IRW Seminar

2009-2010 Seminar Abstracts

Gendered Agency

This year's IRW interdisciplinary seminar on Gendered Agency brings University faculty, graduate students and IRW Global Scholars together for weekly discussions of one another's work-in-progress. The seminar explores how attention to gender complicates and challenges contemporary understandings, uses, and expressions of agency-- a term that has become increasingly popular in contemporary scholarship .

The seminar meets every Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at the IRW Library (second floor, 160 Ryders Lane, Douglass Campus). Visitors are asked to contact the IRW in advance to get access to the weekly readings.


IRW Seminar Fellows

Sara Angevine, Political Science
“Gendering US Foreign Policy”
Although women in foreign countries have long been impacted by US foreign policy, until recently they rarely have been specified within the language of US foreign policy bills. Over the past ten US Congresses, an increasing number of US foreign policy bills specify the word (and hence the category) of ‘women’ within their aims. Why are women in foreign countries now integral to American national interests? This project intends to analyze women-specific foreign policy bills within the US House, evaluating each bill’s sponsorship (by gender, race, political party, etc.) and how the foreign women are framed within the bill contest (civic development, economic development, reproductive choice, violence and rape, UN and human rights, and general health). Given the growth of the global women’s movement, the increase of women in Congress, and the move towards soft power (Nye 2004) in US foreign policy, feminist scholarship needs to examine how women in foreign countries are being ‘represented’ within US foreign policy bills and their own agency in this process.


Aimee Cox, African American/African Studies, Rutgers-Newark
“Protest Performances”
Ethnographic data from over four years of fieldwork with the young, female, predominantly African-American residents of the Fresh Start homeless shelter in Detroit, Michigan is the basis for an analysis of how the gender identities of low-income women of color are framed by the racialized and class-based expectations of non-profit community organizations, the welfare system and vocational training programs. This project also examines the arts activist organization Blacklight (founded by former Fresh Start shelter residents) in order to uncover the particularly gendered dimensions of the innovative social justice work undertaken by young women living in under resourced urban areas. The project will attempt to answer the question of what this work may portend for the activist orientations of feminist ethnography, as well as the agenda for postcolonial anthropological theory building.


Darci Fontaine, History
“Grassroots Ecumenism: Gender and the Democratization of Christianity in France”

This project examines the concept of gendered agency in leftist French Christianity from 1940 to 1962, focusing on how French Protestant and Catholic women worked within the structures of French Christianity to reshape it into a globalizing, democratic force. The women accomplished this through their work in grassroots social and humanitarian organizations that put into practice ecumenical and cross-cultural dialogue. French Christian women’s actions during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) provide a case study through which to examine the implications of women’s agency in Christianity, Christian-Muslim dialogue, and decolonization. In particular, the project asks to what extent French Christian women were agents in the changing conceptions of “the Christian” during the process of decolonization.


Bridget Gurtler, History
“Women as User-Patients: A Cultural History of Artificial Insemination in the United States, 1900-1960”

This project explores the meaning of agency for historical women users of the technology of artificial insemination (AI). Examining the early history of AI in the United States from 1900 to 1960, complicates the traditional narrative of medicine intervening on the female body and indicates that women patients were active users and participants in shaping the introduction of AI into medical practice, popular media discussions, and eventually, institutions such as sperm banks and infertility clinics. As a relatively low-tech procedure and one with a longer history, as compared to technologies like in-vitro fertilization, AI provides a unique lens from which to theorize about how the choices women made to pursue motherhood were and are shaped by pronatalist ideologies, popular ideas of biological difference and heredity, cultures of consumption, as well as shifting cultural and medical tropes of normative “womanhood” and “manhood.” In so doing, the project will continue and complicate feminist critiques of the divisions between natural/artificial, consumer/producer, and biology/culture.


Allen Isaac, American Studies/ Women’s & Gender Studies
“The Byuti and Danger of Performing Transnational Belonging

Tomer Heymann’s documentary film Bubot Niyar (Paper Dolls, 2006) follows five members of a lip synch drag group of the same name through their stories of caring for elderly men, romance, bombings, immigrant police raids, and detention and deportation. This documentary about queer Filipino caregivers in Israel triggers an exploration of three concepts that condition agency in a feminized labor market: 1. globalized and gendered spaces as managed national heterotopias formed by care giving; 2. the Filipino concept of palabas that means both performance and emotional manifestation in response to the limited spatial and social mobility of labor; 3. affect and care as labor commodity in order to question the facile metaphorical elisions among the terms family, gender, labor, belonging, and the nation. Poised between two nation-building projects, the Paper Dolls’ lip synch act and name invokes multiple sets of mediations and mimicry of gender and national belonging, but gestures towards a different sense of pleasure, danger, and beauty/byuti.


