Time to Throw Out The Broomstick

Today’s post comes to us from Thomas Kivi, a graduate student in American History at St. Louis University.  When he’s not wandering the library stacks, Thomas is an active singer-songwriter, and he has just released an album, Cornucopia, which is a collaboration with Women’s Studies graduate assist Sarah Pray.  Here, he thinks about the ways witches have long defined a site of cultural anxiety about female identity.

Today is Halloween, and so instead of worrying about terrorism or Ebola, I’m thinking about a more conventional  object of fear, the image of the female witch in mainstream American culture.  The witch is perhaps the American symbol of Halloween, and it is a startling example of female objectification. Think about this: the original fairytale of Sleeping Beauty was first popularized in France by Charles Perrault in the late-1600s, within the final decades of the witch trials in pre-Revolutionary America. Angelina Jolie—arguably the most voluptuous and powerful woman on the big-screen—recently played the leading role in Maleficent (2014), based on the evil queen from Walt Disney’s cartoon Sleeping Beauty (1959). Witches in Colonial Massachusetts were accused of something called maleficium. What does it mean that the modern witch now takes the beautiful, female form? Can you think of a story where a man is cast as a witch? Darth Vader maybe? But that is a more Freudian dilemma, having more to do with the oedipal urge to kill one’s own father.

Suddenly, I have the creeping dread of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. All I begin to see is the gendered nature of the witch. To dress up like Judy Garland from the Wizard of Oz (1939) is to play the innocent, uber-feminine antithesis to the hideously green, spell-bounding, broom-riding, fortune-telling witch. Dorothy is the model girl whereas the witch is the pure, gendered objectification of evil. She is not a person. People are not green. The witch’s death, therefore, is not the death of a woman but the inhuman shriveling away of wickedness itself. The dire contest between them in the Land of Oz is made plain by the final words of the melting wicked witch of the West: “who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” Dorothy and the witch are objectified by their relative beauty so as to conflate goodness with beauty, ugliness with evil. Will there ever be another ugly witch in Hollywood? I would say it’s not likely. These days, the Devil runs with sexiness. Sexy women are the scapegoat for man’s fantasies. The witch is now the temptress.

witch and dorothy

The most infamous episode in the era of witch hunts occurred when the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts accused, sentenced, and executed 22 people to death in the early-1690s. Arthur Miller’s 1963 classic play The Crucible captures the epidemic of suspicion that swept Salem, popularized by the 1996 dramatic screenplay of the same title starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. But what has long been a lesson about the consequences of superstition and religious extremism fails to showcase the question at the bottom of it all: “Why women?”

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In Our Backyard: Sex Trafficking and Exploitation

Today’s post comes from Criminal Justice professor Erin Heil. She began studying domestic human trafficking in 2008 and has since published numerous articles on the subject, as well as the book, Sex Slaves and Serfs: The Dynamics of Human Trafficking in a Small Florida Town.  She shares this post with us in anticipation of the upcoming panel, “Sex Trafficking and Exploitation,” co-sponsored by the SIUE Women’s Studies and Peace Studies Programs on Oct. 21 at 12:30 in the Morris University Center.  At this event Prof. Heil will be joined by Congressman John Shimkus, FBI Intelligence Analyst Derek Velazco, Rescue and Restore Coordinator Kristen Eng, and Covering House representatives Deidre Lhamon and Lindsay Ellis.  The event is free and open to the community.

“I was taken from my doorstep…I was sold for sex with men in exchange for money and drugs. I was forced to work out of motels, brothels, prostitution houses, and massage parlors. I tried to run so many times but I never seemed to be able to escape without getting caught and beat up. I have had chains wrapped around my ankles, wrists, and neck like a dog. I got beat up with baseball bats, crow bars, basically anything that they [could] get their hands on.” These words were spoken by a brave survivor in front of hundreds of listeners attending an anti-human trafficking event. Although her voice shook and she read from her hand written script, she stood strong in the face of her victimization. She wanted her story to be heard, and more importantly, she wanted to be seen. She looked up from her small piece of paper, looked the audience in the eyes, and proudly stated, “I refuse to believe what the world labels me as. I refuse to believe that I am trash. I refuse to believe I’m good for one thing only. I refuse to believe that nobody loves me. I refuse to believe that I’m not beautiful. I refuse to believe that I am nothing.” Although these were the words of emotional torture she was told while she was being sold for sex, she had survived, and she was able to victoriously tell her story.[i]

Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is one of the many forms of human trafficking evident in the United States. Legally defined as the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, human trafficking can entail a number of forced activities including, but not limited to: agricultural labor, domestic servitude, servile marriage, begging and panhandling, prostitution, construction work, sweatshops, and restaurant work. However, many of these activities remain hidden behind concrete or landscaped walls, thereby limiting the potential of identifying victims. Sex trafficking, however, requires some amount of visibility in that the traffickers must advertise the victims in order to recruit potential buyers. Given that, social service providers and law enforcement officials have been more able to identify victims of sex trafficking versus victims of labor trafficking.


