Women’s Studies

Recent Scholarship on the 2017 Women’s March

On January 21, 2017, over 5 million people marched all over the world in support of women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, environmental policy reform, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and worker’s rights, among other causes. We are excited to share this recent scholarship that analyzes the Women’s March itself, as well as continued scholarship on feminism and women’s rights.

“Positions in Solidarity: Voices and Images from the US Women’s Marches” by Deborah Frizzell in Cultural Politics

Trump-WomensMarch_2017-top-1510075_(32409710246)In this article featured in Cultural Politics, Frizzell features photographs and remembrances of the Women’s Marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. The article addresses the efficacy of mass marches and similar forms of protest and poses questions about the nature of the March, what it achieved, and questions if solidarity can be sustained in an environment of ongoing divisiveness.
An excerpt from the article:
On the morning of January 21, 2017, I reviewed a PDF file from the National Lawyers Guild and the Black Movement Law Project to prepare for participation in the Women’s March in New York City. As I dressed for a mild winter’s day, I wrote with a Sharpie pen on my forearm the guild’s legal support hotline number in case of arrest. My good friend and colleague Sharon Vatsky and I decided to attend the march together. Although we had experience protesting in a number of marches over the years, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, we were not sure what to expect in 2017 with militarized police forces and escalating violence deployed by Trump supporters as a tactic against Muslims, Latinos, people of color, Jews, and LGBTQ communities.
Read the full article, made freely available.

“The Women’s March: New York, January 21, 2017” by Caroline Walker Bynum in Common Knowledge

Women's_March_2017-01_(04)Bynum wrote this article, featured in Common Knowledge, two days after the Women’s March in New York City. It describes the event while focusing on two specific aspects: the March’s multi-issue focus and its response to the denigration of women’s expertise represented in much of the hostility to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Bynum argues that “a pernicious and often unrecognized denigration of female voices and female expertise forms an undercurrent of contemporary political debate that needs to be much more widely resisted.”

An excerpt from the article:

Indeed, the staggering diversity of issues was one of the most obvious aspects of Saturday’s march. Even among those in my little group, there were many reasons for turning out. Our signs spoke of defending Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, gun control, the inner cities, the environment. If there was no clear agenda, why does it seem so important that my friends and I marched?

Above all, it is important because it was a women’s march—a fact that the commentators have not fully noted and understood.

Read the full article, made freely available.

 

Additional Scholarship on Feminism and Women’s Rights

Read to Respond: Feminism and Women’s Rights

readtorespondOur “Read to Respond” series addresses the current climate of misinformation by highlighting articles and books that encourage thoughtful, educated debate on today’s most pressing issues. This blog post on Feminism and Women’s Rights features journal articles and books tackling topics from abortion laws, maternity leave, Islamic feminism, and more. Read, reflect, and share these resources in and out of the classroom to keep these important conversations going.

“Borders and Margins,” a special issue of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies

ddmew_13_3_coverThis special issue of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, “Borders and Margins,” approaches borders and margins through the lens of gender and sexuality.  Borders and margins are productive spaces to examine both the power and contingency of normative gender and sexual ideals and how gendered and sexual bodies participate in the production and reconfiguration of the nation-state. Essays in this issue analyze how women on the margins of society expose the exclusionary and gendered logics of nation-state formation and then generate new engagements with embodied politics and religious practice. This examination of borders and margins continues the feminist and gender-based analyses of material and discursive spaces and mobilities examined in previous issues.

The issue also features a special forum on Trump’s Presidency and Middle East Women’s Studies, examining topics such as the Muslim ban and the gendered side of Islamophobia. This special forum is freely available until May 2018.

Start reading with Sara Smith’s preface to the issue, freely available now.

“1970s Feminisms,” a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly

ddsaq_114_4For more than a decade, feminist historians and historiographers have engaged in challenging the “third wave” portrait of 1970s feminism as essentialist, white, middle-class, uninterested in racism, and theoretically naive. This task has involved setting the record straight about women’s liberation by interrogating how that image took hold in the public imagination and among academic feminists. This issue invites feminist theorists to return to women’s liberation—to the texts, genres, and cultural productions to which the movement gave rise—for a more nuanced look at its conceptual and political consequences. The essays in this issue explore such topics as the ambivalent legacies of women’s liberation; the production of feminist subjectivity in mass culture and abortion documentaries; the political effects of archiving Chicana feminism; and conceptual and generic innovations in the work of Gayle Rubin, Christine Delphy, and Shulamith Firestone.

Start reading now.

“Trans/Feminisms,” a special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly

ddtsq_3_1-2Feminism and trans activism don’t have to be mutually exclusive, argue the contributors to “Trans/Feminisms,” the most recent issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

This special double issue, edited by Susan Stryker and Talia M. Bettcher, goes beyond the simplistic dichotomy between an exclusionary transphobic feminism and an inclusive trans-affirming feminism. Exploring the ways in which trans issues are addressed within feminist and women’s organizations and social movements around the world, contributors ask how trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary issues are related to feminist movements today, what kind of work is currently undertaken in the name of trans/feminism, what new paradigms and visions are emerging, and what questions still need to be taken up.

Central to this issue is the recognition that oppressions intersect, converge, overlap, and sometimes diverge in complex ways, and that trans/feminist politics cannot restrict itself to the domain of gender alone.

This issue features numerous shorter works that represent the diversity of trans/feminist practices and problematics and, in addition to original research articles, includes theory, reports, manifestos, opinion pieces, reviews, and creative/artistic productions, as well as republished key documents of trans/feminist history and international scholarship.

