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IRWGS Essay Prize Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. What are your plans for the future?

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


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

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

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

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

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

3. What are your plans for the future?

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



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

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

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

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

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

3. What are your plans for the future?

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

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

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

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

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

3. What are your plans for the future?

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

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The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality is the locus of interdisciplinary feminist and queer scholarship and teaching at Columbia University.

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