covered State of the Nation: Gender, Sexuality & the 2012 Elections, a panel presented by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality and the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South.  Orens writes:

The participants had an optimistic outlook for the future of women’s issues and queer rights, especially in light of last Tuesday’s re-election of President Barack Obama, CC ’83; the election of Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who will be the first openly gay or lesbian senator; and a record 20 women senators, the largest number in history.

“We thought we might be having something of an elegy,” Nelson said. “We thought we might be having a depressing conversation, and yet, given the events of the last week, we have a celebration.”

Read the entire article at columbiaspectator.com.


Election Update: The War on Women and Voter ID Laws

October 26, 2012

In less than two weeks, Americans will be making their way to voting booths, casting their ballots for the next President of the United States. Well, some Americans will be voting on November 6th.

Many states have passed legislation, known as voter ID laws, that practically disenfranchises certain groups of people from voting. They are measures intended to prevent voter fraud, ensuring that a registered voter is who he says he is and not an impersonator trying to cast a ballot in someone else’s name. The laws require that registered voters show ID before they’re allowed to vote. The type of identification varies across states—some require a government-issued photo, while in others a utility bill or bank statement is sufficient. However, these laws disproportionately affect the elderly, minority, and low-income groups, since obtaining a photo ID can be costly and burdensome. As many as 34 states introduced bills requiring voters to show photo ID at poll sites in 2011, 14 of which were toughening their already-existing laws.

A new study has shown that the voter ID laws have an even worse impact on women of color. The Center for American Progress released a report showing that by making it more difficult for women to vote, their ability to voice their opinions on reproductive health issues is severely minimized. The report shows that women comprise the largest block of voters of color, and their civic engagement is increasing. Latina turnout increased 21% between 2004 and 2008, and a greater percentage of black women than white women voted in the last Presidential election.

Voter fraud has occurred during elections at such a rare frequency, many political analysts and civilians alike are scratching their heads, wondering why lawmakers would implement such clearly oppressive voter ID laws. In these lawmakers’ attempts to preserve their conservative agendas, women’s rights are being trampled on. The Center for American Progress defines reproductive justice as:

“the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social wellbeing of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.

If voter ID laws prevent women from having the political power and resources to vote, what should rightfully be women’s personal decisions about their health will be turned into the government’s political decisions about “the sanctity of the unborn child” (see Republican Party Platform here).

The race to Election Day has been full of twists and turns, to say the least. Representative Todd Akin’s demeaning and completely incorrect comments about “legitimate rape" this past August started the media storm of the war on women, but we feminists know, unfortunately, that the war has been going on for quite some time across America (voter ID laws, cuts to Planned Parenthood, unequal pay, and more).

Here at IRWAG, we’ll be having an event, State of the Nation, with a panel of prominent women’s rights thinkers discussing their opinions on women’s health and reproductive rights, marriage equality, poverty, and political participation, and how such issues played out in the 2012 election. I am looking forward to hearing their thoughts on the concerns facing women today, and how the feminist agenda will be addressed in the new presidential administration.

There has not been a time in recent history where women’s rights have been at the forefront of campaigns and presidential debates. I am anxiously waiting for November 6th so I can cast my vote, but I find it unbelievable that thousands of Americans will not be able to politically participate in one of the most important elections of our generation because of voter ID laws. Whatever the outcome of the election, I hope that our politicians stop disenfranchising voters and attacking reproductive rights. Because in the United States, where we pride ourselves on liberty and justice, oppressive and unequal laws certainly do not sound like freedom to me.

 - Alyssa Cannizzaro
   Alyssa Cannizzaro, CC '15, is majoring in Political Science.


Professor Elizabeth Emens: "Asexual Identity and Sexual Law"

October 19, 2012

On Wednesday October 17, Professor Elizabeth Emens (Columbia Law School) presented her current research on "Asexual Identity and Sexual Law."  Her presentation raised provocative questions about how asexuality, as an identity and affiliation, might transform legal conceptions of sexuality and our understanding of intimacy more generally.  Emens's presentation was followed by a response from Professor Elizabeth Povinelli (Anthropology, Columbia University), and engaged discussion by students and faculty.

Emens began by observing that asexuality emerged in the 1980s as an object of clinical study and diagnosis, but in the past decade, has gained visibility as a self-claimed identity and positive affiliation, particularly since David Jay´s founding of the Asexual Visibility and Education Movement (AVEN) in 2004.  Asexuality has also begun to receive legal recognition - New York recently amended its Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act to include asexuals among its protected categories.  Emens explored the continuities and discontinuities between asexuality and legally recognized and more familiar forms of sexuality. Like homosexuality, asexuality appears as deviation from normative heterosexuality; like polyamory, a dissent from monogamy; like bisexuality, susceptible to erasure and denial.  Emens asked whether asexuality should be recognized as "a fourth sexual orientation," as some advocates argue, or whether asexuality compels a rejection of the idea of sexual orientation altogether?  Is asexuality better understood as a category that defines a subset of individuals - an identity - or as a more prevalent disposition that many more of us inhabit at one time or another?  Emens observed that sex receives special treatment within the law - as one of the few things that cannot be exchanged by contractual agreement, on the one hand, and as the source of legitimacy for marriage, on the other.  How does asexuality help us rethink the role of sex in law? 

Povinelli responded by amplifying some of these same questions.  Reminding us of Michel Foucault's insistence that sexuality always implicates governance, Povinelli asked whether asexuality has the capacity to trouble "the relationship between truth and sexuality."  Asexuality signals possibility, she suggested, not primarily as an emerging identity or movement, but as embodied practice - as a refusal of a certain ordering of the body through sexuality and opening to an alternative arrangement of "excitations" and "intensities."


 - Sherally Munshi
   GS, English and Comparative Literature

Janine Balekdjian: "Romney: Turning Back the Clock on Equal Pay"

October 17, 2012

Janine Balekdijian, Columbia College senior and President of the Columbia Democrats, wrote today in an article for the Huffington Post:

After the first Presidential debate, Governor Romney slashed President Obama's lead with women likely voters in swing states. A Gallup poll had the two candidates effectively tied, with Obama at 48 percent and Romney at 47 percent. After last night, I have a funny feeling that Obama has the women's vote locked down.

In last night's debate, the two candidates showed their true level of commitment to women's rights when, to the delight of viewers who were massively frustrated with the failure to mention women in the first debate, a question on equal pay came up: "In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"

President Obama's response was stellar. He showed that he understood why equal pay is such an important problem, saying, "Women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women's issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that's why we've got to fight for it." He referenced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to recoup damages in equal pay lawsuits, and stated that enforcing laws such as that will be key going forward. Later on in the back-and-forth, Obama eloquently defended contraceptive coverage under the affordable care act, showing a serious dedication to women's rights as he explained how women's participation in the workforce, our economic health as a nation, and women's reproductive rights are inextricably linked.

Then the Romney trainwreck happened.