Researching sex trafficking is an extremely complex process with each layer revealing another layer that needs to be examined. Therefore, I am only going to scratch the surface by providing some general information that has been identified in my own research. First of all, I have found that the victim demographics associated with sex trafficking vary greatly with geography. When I first began researching human trafficking, I was led to Immokalee, Florida; “ground zero” for human trafficking. The victims that had been identified were generally foreign nationals, most of whom had been smuggled into the United States from Mexico or Guatemala. In contrast to other areas of the United States, the majority of the research conducted in Immokalee discussed the slavery evident in the tomato fields. However, as with most cases of human trafficking, labor trafficking in Immokalee was occurring in conjunction with sex trafficking. In other words, where labor trafficking is evident, there is generally sex trafficking occurring in the same area. This symbiotic relationship occurs partly due to similar demands; the demand for underground cheap (or unpaid) labor coincides with a demand for prostitution.

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Indignation Without Reflection: Malala and the Western Imagination

Today’s post is from Prof. Saba Fatima, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.  Her research interests include Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory; virtue ethics; social and political within prescriptive Islam; and Non-ideal theory.  (More about Prof. Fatima’s research and teaching can be found at http://www.siue.edu/~sfatima.)  Here, she considers the ways in which the narrative surrounding 2014 Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafza is often oversimplified, and has become a means of reifying an image of the Pakistani Other in the western imagination.

It is a proud moment for Pakistan to win its only second Nobel Prize (the first one was in 1979 to Mohammad Abdus Salam in the field of Physics.)  And while Pakistanis are very happy about the honor and the positive media coverage, some are a little wary of the narrative surrounding the award.

Very few dispute the circumstances through which Malala and her family persevered.  Her will to survive made her into a ray of hope for countless advocates for basic human rights.  She was constantly threatened in her village prior to the shooting but continued her message.  She was unrelenting in advocating for the rights of girls to educate themselves.  With her father’s support, she was vocal against the barbarism of the Taliban that were destroying the beautiful Swat Valley.  After she was shot, she neither became silent nor did she forget her country.  Despite this trauma, she became more determined and firm in her cause and went on to rally unprecedented support for education initiatives from world leaders.

Malala has often attributed her courage to the confidence her father has in her.  Her father, in turn, grounds his convictions in his faith, Islam.  As Insiders, indigenous to the region, both Malala and her father are critical of Taliban’s stance on women’s rights.  This authentic insider status has given further legitimacy to her determination to take a stand in face of constant threats.

Malala 1

Pictured here: Malala in the UK with her father


However, some Pakistanis are wary of this recognition, precisely because it fits neatly into a Western narrative of backward Muslim countries. Yet again, the West rescues and honors brown women who defy their barbaric cultures. This is not to say that Malala is a stooge of the West (as some lunatic conspiracy theorist claim.)  In fact, her agency is on full display and her strength shines through her character.  Indeed she ought to be a source of pride for the country.

The wariness stems from the lack of outrage at death of young girls caused by acts in which the West is complicit in, such as drone strikes, and a simultaneous embrace of those girls that highlight Pakistan’s regression on women’s rights.  For people in the west, indignation comes much easier at the oppression of women/girls’ rights by the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern regions, however, there is a glaring absence of any reflection (and a definite absence of outrage) on our complicity in these very same girls’ death by drones.

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We Need More Than Pink Cleats

Prof. Kiana Cox joined the Sociology and Criminal Justice faculty this year, and we’re thrilled to have her as a member of the Women’s Studies faculty as well.  She identifies her research interests as gender, intersectionality, black feminism, race/ethnicity, African American politics and social movements, and popular culture, and if you check out her blog or her Facebook feed, you’ll notice she’s a sports fan too.  She’s given us permission to repost a piece she first published on the Feminist Wire, available here, and she writes of this blog post:

“Over the past month, the NFL has been embroiled in tremendous public criticism of their handling of the high profile domestic violence and child abuse cases of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, and Ray McDonald. In this blog post, written when the first video of Rice dragging his then-fiancee Janay Palmer was released publicly, I explore the apparent contradiction between the NFL’s conspicuous support of women’s health in the form of breast cancer advocacy and their patent silence on the danger that many of their players pose to the women and children in their lives. As an avid sports fan, I implored the NFL to recognize that its female fans need more than pink cleats.”

