Gendered Agency


Betty Livingston Adams, Yale University
"Fighting the Color Line in the ‘Ideal Suburb’: Working-Class Black Women and the Politics of Christian Activism in Summit, New Jersey 1898-1945"

This project centers on the Christian activism of African American women, primarily working-class domestics, in creating and sustaining community and institutions and in negotiating issues of race and gender in a pre-World War II New Jersey suburb. By illuminating the agency of working-class women over a fifty year period, this examination adds to our understanding of the linkage between religion and women’s social and political activism.  The case study is anchored in the experiential narratives of two women who emerged as leaders in the state and in the white middle-class residential suburb in which they lived.  Violet Johnson (1873-1939) arrived in Summit, New Jersey, in 1897 with her white employers and within a year organized a Baptist congregation. In 1925 Reverend Florence Spearing Randolph (1866-1951) accepted an interim appointment to a fledgling African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion congregation in Summit and established an institutional church that served the entire community. Both women influenced the discourse of race and gender as well as the suburban landscape. Their narratives exemplify the complexities and possibilities as well as limitations of women’s religious activism. 

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz, University of Chicago
"Gendered Space in Text and Ritual: Deconstructing a Popular Women’s Tradition in Nepal"

What constitutes a ‘women’s tradition’? The Svasthani Vrata Katha (SVK), a popular local textual tradition celebrated annually in Hindu households with a month-long recitation, is commonly described by locals as a women’s tradition, for the patron(ness) deity of the tradition is female, the main characters of the text’s narratives are (divine and mortal) women and participants in the annual ritual observance are primarily women. Closer examination of the tradition, however, illuminates the complex dynamics of gender and agency expressed within this text-ritual complex and draws into question what it means to be a ‘women’s tradition’. For instance, the text has historically been (re)produced (i.e., written, interpreted, and recited) by men, and it is through this gendered filter that women’s voices emerge; the images of women in the text epitomize orthodox Hindu ideals that value women only in their role as wives and mothers; and, the ritual observance that is performed in honor of the goddess in fact patronizes a prominent male deity.  Because this tradition consists of both text and ritual, moreover, it presents an opportunity to explore how these gender and agency dynamics shift when translated from text to performance.   

Claudia Brazzale, Liceo Coreutico F.A. Bonporti, Italy
"Family Firms and the Making of Cosmopolitanism: Gender Effacement and Agency in the Global Capitalism of the Italian Nordest"

This project analyzes the ways in which globalization and its promise of modernity seduced the entrepreneurial culture of North East Italy and explores the impact of this seduction on local gender dynamics an ideologies.  Considering the family firms that generated the 1980’s economic boom of North East Italy (commonly referred to as the “Nordest miracle”), it examine the gender relations that structure the families behind these enterprises and the ways in which paternalistic authority is inscribed in new postmodern ways.  Based upon fieldwork conducted in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy (2005-06; 2008-09), the study investigates the impact of the Nordest miracle on the lives of the women who grew up in these family firms and documents women’s systematic erasure in the narratives of local economic development.  This research shows how the modernization of the Nordest unfolded through a series of paradoxes, most notably the paradox of a gender-blind cosmopolitan imagery produced by firms governed by paternalistic authority and patriarchal familial logics.  While examining the paradoxes and disjunctures of Veneto’s regionalist and globalizing culture, the project explores the forms and processes of agency that are played out in these family-firms and considers the ways in which women respond to historically grounded and shifting local conditions. 

Ruth Glynn, University of Bristol, UK
"Women, Terror and Trauma in Italian Culture"

Cultural representations of Italian women terrorists provide an avenue through which to understand the ways in which women’s participation in political violence and terrorism in the so-called anni di piombo (‘years of lead’, c. 1969-83) is articulated as collective and cultural trauma in media, memoir, fiction and film. The seminar paper will examine how representations of women terrorists in the institutional media and on screen may be read as symptomatic trauma texts. Comparing such representations with constructions of the terrorist self in the memoirs and fictional works of women formerly involved in terrorism, the project addresses how the cultural products of collective women’s organizations (especially the feminist movement) respond to the phenomenon of politically motivated female violence. Applying a trauma theory approach to the study of the anni di piombo reveals the ways in which the experience of political violence and repression in Italy continues to affect Italian society in subtle and largely unconscious ways. Furthermore, by addressing cultural representations of women involved in political violence, the project explores the ideological fantasies underlying such representations and seeks to identify the purposes they serve, both in relation to the specific case of the  anni di piombo and in relation to women in Italian society more generally. Finally, bringing to the field of trauma studies a more gender-sensitive approach seeks to expose and challenge the implicit associations of masculinity-violence and femininity-victimization inherent within current trauma theory.

Deborah Gray White, History, Rutgers; 2009-2010 Guggenheim Fellow
"Can’t We All Just Get Along?’ American Identity at the Turn of the Millennium"

Between 1990 and 2000, millions of Americans turned to mass outdoor gatherings to express profound political, social, and economic needs. As participants in national or local sympathy marches, those who went to the Promise Keepers gatherings (Christian men), the Million Man March (African American men), the Million Woman March (African American women), the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual (LGBT) marches, and the Million Mom March (mothers against gun violence) made powerful statements about the social and cultural state of America at the turn of the twenty-first century. The seminar paper on these disparate marches and their meanings is part of a larger study about the 1990s, a decade that bears much resemblance to the 1920s and 1950s.  Each decade was remarkable for the frivolity and prosperity that masked profound and disturbing changes taking place in American politics, economics and culture. The 1990s, the first post-cold war decade, was remarkable for its prosperity and relative peacefulness. Yet, the march/gatherings suggest a sea-change in the way Americans thought of themselves, their nation, and their future.