We are delighted to celebrate the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies majors, minors and graduate students who have completed their studies this year. Department Chair Jocelyn Olcott shared the following message with 2020 graduates.
During my sophomore fall semester at Duke, kind of on a whim, I took my first Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies class. A few books later, I couldn’t stop thinking about the intricacies of gender and health. Since then, I’ve dedicated my academic and personal lives to understanding how gender and sexuality impact healthcare. Taking classes in the GSF department and studying a long history of institutionalized racism and sexism around the world, I’ve learned how these structures manifest as barriers to healthcare and education. GSF taught me how to think. After working in the field of global maternal and reproductive health for a few years, I hope to matriculate into an MD/PhD program in Population Health Sciences, studying the social contexts within which health behavior is rooted. I believe that education and healthcare are fundamental human rights, and GSF has equipped me to enter the world of public health with the mindset to ensure that access to healthcare is not determined by social systems of discrimination.
I knew instantly that the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies department was where I belonged. I had grappled with issues of gender and sexuality throughout my whole academic career, and was unsatisfied with the fact that these topics were often considered afterthoughts within political and philosophical contexts. Learning from some of the best professors in the field has expanded my understanding of what it means to assume an identity – whether it be my gender, race, sexuality, or ability status – and to better understand the environments in which these concepts were formed. I can confidently say that, in addition to feeling prepared to embark on the next chapter of my life and enter the nonprofit sphere (with the eventual goal of attending law school), I feel as though I have a broader understanding of myself within the framework of the world around me. My service dog, Murphy, and I are grateful to have had this profound education.
This thesis engages critically with the historical and contemporary uses of fetal imagery to explore how it has been leveraged by American anti-choice extremists on social media to promote notions of fetal personhood. I develop an analysis of fetal imagery in a medical context to understand what social forces shaped the depiction of the fetus and how these forces contributed to the framing of fetal imagery in popular culture and the abortion debate. This informs my analysis of the use of fetal imagery by anti-choice extremists as well as everyday social media users on platforms including Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, I argue that social media has enhanced anti-choice rhetoric around fetal personhood by exposing fetal imagery to larger audiences and eliciting these audiences to propagate their own fetal content online.
I chose Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies because of my interest in understanding how the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class operate. I found that no matter what classes I took I was always taking a feminist analysis to look at how gender is operating. I credit the department for helping me think critically about politics and about how feminist analysis is not just about a single analysis of women as a unitary group, rather it is about the complicated way that gender intersects with other categories and institutions. Taking classes like Transnational Feminism and Black Feminist Theory were foundational to me and they really helped me understand the way gender operates under institutions like slavery, colonialism, and imperialism and the way gender becomes transformed. I will always take feminist analysis with me in all of my endeavors, and especially as I enter graduate school. I am thankful for the mentoring I have received from professors in the department.
As a double major in GSF and psychology, I was able to combine theoretical knowledge with an application in psychological research. GSF was the foundation for my analytical framework. From the professors that supported me and peers that became friends, I am thankful for the relationships that GSF has provided me.
I came to double major in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist studies in what I like to think of as a natural accident of sorts. I started Duke as a biology major with no idea of what GSF was, but I took Gender and Everyday Life in my first year and well, the rest is history. That one class turned into two classes which turned into a minor and eventually became my second major. My GSF classes were my saving grace; they allowed me to form close relationships with my peers and my professors in a setting where everyone was devoted to growing together and using intersectional analyses to discuss difficult yet important issues. While I love participating in scientific research, this aspect is definitely missing from the field, and studying both Bio and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies made my Duke career whole. I use the framework and knowledge I have gained in my GSF classes every single day so I know I will use it in the future as I embark on a career working towards social justice.
Recent advances in stem cell technology enable new possibilities for biological reproduction among same-sex couples and transgender people who have undergone medical or surgical transition. Despite this promise of revolutionary queer futurity, biomedical science has been harnessed to marginalize the reproductive capacity of the poor, colonized, and people of color for eugenic and capitalist aims. This study draws upon firsthand experiences working in a reproductive biology laboratory to explore how the formation of scientific knowledge (re)produces normative temporalities of the reproductive body. Embracing politics of multiplicity elucidates concrete changes in scientific and medical practice that forge more equitable somatechnic reproductive presents and futures.