Her original essay is included here:


Every October the NFL, in partnership with the American Cancer Society, adorns itself in pink to raise awareness about and funds for breast cancer. Via their NFL Pink website, the league encourages women to make a “crucial catch” and to know that “annual screening saves lives.” Amidst these messages are videos and stories of women who are currently enmeshed in the fight against the disease. The implicit message here is that the NFL recognizes its female fan-base and appears to be dedicated to a cause that might impact a significant number of their lives. Despite recent criticism that the NFL profits from their Pink campaign, the visual spectacle resulting from the NFL’s use of pink cleats, towels, and goal posts is impressive.

And yet these efforts do nothing to assuage my increasing disgust with the league and the androcentricity that governs U.S. professional sports in general. Several recent issues involving current and former NFL players have left me watching sports television less and less. And this is quite a feat, because I have loved sports my whole life. From watching every game played by Jordan’s Bulls from 1991-1998, to the White Sox’s World Series win in 2005, the Blackhawks current reign as NHL champions, and the newly revamped Bears offense- I know my sports, I love my sports, and I love my Chicago teams. But the thing that is driving my growing contempt is their refusal to deal with issues of violence, masculinity-as-violence, misogyny, hyper-sexualization of women, rape culture, and countless others issues, which are part of a culture that consistently puts women in danger. Their steadfast support or patent silence on situations where current and former players have molested, abused, raped, and even killed women is alarming. Continue reading

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My “Gender”

Our first post of the semester comes from Prof. Joel Nadler, who is based in the Psychology Department and directs the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Masters program at SIUE.  His research interests include gender bias in selection and performance appraisal, sexual harassment, organizational attractiveness, adverse impact (EEO law), and assessing inclusive diversity practices.  You can read more about his work at his website, www.JoelNadlerPhD.com.

In this post, Joel thinks about gender both broadly and personally, and his discussion of the “heroes of gender” is a celebration of gender fluidity and a call to “wave our own flags of gender defiance.”

Disclaimer.  I consider myself to be a passive feminist.  I both accept the concept of gender conformity for those that are comfortable with the two factor solution, while simultaneously supporting all those that struggle against the oppression of such a system.  I am not a feminist scholar.  I am an Industrial/Organizational psychologist.  My research interests are practice based and legal in nature. I study how to reduce stereotype bias in section and promotion that results in increased success, productivity, and profit for organizations.  My research also focuses on what works for the individual in the context of the “world as it is” with little focus on social justice and the sociological context of our world.  What follows is my personal reflections of gender as I have experienced it inspired by, but somewhat separate, from my academic endeavors.

What is gender?  It is dichotomy, it is historical, it is cultural, it is roles established by occupational and family expectations, and it is opposing social constructs of masculinity and femininity.  The expectations of these gender based terms, stereotypes, and roles vary from culture to culture. However; with only a very small number of exceptions across cultures and times gender is almost always conceptualized as an either or.  Gender is indicator of power, gender is weakness, gender is agency, gender is communality, gender is sexual orientation, gender is attraction, gender is behavior, gender is conformity, gender is blue and pink, gender is who pays for the date.  Gender is monolithic, gender is stiffing, gender is a prison, and gender determines what emotions can be expressed. Gender is the first question asked of each human and one of the most basic categorizations we are trained to view the world through.  Gender is a box to be checked on a form and then conformed to…

What should gender be?  That is just as complex of a question.  Gender should be identity, gender should be malleable, gender should be unique, and gender should be personal.  Gender should be cherished, embraced, and accepted.  Gender should be intimate, discovered, and through a lifetime evolved.  Sex can guide gender but gender should not be constrained by it. Gender should not involve absolutes and should be one of the last questions asked regarding how to define a person.

Who are the heroes of gender?  The heroes are those that struggles against the norms.  Those that do not fit in the box and those that refuse to conform.  People that proudly identify with terms such as transgender, gender queer, those that struggle to insist there is more than male and female, and those that cry out “I don’t want to fit”, but I want my culture to be ‘OK’ with that choice.  Those that say “what does it matter what is my chromosomal make up is or the nature of my genitalia, I am so much more, and deserve to be allowed to define myself in a way that makes sense to me.” Continue reading

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Troubling the Gender Binary: Middle School Students Creating and Performing “Non-Sexist” Advertisements.

Today’s post, written by Educational Leadership Professor Laurie Puchner and Sociology Professor Linda Markowitz, gives us a first look at their recent collaborative project, one in which they ask middle school students to challenge the sorts of gender binaries reflected in–and reinforced by– the media.  There’s so much to think about here: in encouraging middle school students to engage in critical conversations about gender, Laurie and Linda make us aware of how early messages about gender are transmitted.  By inviting students to disrupt these messages, they also demonstrate that students can (literally) rewrite the sorts of scripts that they encounter daily, and by extension, redefine the gender roles they embrace and reject.