Start reading now.

“World Policy Interrupted,” a special issue of World Policy Journal
wpj33_4_23_frontcover_fppIn “World Policy Interrupted,” a special issue of World Policy Journal penned entirely by female foreign policy experts and journalists, contributors imagine a world where the majority of foreign policy experts quoted, bylined, and miked are not men.

The issue challenges the perception that women are not policymakers by showcasing the voices of female experts and leaders. Contributors to this issue address topics such as feminism in Chinaabortion laws across the Americascombating violent extremism by working with religious leaders, and women in media. The issue also features a conversation with Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritus.

Start reading now.

Marianne Moore

The most recent special issue of Twentieth-Century Literature, “Marianne Moore,” edited by Heather Cass White and Fiona Green, is now available.

TCL_63_4_coverThe five essays collected in this special issue focus closely on the period many have identified as a turning point for poet Marianne Moore: the poems and essays she published between 1935 and 1944. The recent editions of The Pangolin and Other Verse and What Are Years account in part for this focus, but there are particular aspects of Moore’s career in this crucial decade that also compel attention. Like other poets of her generation, Moore turned her mind more fully to national and world events in the 1930s; with this came the explicitly ethical emphasis in her writing discussed in the first and last essays in this issue, by Heather White and David Herd, respectively. Like these two, the other articles make their larger claims—about criticism, about revision, about verse form, about performance, about politics—by means of detailed case study.

Read the introduction to this issue, now freely available.

The Trouble with White Women

Kyla SHC Oct 17 croppedToday’s guest blog post is written by Kyla Schuller, author of the new book The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century.

Broad swaths of the left and liberal-leaning U.S. public newly dedicated themselves to political activity in the wake of Trump’s ascension to the White House and the GOP’s control of the Senate and the House. Amidst the awakening of a liberal grassroots, a new enemy crystallized: the white woman voter. She emerged as the victim of a kind of false consciousness forged not in the factory, but in the college classroom and suburban mall. In dominant media narratives, her ubiquity came as a shock. The stats are repeated as incantation: 53% of white women voted for Trump a mere four weeks after video emerged of Trump bragging about sexual assault. 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore in December’s Alabama Senate special election, despite mounds of credible evidence of Moore’s molestation of young teen girls. Why, the narrative muses, would white women betray their own interests? And why are black women—98% of whom voted for Moore’s opponent Doug Jones—seemingly immune to electoral self-sabotage?

I wish to suggest a frame that has not emerged in the mountain of copy addressing the problem of white women. Feminists have generated many useful analyses – white women’s investment in patriarchy, the class structure, the racial status quo—underlining the material benefits conservative politics offer white women. There is a deeper, more structural reason why white women vote for misogynist, white supremacist candidates despite a century and a half of feminist organizing, however. Simply put: sex difference is itself a racial structure.

978-0-8223-6953-0Sexual difference, as a concept, emerged as a function of race. This is particularly salient in the nineteenth century, the era in which modern notions of race and sex difference solidified. My new book, The Biopolitics of Feeling, zeroes in on this generally overlooked phenomenon (outside of the history of evolutionary thought): that a wide variety of scientists, writers, and reformers articulated full sexual differentiation as the unique achievement of the civilized. The binary entities of man and woman were newly understood as thoroughly distinct in terms of mental, physiological, emotional, and psychological capacity. Sex difference was presented as the singular attainment of a teleological evolution moving toward ever greater specialization. The primitive races, by contrast, were cast as unsexed, as insufficiently evolved in both anatomy and character. The category of womanhood emerged in modern times as a unique quality of civilization. Its ramifications are still visible in electoral politics across the country.

The Biopolitics of Feeling uncovers the foundational role of sex difference to biopower. It unearths how sex difference functioned as a key technology of biopower’s racializing structures, which operate to choose some members of the population for life and cast others into disposability and death. Sex difference helped qualify individuals for life. I reveal how the position of the feminine was carved out not only to exemplify social evolutionary achievement, but also to protect it. Scientists identified the key quality of the civilized body to be its impressibility, or the capacity to be affected over time. Receptivity to sensory impressions determined a body’s capacity for growth, mental development, and even, in this Lamarckian and pre-genetic era, the transmission of acquired characteristics to descendants. Impressibility thus served as the ontological basis of progress. Impressibility also, however, entailed a frightening vulnerability to influence and environment, rendering the civilized body in need of careful protection.

I argue that two central technologies were developed in the nineteenth century to manage the constitutional vulnerability of civilization: sex difference and sentimentalism. The civilized body was cleaved in two, and the female half were assigned the liabilities of heightened impressibility as well as increased emotional faculty to mediate temptation to impulsive response to impressions. The male half were thus stabilized as masters of reason and moderate feeling. Sentimentalism, in turn, was a vast technology particularly, but far from exclusively, assigned to women to regulate the growth of the individual and the evolution of the population through managing the flow of impressions throughout a milieu. Both sex and sentiment were deployed as stabilizing forces regulating responses to sensory stimulations and thus their effect on the individual and racial body.