When I first arrived at Duke, I felt unable to meaningfully discuss and intervene in injustices I perceived at Duke, in my home communities, and beyond. I am so glad I found the courage to enroll in Thinking Gender in my first year. Critical engagement with interdisciplinary scholarship through Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies coursework gave me the intellectual tools to make informed political decisions, discover the complexities of my own identity, and process violence and trauma. My thesis research in GSF has transformed the way I view my own science as a double major in Biophysics and aspiring physician-scientist. Queer and feminist theory have made me more suspect of normative empirical epistemologies, more cognizant of my own relationships to research subjects, laboratory animals, tissues, cells, and molecules, and more committed to reproductive justice. Next year, I will pursue MD/PhD training with a focus on developing novel assisted reproductive technologies for use in queer and transgender healthcare.
Message from Kimberly Lamm, Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies
Dear Graduating Seniors--
Congratulations on your wonderful achievements and this important milestone. I'm very proud of you and really wish I could tell you so in person. We obviously need young people who are intelligent, thoughtful, and brave, so please know, whatever comes our way, that you are valued.
With all my best wishes, Professor Lamm
Ernestine Friedl Graduate Research Award
On a planet with shrinking natural resources and a rising population, who will have enough to eat? This research studies the people and policies involved in an emergent citywide system of food waste recuperation in the E.U.’s capital of Brussels. It incorporates those who recirculate food—such as volunteers at the city’s largest food bank; workers at a culinary skills-training program; and activists in a soup kitchen with “zero food waste” weekly pop-up restaurant. It also includes those who benefit from their efforts—such as the E.U.’s growing immigrant and refugee population, some of whom strive to become citizens while others pass through on their way to larger dreams of European belonging.
The same policy drives these efforts, but distinct ethical frameworks guide them. Reflecting the city’s Catholic history, traditional hospitality is embodied in acts of sharing food—which adherents believe builds communities, brings individuals closer to God, and reinforces the belief that God will provide. Volunteers at the food bank strongly express this ethic. Elsewhere, acts of “giving back” become ways to recruit new citizens, expressing neoliberal politics that locate an ethic of caring within capitalism. For example, a job-training program is a restaurant that runs on donated food and offers internships to welfare recipients so that they might join the local labor force one day. Finally, an N.G.O. runs a social inclusion program aimed at recuperating not only abandoned food but also abandoned urban spaces. In this case, a mobile soup kitchen aims to revitalize urban blight through feeding the city’s hungriest residents—giving sustenance by means of scrappy collaborations between volunteers, citizens, and immigrants.
Through ethnographic observation, this dissertation explores sharing food as a way of caring for people that reflects moral beliefs about value and worthiness, both of food as well as of people. It asks: How do obligations of care square with social obligations that match cast-off food with cast-out humans?
This dissertation is a sensory ethnographic study of the competing forces through which places become cities. I examine how sounding and listening animate relational practices of city-making in Gulu, Uganda. During my research, I apprenticed with car mechanics, understudied with music producers, and shadowed municipal technocrats, in addition to analyzing a variety of archives, conducting interviews, and collecting field-recorded sounds. This multi-sited approach enables me to foreground the entanglement of technical expertise, place-specific knowledges, expressive socialities, and transnational political ecologies. I consider these encounters in dialogue with literature on cities in Africa, studies of sensory and aural politics, and critical theories of intimacy and materiality, to show how Africana aurality shapes city-making. Each of these entangled practices give rise to "Gulu City" through intimate aural relations through which lived environments are actively made into cities. This work contributes to the broad theorization of cities in the global south by examining sounding and listening as environmental, embodied, and atmospheric as well as social practices that afford vital urban relations.
Roger Griffin notes that “there can be no term in the political lexicon which has generated more conflicting theories about its basic definition than ‘fascism’.” The difficulty articulating a singular definition of fascism is indicative of its complexities and ideological changes over time. This dissertation offers fascist performativity as a theoretical lens to better understand how Italian composers interacted with fascism through sustained, performative acts while leaving space to account for the slipperiness of fascist identities.
Although opera thrived in fascist Italy (1922-1943), extant scholarship on this period of music history remains scant, promoting a misleading narrative of operatic decline in the twentieth century. This dissertation examines the positions of four Italian opera composers within fascist culture by focusing on the premieres of four operas during the Italian fascist period: Pietro Mascagni’s Nerone (1935), Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Giulio Cesare (1936), Ottorino Respighi’s Lucrezia (1937), and Ennio Porrino’s Gli Orazi (1941). These musical settings of romanità (Roman-ness) were part of Mussolini’s efforts to glorify ancient Rome, a central tenant of fascist ideology.