Romney started off hilariously awkwardly, telling a story of how he bent over backwards as governor of Massachusetts to go out and search for "binders full of women" who were qualified to serve in his cabinet, because gosh, he just cares about women so much. (Let's ignore the fact that Bain Capital had no female partners when Romney was the CEO.) This anecdote was excusable, if eye roll-worthy, and irritating in its implication that all that women need to succeed is a more powerful man to help them. But the real disaster happened next, when Romney launched into his next anecdote with, "But number two, because I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible."


The rest of Romney's answer was as bad, out of touch, and sexist as the first sentence promised. In answering a question about equal pay, Romney told a story of his chief of staff, who asked to be home by 5 to make dinner for her children, and generalized her story to all working women. He finished off his answer with, "What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford," followed by the sound of every woman in America collectively smacking her hand against her forehead.

Mitt Romney apparently thinks that the gender pay gap is due to the fact that women can't possibly compete in the labor market because they're constantly rushing home to take care of babies and cook for the children. Therefore, women simply can't be as productive as men due to their duties in the home. There is so much wrong with this, starting with the blatantly sexist implication that the home is still a woman's sphere, and that after she gets home from work, she is still expected to do the "second shift" of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Romney goes further than affirming old, tired, gender roles; his answer shows that in his mind, not only are women responsible for the domestic sphere, but that they should put family first, even if it means a sacrifice in their career. Jessica Valenti had a brilliant takedown of this "mom first" ideology in her blog at The Nation -- in 2012, it is simply unfair to say that women shouldn't be approaching their careers in the same way that men have for most of the 20th century.

Don't get me wrong -- there was a grain of truth in Romney's mess of an answer. Statistically, women are still responsible for the majority of childcare, even when they also have a career. But any answer of Romney's which acknowledges this truth without also acknowledging and condemning the antiquated gender roles behind it simply perpetuates the sexist status quo. It's like Romney did all his research on women in the workforce from a bad summary of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article. Until we deal with work/life balance as a parental issue, not a women's issue, and seriously address unequal distribution of work in the home, we aren't going to solve anything.

Furthermore, Romney's answer -- that the pay gap is because of women's domestic responsibilities -- protects him from actually having to do anything if he were president. This is convenient, since his campaign could never actually decide whether he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act. If the problem is simply that women are rushing home to feed their children, well, that's not a problem the president can solve. Unfortunately for Romney, that isn't the problem. Lots of factors go into the gender pay gap, and unequal distribution of work in the home is certainly one of them, but placing the onus of closing the gap on women and their life choices is simply disingenuous and dishonest. Numerous studies show that men in "traditional" marriages with a wife who stays home find it nearly impossible to treat women equally in the workforce. They prove that women ask for raises less often than men, but when they do, they are more likely to be viewed negatively than equally qualified men are. They show that hair and makeup can influence whether a woman succeeds at work. With women up against such blatant discrimination, it is incorrect, dishonest, and wildly out-of-touch to claim that the gender pay gap can be closed with a "flexible work schedule."

After self-immolating on the equal pay question, Romney attempted to flip-flop on contraceptive coverage, stating, to the shock of every Democrat and Republican listening, "I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives." The Romney spin doctors should have a fun time cleaning that up.

There is only so much that candidates can pander to voters before those voters realize that they are being condescended to. Mitt Romney, with his etch-a-sketch politics, may believe otherwise, but tonight he displayed in spectacular fashion his true lack of concern for the real problems facing America's women. President Obama, by contrast, showed his understanding of the complex economic and health issues which women deal with every day. President Obama came out of this question looking so good because he cares about women's rights, not just about women's votes.

 --  Janine Balekdjian

Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women: An International Conference

October 10, 2012

Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women: An International Conference
April 28-30, 2011
Location: Columbia University's Faculty House

Video of this conference has generously been provided by the Institute for Research in African American Stuides.  You can watch all videos on IRAAS's youtube channel.

This conference features emerging work on black women's contributions to black thought, political mobilization, creative work and gender theory. Scholarly Panels, Roundtables, and Keynote delivered by Professor Elizabeth Alexander will focus on black women as intellectuals across a broad geography including Africa, the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe. Over a period of three days we aim to piece together a history of black women's thought and culture that maps the distinctive concerns and historical forces that have shaped black women's ideas and intellectual activities.

The conference is sponsored by Columbia University's Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference (CCASD), Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWAG), Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy (ISERP), Office of the Provost, and History Department.



Feminist to the Core: Professor Helene Foley

October 10, 2012

Feminist to the Core is a series of talks which puts feminists in conversation with the Columbia Core, spurring on alternate approaches and inspiring new ways of seeing and thinking about the texts that are at the heart of the Columbia experience.  For more details, including a full list of upcoming speakers and topics, go to irwag25.com.

On Monday, October 8, Professor Helene Foley spoke to a full house at the first meeting of IRWAG’s newest lecture series, Feminist to the Core.  The room was packed; late-arriving students were sitting on the floor for the chance to listen in. 

Prof Foley spoke on “Women in Greek Drama.”  Specifically, she spoke to the question of why, though real women during the time led lives which were strictly regulated to the home sphere, the fictional women of Greek drama were allowed such large, powerful roles: speaking aggressively for themselves, sacrificing themselves for their families and the state, even mediating between men.  After explaining a few different theories on the subject, she left time to open the discussion to the audience, taking questions and delving deeper into specifics brought up by students.

The next talk in the Feminist to the Core series will be on Monday, October 29th, at 12:00pm, from Assistant Professor Anahid Nersessian, on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  Go to irwag25.com for more information.



The Eye: IRWAG Promotes Girl Power

September 25, 2012

From Claire Heyison for The Eye:

IRWAG25, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender’s year-long celebration of their 25th anniversary, kicked off on Friday with Girls Rock!


Held in Avery Plaza, the concert was designed to call attention to IRWAG programming and to Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, featuring alums of the program and Columbia students who shared their spirit.

Alumnae of Willie Mae, Still Saffire has played Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg (but they still think Columbia is pretty cool).

Their music is catchy and definitely takes cues from punk and riot grrl, but with more wholesome lyrics of girl power, friendship, and questioning one’s place in the world. That’s not to say they don’t have edge; one of their songs was commissioned for the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, and includes lyrics like, “Gonna skate ‘til we’re black and blue.”

It’s a pretty bold statement, considering that two of the band members are fourteen years old, but the girls delivered it with enough energy to back it up.


For those who want to get involved, IRWAG is launching new initiatives on campus, including the Feminist Oral History Project, the Feminist Intervention Series, and Feminist to the Core, a lecture series which puts feminist thought in conversation with Core texts. IRWAG is hosting an undergraduate open house on Thursday, September 27th.


All photos by Claire Heyison.

Welcome 2012-13

September 5, 2012

2012 is a milestone year here at IRWAG.  We will be celebrating our 25th anniversary of the founding of the Institute in 1987 (visit our IRWAG25 website at irwag25.comfor a listing of this year’s anniversary events).  We’ve been reflecting on what we have done, what we have yet to do and also who we are as the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality and who we aspire to be in the years ahead.