The legacy of womanhood as itself a stabilizing structure of whiteness reverberates loudly today and is particularly resonant in the trope of the white woman voter. The conservative ideology in which women’s role is to protect the private sphere is an element of the biopolitical logic that women’s role is to secure the stability of the civilized races. White Republican women who vote for sexual assaulters are not identifying with their whiteness over their gender, as has often been claimed. Rather, they are enacting their womanhood itself: both absorbing and smoothing over the flow of sensation and feeling that makes up the public sphere, ensuring that white men remain relatively free from the encumbrances of embodiment and are susceptible only to further progress. Our anger at white women conveniently spares the white male voter, who supported Trump and Moore in even larger numbers. The problem with white Republican women is the problem with woman as a category in the first place.

Feminism, too, is revealed in The Biopolitics of Feeling to function as an apparatus of biopower that translates allegedly inherent natural categories into political identities and platforms. But it doesn’t have to be so. Twentieth-and twenty-first century women of color feminists have been strikingly clear that the position of woman has largely been denied to non-white groups, and they have refashioned the meanings of the term woman in the process. Women, as a political group, need no longer be tied to biological discourses of race or anatomy, but this requires explicit excavation and refusal of the term’s lingering past.

Multiethnic feminisms lead the way to disentangling feminism from biopower, and woman as an entity from naturalizing logics. Intersectional and assemblage feminisms and multiethnic #MeToo campaigns are pointing to a new politics in which women no longer serve as civilization’s remainder, the sponge to absorb the impressions and stimulations of which power is itself constituted. Feminism may be born of the biopolitical logic of sex, but it thus also contains the seeds of biopower’s demise.

Pick up Kyla Schuller’s new book The Biopolitics of Feeling for 30% off by using coupon code E17SCHUL at dukeupress.edu.

Best of 2017

We’re always thrilled when our books are included on various Best of the Year lists. 2017 brought this honor to a number of great titles.

TitleTreatment_FINALThe New York Times named two of our books to their Best Art Books of 2017 list. Art critic Holland Cotter selected Kellie Jones’s South of Pico as one of his favorites. And critic Roberta Smith chose Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, the catalog for Abney’s first solo museum exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

South of Pico was also chosen as one of the year’s best booksSouth of Pico by Artforum. Gary Dauphin said the book was “a timely reminder that the United States has seen massive internal displacement within living memory and could again. But, more important, it’s also a credible affirmation that from such sudden, painful movements something new and whole might yet be made.” And in his list of 2017’s top ten moments of “reckoning and light,” Okwui Enwezor selected Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies 1983. “Argumentative, diagnostic, witty, and learned,” he writes, “the series of scintillating lectures contained in this volume presents Hall at the height of his fearless and generous scholarly powers, offering not only a history of cultural studies but a theoretical and politically engaged reading of our unequal centuries.”

Culture Type also selected South of Pico as one of it’s Best Black Art Books of the year, calling it “both a scholarly triumph and a fascinating read.” Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush made their list, too, as did We Wanted a Revolution: A Sourcebook. A publication of the Brooklyn Museum, the Sourcebook accompanies their groundbreaking exhibition of the same name. Culture Type calls it “an invaluable reference.” Look for the second volume, We Wanted a Revolution: New Perspectives, next month.

Living a Feminist LifeLiving a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed was named a best nonfiction book of 2017 by Entropy, and Autostraddle said it was one of the top ten queer feminist books of 2017. If you loved this book too, don’t forget to order your Feminist Killjoy t-shirt!

The Seminary Co-op bookstore named a number of Duke University Press titles to its Notable Books of 2017 list. Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe made their Top 12 list as did We Wanted a Revolution, a sourcebook from the landmark exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Other books on their list include Vinyl Freak by John Corbett and Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy by Kojin Karatani.

Louise Thompson PattersonBitch Magazine included Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice in their list of the best black women’s history books of the year. They write that author Keith Gilyard “offers a look at one of the most dynamic Black women who’s ever walked the Earth.”

Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies puts Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer on their Essential Boricua Reading List for the 2017 Holiday Season.

Just as we do at the end of every year, publisher Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux asked their staff to pick their favorite books of the year. Maya Binyam, who is also a Senior Editor at The New Inquiry, chose In the Wake by Christina Sharpe.

Congratulations to all these authors and thanks so much to those who spent time compiling the lists. You can save 30% on any of these titles by using coupon code SAVE30 at checkout on our website. Or buy them from your favorite local or online bookstore.

Q&A with Monique Moultrie, author of Passionate and Pious

Monique MoultrieMonique Moultrie, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, is the author of the new book Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality. In the book, she explores the impact of faith-based sexual ministries on black women’s sexual agency to trace how these women navigate sexuality, religious authority, and their spiritual walk with God.

How would you describe your personal history and relationship with the evangelical church, and especially with the televangelist Juanita Bynum, whose ministry you discuss at length in Passionate and Pious?

I was reared in a conservative Christian church (a Baptist church) in a rural community that was a model of evangelicalism and took quite seriously the Christian message to evangelize. I went to Jerry Falwell rallies as a teen and actively participated in Christian organizations/clubs. When I entered college I first became aware of televangelist Juanita Bynum even though as a teen I had practiced purity as was expected from my evangelical model. What I remember about watching Bynum’s “No More Sheets” sermon for the first time in a small group setting with a group of other women was that I remembered many things clicking from the sermon. It made sense on a very guttural level. I also think the sermon offered voice to a lot of the personal experiences of women in the room. Women were trying to live out their faith lives in ways that came into contrast with their own sexual needs, desires, and actual realities. Later as I watched events in Bynum’s personal life unfold, I began to wonder if Bynum was the model exemplar or if in fact this was a model that others could hold onto and participate in the same way.