In fascist Italy, a political society that extolled masculinity and musical composition, experiences of difference were often hidden beneath a guise of hypermasculine rhetoric. Opera composers associated with the fascist regime were almost exclusively men and in a patriarchal society with prescribed gender norms, they performed gender. I situate each composer through an investigation of their relationship with the regime, musical analysis, and reception of their operas. While not all the composers included in this dissertation were outspoken fascists, or even confirmed members of the National Fascist Party, they nevertheless performed fascism to obtain favor with Mussolini and the fascist regime.
Message from Ara Wilson, Associate Professor Gender,Sexuality & feminist Studies
We have a truly amazing set of people completing the graduate Certificate in Feminist Studies this year. Together, you have realized the deepest aims of our graduate program, which is to create a diverse community dedicated to complex, engaged conversation across academic fields. This Class of 2020 includes seven disciplines (Cultural Anthropology, English, History, Literature, Music, Romance Studies, and Theology), with research in multiple languages and on several continents, and expertise spanning centuries. Your engagements with GSF have enriched us — your presence in our courses, your applications to present at conferences, your activism, and your fascinating projects, which many of you shared at our Graduate Scholars Colloquiums are what makes the GSF graduate program what it is. As DGS, I know something of all of you and have had the pleasure of getting to know some of you well. The times you face are unprecedented. Please know that we consider you our own alumnae. Stay in touch. Let us know how you navigate this fraught world, whatever your path. We are rooting for you. And wherever you go, we know that you will enliven your orbit with your rich, sparkling feminist minds.
We are delighted to graduate Dr. Alexander, Dr. Bitter, Dr. Crisenbery, Dr. Dahiya, Dr. Granacki, Dr. Hayes, Dr. Morris, Dr. Nunn, Dr. Panaram, Dr. Rizki, Dr. Stark and Dr Yero with the Certificate in Feminist Studies.
This dissertation calls for a philosophical alliance between transcontinental feminist theory and contemporary origins of life research. I argue that a phallocentric scientific and theoretical framework is incapable of addressing the emergence of life out of matter on Earth. A phallocentric theory of the origin of life posits a vertical hierarchy between life and matter and understands them as fundamentally opposite to each other. In creating a division between matter and life, phallocentric approaches to the origins of life create a dilemma of needing to pinpoint exactly when life emerges, in other words answering exactly when “inanimate” matter is animated or penetrated with a logos of life. Building on the feminist science studies tradition of examining the relation between metaphor and science, “The Conditions of Emergence” studies how certain strands of origins of life research are beginning to question whether scientific work rooted in metaphors of light, energetic stasis, and autonomous self-birth can attend to the question of how cellular life first emerged from matter somewhere between 3.8 and 4.2 billion years ago. In lieu of these metaphors, origin of life theories concentrating on deep-sea vents re-embed life’s cellular beginnings within a geochemically volatile ancient Earth through metaphors of darkness (rather than light) and gestational birth in inorganic wombs (rather than within narratives where a cellular body brings itself into being). I argue that a dark proto-intrauterine space that is bioenergetically never at rest and rooted within the geochemical forces of the Earth makes, perhaps for the first time, the question of how life emerged a conceptual possibility within both scientific research and a feminist philosophy of life. A feminist philosophy of life would express the nature of reality, its fluid logic, and through this, seamlessly be able to unfold the origins of cellular life itself.
Bringing together medieval manuscripts and feminist thought, my dissertation analyzes how late medieval cultural production portrayed women as philosophers. Studies of Giovanni Boccaccio’s female figures have often focused on whether the texts are feminist or misogynist. I reorient these critical debates, drawing on French theorists such as Luce Irigaray and Michèle Le Doeuff, to argue that Boccaccio articulated new visions of both philosophy and womanhood, concepts that were at the center of various intellectual debates in fourteenth-century Europe. I historicize the question of women’s relationship to philosophical knowledge by bringing manuscript evidence–in the form of textual modifications and commentaries from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries–to bear on my literary analysis. I contend that Boccaccio, in his vernacular masterpiece the Decameron and other works, presents not just one model of a woman philosopher but several, a plurality that challenges our inherited notion of what constitutes philosophy, to whom it belongs, and how we encounter it in our lives. [The project] challenges our inherited notion of what constitutes philosophy, to whom it belongs, and how we encounter it in our lives.
