For the NEH…

Historians Joan Kelly, Alice Kessler-Harris, Joan Scott, and Nell Painter, photographer Candacy Taylor, and filmmaker Mira Nair. What do these women have in common? All received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a government-funded agency now more than a half-century old.

Operating under the banner “Because democracy demands wisdom,” the NEH provides funds to “cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars.” These funds help share photos depicting scenes from across an ocean and time (and art and artifacts from the North American continent too), bring books to life, engage young minds at the museum, disseminate knowledge to educators, and tell us what’s in the archives so we can find it later!

Even if you’re not a scholar, you may have come into contact with the NEH. It’s one of those things you might hear about on PBS (This programming is made possible by…). Personally, one of my favorite pieces of NEH work is “The Presidents” on PBS’s American Experience.

As a student, I have come across the work of or had some sort of connection to all the individuals I named above. Joan Kelly was one of the creators of the SLC Women’s History program. Alice Kessler-Harris, who once taught at SLC, was one of the women’s historians whose work I came across while browsing the library of the women’s center where I once worked. Joan Scott and Candacy Taylor’s works were among our readings in our first year as graduate students. Nell Painter presented the keynote address at our “Black Women in White America, Revisited,” conference this year. I wrote about one of Mira Nair’s projects in an undergraduate paper on women-directed films. It is exciting to think that NEH grants helped them on their way to success, on their way to students like us seeing their work and being inspired.

If you are a member of the American Historical Association (AHA) or a savvy observer of the news, you may have heard way back in January about imperiled funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Well, the President’s budget proposal is now out in the open, and the AHA has provided its analysis of the President’s proposal, which is basically to dissolve the NEH.

As a graduate student who wants my fellow classmates and my teachers to have opportunities for research and for the exhibition of their work to the public, I see the National Endowment for the Humanities as an important asset to this country. When grants that can, for example, help us protect our primary source documents or interpret history for techloving audiences are in danger, the professions to which many students aspire are also in danger. It’s important that we protect the NEH!

 

This article reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sarah Lawrence College or the SLC Women’s History program.

Recent Events

This past week has been a tumultuous one for many. The new President signed an executive order blocking travel into the U.S. by refugees and many immigrants, and people came out to protest this action over the weekend. The executive order has even led our own college president, Karen Lawrence, to send out a message emphasizing support for the impacted people in our college community.

Each day seems to bring a list of new issues to which to respond, so it’s hard to keep up and feel like you’re staying up to date and responding in a timely manner. In light of that, please forgive us for the delay in responding to the Women’s March.

In the coming days, Re/Visionist will post a few responses from our students to the Women’s March on Washington or its “Sister Marches,” which occurred on January 21, 2017. Since the Saturday before last, there have been a variety of responses to this activism across the country, and I’m sure that you’ve been reading about it or watching it on TV.

The responses that we share cannot purport to be representative of all feminists, all women, or all people. We can only attribute the opinion of each writer to that individual writer. However, as we note in the Re/Visionist Mission Statement, this blog is meant to speak to multiple feminisms, and it is important to record the history of the people at our school. So, we will try to share the range of responses as we receive submissions. We encourage other members of the SLC community to share their thoughts by contacting us at revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu.

Thank you!

Write for Re/Visionist!

It’s the spring semester, and it’s time to get out your calendar again to set your second semester agenda! Re/Visionist is calling for students to get involved in the production of the Women’s History Program’s blog.

Both graduate and undergraduate students of all disciplines are encouraged to participate. As our mission statement says, the blog “aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms.” We need your voices to bring a variety of perspectives to the publication!

Please join us to share your ideas and declare your interest in Re/Visionist by attending our upcoming meeting:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

5:30PM – 6:30PM

Slonim House – Stone Room

If you have questions, please email revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu. Thanks!

Using Government Docs for Women’s History

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Over the course of the last semester, I have spent my time researching the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Harmless, right? Well, a lot of people, particularly Phyllis Schlafly and STOP ERA, begged to differ.

Even so, before the U.S. Senate deliberated on this issue, many women and men had something to say about the Equal Rights Amendment and what it meant for them. Given that this debate happened most notably in the 1970s, it isn’t so easy to access first-person accounts or testimonials of the time about the ERA. So, I looked for the text of the legislative hearings. You can’t get that from the Library of Congress online. The earliest mention of the ERA in the C-SPAN video library is 1980, and that is past the height of the debate. Hearings were however printed in a book available in SLC’s Esther Rauschenbusch Library.

