2014-2015 Women's History Courses
Activism and Change in Contemporary Women's Biography
How are biographies mirrors of the world, and windows for activism and change? What is the relationship between the contemporary biographer and historical subject? How are narratives, particularly about women’s lives, researched and constructed? How do biographies of women impact our understanding of history? These are some of the questions we address in this semester-long seminar on biography. We examine how authors use a variety of primary sources (such as diaries, letters, memoirs, oral histories), and analyze how they create with slim primary source material, full narratives which illuminate an entire past and time. We discuss how contemporary women’s biographies have resonance for today’s discourses and power relations of gender, race, class and sexuality. We interrogate notions of truth and myth in life writing texts. A variety of women’s biographies from American and transnational contexts will be read and analyzed, including those by Blanche Wiesen Cook, Angela Davis, Jill Lepore, Malala Yousafzai, Camilla Townsend, among others. This is an intermediate seminar offered in the fall semester to graduate and undergraduate students.
Visions/Revisions: Issues in the History of Women and Gender
This seminar surveys path-breaking studies in the history of women, gender and related subjects. Course readings, which include both theory and historiography, exemplify major trends in feminist scholarship since the 1960s—from early challenges to androcentric worldviews to the current stress on differences among women and multiple systems of dominance and subordination. Class discussions range from fundamental questions (e.g., What is feminism? Is “women” a meaningful category?) to theoretical, interpretive, and methodological debates among women’s historians. The course is designed to help advanced students of women’s history clarify research interests by assessing the work of their predecessors. MA candidates will also use the course to define thesis projects. Core class required of all first-year Women’s History Graduate Students.
Thesis Seminar in Women’s and Gender History
This yearlong course is designed for students who are writing M.A. theses in women’s and gender history. We will discuss the historiographical dimensions of thesis work; assess various research methods, interpretive models, and theories of history; and grapple with practical questions about writing and documentation. Readings include historical scholarship, theoretical works, and research guides. At critical junctures, students will also read and evaluate each others’ work.
Yearlong Research Seminars (Each graduate student in women’s history is required to take one such seminar, which entails independent research culminating in a major paper. Fulltime students fulfill this requirement in the first year and part-time students in the second year.)
Women, Gender, and Politics in American History
A course on women’s history in America can be understood only by way of its inextricable connection to the history of men. Therefore, while the emphasis of the course will be on women, we will also look at the category of gender more broadly by examining relations between men and women and conceptions of masculinity and men’s roles. More generally, the course will provide an overview of women’s history in America, beginning with the 17th-century colonial settlements and extending to the 1970s, by focusing on the relationship between gender and politics. We will examine the extent to which women were able to participate in the public sphere despite their exclusion from formal political power for much of the nation’s history. We will place the topic of women and politics in the larger context of American history, studying how more general social and cultural trends affected and were affected by women’s political activities. Specific topics and themes will include the ideology of separate spheres; the relationship of gender, race, and class; the impact of war on women; sectional and regional differences; the suffrage movement; and the emergence of feminism.
Women/Gender, Race, Class and Sexuality in Film: History and Feminist Film Theory
This yearlong seminar uses history and feminist film theory to analyze American cinema from its silent origins to the present. Gender, race, class, and sexuality offer contextual ways to look at the representation of women and men in films. We analyze cinema as a part of historical processes and assess historical and feminist interpretations. We learn how to read films, discussing explicit and implicit meanings. A variety of film genres will be analyzed from early motion pictures of the 1890s, silent films, 1940s women’s film, avant garde, film noir, Afro-American cinema, second-wave feminist film, documentary, queer cinema, films of politics, masculine genre films (action/adventure), ethnic cinema, and fantasy/horror through global cinema. Students will develop a critical understanding of movies, not only as part of cultural and social history but also as a political vehicle for activism and change.
Women, Gender, Transnationalism, and Power in Latin America
This course deals with women, gender, citizenship, and power relations in Latin America in the late-19th and 20th centuries. Using a global frame, we will consider Latin America as part of the Americas and the Global South. Taking a historical and thematic approach, the class will address questions of gendered power and the state, power relations between sexes and genders, and sexual and cultural imperialism and the gendering and racialization of foreign relations. Case studies will offer insight into how class, race, ethnicity, and color intersect gender, sex, and sexuality in modern Latin America. We will grapple with questions of gender and the family and hybridity, belonging, exclusion, and transnational migration. In the fall, a focus will be on gendered citizenship. Up until at least the early 20th century, Latin American women lost their citizenship rights upon marrying foreign men (defined by birth and/or race). In some cases, women moved to the men’s home countries and found that they had no legitimate citizenship status there, either. At the interstices of the nation-state, Latin American women pushed against gendered citizenship policy and practice. We will reflect on this phenomenon in a global context, as gendered citizenship existed around the world in this period. In particular, we will look at Latin America-Asia connections. Exploring historiographical questions and debates that take us across the borders of region and field, we will think about why the bulk of the literature has come from US women historians, while there has been a relative paucity of work on gendered citizenship by Latin American historians (though we will ask whether such comparisons constitute or lead to scholarly imperialism). In the spring, we will concentrate on sex slavery and sex and cultural tourism in Latin America in conjunction with the Women’s History Conference on human trafficking. We will address how diverse groups of women—indigenous, mestiza, black, Jewish, and Asian—have been trafficked in Latin America at different times. We will consider how travel brochures and online forums have sexualized and racialized Latin American and Caribbean bodies as exotic and ultradesirable to attract heterosexual and queer tourists from North America, Europe, and elsewhere. Throughout the year, we will also study notions of the body, masculinity and femininity, and queer subjectivities in modern Latin America. Other themes involve the blurring of the private and the public and women’s activism, as well as other ways women have intervened in Latin American culture and politics. Assigned readings include historical monographs and articles, as well as treatises, memoirs, and historical novels.
