The Construction of Black Women’s Sexuality from Novel to Film Adaptation

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

When novels are adapted into films, scenes and dialogue are left out to appeal to a specific audience and/or to construct thoughts and ideas on the context within the film itself. The novel The Color Purple, written by Alice Walker, and the accompanying film, directed by Steven Spielberg, falls into the same filtering as most novel to film adaptations so often do. The novel’s key elements are still present in the film, but there are many concepts and ideas that remain unclear, or entirely absent. It appears that it was not a question of time constraints, but more so the director making it appeal to an audience that wanted black women’s sexuality to remain in the metaphorical closet. The question at hand is, why does Spielberg decide to leave out such detrimental framings of character development from the novel? Furthermore, why did he choose to exclude the acknowledgements of black women’s sexuality within the film, while they were of great importance in the novel? By leaving out these ideas and key concepts from within the novel, Spielberg’s film silences black women.

Published in 1982, Walker structures the novel as a coming of age-esque story and finding one’s self. Celie, the protagonist, experiences an array of traumatic events throughout her life, from sexual assault to physical abuse. Ultimately, she perseveres and overcomes it in the end, but there are hardships along the way. Walker offers the reader insight into Celie’s life and search for self-discovery through her involvement with various characters throughout the novel, which are not present in the film. Through her relationship with Shug Avery, Celie gains the power to stand up for herself; she becomes more experienced and comfortable with her sexuality, as well as recognizing that her voice deserves to be heard.

Walker depicts Celie’s sexuality in such a deeply poetic and thoughtful manner that Spielberg’s film completely disregards. There is no question that Celie is in fact a lesbian, the author’s blatant expressions of Celie’s distastes for men – in part due to the ways men commit violent acts towards her – reveals a clear understanding of her lesbianism. Yet when watching the film adaptation of this novel, there is little to no presence of Celie’s sexual preferences or her romantic feelings for Shug, her lover. In fact, there are many instances where Spielberg omits Shug’s presence in the film that are crucial in the novel. In a scene where Shug is singing at Harpo’s, she dedicates a song she has written to Celie. Instead of the intimate look into Celie’s eyes at the moment this occurs, we see a more of a platonic, almost familial love. While in the novel, Walker describes this moment as Shug’s public display of her affections for Celie.

Just as crucial, the expression and awakening of Celie’s self-awareness within the novel is excluded from the film and perpetuates the taboo of black female sexuality. Readers of the novel see Celie’s self-awareness blossoming from her relationship with Shug, for it awakens her understanding for actual intimate feelings for a person rather than obligatory sexual relations. The lack of their intimate relationship creates a narrative within the film that Shug and Celie’s relationship is solely platonic until we are presented with Shug’s intimate kiss with Celie, and even then it could still be seen as platonic instead of what its true intentions were.

Spielberg’s exclusion of the primary aspects of their relationship in the film creates an entirely new understanding of what the text itself means to an audience. It speaks to the ideas that a black woman’s sexuality or voice in general should not be present in the media, even when this film is an adapted from a novel that held these ideologies to such a high regard and are structurally integral to the storyline. We are seeing a white man, Spielberg, dictating and restricting the way that black women interact within the film; in turn, prioritizing Celie’s silence over her voice.

Steven Spielberg’s film The Color Purple must be viewed as a separate entity from Alice Walker’s novel. Her intent was not to show a heterosexual black woman struggling to get through her day to day life and the friends she met on the way. Rather, Walker frames the novel to focus on the importance of self-realization based in Celie’s experiences. She provides the reader with a differentiation from the normative narrative of heterosexual black womanhood, and offers her audience a necessary glimpse into the variation of experiences in sexuality and love. Spielberg’s film is heteronormative and violent, leaving out crucial storylines, experiences, and ideologies that Walker’s novel offers. As such, I ask of you, the reader of this post, to read Walker’s thought provoking, influential, devastating, and important novel The Color Purple if you have not done so already.

Labor Abuse in a Factory Setting: A Look at India’s Garment Industry

By Eliza Ferdinando
Eliza is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence and will graduate in 2022.

“It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you; you should be shot and disposed of.” (1)  This is just one example of the verbal and physical abuse that the Workers Rights Consortium, or WRC, documented in Bangalore garment factories. The woman in these factories are at a high risk of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They are forced to choose between their safety, their employment, and their monetary freedom. Three years ago, a group of eleven women wrote to a local union in South India outlining the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their section supervisor, including a threat to “pluck out their pubic hair” (Human Rights Watch). The women made it clear that they could not give their names out of fear of recourse, and asked for help.