After personally following Bynum for years she became the topic of my doctoral dissertation as I set out to explain the sexual dilemmas facing black women of faith and why/how they were influenced by No More Sheets. My dissertation used ethnographic research and cultural analysis to examine the authority of evangelical sexual messages produced in religious media like her televangelism. I continued to follow Bynum through her marriage, divorce, and subsequent ministries beyond her initial No More Sheets ministry although the book really only focused on this first step.

How did your background in the evangelical church—your experience in the community and as a consumer of its messages about sexuality—help (or hinder) you as you conducted research?

978-0-8223-7004-8

I mention in the book that part of my background in the evangelical church meant that a lot of this rhetoric was something I was used to, as I already knew the lingo and phrases. One of the early book reviewers’ comments was that the book was full of a lot of insider language as I described the communities. I was really such an insider that I needed to go back with the editors to get help determining what words/phrases/categories needed to be defined for those outside of these communities. Thus, in this initial way I had a natural in because I was formed in black church settings. I was also familiar with religious media because I grew up watching televangelism and in many ways the evangelical communities I was studying just made sense to me. It made entering into research much easier as I knew what types of questions to ask to get a response. At times, I could even anticipate responses. I could be understood by my audience and in ways that gave me an advantage since I didn’t have to work as hard to earn trust. Having familiarity in their settings aided my research. I didn’t have to be vouched for in many ways and specifically online this helped when people can’t look at you in your eyes and get a feel for whether you seem authentic or not. Being online in many of these accountability groups and participating online it really helped to know the community’s language, theology, worship, etc.

On the other hand, if my insider status did hinder my research, it was because I was very compassionate towards them. I really spent a lot of time thinking of my research questions. I think a lot of what gets written about evangelicals treats them as if they are cultural dupes. They are written about as if they lack intellect or are overruled by emotionality or that they are not making conscious decisions. I knew that not to be the case so I wanted that to show in my own research. I wanted to highlight the very tough decisions that are being made daily in each of these women’s lives where they embody very complicated contemporary realities where being celibate until marriage for a black woman often means participating in celibacy movements for more than half of their lives. Young girls start in groups in their teen years and they participate in college groups and stats show that black women marry much later; they marry much closer to age 50 so that’s a long time to participate in these movements! I wanted to be compassionate towards this experience because I understood this struggle. I also understood their deep desire for sexual relationship and faith to align. I wanted that to come forward in my research. In some ways, my tenderness towards their plight may have obfuscated my ability to be as critical as I may have wanted to.

As a trained academic, I was clear in my goal of illuminating my ethnographic subjects’ experiences while at the same time offering a womanist corrective. My constructive sections are where my critical side shows. In my goal of not just being objective in presenting these various ministries but to humanize them and these women’s experiences I did take a very critical persona. I did mention in the book that my own rearing in a conservative Christian background gave me messages that privileged monogamy and committed relationships as more normative. When I looked back at my questions related to non-monogamous relationships like hook up culture, my own background tainted those sets of questions. I didn’t really presume that non-monogamy would be the norm. Persons talked with me about their experiences with multiple partners, but often it came out as not their own experience but something that they were reporting from others. When I went through the transcripts, I think a large part of that may have been the way that I crafted the question that probably presumed monogamy. If they were in a multiple-partner relationship my questions presumed that this wasn’t what they intended as a mature relationship. Yet, I know for some of the participants that having multiple partners was not a stage or some immature sexual agency. Having multiple partners was deemed as normative as having one partner and so that’s definitely one way when I looked back at the research I saw a hindrance. Thankfully I became aware of this before the book went to print but certainly as I did the interviews I wasn’t as in tune with this unconscious privileging.

Your book discusses the many messages black women receive from the evangelical church: submission, modesty, abstinence outside of marriage, heterosexuality, etc. What tools does your book provide for shifting these messages or encouraging black women to reclaim their sexual agency?

(more…)

New Books in November

Another month, another batch of great new releases! Check out all the new books we have coming out in November.

978-0-8223-7016-1In Black and Blur—the first volume in his consent not to be a single being trilogy—Fred Moten engages in a capacious consideration of the place and force of blackness in African diaspora arts, politics, and life, exploring a wide range of thinkers, musicians, and artists. The other two volumes in the series will be out in the spring.

The contributors to Asian Video Cultures: In the Penumbra of the Global examine Asian video cultures—from video platforms in Indonesia to amateur music videos in India—in the context of social movements, market economies, and local popular cultures, showing how Asian video practices are central to shaping contemporary experiences and mainstream global media.

Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism challenges the academic and cultural stereotypes that do not acknowledge the rhetorical capabilities of autistic people, and shows how autistics both embrace and reject the rhetorical, thereby queering the lines of rhetoric, humanity, agency, and the very essence of rhetoric itself.

978-0-8223-7021-5Reckoning with one’s role in perpetuating systematic inequality, in The Beneficiary Bruce Robbins examines the implications of a humanitarianism in which the prosperous are the both the cause and the beneficiaries of the abhorrent conditions they seek to remedy.

In Domestic Economies Susanna Rosenbaum examines how immigrant Mexican and Central American domestic workers in Los Angeles and the predominantly white, upper-middle-class women who employ them seek to achieve the “American Dream,” underscoring how the American Dream’s ideology is racialized and gendered while exposing how pursuing it lies at the intersection of motherhood and domestic labor.