Alternative Americas: A Cultural and Intellectual History of the United States, 1776-1976
The story most typically told of America focuses on the path taken, the victors and the nature of their victory, the dreamers whose dreams were realized, and central figures in a largely political narrative. In this course, we will revisit the United States through the lives of those more on the margins—dreamers and doers who faced heavier odds or who dreamed of a world that never arrived. Through the words, dreams, memories, and exhortations of African Americans, workers, women, immigrants, and cultural critics of all sorts, we will revisit the story of the idea of America as it has unfolded. Readings will include primary sources from the time period, as well as historical articles and books. In the spring, we will add film. As we read and watch, we will also write. This will be a course that emphasizes the synthesis of historical research and expository writing. Juniors with permission of the instructor.
Suggested Electives (Students must earn 4 credits in elective courses. A research seminars may also be taken for elective credit, in which case the student does not undertake independent research.)
Internship for Professional Development
The Women’s History Graduate Program encourages students to take on internships at institutions and organizations relevant to their interests. Students who do this under faculty supervisions may earn course credit in connection with their internships and use these credits to fulfill the elective requirement. Credit-bearing internships require substantial reading and writing in connection with the fieldwork. Students who fulfill the elective requirement in this manner must also attend professional development workshops organized by the Women’s History Program. To make arrangements for a credit-bearing internship, see the program’s director.
Desire Across Boundaries: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Postcolonial World
A common feature of both colonial and postcolonial societies has been the enforcement of rules, both cultural and legal, that determine with whom one may be sexual and whom one may marry. Laws in the European colonies focused most intensively on regulating intimate connections among people of different races; but the nature of those regulations varied over time and by location, depending on the underlying political goals and gendered logics of local governments. For example, subaltern white men were encouraged to form households with colonized women in 19th century Dutch Indonesia and prohibited from doing so in the 20th century. And in the post-independence era, indigenous same-sex intimacies, which were of little concern to colonial governments, have now come under fierce government scrutiny and persecution in countries such as Uganda and Zimbabwe. In this yearlong seminar, we will examine articulations among race, gender, and sexuality in the period from the European scramble for colonies to the present era of post-independence (the postcolonial.) For this exploration, we will mine the works of 19th-century sexologists Freud and Foucault and their feminist critics, the writings of colonizers and anticolonial activists, and ethnographic and historical accounts of race and sex in particular colonial and post-independence settings. We will study the writings and images of anthropologists, filmmakers, historians, novelists, and activists in many parts of the globe.
The relationship between Islam and sexuality has been the subject of much curiosity and misunderstanding. On the one hand, Islam is viewed, in the United States, largely as a sexually repressive religion, one that controls women’s bodies and persecutes sexual minorities. On the other hand, in Muslim societies, sexuality is predominantly a taboo topic that is rarely the subject of open discussion. Importantly, the historical record indicates that the Islamic debates on sexuality are far more limited in the contemporary period than they were in the past. Moreover, Islam has several schools of thought that provide both distinct and overlapping interpretations of scripture and approaches to sexuality. Hence, Islamic beliefs pertaining to topics such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, transsexuality, and sex reassignment vary by sect, culture, and regional and national laws across the Muslim world. While dominant discourses conceal the diversity of thought and practice within Islam, homogenizing forces from within Muslim societies seek to obliterate it. This interdisciplinary course offers a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between Islam and sexuality from several analytical positions, including the location of sexuality and gender in Muslim-majority countries and cultures, the multiple interpretations on the place of non-normatively gendered and sexed individuals within Islam, the lived experiences of LGBT Muslims and sexual minorities in diverse cultural contexts, queer readings of Islamic doctrine, and transnational discourses that influence the ways in which Islam is perceived in relation to sexuality. We will also assess the role of orientalism, colonialism, global inequalities, war, and terrorism in shaping representations of sexuality and gender in Islam. Through historical, anthropological, autobiographical, and theological literature, students will gain an understanding of the various Islamic viewpoints pertaining to sexuality, the vast diversity of belief and practices within queer Muslim communities, how people reconcile their religious and sexual identities, and the transformations occurring within Islam that both constrain and facilitate efforts to create acceptance for alternative genders and sexualities.