You may not have used it, but there is a vast collection of government documents in our library, which includes that book chronicling the ERA hearings. Our library is part of the Federal Depository Library Program. At SLC, we have several bookcases worth of material, in addition to online guides of digitized materials. So, if you are studying American history, these resources might be useful to you!

As women’s history students, we have been taught to read “’against the grain’” (Bartholomae and Petrosky) because history has often excluded women, girls, people of color, and other people who have been marginalized in multiple and intersecting ways. We have been taught to investigate what has been written about women, for example, and what hasn’t. Where do their stories appear and not appear?

Let’s put that to work with our government documents section. In some cases, we may use government documents for basic information to include in our writing. For instance, we may want to know the population of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1980, and we would look at the U.S. Census for that information. However, as historians, we might also want to question that data. What methods did the U.S. Census Bureau use to get its count? Would these methods have led to the exclusion of X or Y group of people? How would their exclusion from the Census count affect public policy and thus quality of life? What questions did the Census not ask that it should have?

Do yourself a favor and visit the government documents section in the basement of our library. A browsing visit may lead you to documents about which you will raise questions, and you may be inspired to find the answers! Perhaps, those answers will become your master’s thesis!

In addition to bound hearings and reports, you’ll also find maps, videos, discs, and other resources! There’s content that covers substance abuse, NASA, foreign affairs, and the nuclear issue, among other things. Check out some of these interesting finds in the stacks!

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Plant and agricultural reference books, such as Silvics of North America, Volume 1 Conifers and Virus Diseases of Small Fruits

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Federal employment reports, like the Study of Employment of Women in the Federal Government: 1967 and Minority Group Employment in the Federal Government: November 1971.

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Videos from events at the Clinton White House, including Millennium Evenings at the White House: Women as Citizens.

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Copies of the Federal Budget galore!

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Foreign Relations of the United States: Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

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Public Papers of the Presidents: Barack Obama. Read the speeches and remarks of our current president, as printed in these volumes.

 

An Interview with Shirley Stewart MA ’10

Shirley Stewart is an alumnae of the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College, and the author of The World of Stephanie St. Clair: An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. She will be coming to Sarah Lawrence on December 3rd at 5:30 in Heimbold 208. Here is a sneak peek at her research process and advice for those interested in writing History.

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  1. How did you come to choose Stephanie St. Clair as the subject of your book?

The choice was a no-brainer. I mean it was just so obvious to me. On a shallow level, she was a beautiful and a professionally-successful woman in a time when most black women were not considered beautiful and success was hard to come by for anyone. Early on though I realized that there was so much more to St. Clair, so I was hooked on her story.

  1. What was your process for locating primary documents about the life of Stephanie St. Clair? What was your biggest challenge in locating primary documents, and how did you address that challenge?

The process was haphazard in the beginning. There was no road map (no autobiography or biography), and the sparse information I did find was wrong and continues to be perpetuated to this day (I think because that information is sexier than the truth). Anyway, I had to find a starting point that I could prove was factually correct in the form of a primary document. I then researched backwards from that point and moved forward locating more and more primary documents as I unearthed more information about her. The documents were all dated so that helped a great deal in creating a timeline of her life.

  1. What was one of the most interesting experiences/finds you had while researching Stephanie St. Clair?

I was fascinated with how invested Harlem residents were in their community. Socially and economically it was a diverse place with the tension that can entail. That same diversity, however, also allowed for Harlem’s vibrancy. In New York there is currently a discourse about gentrification. The idea that one group could displace a less economically viable group just did not happen during that era. Elite and middle-class blacks moved from other areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn to Harlem without a substantial displacement of the working-class or poor.

  1. What do you feel you gained from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence that most shaped the professional path you chose after graduation?

The Women’s History Program confirmed what I suspected all along—that history is not static. As I began the program someone (a highly-intelligent someone at that) said to me, “all the important history has been done already.” She was, of course, referring to all the “facts” found in all those texts found in the countless primary, intermediate and high schools across the country. However, documents are being unearthed every day and with digitization we can now cross-reference a wide range of people who experienced the same event. We can now have a more dynamic, nuanced and democratic view of a historical fact. Stephanie St. Clair was a perfect example of a woman who lived through some of the most important events in America’s history, and we have her actions and reactions to those events.