In Epigenetic Landscapes Susan Merrill Squier follows the cultural trail of C. H. Waddington’s “epigenetic landscape” metaphor from its first visualization by the artist John Piper to its use beyond science, examining how it has been used to illustrate complex systems that link scientific and cultural practices: graphic medicine, landscape architecture, and bioArt.

In Passionate and Pious Monique Moultrie explores the impact of faith-based sexual ministries on black women’s sexual agency to trace how these women navigate sexuality, religious authority, and their spiritual walk with God.

978-0-8223-6898-4.jpgIn Saving the Security State Inderpal Grewal traces the changing relations between the US state and its citizens in an era she calls advanced neoliberalism, under which everyday life is militarized, humanitarianism serves imperial aims, and white Christian men become exceptional citizens tasked with protecting the nation from racialized others.

In Sounds of CrossingAlex E. Chávez explores the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in huapango arribeño, a musical genre from north-central Mexico that helps Mexicans build communities on both sides of the US border and give voice to the transnational migrant experience.

N. Fadeke Castor’s Spiritual Citizenship explores the roles African religious practice play in the formation of social and political identities play in post-independence Trinidad and Tobago, showing how Ifá/Orisha practitioners build and perceive a sense of diasporic belonging that leads them to work toward black liberation and a decolonial future.978-0-8223-7150-2

In Street Archives and City Life Emily Callaci maps a new terrain of political and cultural production in mid-twentieth-century Tanzanian cities. While the postcolonial Tanzanian ruling party adopted a policy of rural socialism—Ujamaa—an influx of youth migrants to the city of Dar es Salaam generated innovative forms of urbanism through the production and circulation of street archives.

We are excited to publish a tenth anniversary expanded edition of Jasbir K. Puar’s pathbreaking book, Terrorist Assemblages—which features a new preface by Tavia Nyong’o and a new postscript by the author. Puar argues that configurations of sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, and ethnicity are realigning in relation to contemporary forces of securitization, counterterrorism, and nationalism.

978-0-8223-7034-5In Test of Faith photographer Lauren Pond documents a Signs Following preacher and his family in rural West Virginia, offering a deeply nuanced, personal look at serpent handling that invites a greater understanding of a religious practice that has long faced derision and criticism. The book is the eighth winner of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.

978-0-8223-7001-7Paul Rabinow continues his explorations of “a philosophic anthropology of the contemporary” in Unconsolable Contemporary by examining the work of German painter Gerhard Richter. Defining the contemporary as a moving ratio in which the modern becomes historical, Rabinow uses Richter’s work to illustrate how meaning is created within the contemporary.

The contributors to Unfinished, edited by João Biehl and Peter Lockeexplore the ethnographic essay’s expressive potentials by pursuing an anthropology of becoming, which attends to the contingency of lived experience and provides new means to represent what life means and how it can be represented.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for Subject Matters, our e-mail newsletter, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

 

 

Q&A with Lynn Comella, author of Vibrator Nation

lynn_comella_by_krystal_ramirez_smallLynn Comella is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An award-winning researcher, she has written extensively about sexuality and culture for numerous academic publications and popular media outlets. She is coeditor of the comprehensive New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, and a frequent media contributor. In Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure—the first book to tell the story of feminist sex-toy stores and the women who pioneered them—she takes a deep dive into the making of the consumer market for sex toys, tracing its emergence from the early 1970s to today. Drawing on more than eighty in-depth interviews with retailers and industry insiders, including a stint working as a vibrator clerk, she brings readers onto the sex-shop floor and into the world of sex-positive capitalism and cultural production. Lynn Comella is on a national tour this fall and winter; check back here next week for a full tour schedule.

art1Why did you decide to research feminist sex-toy businesses and how did you conduct your research?

I’ve long been interested in the politics of sexual representation, from the feminist sex wars of the 1980s to debates over school-based sex education. When I started this project, which began as a seminar paper in graduate school, I was really interested in the various ways in which female sexuality assumed a public presence as opposed to being relegated to the privacy of the home. As luck would have it, a feminist sex-toy shop, Intimacies, had just opened in the college town where I lived. I decided to make the store the focus of a small pilot study in an effort to better understand what made this female-friendly vibrator business different from more conventional adult stores ostensibly geared toward men. I quickly realized that Intimacies was part of a larger network of women-run, educationally oriented vibrator shops located in cities across the country that had all adopted a similar way of selling sex toys and talking about sex. I wanted to know more about what united these businesses together and how they attempted to practice feminist politics through the marketplace. What were the sexual vernaculars, retail strategies, philosophies, challenges and paradoxes that had shaped these businesses?

Researching the history of feminist sex-toy stores sent me down a rabbit hole. It took years and multiple methods of data collection—ethnographic fieldwork, in-depth interviews, and archival research—to weave together the various historical threads that shaped these businesses and the larger women’s market for sex toys and pornography. Writing the book I wanted to write, one that took a deep dive into the making of a market, required a kind of methodological promiscuity: I worked as a vibrator clerk at Babeland in New York City where I sold my fair share of sex toys, answered customer questions, and crossed my fingers that my cash register balanced at the end of the night. I interviewed more than eighty feminist retailers, employees, and industry insiders. I toured dildo manufacturing companies and lube factories, and attended more than a dozen adult industry trade shows where I sat in on business seminars that discussed marketing sex toys to women, retail-based sex education, and the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. I poured through dusty boxes filled with corporate documents, internal memos, customer letters, advertisements, news clippings, and more, and amassed a research archive teeming with sex-toy ephemera (which I’m having a lot of fun sharing on the vibrator_nation Instagram account).