For me this is an especially meaningful milestone.  I’m beginning my adventure as Associate Director in a place that has been my faculty home for many years now, and with people who are, every one of them, the very best friends and colleagues.  But this is also a meaningful anniversary for me for another reason.  I first arrived here at Columbia in 1984, a wide-eyed undergrad, a member of the second class of women at the College.  I was drawn here in part by the Core and loved the academic rigor and feeling of intellectual community it promoted.  But these were still the dark days before IRWAG.  The Institute wasn’t invented until 1987, when faculty and students fought to create a legitimate place here at Columbia for the study of gender.  Back then, even Barnard Women’s Studies was officially still a “program” rather than a full-fledged department (Barnard Women’s Studies did not get departmental status until 1988), and the challenge for the bold and wily feminist professor was figuring out how to quietly sneak Simone de Beauvoir onto the CC syllabus and maybe Phillis Wheatley into spring semester Lit Hum.

Now that I am on the other side of the lectern, I watch with admiration (and also envy for the road ahead) as our students encounter Homer or Nietzsche, Frantz Fanon or, perhaps, Beauvoir (but still not necessarily in CC) for the first time and as many of them deepen or discover their investment in feminist transformation and change both within and outside the academy.  This is a process that is highly valued and also actively cultivated here in IRWAG.  IRWAG courses are nothing short of transformative, especially but not only for students who have never taken a women, gender, or sexuality studies course before.  The specific texts assigned in each course may change from semester to semester (I revise my course syllabi every year), but the emphasis on developing a kind of feminist analytical rigor remains the same.  At the start of every semester, I warn students that if they take my course, truly, there will be “no turning back.”  They will never be able to think about gender, race, class, sexuality, nation in the same way ever again.  They will never be able to walk down the street, open a magazine, turn on the TV, listen to music, read a book, go out to see a movie and NOT see at work, right there in front of them, the multiple systems of power that most likely remained largely unnoticed or invisible before. 

Former students, several from over a decade ago, still send me interesting ads they have come across or links to a music video or an article they have seen.  (Certain times of year, like the day after Superbowl Sunday, are always especially busy!) I value enormously the continuing intellectual and personal exchange and I also get some of my best course material this way.   There is surely nothing better than being reminded, as often as possible and preferably several times every day, that IRWAG students are out there in the world still thinking and challenging and questioning.  Joining the community of thinkers and activists at IRWAG (and teaching and learning from them) is always, every day, and in ways that can’t possibly be predicted, totally life-changing.  

IRWAG Director Saidiya Hartman (svh2102@columbia.edu), Director of Undergraduate Studies Alondra Nelson (alondra.nelson@columbia.edu) and Director of Graduate Studies Anu Rao (arao@barnard.edu) join with me in welcoming you to IRWAG 2012-13.  We hope to see you here in our newly renovated offices at 763 Schermerhorn Extension and encourage you to visit us at online at irwag.columbia.eduirwag25.comfacebook.com/irwag andtwitter.com/irwag

We’re looking forward to a great 25th Anniversary year!

 --  Laura Ciolkowski
     Associate Director

Welcome Vina Tran and Jessica Lilien

September 4, 2012

Stop by 763 Schermerhorn Extension this fall and take a look at our renovated offices (including purple chairs!) and greet our new and returning staff. 

VINA TRAN is IRWAG Finance Manager and Center for the Study of Social Difference (CSSD) Program Manager.  We are very fortunate to have Vina back at IRWAG after a stint across Amsterdam Avenue at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.  Vina received her BA in Journalism with a minor in Women's Studies from Penn State and her MA in Gender, Sexuality and Cultural Studies from the University of Manchester.  Her interests include sustainable development, urban design, international human rights and cinema.

Vina is joined by IRWAG’s new Program Coordinator JESSICA LILIEN. Originally from Kansas, Jessica joined the Institute last January and has made herself right at home.  The colorful event posters and IRWAG25 logo are all designed by Jessica, who continues to put her artistic (and other) talents to work in our front office.  Jessica received her BA from the University of Kansas with a major in English and a minor in Women’s Studies.  She was most recently the Publicity Manager for Brown University’s Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Department.  


On the Sociology of Genealogy

August 21, 2012

Professor Alondra Nelson recently wrote a piece for Dominion of New York on what our fascination with presidential geneaology says about us.

Barack Obama was recently found to be descended on his mother's side from John Punch, "the first documented African enslaved for life in American history."  According for Professor Nelson's article: "News of POTUS’s connection to Punch, reported in The New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, follows a now established pattern of presidential genealogy exposés that partly rely upon the paradox of opposing political ideology and shared kinship.  ...  But the primary reason these ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation."

The entire article is available at dominionofnewyork.com.


Prof Jordan-Young interviewed on BBC 4 - Woman's Hour

August 1, 2012

Professors Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis were interviewed for BBC 4 - Woman's Hour for their research on Olympic sex testing.  The episode, hosted by Jane Garvey, is available in its entirety at bbc.co.uk (or skip ahead to 6:25).


Gender Games

July 30, 2012

Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young is profiled in Columbia News for her research, with Katrina Karkazis of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, on the new International Olympic Committee policy on sex testing.  

According to the article: 

The IOC policy, which calls for each nation’s own Olympics Committee to investigate “any perceived deviation in sex characteristics” among female athletes, is especially troubling, she said. “These policies don’t return to systematic or universal testing, but they will increase the scrutiny of women athletes who are perceived as 'unfeminine'.”

In June Jordan-Young, Karkazis and two other colleagues published their critique of the new policies in the American Journal of Bioethics.

This study is also referenced in a July 25 Slate article:

[E]ven if naturally high testosterone does offer an advantage, why should women who have it necessarily be treated differently from athletes with other mutations or medical conditions that confer, say, greater endurance or extra height? Katrina Karkazis of Stanford and Rebecca Jordan-Young of Barnard have persuasively made this case, noting that some high-level athletes have genetic or cellular variations that increase blood flow to their skeletal muscle or improve their aerobic capacity and endurance. Some professional basketball players have a condition called acromegaly, which makes them unusually tall. Or consider Secretariat, the thoroughbred who ran the Kentucky Derby in under two minutes, whose heart was more than twice the normal size. Olympic medalists and Triple Crown winners just don’t have garden-variety physiologies. How is the advantage to a female athlete of being 6-foot-3 different from the advantage of having high testosterone if both are rooted largely in her genetic makeup?


Alondra Nelson talks about her book, Body and Soul, on C-Span's Book TV

July 24, 2012

Professor Alondra Nelson recently talked about her book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, on C-Span's Book TV. The interview, part of Book TV's college series, was recorded in the King's College Room in Columbia University's Low Library.

Watch the entire interview at c-spanvideo.org.


Rip up new Olympic sex test rules

July 23, 2012

Rebecca Jordan-Young, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and Project Director of the new Center for the Study of Social Difference project "Science and Social Difference," and Katrina Karkazis, Senior Research Scholar with the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, have published an article in NewScientist on the International Olympic Committee's new policy on sex testing.

