You Know How It Is

You know how it is. You go to school, you get a degree, find a career, maybe you meet some cute girl . . . 

Wait—what? If you’re like me, you only too often find yourself reading something like this sentence above, describing some supposedly potential universal human experience only to find out mid-message that it’s been crafted, explicitly or implicitly, by and for men (at least, straight men). From novels to scholarly texts to departmental advertisements language that is meant to appeal to people in general too often ends up excluding over half of the population. And it’s not some little thing—the exclusion is felt like an invisible punch to the gut. At least, that’s what happens to me. I’ll start reading a work of philosophy, or a [male] academic’s webpage, or really pretty much anything at all, and at some point, usually right when I’m starting to empathically nod along to the flow of the narrative, I’ll stumble across an often unintended reveal of the male-ness of the intended “you,” and I’ll get a jolt of recognition. It’s not the interpolated recognition of inclusion into the larger social narrative that I thought I was part of, but the recognition that I’m actually not included after all—that I’m an “other,” the extra category that people are too often trying but failing to incorporate into the thread of society. It reminds me that the protagonist of popular culture and academia is too often men, and that the implicated reader is male, too. In the era of #MeToo and Times Up, when the ubiquity of explicit forms of sexual harassment is becoming more and more visible (more visible, that is, only to those in power who had previously convinced themselves it wasn’t so pervasive), let’s take a moment also to consider the more invisible, even unconscious obstacles that women face while working to succeed in their chosen paths in life. As we know, language matters. Saying “he” to mean “everyone,” or “man” to mean “human,” isn’t some quaint shorthand for the universal person, to be dismissed with an eye-rolling shrug when exclusivity is pointed out. Talking about “you” when the you being talked about isn’t everyone excludes as much as it includes. This is why virtually all academic journals no longer allow the use of “he” to cover “all”—and it’s why we need to do even more to recognize the unstated assumptions that go into our words. This is as true for Black History Month as it is for Women’s History Month, reminding us as always of the fact that when we talk about one month to represent such a large amount of people it may be better than nothing in our current era, but also that the rest of the months are unmarked as belonging to straight white men.

As a psychological anthropologist I struggle with how much to fight against these issues, especially when there is so much more to think about in life. As an Ithacan I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the truck driver driving in the lane next to me was as likely to be female as male, and where I rarely felt constrained by my gender. I was fortunate to receive an undergraduate education at a women’s college, too, where it wasn’t an issue whether and how a professor would give more opportunities to the male student than the female one next to him. But my upbringing couldn’t prepare me for the dense, ubiquitous layers of sexism in my professional life, even as I surround myself with men and women who are actively working to change it. I try to be mindful of my language in writing (choosing, for example, the still-contentious single “they” instead of “he” or “he or she”). I point it out when a man says something a woman just said and is listened to more. And I stop my students mid-sentence if they ever accidentally talk about “man” when they mean people. In my work on Buddhism in Southeast Asia I write about gender as one among many of the factors that influence how people are understood, trying when I do to avoid the liberal feminist assumptions that may not play out the same ways I’m used to with informants. Yet I often take pause with the idea that because I’m a woman I should spend extra, precious time on women’s issues when men, simply, just don’t have to.

In the end, Women’s History Month reminds us all to do our part, in whatever ways we can. It reminds us to speak up for equality and diversity, to not stand by when small and large obstacles are put in the way of our own or anyone else’s success, and to advocate for change in whatever ways we’re able. From questioning our assumptions about who the “you” is that we’re writing for, to drawing attention to the many insidious ways that words work to cause harm—in everything from women’s name changes at marriage to the feminized voices responding to A.I. commands to whatever we each find important and possible to address—this month is a time to remember that we can each call attention to gender inequalities, in whatever ways you and I can. Maybe that can be how it is.

J.L. Cassaniti is the author of Living Buddhism: Mind, Self and Emotion in a Thai Community, and Universalism Without Uniformity: Explorations in Mind, Self, and Emotion. Her new book Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia is out this month.

You Know How It Is

Excerpt: Sexual Politics and Feminist Science

As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, please enjoy this short excerpt from Kirsten Leng’s Sexual Politics and Feminist Science.Leng

In Sexual Politics and Feminist Science: Women Sexologists in Germany, 1900-1933, I examine German-speaking women’s overlooked contributions to the rethinking of sex, gender, and sexuality taking place within sexology between 1900 and 1933. In so doing, I demonstrate that women not only played active roles in the creation of sexual scientific knowledge, but also made significant and influential interventions in the field that are worthy of rediscovery and engagement. Collectively, I refer to these women as women sexologists and as female sexual theorists, both to disrupt assumptions regarding sexological authorship and expertise, and to acknowledge the sustained intellectual energy these women dedicated to exploring, analyzing, and theorizing sexual subjectivity, desire, behavior, and relationships. Their sustained attention, focused textual output, intertextual and interpersonal connections to male sexologists, and international influence distinguish them from other feminist or female authors who wrote about sex at this time.