  1. What advice do you have for Women’s Historians that would like to turn their thesis work or budding research project into a book someday?

Instead of thinking of your thesis as a requirement for graduation, think in the long term. Find a thesis topic that will keep you engaged for at least three years. If the subject is not interesting to you, I guarantee that you will put all that hard work in a desk drawer and never look at it again. To complicate matters, life won’t stop because you are working on a book so plan to make choices so that the disparate pieces of your world become a more workable mess. Finally, understand that writing is a solitary process and it is possible that the only one who will see the value of your work in the beginning is you. Some of your friends and loved ones won’t understand your decision to spend an evening writing over other activities. Having said all that, I would not change a thing. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing.

Chained to the White Man

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By Tiffany Williams

Fuck the white man who told me
Dyslexia was an incurable disease
That being left-handed was worse than
Being Right

Momma told me to be silent when the white man was talking
Told me to listen to the white man
Act like the white man
Dye my hair blond
Get blue contacts
Don’t tan, you’re already dark
Go to the beauty supply store
Buy European hair and forget your roots
Momma said, Don’t dream… It’s too dangerous

Too afraid of saying the wrong thing
When the wrong thing was the right thing to say

Fuck you Soddy Daisy Elementary
made me afraid to be myself at 8
Mrs. Smith, my second grade teacher
never called on me
thought I didn’t know the answer
didn’t get picked for the spelling bee
no praise for the perfect scores
no smiley face sticker, no “good job”

Fuck the white kids
called me a Nigger at recess
Ate alone at lunchtime
An apple, cold turkey and cheese sandwich, my companions
5 feet of space between me and the table full of whispers
and wide open eyes
I heard them call me monster
Said my hair looked like weeds
Nothing you kept in your yard
I hung my head low
Eyes never met my enemies
I thought we were kids
and hatred couldn’t exist

Fuck the month of February
During black history month
teacher told me, Speak
Tell the story of your people
Couldn’t they see
That I didn’t know a Damn thing?
That I was learning too?

At home momma told me
“you can’t eat, until your homework is done”
I worked for hours
Math, more Math
Math
English, More English
English
Science, more Science
Science
Gotta get ahead if you wanna survive in this world
But would I ever get ahead?
Was it even possible?

Nighttime
Heard momma yellin
Daddy cussin
Hid in my closet
Prayin
Momma bleedin on the kitchen floor.
Knew I was never gonna get married.

Momma was right
I listened to the white man
Held my tongue for the white man
Relaxed my hair for the white man
Wore baggy clothes to hide my curves
Didn’t sit outside, too afraid to get too dark
Forgot what it was like to walk proud, head held high
Wait…
I was never taught that

Pema Chödrön: Buddhist Insight for Challenging Times

By Carly Fox 

I discovered feminism as a sophomore in college. I was insecure, angry, and to say the least, sad. Feminism gave me an intellectual framework with which to critically understand the world around me and a language to describe the feelings of isolation I had long felt. It gave me the tools to connect my personal experiences with history and politics, and inspired me to lead an engaged life that sought to undue oppression and division. Feminism radically altered my life; yet, as much as I read and studied, I still felt an underlying sense of insecurity, anxiety, and depression. I understood feminism from my mind, but I had yet to connect it with my heart.

The semester before I graduated college I bought a book by the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön.

Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City

Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City

A Buddhist nun since 1972, Pema studied under the well-known teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and is currently the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery for Westerners. Pema writes extensively about living with an open heart and relating directly to our experiences of suffering, fear, and uncertainty.  Her down-to-earth and accessible teaching style helped me learn how to stop struggling with myself and running from my fear. Her teachings also connected deeply with my understanding and passion for a feminist politics rooted in connectedness, love, and a shared commitment to end sexist oppression.