"Although it may be surprising," they write, "given that this is a popular belief and is stated as fact in both the IAAF and IOC policies, there is no evidence showing that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones.  ...  Sports organisations need to stop policing biologically natural bodies, which can lead to harmful scrutiny of less feminine women, and allow all to compete, regardless of the level of naturally occurring hormones."

Read the full article in NewScientist here, and the journal's editorial responce, "Tale of two runners expsoses flawed Olympic thinking," here.

(Image: Andrzej Krauze)


The IOC's Superwoman Complex: How Flawed Sex-Testing Discriminates

July 9, 2012

Rebecca Jordan-Young, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and Project Director of the new Center for the Study of Social Difference project "Science and Social Difference" and Katrina Karkazis, Senior Research Scholar with the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, have published an article in the Gardian on the International Olympic Committee's new policy on male-female testosterone levels.  

According to the article: "The new sex-testing policy threatens to ban women whose bodies produce high levels of testosterone, what medicine calls hyperandrogenism." Jordan-Young and Karkazis go on to say that this policy "is not science. It is a gender witchhunt, and it is foul play."

Read the full article at guardian.co.uk.


You Say You’re a Woman? That Should Be Enough

June 18, 2012

Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and Project Director of the new Center for the Study of Social Difference project "Science and Social Difference," was one of three experts in intersex issues invited by the New York Times to share their thoughts on sex testing for athletes during the 2012 Olympic games.  Along with Katrina Karkazis, Senior Research Scholar with the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, Professor Jordan-Young wrote You Say You’re a Woman? That Should Be Enough.

According to the New York Times, "The International Olympic Committee is soon expected to announce new policies on the eligibility of women with hyperandrogenism, which involves an excessive production of androgens.  Guidelines have been drafted that will be applied at the Summer Olympics in London and serve as recommendations for international federations to follow.  The guidelines were approved by the I.O.C.’s executive board and now must be validated by the group’s juridical commission."  

Jordan-Young and Karkazis wrote that they believe the new policy to be unfair.  "Sex testing of female athletes will always be discriminatory," they write.    


Professor Alondra Nelson wins Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award

May 24, 2012

Professor Alondra Nelson is the co-winner of the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award in the Section on Race, Gender and Class from the American Sociological Association, for her book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. This award recognizes scholars who have made a distinguished and significant contribution to the development of the integrative field of race, gender, and class through the publication of a book on the "cutting edge" of sociological inquiry.

Committee Chair Patricia A. Banks said of Body and Soul: "Committee members described Body and Soul as an "impressive body of research" and "accomplishing what many authors cannot, which is to weave intersectionality throughout the book." The committee believes that Body and Soul will make an important impact on the sociological study of race, gender, and class and the broader field of sociology."


Professor Alice Kessler-Harris Elected to the American Philosophical Society

May 17, 2012

Five scholars from Columbia University were elected to the American Philosophical Society this year, including Professor Alice Kessler-Harris.

An eminent scholarly organization of international reputation, the American Philosophical Society promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications, library resources, and community outreach. This country's first learned society, the APS has played an important role in American cultural and intellectual life for over 250 years.  Members include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Robert Frost. 

IRWAG and Barnard Joint Senior Thesis Presentation

May 3, 2012

The Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia University held their Joint Senior Thesis Presentations in Sulzberger Parlor.  

We asked some of these graduating seniors, and a few of their professors and advisors, for their advice to next year's thesis writers.  (Spoiler alert: "Start early" was a common theme.)


Dorothy Ko:

"Talk to those who have already done it."


Abby Glassberg:

"Start early!  Have an idea and make sure you're passionate about it...or at least somewhat interested."

Alana Dreiman:

"Know what you want to write about BEFORE your senior year.  And work with your thesis advisor so that they really know what you need from them - the kind and amount of feedback you need.  Beck was the literally the best thesis advisor.  She was amazing.  I love that woman."

Stephanie Pecora: 

"Do what you want to do.  And don't listen too much to the professors!"


Kia Walton:

"Less is more.  And try to engage with each other!  Work as a community with your fellow students."

Salomeya Sobko:

"Definitely.  So pick a topic you actually want to have conversations about."


Professor Marcellus Blount:

"Start early!"

Ilana Caplan:

"Stay on top of your deadlines.  And don't be afraid of being an overachiever - you'll be done when everyone else is still footnoting."

Xhenete Lekperic:

"Don't wait until the last minute to write!  Save plenty of time to edit."


Salomeya Sobko: 

"Pick a topic that's really tasty, something that you want to chew on for a long time.  Pick something that you don't know the answer to.  If something really matters to you politically, intellectually, or otherwise - really own it."


Christia Mercer one of eight Columbia professors to win Guggenheim Fellowship

April 26, 2012

Congratulations to Literature Humanities Chair Christia Mercer, one of eight Columbia professors to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship this April.  Two Barnard professors also received the award.

"It's nice to get an award like that," Mercer said in an interview in the Columbia Spectator, "but what I'm mostly looking forward to is to have a year off to do my research and be involved with various projects."

During the Guggenheim Fellowship, Professor Mercer will work on a book project, Platonisms in Early Modern Thought.  She will also continue to oversee a new book series, Oxford Philosophical Concepts. The main goal of the series is to offer accounts of key concepts in the history of philosophy (for example, matter, soul, evil, space, health, consciousness, sympathy, and self-knowledge).

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded 181 fellowships this year to scholars, artists, and scientists in the United States and Canada. Guggenheim Fellows are appointed based on distinguished achievement and exceptional promise for future accomplishment. The purpose of the Guggenheim Fellowship program is to help provide fellows with 6–12 months to work with as much creative freedom as possible.


Book release party for Prof Alice Kessler-Harris's A Difficult Woman

April 26, 2012

On Wednesday, April 25, friends and colleagues gathered in Butler Library to celebrate the release of Alice Kessler-Harris's newest book, A Difficult Woman.  

Blanche Wiesen Cook was one of many people toasting to her success.  She said:

"It is easy to celebrate Alice Kessler-Harris, never a difficult woman.  It is neither hyperbole nor exaggeration to note that we have all benfitted from the work and wisdom of AKH, a woman of vision, brilliance, absolute courage, countless literary gifts.  Our one true President, for over forty years, her connections, archival discoveries, soaring criticisms throughout her many articles and books have not only changes perceptions about women and social policy, influencing colleagues and generations of students, they have actually changed the world!