Rocio Magaño, Anthropology
“Desconocida: The Gendering of Suffering in the Representation of Migrant Exposure and Suffering on the Arizona-Mexico Border”


Cheryl McLean, Graduate School of Education
“Gendered Identities: Adolescent Females and the Immigrant Experience”

This qualitative case study will use narrative analysis to explore the self-concepts and identity-making practices of six black, female, immigrant adolescents in U.S. Northeast. The overarching research question asks: How do immigrant adolescents see themselves within the context of their immigrant experience, and how are their self-concepts reflected in their identity-making practices? The study uses narrative analysis of in-depth, semi-structured interviews, documents, and observations. Data will be collected for eight months in the participants’ homes, schools, and communities. The conceptual framework draws mainly on critical theory, and postcolonial theory (Fanon, 1967; Freire & Macedo, 1987) and feminist theory (Butler, 1992). The research takes a sociocultural approach to understanding how female adolescents use language and literacy to express their gendered identities and self concepts and position themselves as learners. Analyses of gender and identity help illustrate the potency of female immigrant youth voices in their adopted home.


Ishani Maitra, Philosophy/Women’s & Gender Studies, Rutgers-Newark and NB
“The Harmfulness of Rape”

This project focuses on the harmfulness of rape. It is, of course, obvious that rape harms its victims. But it is generally supposed that rape is not merely harmful, but that it is also distinctively harmful compared to other forms of physical assault that result in a similar level of physical injuries. Being physically assaulted in any form can be deeply and lastingly injurious. But being raped brings with it a distinct and perhaps more personal dimension of injury that sets it apart from other classes of physical assaults. In order to better capture the experiences and histories of rape survivors, this project offers and defends an explanation of this difference, developing the idea that  rape interferes with its victims’ sense of self, especially their agency, both actual and perceived. The paper also includes discussion of some interesting consequences, especially for rape law reform.


Bahia Micheline Munem, Women’s & Gender Studies
“Expulsions and Receptions: Palestinian Refugees Find Belonging in the Brazilian Nation-State”

This dissertation chapter investigates the experiences of Muslim Palestinian women refugees, charting their transition from stateless, multiply displaced, undocumented refugees to Brazilian citizens. How do newly resettled Palestinian Muslims reconstitute agency and their ethnic, gender, and religious identities within the framework of their newly acquired status as “citizens” of the Brazilian nation-state? Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy, has become a key player in forging economic and political relations with Arab nations. A leader in providing humanitarian assistance, in 2007 Brazil resettled 118 Palestinian refugees from the Ruweished refugee camp on the border of Iraq and Jordan who had been living in deplorable conditions since the inception of the Iraq War. The paper considers how citizenship processes for this particular population of new citizens expand the Brazilian notion of democracia racial, and, using a feminist ethnographic approach, examines the complex history of multiple dislocations and finding belonging in Brazil.


V.G. Julie Rajan, Women’s and Gender Studies
“The Phenomenon of Women Suicide Bombers: Narratives of Violence”

In the postcolonial era, women bombers have been responsible for executing fatal suicide missions globally. This exploration builds upon, extends, and offers a corrective lens to the existing discourse on women suicide bombers, which has limited investigations into their social agencies and subjectivities, for example, by stressing the ways in which women bombers fit patriarchal definitions of women or of Third World women as victims of backward cultures. In contrast, this analysis encourages a more balanced evaluation of women bombers by also employing postcolonial, Third World feminist, and women’s and human rights frameworks, as well as by evaluating materials such as video testimonials produced by the women bombers themselves. The investigation encourages a more broad reading of women bombers’ social agencies and subjectivities in contemporary conflict situations internationally, including those situated in Palestine, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, among others and interrogates the ways in which primarily Western media, cultural, and academic narratives have represented non-Western women bombers as victims of their male-led rebel movements and cultures.