What was it like for women to purchase sex toys before the mid-1970s? What were feminist entrepreneurs trying to change?

There weren’t a lot of opportunities for the average woman to comfortably buy vibrators in the early 1970s. Conventional adult stores weren’t designed with female shoppers in mind; reputable mail-order businesses that sold so-called marital aids were few and far between; and women walking into a department store—or any store, really—to buy a vibrating massager risked encountering a male clerk who might say, “Boy, you must really need it bad, sweetie pie.” What made the situation all the more frustrating for many women was that they were being told by feminist sex educators and therapists that they should masturbate and take control of their orgasms. Vibrators were being framed as tools of liberation, but getting one wasn’t easy. Early feminist retailers, such as Dell Williams, who founded Eve’s Garden in 1974, and Joani Blank who opened Good Vibrations several years later, stepped into this breach. They turned the traditional model of an adult store, with its “seamy” aura and X-rated style, on its head in an effort to appeal to female shoppers. What made these early feminist vibrator businesses so revolutionary, and what set them apart from their more conventional counterparts geared toward men, wasn’t just their focus on women, but their entire way of doing business. They led with sex education not titillation, and worked to advance a social mission that included putting a vibrator on the bedside table of every woman, everywhere, because they believed that access to accurate sexual information and quality products had the potential to make everyone’s lives better.

In the book you describe a “sex-positive diaspora” of feminist retailers. What do you mean by that?

One of the things that I found so interesting during the early stages of my research was the degree to which feminist business owners tipped their hats to Good Vibrations. Many of them credited the company’s founder, Joani Blank, a sex therapist with a master’s degree in public health, with helping them start their businesses. Blank had a very non-competitive approach to running a company and strongly believed that the more businesses that were doing what Good Vibrations was doing—selling vibrators and talking openly about sex—the better. Blank freely shared information and vendor lists with aspiring entrepreneurs, and in the early 1990s she started a short-lived internship program to train people how to run a business like Good Vibrations. The first, and only, two people to complete the internship program were Claire Cavanah, who along with Rachel Venning would go on to found Babeland in 1993, and Kim Airs who started Grand Opening in Boston that same year. Blank’s communitarian, non-competitive ethos created a ripple effect and by the early 1990s, Good Vibrations’ DNA had begun to spread to cities across the country. In time, people who worked at Babeland and Grand Opening branched out and started their own feminist vibrator shops and Good Vibrations’ sex-positive mission continued to replicate. I wanted a phrase that captured this movement and dispersal, and the description “sex-positive diaspora” seemed to do that.

What role have lesbians and queer-identified retailers and people of color played in the history of feminist sex-toy business?

Lesbians and queer-identified retailers, along with queer and transgender employees, have played a major role in shaping the history of feminist sex-toy businesses. They opened stores, worked on the sales floor, started sex-toy manufacturing companies, wrote “how to” guides, and made pornography. In these different ways they’ve been important nodes of transmission and sources of queer sexual knowledge, including for straight people. In fact, I’d argue that the history of feminist sex-toy stores is also, and very much so, a story about queer entrepreneurship and cultural production. For many of the businesses that I write about in Vibrator Nation, their identities as queer and trans-inclusive companies are as important, if not more so, than their feminist identities. And yet, it’s also the case that these businesses have historically been very white. If you look at photos of Good Vibrations staff from the 1980s, for example, everyone is white and female. So it’s perhaps not surprising that some customers got the impression that Good Vibrations was a white women’s store—even as the company worked hard to change that perception and diversity its staff. This was certainly how Oakland-based retailer Nenna Joiner, the founder of Feelmore, experienced Good Vibrations when she first discovered the company in the late 1990s. Although she loved what the store offered, she didn’t see any images that represented her. She realized there was a need in the African American community for more diverse sexual images and resources, and decided to start a business that could deliver what she felt was missing from other women-run sex-toy stores.

How have feminist sex toy stores remained true to their mission while also turning a profit?

The ongoing tension between profitability and social change is a thread that runs throughout Vibrator Nation. Many of the retailers I write about started their businesses because they saw their stores as a feminist way to empower women (and eventually everyone). They led with a mission of social change rather than capitalist aspirations. Good Vibrations’ Joani Blank once told me that profits were secondary to everything that was important to her about running a successful business. And if you read the mission statements of many of the businesses that followed in Good Vibrations’ footsteps, they’re all about promoting sex education and personal transformation and creating a more passionate world. There’s almost no mention of making money. As one of my interviewees pointed out, if you don’t put profitability in your mission statement, it’s easy to forget about it. In some cases, it took a severe financial crisis for retailers to realize they needed to cultivate new forms of business expertise and foster attitudes in which money was seen as friend instead of foe, something that not only greased the wheels of social change but kept those wheels spinning.

How did feminists end up changing the adult industry?