"Central to the movement that has put women's history into the mainstream as we all struggle to comprehend the unfinished battles to achieve equity, power, recognition, justice, democracy, economic security, fulfillment, Alice has moved smoothly across many borders, building bridges of knowledge and understanding across class, race, cultural, political divides.  With every new project Alice has empowered our senses, gone into new areas with new courage.  Learned, creative, dedicated to the truth, she is bold, fearless, and often surprising.  As biographer, Alice long ago (1975) wrote about Anzia Yezierska - who wrote her stories of Jewish immigrant life vividly, bravely - as with a pen dipped deeply into her heart.  Now unconfined, Alice has unpacked her own heart as she reconsiders the 20th century of fascism, communism, capitalism, through Lillian Hellman's journey - to confront sorrow and love, activism and responsibility, and challenges us to question everything we thought we knew with dazzling and unexpected facts - deep scholarship combined with the miracle of profound generosity.  

"Thank you Alice!"

Christia Mercer wins Van Doren teaching award

April 25, 2012



Congratulations to Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, for winning the 51st annual Mark Van Doren Teaching Award.

The Mark Van Doren Teaching Award is the highest teaching honor awarded by by students of the University, given each year to a professor for his or her “commitment to undergraduate instruction, as well as for humanity, devotion to truth, and inspiring leadership.”

According to a recent article in the Columbia Spectator, “Mercer has been a favorite of Columbia College students since becoming Lit Hum chair in 2010, professing her love for Orlando Bloom’s abs in the film Troy, and appearing as herself in a series of Bwog videos.”

The Mark Van Doren Award was established in 1962 to honor Columbia English professor Mark Van Doren, GSAS ’21.  It is awarded by the Columbia College Academic Awards Committee, made up of students from a variety of classes and majors within the College.  The Committee accepts nominations and then audits the nominees' classes in order to determine an award winner.

Professor Mercer, along with David Lurie, PhD ’01, winner of the 37th annual Lionel Trilling Award, will be honored on Wednesday, May 2nd, 6:00-7:30pm in the Presidential Ballroom of the Faculty House.  All are welcome.  Please RSVP here.

History Professor Uses Lillian Hellman as Lens to Study 20th Century

April 23, 2012

In a recent article for The Record, Eric Sharfstein writes that Professor Alice Kessler-Harris, in her new biography of playwright Lillian Hellman, "looks beyond the boundaries of Hellman’s life. She presents Hellman as a fascinating and flawed woman who was also 'a lens through which we can study a whole series of events and trends of the 20th century.'"

"Hellman’s legacy may have waned after her death in 1984, but the book, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (Bloomsbury Press), makes it clear how complicated she was. 'She’s a memoirist who admits to having a poor memory, a feminist who never identified herself as a feminist, a Jew who is accused of being anti-Semitic,' says Kessler-Harris. 'Her personality is, at once, nurturing, loving and funny, as well as rude, dismissive and self-aggrandizing.'"

Read the entire article at news.columbia.edu.

Adrienne Rich Memorial

April 19, 2012


On Monday, April 16, Rosalind Morris, Yvette Christiansë, and Julie Crawford hosted a memorial reading in honor of poet and activist Adrienne Rich.  The reading was sponored by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Columbia University.

To a standing-room-only audience, speakers read selections from Adrienne’s work, letting the poet’s own words speak for themselves.

More photos, as well as the program of readers and works, available below the cut.

Rosalind Morris           
“Diving into the Wreck”

Julie Crawford
“Compulsory Heterosexuality”

Suzanne Gardinier
Sections from “The Spirit of Place”

Anne Waldman

Hugh Seidman
“From a Survivor” & “For the Young Anarchists”

Saskia Hamilton
Section XIII, from “An Atlas of the Difficult World”

Jenny James
“Upper Broadway”

Fara Jasmine Griffin
Tonight no Poetry will Serve”

Akeel Bilgrami
“#18” from “21 Love Poems,” and selections from “Sources”

Yvette Christiansë           
“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho”

Antjie Krog           
Section XI from “Atlas of the Difficult World”

Ingrid de Kok
“Voyage to the Denouement”

Cyrus Cassells
“Didactic Poem”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
“Commencement Address to Smith College”

Radhika Subramaniam
“If Your Name is on the List” & “Four Short Poems”

Saeed Jones
“Orion,” “Final Notations,” Section II of “Atlas of the Difficult World”

Cathy Park Hong
Selections from “Homage to Galib: Ghazals” and “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”

Ellen Geiger                                               
“#9” from “21 Love Poems”

Pablo Conrad                                   






Alice Kessler-Harris Examines the Twentieth Century through Lillian Hellman’s Eyes

April 9, 2012


A conversation with R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, Alice Kessler-Harris, in advance of the April 24 release of her latest book, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. Interview by Jessica Adler.


In an oral history published in 2006 in the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, you discussed your regret at not having written a biography of fiction writer Anzia Yezierska; you discovered her while researching your 1982 book about the history of wage-earning women, Out to Work. At that point, you said, “I didn’t think I could be noncritical enough…” Do you consider A Difficult Woman a biography? Did you have similar feelings of trepidation going into this project?

The thing that distinguishes this book from anything I might have done on Yezierska is that I don’t actually think of it as a biography; I sometimes call it a “Biography not.” In fact, the only dispute I had with the publisher was whether the book should be listed under the category of Biography or History. In the end, they chose Biography.  But I think of a biography as an examination of someone’s internal life, whereas I think of this book in some ways as the inverse of that. I tried here to look at the twentieth century through Hellman’s eyes – to ask, what can this life teach us about the twentieth century? What can we learn about the twentieth century from the decisions Hellman faced? In that sense, I don’t think of it as a traditional biography at all; I think of it as a way of accessing history through individual experience.  Because I was doing it that way, because I wasn’t trying to make judgments about the interior life, or the question of how Hellman came to be the way she was, I didn’t approach it with the kind of trepidation that I might have approached biography thirty years ago. If I were to take on Yezierska now, I might write about her in the same way as I now write about Hellman, but in those days, historians imagined biography as a more limited genre.

That said, I had a different concern with this book: it was about the difficulty of separating Hellman’s political, economic, and social instincts and belief systems from my own. I knew going into this book that she was a much-despised woman on many fronts. I worried that I would find my interpretations obscured or mystified by what other people had said about her or the way they approached her. I wondered if I could I clear my head of the popular conceptions of Hellman sufficiently to be able to look through her and see the larger meaning of the life.

How did you come to choose Hellman as a subject?

In 1999-2000, I served on an advisory board to help construct the fifth volume of Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. That was the volume that incorporated the lives of women who died between 1975 and 2000.  Each of us was asked to contribute two essays to the volume.  When it came my time to choose, I opted for Lillian Hellman. The choice was somewhat impulsive. She was one of my heroines in the 1970s; I thought surely she would already have been taken, and grabbed her when I discovered that she had not. I was eager for something that would take me beyond the trade union women with whom I’d spent most of my life up to that point. And once I started to work on her, I was hooked.  Her life intersected in so many ways with elements of subjects that I had long been interested in. It spoke to questions about women, about Jews, about labor, about economic independence, about sexuality, about the peculiar nature of American radicalism.  And she was a twentieth century cultural icon. When I started working on her, the contradictions in her life and the contradictory ways people viewed her fascinated me. I spent the 2001-2002 academic year at the Radliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. Though I began work on another project, I couldn’t clear my head of Lillian Hellman, and I must confess that my colleagues there encouraged me to keep going.