For most women employed in India’s garment industry, finding another job is not an option. Unmarried women are oftentimes supporting themselves and their families until marriage, and married women are usually supporting their household and children. Unionizing can be extremely difficult due to inter-union conflict and the focus on gender roles. This robs many workers of the ability to seek recourse for the abuse they have to endure. Violence comes from both from their superiors and their male colleagues. (2) Many women find that their pain is minimized or dismissed, and they receive no support from supervisors when they report inappropriate behavior from male colleagues. One woman was told, when reporting her male co-worker’s inappropriate comments, that she needed to get over it or leave. In one factory located in Southern India, auditors found that women who had requested clean bathrooms, especially when they were menstruating, had been laughed out of their supervisor’s office. Menstruation remains a taboo subject in India, something that has sparked protests in 2018.

Ninety percent of the workforce in the garment industry is composed of women. Those who work in the industry are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and workplace fatigue syndrome. These workers are penalized for missing work or working too slowly. As they age the workers are at a higher risk for bladder and kidney problems as a result of working long hours without breaks. The high stress environment can also lead to heart problems and high blood pressure. Because production targets are extremely high and extremely variable, there is little time for any ill or injured workers to recuperate, which gives physical and psychological problems a longer time to incubate and worsen their effects. The work can also be physically demanding, requiring long hours spent standing or hunched over a garment doing fine finishing work.

The majority of India’s garment industry is production for export. Large brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, Uniqlo, Walmart, and many more use India’s cheap labor to produce their goods. They are responsible for the abuse that millions of women suffer every single year, and part of a larger system of export and exploitation centered around the garment industry. By outsourcing their labor to various third party contractors, corporations are able to absolve themselves and their customers of accountability for labor violations by not being personally responsible for labor violations.

This past year, women in India took action in a call for labor rights. (3) Starting in Kerala, women began participating in a human wall in protest of gender based discrimination in a variety of public and private spaces. These women were demanding, among other things, labor policy reforms and a change in the attitude towards women’s work. Attitudes towards female labor are shifting, as more women are entering the workforce. This shift in attitude, however, has not lined up with legal reforms and social convention, and the attitude remains that young women should get married and stay home with their children while running a household.

Serious reform is needed in the garment industry and in the greater world of fashion. Many organizations have agreed that there are better ways to safely manufacture the immense amount of clothing India exports to the United States and Europe. Anti-harassment training is needed for workers and supervisors, as are legal reforms to ensure that abuse is dealt with in a timely manner and that medical care and breaks are provided to victims. A clear system to address grievances is also a necessity to address the problem. More frequent and unannounced audits need to be conducted to accurately assess working conditions. The formation of unions should always be encouraged, so that workers have security when seeking recourse for abuse.

The women most at risk for abuse in factories are minorities. Immigrants, religious minorities, or just poor workers from outside the cities are lured in with the promise of good wages only to suffer horrifically. In India, the caste system still operates systemically, despite having been legally abolished for almost 70 years. Lower caste women face derision from authorities for both their caste and their gender. Almost 99% of assault cases go unreported in India, and this number is higher among subjugated groups who already face obstacles in the workforce. (4) Women who report violence risk being ostracized by their communities for being ‘impure,’ losing their income, and being the victim of retaliatory actions for their reports. As one woman in Southern India said, “We want justice…. Is it our fault that we are poor?” (5) Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody deserves to be forced to live in fear. Nobody deserves to be forced to choose between a job and safety. Nobody deserves the uncertainty that such a life brings them, the hurt and the pain that follow them from those experiences.

Sources

 

  1. WRC Finds Beatings, Death Threats at Indian Factory Supplying University Apparel to Columbia Sportswear, by Scott Nova and Ben Hensler, for Workers Rights Consortium, http://www.workersrights.org, June 20th 2018
  2. One in seven women in Bengaluru garment factories face sexual violence, report says, by Anuradha Nagaraj, for Reuters, http://www.reuters.com, June 24th 2016
  3. For more on this topic see India’s garment workers continue to fight against exploitation, by Aarthi Gunnupuri, for Equal Times, http://www.equaltimes.org, November 22nd 2016 
  4. For more on sexual violence in India, see A Closer Look at Statistics on Sexual Violence in India, by Sujan Bandyopadhyay, for The Wire, www.thewire.in, May 8th 2018 
  5. Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry, by Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org, February 2nd 2019 

The Stakes of the Savoy: Black Women and the Lindy Hop

By Shaelyn Casey
Shaelyn is a first year MFA Dance student at Sarah Lawrence College.