An Aesthetic Disposition offers a feminist theory of the politics of contemporary art that moves away from the project of identity-based representation and focuses instead on the prefigurative world-making practices of care, sensible pleasure, and utopian revitalization. I bring these ideas together under an extended theory of “social reproduction” and argue that under the conditions of late capitalism, art’s revitalizing features are both political and needed. I build this argument through close attention to the work of three US-based artists: Simone Leigh, Roni Horn, and Mika Rottenberg. As such, my thinking about art and politics spans a range of contemporary media and content, from a work of black feminist health-care centered social practice art (Leigh), to a set of “androgynous” minimalist glass sculptures (Horn), to a series of Rube Goldberg-like video works depicting women in absurd scenes of global production (Rottenberg). Having each exhibited new works over the past five years at major museums, I choose these artists for their shared historical context, their varied approaches, and their accepted institutional status as working within the terrain of feminist art. My project seeks at the same time to read these artists’ works against the grain of popular identity-focused feminist framings. Taken as a whole, my research demonstrates the relevance of turning to works of art as objects that can themselves theorize advanced problems in feminist and critical theory.
Simone de Beauvoir’s now famous quote began an exploration in feminist studies around the socialization of gender. For de Beauvoir, being socialized as a woman means belief in an inherent problem that requires the mitigation of self-improvement. What happens if we replace “woman” with “Christian” in the above quote?
One is not born but becomes a Christian.
On the one hand, this signals the conversion process central within Protestant Christianity. On the other hand, it signals how this conversion process has become entangled with de Beauvoir’s notion of a patriarchal system of improvement. That is, the conversion process within Christianity began to take on the characteristics of the latter.
The confusion between patriarchy and Christian soteriology (what I term patriarchal soteriology) led to the baptism of the patriarchal arrangement (i.e., heterosexual, male-dominated, white, binary-based, and hierarchically ordered according to class, language, etc.). The expectation to approximate to the patriarch (either by emulation or submission) became an issue of salvific import. For women, patriarchal soteriology communicated to women that they were inherently further from salvation and that the solution lay in approximating themselves to masculine desires. For non-white women, this was compounded with the conflation of whiteness with salvation. Thus, the performance of redeemed femininity (a saved woman) is articulated by means of ideas of self-improvement calibrated to masculinist longings for control and power.
This produces a theological politic that reinforces the gender binary and positions women in reference to and in need of saving by men. Furthermore, it means the patriarchal system reproduces itself under the guise and name of Christianity.
We must then ask: is salvation good for women?
Genocide studies typically emphasizes economics, law, history, political science, and sociology as the disciplines most relevant to understanding the phenomenon of premeditated mass slaughter, and the scholarship has been dominated by men, both as subjects and authors. Engendering Genocide intervenes in a field traditionally dominated by the social sciences, illustrating how U.S. literary and cultural texts provide a space for their creators and their audiences to imagine the transnational, gendered, and often quotidian nature of genocide. Weaving together literary criticism, feminist theory, and a transnational American Studies methodology, the project analyzes representations of the crime in the twentieth-century United States. Unbound to the empirical protocol of social sciences, my objects of study—which include novels, memoirs, manifestos, photographs, and film—allow for the imagination of political possibilities unafforded to other disciplines. I demonstrate that by giving this crime a name and telling its story, the figures in my project relied on both word and image to make visible a specific kind of violence they saw repeating in different iterations throughout human history, and in turn, to enable nations to interfere in the domestic affairs of other sovereign powers. By chronicling their efforts, Engendering Genocide considers the ethical and aesthetic challenges and consequences involved in these acts of representation. Based on this analysis, I ultimately conclude that the horror of the crime cannot be fully represented—and that’s precisely one of the factors that makes genocide so dangerous: it can hide, so to speak, in plain sight.
This dissertation explores renderings of the Middle Passage in creative and critical works by African American and Caribbean women writers. Departing from the premise that the term “Middle Passage” is insufficient where it concerns describing the massive scale of forced migration that occurred during this trans-Atlantic catastrophe, I look to black women writers in order to build a different vocabulary to depict that which has no beginning, middle, or end; that which is not confined to a narrow strait but whose nomenclature suggests otherwise. Bringing together Caribbeanist philosophical treatises on crossing, like that of M. Jacqui Alexander and Kamau Brathwaite, and the dynamic work in black geography studies and black feminist literary criticism by Katherine McKitrick and Barbara Christian, I argue that black women writers retell Middle Passage stories anew in order to isolate specific forms of movement such as holding, landing, and crawling that outlive the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In so doing, they intervene in what has previously been a male dominated field of criticism on the Middle Passage. Across four chapters, this dissertation addresses the challenges of writing about the catastrophe of the Middle Passage for which there is no set of identifiable ruins before turning specifically to three works of literature – M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Heeding to the momentum necessary for this particular trans-Atlantic event ultimately allows us to reckon with what I call “Middle Passages” or “Middle Passings” – the multiple crossings that ensue in the wake of this unparalleled event.