Throughout the book, you consistently place explanations of Hellman’s complicated personality and personal history alongside analyses of the wider world in which she lived. What was it like to balance research and writing about Hellman’s personal background with research and writing about so many major trends and figures of the twentieth century?

Because I wasn’t doing a straightforward, traditional biography – in other words, looking at letters and other papers to reconstruct an internal life – I needed to try to be an expert in everything Hellman touched in order to convey its meaning.  

I found myself relatively comfortable writing the parts of the book that had to do with the 1930s – Hellman’s relationship with trade unions, her viewpoints on the feminism of the 1970s – because those things are in my bones. I did my homework, but I didn’t feel as though I was researching an entirely new subject. When it came to writing about areas I knew less about – Hellman as a playwright in the 1930s, for example – that was more challenging. I had to think about who the major players and actors were; what it meant that Hellman was not a member of the radical left theater movement of the period; why she decided to be a serious writer and yet mount her plays on Broadway all the way.

I approached the areas with which I was less familiar with trepidation, but then they became the places where I felt I could be the best kind of historian: I could evaluate information in relation to Hellman from a relatively distant perspective. To tell you the truth, I not only didn’t mind researching the new areas, I thought that was one of the fascinating things about doing the book; these were the things Hellman was teaching me. I felt as though at every stage, I was opening up new doors, finding out about things I had not known or only knew as shadows in the back of my head.


For example, Hellman was understood by many people in the fifties and sixties to be a “non-Jewish Jew” or a ‘self-hating Jew.” Yet she had been an early opponent of Hitler’s Germany and an active contributor to funds for Jewish refugees in the late thirties and forties.  When I tried to unravel that tale I discovered that it came largely from her involvement with the Broadway rendition of the Anne Frank Diary story.  Two versions of the play had been written—one of them focused on specifically Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. The second opted to emphasize the more universal human suffering of the concentration and extermination camps. Hellman had a very minor role in supporting the second interpretation, but she became a flogging horse for those who believed that this was primarily a Jewish story. We can’t understand why, or explain the quite unjustified anger people felt towards her on this score without understanding the position of the Soviet Union on the issue, its relationship with Zionism, and the splits within the entertainment industry and the country as a whole on these issues.

You discuss Hellman’s negative views of 1960s feminism, and her complaints about what she perceived as a lack of focus on economic opportunity and equality above all other issues. At the same time, you say she fit her own definition of feminism. As a veteran of the movement Hellman critiqued, what is your assessment of her perspective?

Hellman was always ambivalent about second wave feminism, though she lived a life that we might call feminist, and became a heroine to a generation of young women after 1969, when her memoir, An Unfinished Woman appeared. My generation of young women devoured that book for many reasons. It was a portrait of a sexually liberated independent – not just economically independent--but independent-minded woman who presented herself as a courageous, autonomous, human being. She was what we all imagined women should be, in sharp contrast to the model promoted by Betty Friedan of a woman who escaped housewifery but remained more or less traditional. 

In later years, Hellman’s portrait of herself would come to be questioned as too self-aggrandizing, and people became disillusioned. Part of the disillusionment was that Hellman so took for granted the capacity of women to behave in the autonomous way that she did; that she ignored or overlooked the real problems of real women who didn’t have as much money as she did, who had children, who had married, who had partners to whom they were committed, and so on.  Her disregard for these structural differences made it difficult for most women to imagine themselves living equally liberated lives. She was critiqued for her arrogance, for imagining that everyone could live by commanding the kinds of services she enjoyed. The Hellman we who were feminists admired turned out to have human flaws, to be not quite the Lillian Hellman who emerged after the 

success of her memoirs.

Then too, she had little regard for what was known as cultural feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. She could not abide consciousness raising, mocked “bra-burning” at every opportunity, thought the protests at the Miss America pageants silly. Nor did she believe that attention to language had any place in feminism.  She did not believe in the utility of spelling women with a “y”; she insisted on being called Miss Hellman, rather than Ms. For many of us, changes in language and consciousness seemed to be paths that would lead to liberation. We were convinced that language could imprison the mind, that the personal was political. Hellman, in contrast, didn’t have any patience for protests that she called a silly waste of time. She believed that the most important thing a woman could do was to earn her own living and she took public positions on behalf of women’s economic independence.  To her, cultural and economic issues seemed diametrically opposed, whereas we understood them as different paths to the same goal.  When Hellman vociferously rejected cultural feminism, she seemed to be turning her back on a large piece of the women’s movement.

But the economic independence that Hellman wanted for women was something they had been working on since at least the creation of NOW in 1965; it was one of NOW’s first issues. It was simply folly to say that the women’s movement wasn’t concerned enough with that issue. In fact, by the mid-1970s, by the time Hellman was critiquing us for not being concerned enough with it, liberal feminists, who constituted the vast majority of the movement, had worked for a decade on behalf of economic independence in the form of access to well-paying jobs, admission to Ivy League colleges, and opening professional schools to women. More radical feminists and Marxist feminists believed that those gains were only the tip an iceberg whose underside included poor women, women of color, and others locked into traditional families. Many feminists concentrated on these groups; others tried to challenge typical household power dynamics, calling into question heterosexual relationships, conventional child care arrangements, and unequal income distributions.

While I admired Lillian Hellman for her gutsy life style and her consistent sense of fairness, and I still admire her for those reasons, I think she simply did not understand the full play of the women’s movement.

The chapters of A Difficult Woman are organized thematically – “A Tough Broad;” “A Serious Playwright;” “An American Jew;” “The Writer as Moralist;” “A Self-Made Woman” – but the book also moves forward in time. Can you talk about how this structure came about?

The organization was more or less organic. It emerged when I realized that the key thrust of the book was not Hellman’s life as an unfolding entity, but an exploration of the contradictions that her life captured. Most biographies unpack a life – moving sequentially from beginning to end. Often, women’s biographies unfold a life around the domestic: a woman is born, she gets married, she has children—as she is doing other things. The life-cycle drives the narrative. Men’s biographies, in contrast, often move along a trajectory of increasing achievement, until the subject reaches his peak attainment and then declines. In this case, I thought I needed elements of both; Hellman’s life doesn’t follow the typical women’s life cycle, so it made no sense to use that template. Nor did it make sense to use the male.  Instead, I thought I needed to organize the book around issues that were points of contradiction, contest, or debate in Hellman’s life. The chapters integrate and juxtapose the sense Hellman had of herself with the public’s perception and representation of her.

You work in this book to figure out how Hellman became, as you put it, “embedded in a negative mythology.” By the end of the book, we see that in the wake of her death, Hellman became a symbol – for neo-conservatives and neo-liberals – of much that went wrong during the twentieth century. Why do you think Hellman provoked such negative and powerful feelings?

There are at least three reasons. One is clearly Hellman’s persona; the fact that she was not only often nasty and mean-spirited and arrogant, but also that she was a woman. For a woman to be all of those things would necessarily have drawn negative responses, but in Hellman’s case they were exacerbated by the controversial political positions she adopted.  