As students of dance history, we are often asked to question and challenge the narratives that get written into history. Too often, we are only taught the canon of major figures in dance history that mostly constitute the individual contributions of choreographers. As with almost any type of history, this often leaves out the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and many others. In the graduate dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, we work towards the idea of destabilizing the canon by studying the figures that often get written out of history. I believe it is also just as important to look at the contributions of dancers and the influence of social dance and the collective. In this blog, I want to illustrate one example of how social dance served as an outlet for black women to express their creative freedom and reclaim ownership over their own bodies through the popular dance of the 1920s and 30s, the Lindy Hop.

The Harlem Renaissance was a time of questioning social norms, including those of gender, sexuality, labor politics, and racial limitations. Kendra Unruh writes in The Journal of Pan African Studies in 2011 about the liberation of black women during the Harlem Renaissance through the use of the Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop was a very popular social dance at the time that involved partnering, physically demanding lifts, and high-energy foot work. It was often performed at dance clubs in New York City, most famously, at the Savoy Ballroom. Located in Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom hosted a mix of black and white performers and dancers of mixed economic and social backgrounds. The Savoy Ballroom offered “Kitchen Mechanics’ Nights” on Thursdays, since that was the night that many black domestic workers, who worked all weekend, normally had off. On these nights, many black women came to dance, let loose, and maybe even participate in the dance contests the club held.

Though very popular with the young Harlem crowds, the Lindy Hop was considered problematic by both white elites and the older generation of African Americans. This generation, along with the black bourgeoisie, felt beholden to the strict terms of respectability politics, which encapsulated the idea that black people needed to act with extra social decorum in line with white social expectations in order to have a chance to have any social upward mobility. The energetic, potentially sexualized, social dancing undermined this ideal of a submissive, quiet, and reserved woman. White employers also thought that women gathering and dancing in their free time might open their ideas about what types of work they could be doing, and potentially begin rejecting the idea of working in white households.

By choosing what to do with their own leisure time, and choosing to dance, the women reclaimed an element of freedom over their own bodies and identities. They chose to express their sexuality in public and to be proud of their skills. They challenged notions of white femininity by redefining what it was for a woman to work and to be active in displaying their working bodies. They affirmed that their bodies were more than just for labor. They made their mark on one of the most popular dance forms of the Jazz Era.

As a hopeful future dance educator, I believe strongly in the importance of questioning and challenging the norms of what gets taught in dance history. By highlighting stories such as those of the women in Harlem dancing the Lindy Hop, I hope to continue to explore how to expand whose contributions we value in the ever-evolving art form of dance.

References

  1. Spring, Howard. “Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition.” American Music, vol. 15, no. 2, 1997, pp. 183–207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3052731.
  2. Unruh, Kendra. “From Kitchen Mechanics to ‘Jubilant Spirits of Freedom’: Black, Working-Class Women Dancing the Lindy Hop.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 6, 2011.

Buried or Planted?

By Meybol Escoto Montilla
Meybol is the Faculty Support Coordinator for the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.

I thought that my life was finally lined up with my plans; have a job, good health and family stability, and out of nowhere, Pum! A bomb exploded inside my house and everything fell apart… I discovered I was married to a man I did not know and he was 100% the opposite of what I saw.

There was never a lack of mistreatment splashed with sugar to disguise the great monster that was in him. In a blink, I found myself on the street with my children who did not understand what was happening. We went from living a comfortable and stable life to living in a shelter full of rats and missing everything that can make a life normal, specially for a kid.

I told myself: “this should not fade my plans.” Instead, this will be the platform that will allow us to enter our promised land, because we had already traveled a lot to get there.

When things do not work and our loved ones abuse us and turn their backs on us, we feel we cannot move forward, freeze, get depressed and see our lives falling apart when they are actually just falling into place. We were not born seeds, but we can definitely learn how to be one, and this is the right time to do it!