Of the nine women whose work I discuss, six were born and lived in Germany—namely, Ruth Bré, Henriette Fürth, Johanna Elberskirchen, Anna Rüling, Helene Stöcker, and Mathilde Vaerting; the others—Rosa Mayreder, Grete Meisel-Hess, and Sofie Lazarsfeld—were Austrian. Although this study focuses on developments within Germany, the close cultural, intellectual, and political ties between Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century allow for an examination of sexual theorizing taking place among Austrian women as well.

Several of these women, such as feminist intellectuals Stöcker, Mayreder, and Meisel-Hess, are well-known figures in German and Austrian women’s history, while others, like writer-activists Elberskirchen, Rüling, Vaerting, and Lazarsfeld, are only now being rediscovered. Regardless of their relative fame, these women were remarkably productive sexual theorists and researchers who wrote on a range of topics including sexual instincts and desires, homosexual subjectivity, gender expression, sexual difference, and motherhood.

At a time when sexual norms, ethics, and knowledge were unstable, contested, and quickly changing, these women sexologists saw feminist potential in the scientization of sex. They intervened in the discursive melee to articulate new understandings of female sexuality and same-sex desire, criticize hegemonic expressions of masculinity and male heterosexuality, investigate the effects of war on sexuality, and insist on the fluidity of gender. Their research and theories underwrote empowering representations of autonomous, active, female sexual desire, gender expressions that exceeded the masculine/feminine binary, and new forms of heterosexual relations beyond contractual marriage and prostitution.

Science was strategically valuable for women. Deploying the language of science enabled women to frankly and publicly participate in debates about sex and sexuality and not comprise their respectability—a precious political commodity for disempowered social actors, and one that, for women, was largely premised upon the presumption of sexual ignorance. Science could help women conjoin claims regarding somatic sexual needs and evolutionary imperatives with demands for economic independence and legally inscribed rights and freedoms. Moreover, couching their claims in what Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal have termed the “moral authority of nature” enabled women to assert that realizing their demands would improve not only individual but also collective well-being.

Yet the appeal of science was not merely strategic or rhetorical: treating sex objectively and rationally, as science claimed to do, further provided women with an alternative to religious frameworks for discussing sex, and broke with the conception of sex as sin. Many women insisted that gaining “objective” knowledge about sex was a necessary precondition for the formation of moral opinions, and for the proper governance of sexual life. As Johanna Elberskirchen put it, “As long as you rely on metaphysical arguments, which are elastic, a willing person with a good understanding of argumentation can confound you. That ends when you appeal to scientific facts, the results of natural history; they cannot be twisted or turned.” In Elberskirchen’s view, “The source of every higher ethic, every higher moral is the laws of life.” Many women like Elberskirchen believed that science exposed the integral roles women played in sexual and social life, and revealed that women possessed innate sexual needs and instincts-along with a natural, “biological” right to live as autonomous and self-determining sexual agents. On the basis of its revelations, many women hoped that sexual science would affect a break with the arbitrary authority of the past and resolve long-standing inequalities. By revealing the “laws of life” and replacing ignorance with enlightenment, science could place women’s destiny under their own control, and liberate them by opening up new vistas of existential possibility.

Excerpt: Sexual Politics and Feminist Science

Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month

This last year brought about a sea change nationwide in the ways that women have come together as a social, cultural, and political force. The #MeToo movement has broken years of silence around sexual assault and harassment, women turned out in historic numbers to march on Washington, and women are running for public office at record levels. In fact, multiple media outlets have dubbed 2018 “The Year of the Woman.”

In these times, honoring women’s history takes on special resonance. As such, we’re joining the celebrations the best way we know how—through books! Here’s a selection of the many books we’ve published over the years on women’s history and women’s issues.

Continue reading “Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month”

Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month: Images from an immigrant woman’s life in the early 1900s

Matilda Rabinowitz’s illustrated memoir challenges assumptions about the lives of early twentieth-century women, which is why it’s so perfect for Women’s History Month, and why we are sharing a selection of the more than 160 scratchboard images from within her book. The images were carved by Robbin Legere Henderson, Rabinowitz’s granddaughter.

