Caitlyn Jenner portrait “a picture from the past rather than the present.”

caitlynjennerOne of the things about L.A. I’m really going to miss is reading the shrunken, vestigial, adware-addled Denver Post instead of the rich and lively LA Times, and one of the writers I’ll miss most is art critic Christopher Knight.  Here’s his review of Caitlyn Jenner’s big reveal portrait by Annie Leibovitz on the cover of Vanity Fair published yesterday.

For all the advance buildup, the picture feels flat — a pedestrian celebrity pastiche of rather tired visual cliches. That’s too bad. Jenner’s courage in taking control of the public process of coming out as transgender is bold, and this will be the most widely seen initial image.

.       .       .       .       .

[T]he Vanity Fair photograph seems a missed opportunity — a picture from the past rather than the present. Maybe that’s because all its conventional, glamour-girl signals weigh down the lively fluidity swirling at the center of gender identity.

After describing work by photographer Catherine Opie and Judith Butler, and explaining that a more expansive and complicated vision of gender performance has been part of both the feminist and LGBT movements’ DNA since the early 1990s, Knight writes that the VF cover appears to have missed these conversations entirely.  Instead, it’s a portrait of a 60-something woman by a 60-something woman that feels dated and conventional.  “Leibovitz’s Caitlyn Jenner is a newfangled Vargas girl, one of those airbrushed cuties from the old pages of Playboy. Is that all there is?” Continue reading

Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present, and age as a category of historical analysis

ageinamericaIs age the next new category of analysis in history?  I think it might be, and not just because I’m one of the contributing authors.  From an email from co-editor Nicholas L. Syrett I received this weekend:

Age in America has been published (New York University Press, 2015)! I’m at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting this weekend in St. Louis and the very first two advance copies made it here just in time (and both were sold by conference’s end). The assistant editor at NYU Press will send you your copy as soon as the books stock at NYU’s warehouse (Cori and I don’t even have ours yet). I have attached a photo of the book sitting in the NYU Press booth. Within a couple weeks it should be available to order through bookstores, etc.

The co-editors of the volume, Nick Syrett and Corinne T. Field, worked hard with contributors to get a good mix of established and emerging scholars and to cover a pretty broad swath of American history (table of contents here.)  My essay, “‘Keep me With You, So That I Might Not Be Damned:’  Age and Captivity in Colonial Borderlands Warfare,” is the first essay in the collection after Field’s and Syrett’s introduction.  There are thirteen other essays in the volume, which covers not just the expected modern markers of age and how they came to be (age of suffrage, the drinking age, the age of retirement and Social Security benefits), but also essays by Yuki Oda on age and immigration politics (“‘A Day Too Late:’  Age, Immigration Quotas, and Racial Exclusion,”) Stuart Schoenfield on age 13 for American Jews, and Norma E. Cantú on the quinceañera for Latin@ girls. Continue reading

How is this OK? On dismissing historical subfields and the evolution of our intellectual lives.

I’ve had some conversations with senior male historians over the past few years that have troubled me.

When talking about my work, or about the work of another women’s historian, some scholars apparently feel it’s OK to say “Oh, that’s why I don’t know her work.  I just don’t do women’s history.”  Or, “Women’s history is just something I never think about,” or comments to that effect.

I get it that we historians can’t all do everything, but how is it acceptable to announce that you never think about half of humanity in your own work or even read the scholarship on this half of humanity?  Would these white men (and they have all been white) announce blithely that “I don’t do race,” even if it were true?  (Odds are they’re not as ignorant of the scholarship on race as they are on the scholarship on women, gender, and sexuality, but this is just a guess.  This post is mostly about the liberty some feel to confess their total ignorance of what has become a major subfield of history, and why that’s a bad idea not just for the audience but for the speaker.) Continue reading

Bryn Mawr “affirms. . . institutional identity as a women’s college” and the universal She

From an email I received from the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Bryn Mawr College about the “recommendation from a Board working group that was created at the September 2014 Board meeting to examine the mission of the College with respect to transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming applicants” that was “discussed and approved” last weekend.  I’m sure this working group came in response to this story from the New York Times last fall about trans* students at Wellesley.

The working group concluded unanimously that the mission of the College at the undergraduate level is to educate women to be future leaders. In its recommendation to the Board, the working group noted that Bryn Mawr’s identity as a women’s college is fundamental to its distinctive environment, one in which women are central, faculty assume and expect excellence from women, and women assume positions of leadership. The working group also recommended that the College use language that affirms our institutional identity as a women’s college (e.g. use of gendered language) while respecting the diversity of individual identities in the community.