When everything goes wrong, when people throw mud on you, when everything turns dark and dirty around you, just think that to be planted for a good harvest, the seed has to go through this too. It has to be surrounded by dirty things, deeply sunken, with a large weight on top, probably cold and sometimes dry and lonely.

But when all these elements come together and you feel that a bucket of cold water falls on you, don’t think is a punishment… a good seed will ALWAYS bear good fruit, but it must be processed.

Rejoice if they betrayed you and made fun of you when you thought everything was fine, if suddenly you were left alone in the middle of nowhere. The seeds are not buried, they are planted deep. Those who has no experience sowing, but harvesting, think you will not be reborn, but now is the time to germinate and show that all the damage that seemed irreparable has become only the roots to make you stronger.  

Glow!!! Let them see a new woman stronger, safer, only dedicated to what really matters to her, and with the firm conviction that she has to do what she wants for her and for those she loves.

You did not bury me, you just planted me on solid ground, and I thank you, because now I will bear fruits; fruits that nobody can take from me unless I want them to, because with this process I have learned who should or should not be around me. Above all, I learned that I could love with all my heart and soul because there are hands that bury, but also hands that plant – water and care to make you grow as a new plant, as a new creature…

Love does not end because that person, who did not know how to value you, tried to bury you. Rather, it is born when, in the midst of your loneliness, pain, bitterness and sadness you find a light that teaches you the way to be reborn and germinate!!!

Move forward, woman, a mistreatment is just another experience that shows that whoever did it needs more than you do!

 

Be planted, germinate, bear fruits and over all… shine!

Equity Within End Zones: Seattle E.N.D., Ultimate Frisbee, and the Decolonization of Social Space (Excerpt)

By Bella Rowland-Reid
Bella is a second year undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Growing up in Seattle, it’s not uncommon to identify with either the “Northend” or “Southend” parts of the city. In the elite bubble that makes up the Seattle Ultimate Frisbee scene, there is a clear division between the regions, not only in culture and style of play, but in resource accessibility and financial support, particularly at the youth level. There’s the Northend, known for posh neighborhood communities and resource-abundant Ultimate programs; and the Southend, with majority low-income residents, Amazon-induced gentrification, and teams primarily made up of students of color. Each area’s respective public high school Ultimate Frisbee teams–three in the North, three in the South–embody their regions accurately, both in demographics and the relative privileges and oppressions that derive from said racial makeup. Northend teams typically receive more funding, newer gear, and nicer fields, while Southend players are struggling to find rides uptown to games and face systemic oppression in the white-dominated space of Ultimate. Although both sides of the city produce an abundance of talented players each year, the region’s visible fragmentation is representative of global race, class, and gender oppression within the sport.

Many Ultimate players have what they call a “Frisbee nickname,” or a name teammates call them on the field. A Frisbee nickname is easy to shout from the sidelines during hectic games and unique enough to differentiate similarly-named players. My nickname is BellaR, pronounced like bell-are, given to me my senior year of high school. The Southend has a Frisbee nickname of its own: Soufend, often shortened to just “Souf.” The nickname is a phonetic translation of the slang many Southend teenagers use. This past summer it was used as the inspiration for the Southend’s new elite club teams: the Men’s program “S.O.U.F.” which stands for “Strictly Only Us, Fam” and the Women’s counterpart, “E.N.D.” or “Empowered N Decolonized.” Teams made of marginalized Southenders, both S.O.U.F. and E.N.D., were created as a way to make high-level Ultimate accessible to players of color who could not afford the high cost of local teams. These teams are the antithesis to everything that is elite Ultimate: rich, white, privileged, inaccessible to many. In E.N.D.’s creation, they became a bridge for marginalized players to exist within high-level Ultimate and propel discussions about what it means to be a diverse, just, and inclusive sport.

Seattle E.N.D. was birthed from the need to decolonize Ultimate, Aileen Perez, one of the team’s founders, told me over the phone. “Going into E.N.D. this summer was a confirmation of all the things I’ve felt throughout the years as an Ultimate player. [My co-founder] and I wanted to build a team where it represented a lot of what we knew in high school and growing up and playing ultimate, but at a higher level,” Perez explained.