Perhaps the most dramatic shift over the past forty years is the acknowledgment on the part of mainstream adult retailers, manufacturers, and porn producers that the sex industry is no longer a world of men. In a post Sex and the City and Fifty Shades of Grey era, this statement might seem glaringly obvious, but it wasn’t that long ago that women found themselves marginalized in an industry largely dominated by men and steeped in sexism. I heard stories during my research of female product buyers with budgets of upwards of $3,000,000 annually who couldn’t get the time of day at adult novelty trade shows. Men would look right past them. And that was in the early 2000s. Feminists played an absolutely central role in creating a market that is now widely regarded as one of the hottest growth segments of the adult industry. Today, women are trusted authorities who routinely hold the microphone in seminar rooms filled with wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and content producers eager to mine their expertise. There have been other important changes, too, most notably in regard to sex-toy manufacturing and marketing. By the early 1990s women were placing new demands on the adult novelty sector. Good Vibrations began offering warranties and started sending defective merchandise back to manufacturers, letting them know they weren’t going to settle for cheaply made products that conked out after one use. Manufacturers started making products that looked prettier, had better motors, and used non-toxic and body safe materials. Sex-toy packaging with images of sultry porn starlets has been replaced with softer, more colorful, and sanitized imagery. Messages about sexual health and education, rather than titillation, are regularly used as marketing platforms. Art school grads and mechanical engineers are bringing elements of sleek design and quality manufacturing to an industry that used to revolve around the idea of planned obsolescence where nothing was made to last. It’s a far cry from what the adult industry looked like in the early 1970s when Dell Williams and Joani Blank took a bold leap of faith and started their small, women-friendly vibrator businesses.

What are some of the challenges of doing scholarly work on the sex industry?

What it means to do scholarly work on the sex industry has changed quite a bit over the past 15 years. When I was completing my Ph.D. in the early 2000s, academic research on the adult industry was hardly typical and it wasn’t unusual for someone to raise an eyebrow when I told them that I was researching feminist sex-toy stores. They were intrigued but often skeptical about the scholarly merits of such research. Although academic research on the adult industry is still not the norm, there’s a growing, international network of sexuality scholars—historians, sociologists, media studies practitioners, and others—who study pornography and other facets of the adult entertainment industry in an effort to better understand this extremely profitable yet under-examined segment of popular culture. This scholarship is increasingly finding institutional support not only in the form of tenure-track academic appointments, but in academic journals and professional organizations, too. Additionally, more and more academic presses are realizing that there’s a market for well-researched books about pornography and the sex industry, and are building their lists according. As for the nitty-gritty of researching the sex industry, it’s really no different than studying any other cultural phenomenon: you approach it ethically, rigorously, and systematically. The less we exoticize sexuality research, and the more we treat it with the seriousness that we might approach other scholarly topics, the better this research will be.

You can order Vibrator Nation from your favorite local or online bookstore (print and e-editions available) or order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E17COMEL to save 30%.

 

Women’s Equality Day Reads

Saturday is Women’s Equality Day, and we couldn’t be more glad for an occasion both to commemorate strides in women’s rights and to renew the call for further progress. Today we’re contributing to the cause by sharing some of our most recent scholarship in women’s studies.

In the 1970s a group of pioneering feminist entrepreneurs launched a movement that ultimately changed the way sex was talked about, had, and enjoyed. Boldly reimagining who sex shops were for and the kinds of spaces they could be, these entrepreneurs opened sex-toy stores like Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland not just as commercial enterprises, but to provide educational and community resources as well. In Vibrator Nation Lynn Comella tells the fascinating history of how these stores raised sexual consciousness, redefined the adult industry, and changed women’s lives.

While news of the Rwandan genocide reached all corners of the globe, the nation’s recovery and the key role of women are less well known. In Rwandan Women Rising Swanee Hunt shares the stories of some seventy women—heralded activists and unsung heroes alike—who overcame unfathomable brutality, unrecoverable loss, and unending challenges to rebuild Rwandan society.

Developed in the United States in the 1980s, facial feminization surgery (FFS) is a set of reconstructive surgical procedures intended to feminize the faces of trans- women. In The Look of a Woman Eric Plemons foregrounds the narratives of FFS patients and their surgeons as they move from consultation and the operating room to postsurgery recovery. Plemons demonstrates how FFS is changing the project of surgical sex reassignment by reconfiguring the kind of sex that surgery aims to change.

In Politics with Beauvoir Lori Jo Marso treats Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist theory and practice as part of her political theory, arguing that freedom is Beauvoir’s central concern and that this is best apprehended through Marso’s notion of the encounter. Beauvoir’s encounters, Marso shows, exemplify freedom as a shared, relational, collective practice.

In The Labor of Faith Judith Casselberry examines the material and spiritual labor of the women of one of the oldest and largest historically Black Pentecostal churches in the United States. This male-headed church only functions through the work of the church’s women, who, despite making up three-quarters of its adult membership, hold no formal positions of power. Focusing on the circumstances of producing a holy black female personhood, Casselberry reveals the ways twenty-first-century women’s spiritual power operates and resonates with meaning in Pentecostal, female-majority, male-led churches.

wpj33_4_23_frontcover_fppIn “Interrupted,” a special issue of World Policy Journal penned entirely by female foreign policy experts and journalists, contributors imagine a world where the majority of foreign policy experts quoted, bylined, and miked are not men. The issue challenges the perception that women are not policymakers by showcasing the voices of female experts and leaders. Contributors to this issue address topics such as feminism in Chinaabortion laws across the Americascombating violent extremism by working with religious leaders, and women in media. The issue also features a conversation with Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritus.

In The Economization of Life Michelle Murphy provocatively describes the twentieth-century rise of infrastructures of calculation and experiment aimed at governing population for the sake of national economy. Murphy traces the methods and imaginaries through which family planning calculated lives not worth living, lives not worth saving, and lives not worth being born. The resulting archive of thick data transmuted into financialized “Invest in a Girl” campaigns that reframed survival as a question of human capital. The book challenges readers to reject the economy as our collective container and to refuse population as a term of reproductive justice.

