Gender Symposium examines intersectionality

Photo by Hanna Merzbach

By Audrey Barrett

The 37th annual Gender Studies Symposium, held from March 7 through 9, explored how security and insecurity interact with gender and sexuality across various social spheres. Speakers ranged from professors and visiting academics to alumni and students from both Reed and Lewis & Clark.

“When the co-chairs first came up with the theme of security to frame this year’s symposium, we knew that one major focus we wanted to emphasize was what security meant in the international and political realm,” symposium co-chair Clelia Davis Del Piccolo ’18 said. “We were fundamentally concerned with the questions of security of what and for whom.”

Davis Del Piccolo stumbled upon an article by Dr. Melanie Richter Montpetit last summer when the co-chairs began the search for keynote speakers. Richter Montpetit is a lecturer in politics and international relations focusing on security studies at the University of Sheffield in England.

“I remember reading the paper, and thinking, ‘Wow. This is what has been missing when we talk about international politics,’” Davis Del Piccolo said.

Richter-Montpetit discussed the changing role of women and homosexuals in the US military. For example, cisgender women taking on traditionally masculine roles, like participating in military operations that include the torture of captured soldiers, is sometimes seen as radical equality. Richter-Montpetit disagrees.

“Gender and racial diversity should not be confused with equality,” Richter-Montpetit said. Just because women are acting like men does not mean misogyny in the military is gone.

Furthermore, she urged women to come to terms with their own complicity in structural discrimination based on race and gender.

Another keynote speaker was Beth Richie, a professor of African American studies and law, criminology and justice at University of Illinois at Chicago. She was introduced by Annie Baker ’18, a symposium co-chair.

“One topic we thought was vitally important to cover was incarceration,” Baker said of why Richie was invited to speak.

On the evening of March 8, Richie gave her reflections on state and intimate partner violence and how these ideas relate to the overlap of racism and sexism towards black women.

“I think in some ways the opportunity to come and talk about the frame of insecurity gives me both a new way to look at the same old things and also new language to talk to people,” Richie said. “It is clear to me that the only way to challenge injustice is to use an intersectional analysis that can accomodate structural racism, and the only way to understand the kind of pernicious race-based violence that we see today is if we also understand how race plays into it.”  

Ideas of intersectionality between race, class, gender and sexuality shaped the symposium beyond Richie’s talk.

“It is vital to the success of our revolution that we free ourselves from all forms of injustice,” Reed College student Sonya Morud ’19 said. She spoke at the panel on gendered state violence on March 8. Morud talked about protests by female political internees in British- colonized Northern Ireland during the 1980s, which her own mother lived through.

At the same panel, Reed College student Leilani Rania Ganser ’19 expressed similar ideas about intersectionality when presenting about effects for women of US colonization in Hawaii and Guam.

“Violence against women of color cannot be separated from racism and colonialism,” Rania Ganser said. “There has always been a feminine power in all of us (indigenous women) that was especially recognized in a lot of these colonial possessions of the US, and as we’ve seen colonization, we don’t see that playing out as much.”

Speakers also acknowledged the challenges to an intersectional approach to feminism.

“Pakistani feminists have this unique predicament,” Sema Hasan ’18 said. “There’s the idea that one is either pro-Islam or pro-feminist.”

She spoke about the honor killings that occur in Pakistan: family members are permitted to kill women who are acting independent or sexually liberated. Although this is illegal, killers can exploit legal loopholes to get away with it. Hasan said it is important not to demonize Islam as a whole due to this particular violation of human rights.

Morud reiterated this dilemma in the context of Northern Ireland.

“It has been asserted that a woman has to choose between fighting for a nationalist cause or a feminist cause because all national struggles are inherently patriarchal,” Morud said.

Richie said that feminism focuses on white women, while anti-black racism focuses on black men.

“We have a very rigid notion of what a victim looks like,” Richie said.

She said black women are not taken as seriously when they come forward with sexual assault claims. She gave several anecdotes about people she has worked with.

“A girl named Tanya went into labor in the bathroom of her high school, delivered the baby herself, put the newborn in her backpack, and put the backpack in the dumpster,” Richie said. “No one knew that this young woman was being sexually assaulted by her uncle and battered by her boyfriend. She felt like she had no other option. There were no services in her community; she had tried to reach out several times to a rape crisis center which couldn’t see her because she was underage.”

Richie said that this story was spun in the news media to portray the racist, sexist trope of an irresponsible young black woman making an ignorant mistake and she served time in prison for killing her child.

In light of events like this, Richie said it can be hard to stay inspired.

“I have an activist spirit that really feels a sense of fatigue,” Richie said.

Still, the way gender intersects with other academic and social issues render it an important field. When Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kabir Mansingh Heimsath  found out he would be moderating a symposium panel, he was a little surprised.

“I don’t work around gender,” Heimsath said. “But it only took me a second to realize though that of course all of us work on gender.”

According to panelist María Laura Andrade Laso ’18, women and trans people, in all their intersectional identities, should “be empowered to strive and demand for their rights to be respected.”

Speakers and participants alike recognized the relevance of of this influential symposium.

“It’s a pleasure to be part of something that has been going on for 37 years,” Richie said. “I’m still trying to catch my breath from (the Queery panel). Especially as a queer person who struggled with figuring out identity when I was the age of the people who were presenting on the panel, I was very much appreciative that progress has been made in your (generation’s) hands.”

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