Cultivating Unconditional Friendship with Oneself

Learning how to befriend ourselves is fundamental to Pema’s teaching. As I read Pema’s work, I began to realize that I in fact knew very little about being a friend to myself; instead, I had spent a great deal of my life judging myself and trying to be “good enough.” I believed if I received A’s, went jogging more often, got into the right graduate school, read more books, had the right partner, ate organic food, and held the correct political beliefs then somehow I would finally be lovable. These things, I thought, would make that uncomfortable feeling of self-doubt disappear. To look honestly at all the parts of myself I didn’t like – my anger, jealousy, resentment, and self-denigration- was painfully frightening. Pema’s teaching, however, encourage us get to know all the parts of ourselves that we try to cover over.

Developing unconditional friendship means taking the very scary step of getting to know yourself. It means being willing to look at yourself clearly and to stay with yourself when you want to shut down. It means keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful (Pema Chodron).[1]

Rather than judging the parts of ourselves we dislike we could be tender and patient with all the ways we have been taught to self-reject and self-denigrate. Relating to ourselves in this way means creating space and acceptance for everything we experience, not just the parts or ourselves that we believe measure up.

In an interview with the Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun, feminist philosopher and public intellectual bell hooks explains the importance of first befriending ourselves in order for larger social movements to be truly transformational.

I would like to bring the work of mindfulness and awareness to everyday struggles. The most important field of activism, particularly for black people, is mental health. Activism does not need to be some kind of organized ‘against’ protest. When my students say they want to change the world, I espouse an inward to outward movement. If you feel that you can’t do shit about your own reality, how can you really think you could change the world? And guess what? When you’re fucked-up and you lead the revolution, you are probably going to get a pretty fucked-up revolution.[2]

As we create space for all parts of ourselves – the parts we are embarrassed by and the parts we are proud of – we then learn that we can let go of our constant need to be “good enough.” For the approach of unconditional friendship with oneself is not about becoming “better or “good enough,” but about becoming more of our true, authentic selves.

Smiling at Fear

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“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
― Pema Chödrön

By cultivating unconditional friendship with ourselves we also begin to better understand the nature of fear. How do we stay present and open-heartened when our experience seems frightening and overwhelming? What do we do when we panic? Before reading Pema’s work I had thought very little about fear and how it manifested in my life. As I started to pay attention, however, I realized that fear permeated so much of my experience – fear of failing, fear of things changing, fear of someone leaving, fear of not being good enough. I had no tools for how to relate to this underlying fear, for so much of my life had been about trying to simply not experience fear, uncertainly, or insecurity. Pema teaches, however, that the first step in working with fear is to experience it fully.  By staying with our fear we begin to development confidence. Not a confidence that everything is going to work out the way we want, but a confidence that we can stay with ourselves no matter what the outer circumstances of our lives may be. Staying with our fear also begins to soften our hearts. We learn that instead of running away and arming ourselves we could in fact open genuinely to ourselves and to others. As Pema says,

If you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness, vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness. This tender-heartedness happens naturally when you start to be brave enough to stay present, because instead of armoring yourself, instead of turning to anger, self-denigration, and iron-heartedness, you keep your eyes open and you begin, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, to see the blueness of an iris, the wetness of water, the movement of the wind.[3]

Suffering: The Path to Freedom

As we learn to relate more openly to fear, we also learn to open to pain and suffering. Pema teaches that we can do two things with suffering. We can let it harden us, and become filled with more anger, resentment and hatred, or we can use it as a means to become more compassionate and loving. Letting suffering soften us, Pema teaches, is critical if we wish to change the world.

Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.[4]

In a conversation with Pema, Alice Walker explained that she once believed suffering had no use.After listening to Pema’s tape set called Awakening Compassion, however, Walker said she discovered that staying with her pain and suffering in fact allowed her to lead a more joyous and open-hearted life.

Pema Chödrön in conversation with Alice Walker.

Pema Chödrön in conversation with Alice Walker.

Learning to relax into pain, rather than pushing it away, Walker says, is” just the right medicine for today.”

As you breathe in what is difficult to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the constriction. That’s the time when you really have to be brave. But if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.[5]

Pema’s teachings on suffering, fear, and unconditional self-love have been a bridge connecting the personal and political in my life, reminding me that indeed the two are never really separate. In my own experience, to engage in feminism is also to engage in a practice of radical self-love. By cultivating unconditional friendship with ourselves and learning to stay present with our fear and pain we can then begin to transform the world.