William Griffith University Service Award & Dora Anne Little Award
My dissertation combines ethnographic, literary, archival, and visual culture methods to study contemporary transgender politics and cultural production as these have taken shape in response to Argentine dictatorship (1976-83). Each chapter considers how trans activists strategically deploy existing visual and material culture, activist strategies, and legal interventions developed by antigenocide activists such as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo to forward trans rights claims. Taken together, the dissertation’s chapters evoke an interdisciplinary method that twins the study of cultural practices with histories of state violence, focusing on gender and sexuality as central to such analyses. In doing so, my work traces unexpected affinities between Argentine transgender and antigenocide politics, cultural production, and activisms—relationships otherwise obscured by US Trans Studies scholarship that largely links trans activisms with other gender, sexuality, and identity-based activisms alone. By tracing the ways Argentine trans activists reanimate the past to meet the demands of the present, my dissertation offers a historical interpretation of transgender political subjectivity that extends and revises Trans Studies’ geopolitical imagination, bringing Latin American archives, national histories, and political strategies to bear on existing Trans Studies scholarship. My dissertation offers a historical interpretation of transgender political subjectivity that brings Latin American archives, national histories, and political strategies to bear on existing Trans Studies scholarship.
Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching
This project argues that experimental poets, beginning with Gertrude Stein but proliferating later in the century with such poets as Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Joe Brainard, and Barbara Guest, were drawn to comics for the way they perform, while undoing, the most conventional appeals to authorship, authenticity, personhood, and the unified text. Examining twentieth century poetry in juxtaposition with comics as an often-overlooked interlocutor, I show how comics—from their inception—have always held an influential place in an US, poetic avant-garde. Drawing on critical work in visual cultural studies and popular culture as well as queer theory and literary studies, this project revises the term “avant-garde” and its loaded connotations of privilege, elitism, and obscurity, to include a myriad of popular frameworks that expand literary histories of the US American avant-garde and its recognized artists. Rather than attempt to reverse hierarchical classifications, I chronicle production continuities (e.g. publication models, modes of distribution, editorial influences, and common audiences) between avant garde
culture and mass media in order to emphasize overlapping contexts between these seemingly disparate fields. My consideration of long publishing comics in poetry—from the Nancy comics to Krazy Kat and Dick Tracy—not only highlights the ways these poetic works challenged conventions in their use of comics media, but also how multi-authored texts provide agitating, lyrical depictions in response to reductive classifications of race, gender, and sexuality in the twentieth century.
My dissertation examines the colonial history of medical rights through a study of the world’s first vaccine. The Spanish introduced the smallpox vaccine to their empire in 1804, along with royal orders that vaccination be voluntary and consent a natural right ceded to parents. Yet, the vaccine first arrived there incubated in the bodies of two enslaved girls. Doctors would continue to rely on enslaved, indigenous, and other dispossessed bodies to conserve the vaccine for those otherwise accorded this “universal” right. Foregrounding these patients and their own knowledge about health, the body, and disease, my dissertation follows the vaccine through the Spanish Caribbean and Mexico to ask why imperial—and later, national—authorities protected voluntary vaccination, what this choice meant for parents and patients, and what their stories can tell us about the value of consent in an era of both race and rights-making. I argue that medical consent, as it was envisioned and employed in vaccination policies, worked to uphold colonial structures of power, explaining how immunization became embedded in struggles over the abolition of slavery, parental rights, and hierarchies challenged by the unrest of revolution. Racial and sexual politics informed decisions about which bodies were best suited to incubate and test the vaccine, whose knowledge was deemed a threat to public health, and ultimately, who should be recognized as a parent, worthy of rights and capable of informed consent. By tracing the vaccine through the postcolonial era, my project addresses the enduring effects of colonialism across political discourses of liberalism and access to resources and care, demonstrating the limits of consent and prompting more ethical understandings of bodily autonomy.