The working group also proposed that the College more clearly articulate the eligible undergraduate applicant pool in the context of its mission. The Board approved the working group’s recommendation that in addition to those applicants who were assigned female at birth, the applicant pool will be inclusive of transwomen and of intersex individuals who live and identify as women at the time of application. Intersex individuals who do not identify as male are also eligible for admission. Those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male are not eligible for admission.

In cases where an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials, the College may request additional information, which could include verifiable legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender. In evaluating such additional information, the College fully intends to be as flexible and inclusive as possible. 

Within the context of our mission as a women’s college, all Bryn Mawr students will continue to be valued and supported members of the community, no matter how their gender identity shifts during their time at the College.  

Continue reading

The Vagina Dentatalogues

Just go read Elizabeth Reis on the Mount Holyoke College non-production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at Nursing Clio:

Intersex activists have coined the insightful slogan, “No Body is Shameful®,” to draw attention to the shaming and forced cosmetic adherence to the idea of a “normal” body. Of course, here they are talking about people born with atypical sex development, like the one in 5000 infant girls born with MRKH Syndrome [Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) Syndrome]. Since the nineteenth century, girls born without vaginas have endured the surgical creation of such anatomy. This reconstructive “corrective” surgery, described eloquently here by Esther Morris Leidolf, in a narrative she calls the “The Missing Vagina Monologue,” has never been done for the pleasure of the girl, but as her physician bluntly explained when she was only thirteen years old: so that she “could have a normal sex life with her husband.”

This is the kind of violence that The Vagina Monologues speaks to, even though there are no intersex characters in Eve Ensler’s play. It doesn’t matter (though it would be a good idea!). Watching the play encourages us to appreciate the profound refrain, “No Body is Shameful,” whether we have a vagina, want a vagina, like vaginas, or just love hearing the word spoken rebelliously and repeatedly on stage.

I like Reis’s point about the surgical violence done to women’s bodies for men’s pleasure.  I know that many trans* people have embraced this kind of surgery as something that can make them whole or complete, but I sometimes wonder where the feminist critiques of allopathic medicine have gone sometimes in the trans* celebrations of the power of technology to alter people’s bodies through hormones and surgery. Continue reading

Obligatory comment on this week’s outrage that broke the internets.

Historiann1990Once upon a time, a privileged white guy with writing gigs at various legacy mags and a prominent perch now at New York Magazine wrote an essay warning darkly of today’s “P.C. Police” on our college campuses and the internet because people sometimes say mean things about him and his writer friends (who also have sweet gigs at legacy magazines) on Twitter or in the comments on his articles.  (Or something.)  Full disclosure:  I’ve mentioned his work exactly once on this blog, and it was only to give him a nod of agreement.

There have been a number of serious and productive responses that point out the folly of Jonathan Chait’s claims about the “dangers” of “liberal P.C.,” but also agree with him that arguments among putative liberal allies can be aggravating and sometimes turn on absurdities á la “the Judean People’s Front” or the “People’s Front of Judea,” such as Megan Garber at The Atlantic, or J. Bryan Lowder at Slate.  In other words, they grant that yes, people on the internet are sometimes major jerks.

Yes, people are a-holes in general, and people with blogs are probably on average bigger a-holes than most.  But, for the most part, straight, white guys on campus or on the internet just get criticized or maybe called names, or get told to “check your privilege.”  White men don’t (for example) regularly get calls for their rape and murder, or death threats if they show up to give a speech on a U.S. college campus, which is the kind of thing that happens to feminist women writers on the internet.  A lot. Continue reading

Beyond the Binary: Trans* History in Early America

easfall2014

Fall 2014 special issue

Rachel Hope Cleves has a detailed and interesting report on a panel she convened earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American HIstorical Association in New York City over at Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality. This panel was an outgrowth of a special issue of Early American History she edited for Fall 2014 on the subject of Beyond the Binaries:  Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America.

Cleves describes each of the four panelists’ contributions, describing their work on flexibly-gendered or trans* people and describing the conversation among the panelists and the audience on the salience of gender binaries as well as the value of reading trans* identities into the more distant past of early America.  I thought this exchange was particularly interesting on the question of viewing early America as a “golden age” of gender flexibility and trans* possibilities:

Questions from the floor followed, sparking productive disagreements. Questions from Kathryn Falvo, Maddie Williams, and Jesse Bayker, pushed [Sean] Trainor’s observation of the optimistic bent of the special issue. Trainor suggested that variations in the expression of masculinity in early America need not be treated as “assaults” but could be understood as tolerated iterations. [Greta] LaFleur stressed that her attention to the wide-range of non-binary gender expression in early America was not optimistic but intended as a corrective to the paucity of alternative stories. She announced herself willing to work in the speculative mode, not just the declarative. [Scott] Larson went further, insisting that he felt an ethical imperative to make bold claims for trans* history, and to escape the “land of caveats” in which academic history often operates.

Continue reading