The systemic divide in the North and South ends are not only prevalent within the sport; it’s part of a larger issue of systemic inequality that has plagued the city for decades. In October, a local news website reported that the Roosevelt High School PTSA—a school located in the Northend neighborhood of Ravenna—had 3.5 million dollars in total assets. Just half an hour South, Rainier Beach High School—along with Franklin High School and Chief Sealth, two other Southend schools—had a total of zero dollars in assets. The divide amongst wealth and race creates a barrier between the communities and has resulted in an increased sense of community within the Southend. As Perez describes, even though Southend schools have coveted on-field rivalries, once the cleats come off, everyone becomes family again.

“At the end of the day we are all one big community,” said Perez.

Because Ultimate is not a physical space, but rather a collection of individual players, the community operates similar to a hub. Gathering for practice, games, and tournaments, social space is created and divided within teams and communal discussions. Perez believes that this community structure becomes vital to the team’s mission of decolonization. Social space can change as more marginalized people are represented at all levels.

In efforts to decolonize Ultimate, E.N.D. has taken down many of the barriers faced by low-income players of color to intentionally create space for marginalized people within the sport. The team was funded entirely through GoFundMe and community fundraisers. They’ve also been invited to tournaments and events to facilitate discussions about diversity, such as with the Ski Town Classic, an elite women’s tournament in which the team attended last August in Salt Lake City. The team’s Twitter asks the community to examine their own privileges within the sport, discussing the role of transphobia in the game’s gender divisions and asking players to list why they wear #BlackLivesMatter headbands. In an homage to the women who raised them, and as a form of resistance to the overwhelming presence of patriarchy within communities of color, players have their mother’s birth surname printed on the back of their jerseys. Every part of E.N.D. was created with marginalized communities in mind.

While E.N.D. is an independent team, it has deep ties to the Southend’s rich social justice community. The team’s founders all work for All Girl Everything Ultimate Program, or AGE UP, a non-profit based on teaching Southend youth of color about social justice and organizing skills through Ultimate. As many E.N.D. teammates are AGE UP alumni, the team becomes another arm of the non-profit, where older players can discuss social justice within Ultimate long after they leave the program.

In their efforts to decolonize Ultimate, Seattle E.N.D. centers marginalized players within discussions of race, gender, and class. The team has used the power of solidarity and community to demand social space in the overwhelmingly white, male, financially inaccessible sphere of elite-level Ultimate Frisbee. As the cost of elite sports becomes a barrier to low-income participants, the social space of these teams becomes skewed. In the world of Ultimate, a space like the Southend—youth-driven, community-oriented, and largely marginalized—is an outlier. The focus of programs like AGE UP and E.N.D. is a sense of solidarity and community for players in a space where barriers leave them largely invisible. As Ultimate becomes an increasingly white and upper-income space, people of color face an implied exclusion through lack of visibility. As accessibility within athletics becomes a larger topic within Ultimate, teams prioritizing the voices and experiences of marginalized players become the key to decolonizing the social space within the sport.

History Was Made and Barriers Were Broken: Women at NHL All Star Weekend 2019

By Katherine Swartwood
Katie is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College

As teams in the National Hockey League begin to clinch playoff berths and prepare for the upcoming Stanley Cup Championship, it’s important to look back at the accomplishments of the sport this year, especially in regards to gender. For this I look towards the The National Hockey League’s All Star Weekend, which kicked off this year on January 25th. For those unfamiliar with the sport, All Star Weekend is an event comprised of hockey stars from across the league. These players were selected to attend by the general public in an online vote. These men are then labeled the favorites, the best, the All Stars. During the weekend, players engage in a series of competitions: fastest skater, accuracy shooting, premier passer, save streak, etc. The players also participate in a modified game. The events usher in great fanfare and new jerseys (shoutout to Adidas for those slick monochromatic jerseys crafted from recycled ocean plastic).

All Star events have occurred for years, but this time something changed – A woman skated in one of the skills competition. She wasn’t on the original roster. How could she be? She’s not an NHL player. Unfortunately, not long before the fastest skater contest, Colorado Avalanche player, Nathan MacKinnon injured his foot and could not participate. Instead, U.S.A. Hockey, gold medal Olympian, Kendall Coyne Schofield laced up her skates, stepped onto the ice, and replaced MacKinnon. An unusual sight for two reasons, firstly because normally the NHL would have eliminated the spot and secondly, because a woman filled the space. Coyne Schofield wasn’t even the only woman to join the NHL All Star Weekend in January. Brianna Decker, a teammate of Coyne Schofield, acted as a demonstrator, not a participant, of the premier passer skills competition.