Virginia Woolf in the 20th Century
“On or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf observed, “human character changed....All human relations shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” In her novels, essays, reviews, biographies, and polemics, as well as in her diaries, letters, and memoirs, Woolf charted and fostered the cultural and political forces behind those changes as they developed across the century. Over the course of that century, Woolf's image also changed from that of the “invalid lady of Bloomsbury,” a modern, a madwoman, and perhaps a genius to that of a monster, a feminist, a socialist, a lesbian, and an icon. While focusing on the development of her writing, we will also consider her life and its interpretation, her politics and their implications, and the use of her art and image by others as points of reference for new work of their own. Her family, friends, lovers, and critics will all appear. We will also be reading her precursors, her peers, and those who—in fiction, theatre, and film—took up her work and image in the decades after her death. This course will serve as an introduction to 20th-century fiction, feminist literary study, lesbian/gay/queer studies, the study of sexuality, and the study of politics in literature. Conference projects might focus on one other writer, a range of other writers, or one of these approaches to literary analysis.
Pretty, Witty, and Gay
Are you ready to review your cultural map? As Gertrude Stein once said, “Literature—creative literature—unconnected with sex is inconceivable. But not literary sex, because sex is a part of something of which the other parts are not sex at all.” More recently, Fran Leibowitz observed, “If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture, you would be pretty much left with Let’s Make a Deal.” We do not have to limit ourselves to America, however. The only question is where to begin: in the pantheon, in prison, or in the family; in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York; with the “friends of Dorothy” or “the twilight women”? There are novels, plays, poems, essays, songs, films, and critics to be read, read about, listened to, or watched. There are dark hints, delicate suggestions, positive images, negative images, and sympathy-grabbing melodramas to be reviewed. There are high culture and high camp, tragedies and comedies, the good, the bad, and the awful to be enjoyed and assessed. How has modern culture thought about sexuality and art, love and literature? How might we think again? Conference work may be focused on a particular artist, set of texts, or genre or on some aspect of the historical background of the materials that we will be considering.
Embodiment and Biological Knowledge: Public Engagement in Medicine and Science
In this course, we will explore when, why, and how biological ideas become salient to people’s identities and to political debates, whether and how closely popular conceptions of biology and the physical body match scientific and medical knowledge, and the variations in the extent to which biological knowledge is seen as relevant to particular conceptions of the self or social controversies over the body. Why have vaccinations become controversial, and what understandings of the immune system underlie these controversies? How does the subjective nature of pain figure into controversies over contested illnesses such as fibromyalgia or repetitive strain syndrome? What do “genes” or “genetics” mean in social or cultural terms? How do hormones figure into our cultural understanding of gender and into people’s own gendered self-identities, particularly at times of hormonal change such as puberty, hysterectomy, or taking hormones as part of aligning the physical body with gender identity? In sociology and anthropology, medical and scientific knowledge has often been described as alienating, distancing people from their direct embodied experiences. Yet, to be a body is also always to be in a social context; so that perception is simultaneously cultural and physical. While medical and scientific knowledge provide us with ideas about our bodies that we cannot directly experience (e.g., our genes), these ideas can be deeply embedded and socially powerful explanatory systems. Thus, scholars have also argued that rather than alienating us from ourselves and our bodies, medical knowledge is constitutive of bodies and selves. Biological ideas and terms also circulate freely, so that popular conceptions of biology or physiology and scientific knowledge may not map neatly onto each other. We will explore these themes of bodily association and dissociation, science as alienating or constitutive, and popularization and expertise through various domains of biological knowledge, embodiment, and public debate. Past course work in the social sciences is beneficial but not required.
Public Stories, Private Lives: Methods of Oral History
Oral history methodology has moved from a contested approach to studying history to an integral method of learning about the past. This is because oral histories allow us to gain an understanding of past events from a diverse array of vantage points. Methods of recording oral history also allow the possibility of bringing private stories into the public. In contrast, public history in the form of monuments, museums, and World Heritage Sites are consciously preserved in order to emphasize particular aspects of a national, regional, or local past that their protectors deem to be important. Who owns this history? Is it Civil War reenactors, who dedicate their weekends to remembering that war? Is it the African Americans who return to West Africa in search of their African past or the West Africans who want to forget about their slave-trading past? What happens when the methods for interpreting public and oral histories combine? This course places particular attention on the importance of oral history in tracing memories of the past. We will discuss how Africanist and feminist scholars have used oral history to study the history of underrepresented groups. We will also investigate how methods of oral history and public history can be used in reconstructing the local history of our surrounding community (i.e., Yonkers, Bronxville, Westchester County).