Nancy Yunhwa Rao, Music, MGSA
“Racial Castration and the Idea of the Female Voice”

Though many important studies have illustrated the significance of effeminate Orient and Asian American men in the U.S. popular imagination, no scholarship has as yet explored the considerable influence exerted by vocality associated with Asian American men and their marginal subjectivity. Hence, this project focuses on operatic vocality and the idea of female voice on the stages of Chinatown opera theaters from the mid-nineteenth century to early twentieth century. Recognizing the role of operatic or female impersonators played in the racialization of the Asian American male—“Racial Castration,” as David Eng so aptly named it—not only offers new insights into the intersection of gender, race, visual, and sonic imaginations, but also helps us to consider the gendered identifications and agencies of Asian America in our national racial landscape. The project seeks to espouse an understanding of the Asian American male as the hybrid result of internalized identity, lived material contradiction, and self-willed subjectivity.


Anna Sampaio, Women’s & Gender Studies
“Compromising Citizenship: Examining Racialization, Masculine Protectionism and Securitization through the Cases of Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla”

This seminar paper will highlight the cases of Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, both natural-born citizens who have been detained as enemy combatants for extended periods of time – in effect becoming “de-Americanized” – and the constraints to agency and due process revealed in their cases. Parallels between these cases and those of hundreds of U.S. citizens of Arab and South Asian ancestry illuminate a process of racialization that relies upon the suspension of constitutional rights to render a citizen suspect while engendering compliance from non-suspects through the logic of masculine protectionism.  As “swarthy” male citizens are stripped of rights and detained indefinitely without access to counsel or knowledge of the charges against them, the national security state consolidates a racial and gendered order through a visual regime of domination.  The perverse logic of suspicion conveys a presumption that those detained must indeed be threatening and in need of constraint. As racial profiling operates as a visual technology of power, allegations against particular citizens of color are generalized to lineage, kinship, heredity—subsuming their larger ethnic communities under the rubric of suspicion. Comparing and contrasting the conditions of Hamdi and Padilla’s apprehension, detention, and the disposition of their cases reveals the encroachment of the national security state’s logic of protectionism and suspicion beyond immigrants to citizens and the manner in which the rights and practices of citizenship, and the attendant expressions of agency, are constrained as suspect citizens are constructed figuratively and literally as terrorists. 


Arlene Stein, Sociology
“Telling Trauma Stories: Victims, Survivors, and the Politics of Memory”

This project explores how victim claims can promote a sense of agency in the context of a book project that documents how the descendants of Holocaust survivors articulated a distinctive collective identity and brought their familial stories of trauma into the public domain. This analysis furthers work by feminist, critical race, and queer theorists on trauma, loss, and “post-memory” which emphasize the collective, transformative possibilities of grief work, and pushes this literature which emerges out of the humanities in sociological directions. Taking issue with dominant interpretations of the rise of Holocaust public memory, which attribute it to the activities of non-survivor Jewish elites and focus on the institutionalization of memorials and museums, the project shows how the construction of memory begins within families, documenting how children of survivors utilized feminist and therapeutic ideas to develop a collective identity as members of the “second generation.” Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and content analysis of written and film memoirs, Stein argues that the public sharing of loss can be agentic and transformative.


Alex Warner, History/ IRW Learning Community Coordinator
“‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’: Feminism and the Rise of the Leatherdyke Community, 1969-1990”

This analysis of the origins and first 15 years of the Leatherdyke/organized lesbian SM sado-masochistic community in the United States is located within Second Wave feminist debates around sexuality.  It emphasizes issues of feminist ethics and community-identity formation while unraveling the complex system of ideas and assumptions that surrounded female sexuality in the 1970s, 80s and early 1990s.


Deborah Gray White, History; Guggenheim Fellow in Residence at the IRW 2009-2010
“‘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. 



IRW Global Scholars

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 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 Nepalese 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 Northeast Italy and explores the impact of this seduction on local gender dynamics and ideologies. Considering the family firms that generated the 1980s economic boom of Northeast Italy (commonly referred to as the “Nordest miracle”), it examines 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 disjuncture’s of Venetos’ 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”

This book project (Donne di piombo: Women, Terrorism and Trauma in Italian Culture)  explores the ways 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 examines 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. Bringing to the study of the anni di piombo a trauma theory approach reveals the ways in which the experience of political violence and repression in Italy continues to affect Italian society today, in subtle and largely unconscious ways. Furthermore, by addressing specifically cultural representations of women involved in political violence, the project explores the ideological fantasies underlying such representations and seeks to identify the purposes served by them, 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.