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Rabinowitz cover

Gallery

Black History in Ithaca

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St. James AME Zion Church

As the end of February approaches, it’s important to reflect on the contributions—major and minor—black Americans have made to US history nationally and locally. In May of 2003, the Cornell-Ithaca Partnership and the History Center in Tompkins County developed a self-guided tour of Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood. Since Ithaca’s founding in 1804, the Southside has been home to interesting, dedicated people committed to the preservation and enrichment of their and their community’s Black heritage, culture, and way of life. From Zachariah Tyler, who enlisted with his son in the 26th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry at the age of fifty-six, to Aunt Elsie Brooks, a former slave who was so beloved by her community that more than eight hundred people attended her funeral, almost collapsing the floor of the St. James AME Zion Church. Without the influence of the Southside and its history, Ithaca would not be the town we know and love today.

If you choose to follow the self-guided tour, please be respectful as many of these sites are currently private homes to families and individuals.

Map of sites in Ithaca with ties to Black history, heritage, and culture.

Carmen Torrado Gonzalez is Marketing Assistant at Cornell University Press. She is a native Ithacan and an avid reader of poetry. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenTorradoG

Black History in Ithaca

From West Oakland to Wakanda—the African American history that inspired Marvel’s “Black Panther”

Marvel’s critically-acclaimed new film Black Panther broke multiple box office records this past weekend by delivering the fifth-largest opening of all time. While the film is clearly a superhero movie, it does draw deep inspiration from actual political events of the past century. Director Ryan Coogler, born in Oakland, California, set several key scenes in the city to honor his hometown as well as to bring awareness to Oakland’s pivotal role in setting the stage in 1966 for the founding of the Black Panther Party movement. Continue reading “From West Oakland to Wakanda—the African American history that inspired Marvel’s “Black Panther””

From West Oakland to Wakanda—the African American history that inspired Marvel’s “Black Panther”

Necessary Reading: Books to Celebrate Black History Month

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In our current political landscape, it’s more necessary now than ever to have a richer, deeper, and more nuanced understanding of race in the US. Books that offer a deep dive into subjects as wide-ranging as the intertwined histories of European expansionism and racism, African-American steelworkers in 1920s Indiana, a multiracial neighborhood in Queens, and the translations and reception abroad of a legendary black American poet’s work, can offer illuminating insight into the ways we think about and grapple with race today.

To that end, and to continue our celebration of Black History Month, here is a selection of just some of the books we’ve published over the years on race and African American history. Continue reading “Necessary Reading: Books to Celebrate Black History Month”

Necessary Reading: Books to Celebrate Black History Month

Excerpt: White World Order, Black Power Politics

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As part of our month-long celebration of Black History Month, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction of White World Order, Black Power Politics, by Robert Vitalis. This award-winning book contends that racism and imperialism are the twin forces that propelled the course of the United States in the world in the early twentieth century and in turn affected the way that diplomatic history and international relations (originally known as “race relations”) were taught and understood in the American academy.

Continue reading “Excerpt: White World Order, Black Power Politics”

Excerpt: White World Order, Black Power Politics

Labor Posters with a Message of Equality

As part of our month-long celebration of Black History Month, we broke open the stacks and searched for unusual books that showcase African American history. With our focus on labor history, through our imprint ILR Press, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that we have a book of classic labor posters. Still, it’s gratifying and energizing to look through and discover posters within this book that broach subjects of race discrimination, hate crimes, and African American organized labor.

Here’s a small selection of these posters from the pages of Agitate! Educate! Organize! American Labor Posters by Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher. Continue reading “Labor Posters with a Message of Equality”

Labor Posters with a Message of Equality

Excerpt: Two Weeks Every Summer, by Tobin Miller Shearer

Shearer-Summer

Tobin Miller Shearer published Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America with Cornell University Press in 2017. In his book, Miller Shearer focuses on the history of the Fresh Air program, and, in particular, the voices of the children themselves through letters that they wrote, pictures that they took, and their testimonials. Shearer offers a careful social and cultural history of the Fresh Air programs, giving readers a good sense of the summer experiences for both hosts and the visiting children.

As part of our month-long focus on Black History Month, here is an excerpt from the Introduction. Continue reading “Excerpt: Two Weeks Every Summer, by Tobin Miller Shearer”

Excerpt: Two Weeks Every Summer, by Tobin Miller Shearer