Second, Hellman was basically a consistent person, but in the context of her times, consistency turned out to be a liability. She held the same general beliefs from the beginning of her life to the end of it. She valued civil liberties; she valued loyalty; she believed in the right of people to believe what they wanted to believe – she didn’t think anyone had to account to anybody for what they thought. That was fine in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but by the 1950s, it was under attack. Hellman, like many other people who had once been socialists, no longer believed in radical solutions, but unlike many others, she   would not repudiate Stalinism because after all, as she says in her book, Scoundrel Time, “we never did anybody any harm”… why shouldn’t people be allowed to believe what they wish.  By the end of her life, she admits several times that she had been wrong about Stalin, but she never apologizes for beliefs that were honestly held. That gets interpreted as rigidity – rigidity that by the 1970s was seen as unacceptable.

The third reason why Hellman is such a provocative figure is because of the lying. It’s not that she’s the only liar or even most important liar or that she lies more than anyone else, but that the particular ways that she presents herself feed into a political moment that we now see as the dawn of neo-liberalism.  Her positions, particularly against government secrecy and in defense of egalitarianism and collective social responsibility, draw fire from those who are convinced that the Soviet Union is still an evil empire and that efforts to restrain the free market will create a slippery slope to socialism. Hellman, who is seen as swimming against this tide becomes a fish to be caught. Accusing her of moral turpitude—lying—is one way of destroying her credibility.

What do you think Hellman would think of this book?

Hellman never wanted anyone to write a biography of her because she wanted to control her own life and feared that anyone else would get it wrong. She was convinced that biography was more fiction than anything else. She wrote to her friends towards the end of her life asking them to send back her letters. Many did, and she burned them. She pruned her material to remove anything that was faintly personal, which makes it very difficult to track down what she’s feeling or thinking or even doing at any given period of time. That was one of the reasons I didn’t want to do an interior story.

That said, Hellman was very convinced of her own centrality to the events she lived through.  I try in this book, not to judge her, but to turn her into the historical figure that she in many ways became. I think she would have enjoyed that.  Perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I think that it is precisely because this book is not in any sense a traditional biography that she would have liked it much better than the several biographies that have been written about her.  I believe, and I think this book supports the notion, that Hellman faced a difficult and challenging century. She didn’t always make the right decisions, but right or wrong, misguided or deceptive, she teaches us something about how people might think about their political choices in the context of the lives they are living—not the ones we imagine for them. Whatever else she was, she has become a symbol of the good and the bad that characterized a difficult century.


"Carceral Politics in Palestine and Beyond": Preview

April 2, 2012

In anticipation of Thursday's "Carceral Politics in Palestine and Beyond: Gender, Vulnerability, Prison" event, I found myself puzzling over the contours of the "Beyond." The event's title suggests an unfixed relation - one in which dynamics of "Gender, Vulnerability, Prison" in Palestine both take shape and signify outside of what we might think of as Palestinian geographies. In late 2010, an Israeli police officer nicknamed "Major George" was appointed a special advisor on Arab Affairs to Jerusalem's police chief. In short, "Major George," or Doron Zahavi, was put in charge of police relations with Jerusalem's Palestinian community. In the aftermath of the appointment, details emerged concerning Zahavi's former role as chief interrogator in the secret Israeli military prison known as Facility 1391. Allegations of sexual assault and other forms of torture, under Zahavi's supervision and with his direct participation, immediately came to the surface. The headline of the article on Counterpunch.org that called attention to the case read: "'Major George' and Israel's Abu Ghraib."

The editorial choice here is an interesting one. Reading the Israeli prison through a lens of "Israel's Abu Ghraib" suggests the exceptionalism of torture within the rubric of Israeli detention practices - the bad egg of America's military presence in Iraq called into service to render legible torture and incarceration in a Palestinian context. This strikes me as a troubling way of depicting the "Beyond" - one that accords analytic primacy to the United States at the cost of, say, the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who found themselves under Zahavi's charge. Given the incredible work of the event's participants, I am excited to see how they figure a "Beyond" that emanates out from the everyday facts of penal politics in Palestine. The very composition of the panel testifies to this possibility: Judith Butler, Lena Meari, Mai Masri and Angela Davis each offer a unique mode of entry into incarceration in Palestine and the content it carries for logics of race, gender and captivity at the global scale. Doors open at 5:30 PM, and registration is recommended . . . 

Top image of the separation/segregation wall near Ramallah courtesy of Flickr user ahmad.daghlas.

--Kaveh Landsverk


Remembering Adrienne Rich

March 30, 2012

Celebrated poet, essayist, teacher (including two years at Columbia University), and feminist Adrienne Rich died on Tuesday, March 27th, at the age of 82.  Rich was the author of over two dozen collections of poetry, including A Change of World, Snapshops of a Daughter-in Law, and Diving Into the Wreck, for which she was awarded a National Book Award for poetry.  Among her other honors were a MacArthur Foundation "genuis" grant, a National Book Foundation medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a National Book Award for poetry, and a National Medal of Arts (which she declined for political reasons, stating, "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration...[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."

Rich, with fellow poet Antjie Krog (pictured above), spoke and read from her work as a part of the culminating event for the Women Poets and Writers at Barnard Series in 2009.  Professor Ros Morris introduced Rich and Krog as women "who work at knowing what they don't want to know," striving to answer the question: "when does life bend toward freedom?"

At the 2009 event, Rich recited from "The Art of Translation," "I Dream I'm the Death of Orpheus," and "Letters to a Young Poet."  "I wanted to somewhere / the brain had not yet gone," she read from the latter.  Katherine Polin, writing for the August 2009 Feminist News, said that Rich "gave us a penetrating reading that invited reflection and affection."

On Monday, April 16th, a gathering will be held on campus in remembrance and celebration of Rich's life and poetry.  More information on the event is available here.

Feminist in Chief

March 23, 2012

Janine Balekdjian is a third-year Slavic Studies major and Sociology minor who blogs for the Huffington Post.  Janine wrote the following in honor of International Women's day, this past March 8th:

On this International Women's day, feminists in the US can be forgiven for feeling less than enthusiastic. Our nation has spent the better part of 2012 arguing over whether using birth control is a responsible idea we should encourage or whether it makes you a "slut." Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum (remember: he wants to run the country) has been so enthusiastic in the birth control debate that he's all but announced his intentions to take us back to the 1873 Comstock Law, which banned information about contraceptives from the US mail on grounds of "obscenity." It may be the 101st International Women's Day, but it feels much more like the 41st.

Fortunately, American women have friends in high places. President Barack Obama has solidified his credentials as a ladies' man par excellence.