The media is a powerful place where many of us learn to do gender.   Unfortunately, what the media teaches us about being female or male reinforces a belief in a false gender dichotomy. From the media, we learn that women are nurturing, gossipy and have the primary occupation of being sex objects for the male gaze and that men are active heroes who are sort of goofy but have important jobs making sure society functions smoothly.

Women’s Studies classes reveal the overt and sometimes covert messages about women and men we get in the media.   In fact, sometimes it becomes difficult to watch our favorite show or movie when we deconstruct the gender messages tucked neatly inside the program.   Learning about the constraining gender messages in the media has empowered some of us to actually begin troubling the gender binary in our own lives.

We wondered if some of what we teach and learn in Women’s Studies classes could be taught to children in secondary schools with the same effect.   So, in 2012-13 we participated in a grant-funded project to develop and test a critical media literacy curriculum unit aimed at middle school students. We had two goals in mind: to encourage students to critically examine gendered stereotypes in media, especially as they relate to occupations; and to ask students to trouble the binary by having them create their own non-gender stereotypical media representations. We taught the unit in five 8th grade classes.

The critical media literacy unit consisted of four 45-minute lessons comprising discussion and activities revolving around multiple examples of print and video ads. At the end of the third lesson students received a handout describing their final assignment. In the assignment, students were instructed to work in small groups to create a video advertisement for a product. The ad had to: “Advertise a specific product of your choice; Challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforce them. (In other words, the ad must be counter-stereotypical); Pertain to occupations in some way.” Continue reading

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Feminist Awakenings: A Personal “Women’s History” this Month

Today’s post comes from Prof. Catherine Seltzer, the Director of the Women’s Studies Program.  (And now I’m going to go ahead and shift to first person, since I write the headnotes…)  My post today is about the recent exhibit I helped to curate with Prof. Mary Rose of Lovejoy Library.  We wanted to try to do something a little different in our celebration of Women’s History Month this year, and so we decided to focus on a more immediate and local definition history–our own.  For this exhibit, which we have titled “Feminist Awakenings: Artifacts of Impact,” we asked people from all areas of campus to contribute an “artifact” associated with their earliest feminist impulses, or, more generally, their initial awareness of gender constructs.  In this post, I write a bit about the idea of “feminist awakenings” and about the exhibit as it took shape. 

 Please do stop by the exhibit on the first floor of Lovejoy Library.  (It runs through the end of March.)  Please feel free, too, to respond to the display in the comment section of this blog post.

photo-1One of the cases in the exhibit “Feminist Awakenings: Artifacts of Impact”

I remember reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for the first time.  I was taking an undergraduate course on the American Novel with the wonderful scholar Elsa Nettels.  Everything Prof. Nettels chose that semester seemed to me to be revelatory in some way: it was a feast of James, Cather, and Faulkner.  But it was The Awakening that really caused, well, an awakening.  If you haven’t read the book, the novel’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, feels an indefinable but undeniable dissatisfaction with her life as a wealthy mother in turn of the century Louisiana, an articulation of what Betty Freidan would later term “the problem that has no name.”  Edna’s struggle to connect with an authentic self is both frustrating and exhilarating; she is a deeply flawed character, but also one who is also enormously sympathetic.

At the end of the novel [Spoiler Alert!] Edna ultimately swims into the sea, and her suicide is read by many as an act conscious rebellion, and by others as one of defeat, or at least concession.  Some twenty years after first reading the novel, I love to teach it in my own American literature courses.  I find that I approach Edna in different ways as the years pass, but it is the ambiguity that surrounds her choices—even beyond those at the end of The Awakening—that I continually relish.  Relatively early in the novel, a third person voice assures us, “[T]he beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.  How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!  How many souls perish in its tumult!”  An awakening, Chopin suggests here, is not an epiphany—a clear understanding of truth—but rather a broader sense that a truth may exist and, as importantly, an acknowledged desire to pursue it.  That search, as Chopin notes in these lines and throughout The Awakening, is often marked by missteps, confusion, and even danger.

When Prof. Mary Rose and I decided to curate an exhibit of objects donated by members of the university community that represented moments of gender consciousness—of feminist awakening, or, more expansively, a recognition of gender constructs—we were drawing from our own experience in some ways: as we crafted our invitation to participate, for example, I was remembering that early encounter with Chopin’s novel and hoped other members of the campus community—students, staff, faculty, and administrators—would share similar moments.  They did even more.  We asked all of the participants to loan us an object that represented that “moment of recognition” for them, and to include a very short narrative—less than 150 words—to accompany the piece.  What these objects and stories depict is what Chopin calls “the beginning of things,” and taken together the contributions to the exhibit speak to “the necessarily vague, chaotic” and, occasionally, “exceedingly disturbing” qualities of seeing the world through a new lens. Continue reading

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