Lori Merish, in Archives of Labor, establishes working-class women as significant actors within literary culture, dramatically redrawing the map of nineteenth-century US literary and cultural history. Delving into previously unexplored archives of working-class women’s literature, Merish recovers working-class women’s vital presence as writers and readers in the antebellum era. She restores the tradition of working women’s class protest and dissent, shows how race and gender are central to class identity, and traces the ways working women understood themselves and were understood as workers and class subjects.

Among Arab countries, Egypt has witnessed the largest production of feminist writings as Egyptian women begin to write in the mainstream. A themed section on Egyptian women writers and feminism from the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies features three articles about Egyptian women writers and their novels, which investigate the role of gender assignation in late twentieth-century Egyptian society. These literary works interrogate assumptions about the ways in which men and women are seen and are expected to behave.

For more books and journal articles on women’s issues, check out our Read to Respond post on feminism and women’s rights. These articles are freely available until December 15, 2017.

New Books in August

We hope you’re enjoying your summer! Our fall list is now in full swing with lots of new books to check out in August.

LazarreIn her memoir, The Communist and the Communist’s DaughterJane Lazarre tells the fascinating history of her father Bill, a radical activist who, as part of his tireless efforts to create a better world for his family, held leadership positions in the American Communist Party, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and organized labor unions.

In The Look of a Woman, Eric Plemons explores the ways in which facial feminization surgery is changing the ways in which trans- women are not only perceived of as women, but in the ways it is altering the project of surgical sex reassignment and the understandings of what sex means.

Jason Dittmer, in Diplomatic Material, applies new materialism to international relations and offers a counterintuitive reading of foreign policy by tracing the ways that complex interactions between people and things shape the decisions and actions of diplomats and policymakers.
Hough-Snee and Sotelo Eastman

Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman’s collection, The Critical Surf Studies Reader, is an innovative exploration of the history and culture of surfing that recasts wave-riding as a complex cultural practice and reclaims the forgotten roles that women, indigenous peoples, and peoples of color have played in the its evolution.

In Disturbing Attachments, Kadji Amin challenges the idealization of Jean Genet as a paradigmatic figure within queer studies to illuminate the methodological dilemmas at the heart of queer theory, bringing the genealogy of Genet’s imaginaries of attachment to bear on pressing issues within contemporary queer politics and scholarship, including prison abolition, homonationalism, and pinkwashing.

art1Nicholas De Genova’s The Borders of “Europe” examines the perceptions of the staggering refuge and migration crisis in Europe, demonstrating how it stems from migrants exercising their right to the freedom of movement, leads states to create new technologies of regulating human movement, and prompts the questioning of the very idea of Europe.

In Vibrator Nation, Lynn Comella tells the fascinating history of how feminist sex-toy stores such as Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations and Babeland raised sexual consciousness, redefined the adult industry, provided educational and community resources, and changed the way sex was talked about, had, and enjoyed.

Alexandra Chang’s catalog, Circles and Circuits—which examines Chinese Caribbean art in Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Panama—accompanies the exhibition, Circles and Circuits: Chinese Caribbean Art, presented in two parts: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora at the California African American Museum from September 15, 2017 through February 25, 2018, and Contemporary Chinese Caribbean Art at the Chinese American Museum from September 15, 2017 through March 11, 2018.

Layout 1

Tatiana Flores and Michelle Ann Stephens’ Relational Undercurrents accompanies an exhibition by the same name that opens at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California in September, 2017. The exhibition and edited volume call attention to the artistic production of the Caribbean islands and their diasporas, challenging the conventional geographic and conceptual boundaries of Latin America.

Both exhibitions, Circles and Circuits and Relational Undercurrents, are part of the Pacific Standard Time Art Project. 

The largely unknown story of the FBI’s surveillance operations in Latin America during the 1940s is the topic of Marc Becker’s The FBI in Latin America. He provides new insights into leftist organizations and the nature of the U.S.’s imperial ambitions in the western hemisphere.

Ambassadors of the Working ClassIn Ambassadors of the Working Class, Ernesto Semán tells the story of Argentina’s diplomatic worker attachés dispatched to further Peronism, organized labor became a crucial aspect in defining democracy and perceptions of social justice, freedom, and sovereignty in the Americas.

Kojin Karatani’s Isomania and the Origins of Philosophy questions the canonical glorification of philosophy and democracy in ancient Athens by placing Western philosophy’s origins in Ionia, a set of Greek colonies located in present-day Turkey that practiced isonomia—a system based on non-rule and a lack of social divisions whereby equality is realized through individual freedom.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for Subject Matters, our e-mail newsletter, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

Gendered and Sexual Mobilities

ddmew_13_2_coverThe most recent special issue of Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies (JMEWS), “Gendered and Sexual Mobilities,” edited by miriam cooke, Banu Gökariksel, and Frances S. Hasso, is now available.

This issue highlights the significance of mobility for our understanding of gendered and sexual difference. The four articles explore the role of spatial mobility and immobility in the construction of gendered and sexual bodies and subjectivities. Contributors Anna J. Secor, Camila Pastor de Maria Campos, and Fatma Umut Beşpınar recognize how rarely scholars examine the perspective of marginalized gendered and sexual subjects who are deemed morally dangerous. Questioning mobility and difference, therefore, enables us to illuminate how issues of difference are fixed and framed through regimes of visibility, certification, and regulation.

Explore the table-of-contents and read the preface to the issue, now freely available.