No, I'm not talking about his smile, or his salt-and-pepper hair, or even his surprising singing ability. I'm talking about the best kind of ladies' man -- one who respects women and advocates for women's rights and health. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the birth control debate (why do I have to write that phrase in 2012?) is the president's unwavering commitment to women's rights. He has repeatedly, unequivocally, and publicly affirmed his support for universal contraceptive coverage without a co-pay, regardless of where a woman may work or study. He directly addressed the Sandra Fluke controversy, phoning her personally and not just denouncing Rush Limbaugh's inanity, but also supporting her activism on behalf of women. Most recently, President Obama announced that he will be speaking at Barnard College's commencement. His decision to speak at a prestigious women's college displays his dedication to women's rights at a time when they are under national assault, and shows his support for Barnard's mission of empowering the next generation of women.

Republicans and cynics are out in full force blasting the president's vocal support for women. They claim that Democrats started the contraception debate on purpose to make the GOP look bad, and that Obama's support is disingenuous and solely an attempt to win women's votes in 2012. These accusations can be rebutted in a few simple points:

  1. Coverage of contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act mandate was announced last August. If Republicans cared as much as women's rights activists who had been petitioning for it all summer, they would know that.
  2. The Catholic Church was the ones who brought the issue to the forefront of national politics this February, and the GOP subsequently seized upon it in Congress.
  3. If Republicans think that espousing extreme, anachronistic positions are making them look bad, they could simply stop espousing extreme, anachronistic positions. No one is forcing them to oppose birth control.
  4. If Republicans don't stop espousing extreme, anachronistic positions on women's rights, they can hardly pretend to be surprised when women start running to the Democratic Party in droves.

Liberal activists, on the other hand, are justified in a certain amount of head-shaking. Is supporting birth control -- an issue supposedly decided fifty years ago -- all it takes to be considered a feminist these days? President Obama has made other concrete steps for the advancement of women, like signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act and appointing Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. But he has had his missteps as well, most notably supporting Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius' decision to overrule a FDA panel -- for the first time in history -- and prevent emergency contraception from being sold over the counter. Can the president truly be considered a feminist?

The answer is yes -- and comes not in the positions he's taken in the birth control controversy but in how exactly he has articulated those positions. Republicans would like to have you believe that this debate is all about individual liberty and whether you can mandate the sale or purchase of a product, and somehow about religious liberty (although, as the Columbia Democrats articulate in our video on the subject, religious liberty does not mean religious imposition). We get it, GOP -- you don't like the healthcare bill. But all their stated reasons for opposing birth control in the mandate fall flat, especially after President Obama forged a compromise that would require insurance companies, not religiously-affiliated employers, to pay for the cost of birth control.

What this is really about is extreme social conservatives in the Republican party attempting to define as "immoral" lifestyle choices which the vast majority of American women make and the rest of the GOP not caring enough to oppose them. Rush Limbaugh's comments were vulgar and exaggerated, but they do articulate the general Republican sentiment -- that taxpayer money shouldn't go towards "subsidizing" the immoral lifestyle choices of American women which make us "sluts." (Apparently, they would prefer that vastly greater amounts of taxpayer money go towards subsidizing prenatal care, childbirth, and all the other resulting healthcare costs of unplanned pregnancy. There's a reason that birth control is included in the mandate under preventative care.) This is why Democrats are calling what's been going on in the 112th Congress the War on Women -- it's an attempt to repress and shame us for our personal lives.

But the Republicans have overreached -- the American people aren't buying their assertion that using birth control makes you morally inferior, and the GOP is losing the narrative war on contraception, just as they won it on abortion. When a politician, even a liberal one, makes a statement in support of a woman's right to choose, they invariably follow it up with a qualifier that they're not supporting abortions themselves -- think "safe, legal, and rare." But 99% of women use birth control at some point, and the Republicans can't succeed in slut-shaming an entire nation.

President Obama's rejection of the GOP morality fairy tale comes through in his rhetoric, and it is this which makes him a feminist. When he called Sandra Fluke, he didn't just express his outrage over Limbaugh, he praised her for the work she does on reproductive rights and told her that her parents should be proud. Every time that the contraceptive mandate has been attacked since August, President Obama has pushed back against any compromise that would limit any woman from accessing birth control. He has invoked his own two daughters in his support. President Obama doesn't want anyone to impose restrictions on women's private reproductive and sexual choices, and he doesn't want anyone to judge us for them either. That is why he's a feminist.   

- Janine Balekdjian

Establishing a Home of One’s Own

February 29, 2012


On Monday, February 27th, Professor Anita Hill was the featured speaker for Barnard’s 2012 Helen Rodgers Reid Lecture, “a series that was inaugurated in 1975 to honor distinguished women in public life who have shown significant commitment to improving the lives of all women.” Though perhaps best known for her courageous efforts to bring public awareness to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, Hill is an accomplished legal professor and scholar. She currently serves as Senior Advisor to the Provost, and Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University. 

Hill’s lecture came from her new book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home, where she offers an alternate barometer for measuring equality. Hill contends that equity is not solely defined by who lives in the White House or what laws are on the books, but also by equal access to opportunity—and, more specifically, the opportunity to secure and establish a home. Home, which Hill suggests can be defined variously and thus is not circumscribed by ownership, is constitutive of the American dream. Beginning in the post-Emancipation era, she traces and examines key moments in American history that demonstrate the vagaries and (in)adequacies of the law to protect the right to establish a home and sense of place, particularly for African Americans and other peoples of color: “100 years of laws that should and could have helped us,” she lamented, “but ultimately failed.”

Hill opened her lecture by reflecting on the all too common problem of property ownership for African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1899, her maternal grandfather, a former slave, proudly purchased eighty acres of land in southwest Arkansas. However, whereas the law “worked” for her grandfather, who went from being property to owning it, it ultimately failed her grandmother, who, as a black woman, could not have her name recorded on the deed to the land; as such, her grandmother’s ability to establish a place was delimited by her gender. Only thirteen years after purchasing the land, the family mysteriously moved to Oklahoma, likely due to the threat of racial violence. Thus, Hill pointed out that although the law afforded her grandfather the right to purchase the land, it did not guarantee him the protection necessary to keep it.

Mobilizing this distinction between “rights” and “protection of rights,” Hill drew parallels between the law’s failure to protect her grandparents at the turn of the twentieth century and the housing market crash of 2006, maintaining that many of the same issues that her grandparents faced—racism, sexism, and the law’s failure to protect—revisited us in the subprime loan crisis. Court pleadings revealed that lenders pedaled subprime loans heavily within African American and Latino communities, particularly among women and the elderly, labeling subprime loans “ghetto loans” and the practice of targeting the elderly, “granny hunting.” Hill went on to interrogate the government’s and policy makers’ participation in this crisis, asking how such egregious forms of racism and sexism have persisted. Essentially, she hopes that by shedding light on this issue, more will be done to indemnify families who suffered a range of losses at the hands of the foreclosure crisis; that the government will put laws in place that will create safety nets and prevent further discrimination in the housing market; and, finally, that America will begin to think about equality more expansively, not only in terms of political representation, but as the simple right to secure and establish a place, a home of one’s own. 

- Jarvis C. McInnis