In a cheeky twitter exchange between Coyne Schofield and the Colorado Avalanche, the team asked Schofield to replace their fallen teammate; she responded, “It would be my honor! I’ll get to the rink as fast as I can! #NHLAllStar #HockeyIsForEveryone.” The hashtag reading, “Hockey Is For Everyone” is tied to an NHL mission to establish hockey as an inclusive sport. Each team holds a themed night for the cause, as they do for Military Appreciation, Cancer, and other causes. Most often, merchandise includes the color spectrum, indicative of the PRIDE flag used to show support for the LGBTQIA+ community. The NHL describes their commitment to “Hockey is for Everyone” as, “We support any teammate, coach or fan who brings heart, energy and passion to the rink. We believe all hockey programs – from professionals to youth organizations – should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”

Despite the NHL’s efforts to ensure the sport of hockey is inclusive, this goal still has not yet been reached. For instance, the first women’s professional hockey team to pay its players was only established in 2015; they still lack resources, fans, and money. The National Women’s Hockey League is only comprised of 5 American based teams as compared to the 31 teams in the NHL. There are few players of colors and when they succeed, they are often met with racist comments from fans and peers alike. Not long ago, P. K. Subban, a black Canadian hockey player for the Nashville Predators, recorded a message for a teenage African American player in Detroit who had racial slurs hurled at him on the ice. The child was 13 years old.

While Coyne Schofield’s presence wasn’t intentional, but a last minute substitution, the NHL took an important first step with their inclusion of female hockey players at All Star Weekend. In this way, they told fans that women were worth watching – that female hockey players had value. A lot of fans responded positively to Coyne Schofield and Decker’s presence. Of course, there were those who complained that they weren’t NHL players so they didn’t belong, that neither of them would have won their competitions, so why did it matter? Coyne Schofield didn’t come in first, but she didn’t come in last either. What was important to her was that “history was made and barriers were broken.” Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see women involved with the NHL – more analysts, more permanent commentators (that don’t receive sexist backlash), referees, coaches, even players.

There is still room to grow and space to be made. For instance, how many openly gay or transgender men can you name playing in the NHL? Why do men and women have to play separately? And if they do play separately why does the NWHL lack the resources, fans, and airtime that the men are provided? The best thing we can do as hockey fans is demand more. Go out to NWHL games, buy their gear, and support them on social media. Just this week the NWHL revealed its plan to expand to Canada with teams in Montreal and Toronto. So if you live near one of these teams: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, and Minnesota Whitecaps, make sure to check out some of their games next season to show the NWHL that fans exist and want to watch women play hockey!

And congratulations to the Minnesota Whitecaps for being crowned the 2019 Isobel Cup Champions!

From Los Angeles to New York: Student Activism and the Fight for Justice

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

On March 11, 2019, student activists at Sarah Lawrence College swarmed Westlands – the administrative building – at seven in the morning. They called for the college and the administrators to listen to their detailed list of demands which ranged from access to housing opportunities to assistance with international visas. The students announced that they would occupy Westlands until the demands were met; thus began the approximately ninety-hour long occupation. Their chants reverberated throughout the crowded halls, their sleeping bags and textbooks lined the floors, and their courage could be felt across campus and in every single classroom.

Undoubtedly, these students are some of the most determined, inspiring, and emotionally-generous individuals on campus. While I sat in Westlands in support, I began to think of the student activists throughout history and across the nation who have demanded and occupied just as those that surrounded me. The students demanded that administrators better the environment of the institution, which is not an isolated occurrence in any capacity. For instance, at Sarah Lawrence College alone, students have demanded that the college adjust their policies and provide better opportunities and access for students of color since the 1950s with sit-ins occurring in 1969, 1989, and now in 2019.

As I pondered on the idea of writing a piece on the history of student activism, I began to think about the demands made by student activists that came to fruition. Every activist hopes that positive change is realized, but more often than not, feelings of being disheartened and exhausted come from these tireless and courageous efforts. In the hopes of inspiring students to continue making necessary demands, I put the spotlight on the February Sisters of the University of Kansas and the years of activism by students that caused UCLA to create a Chicano/a Studies department.

On February 4th, 1972 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, the February Sisters – consisting of twenty women and four children – occupied the East Asian Studies department on campus. They called on the institution to provide free daycare that the University would finance, that women fill open positions in the administration, to develop an affirmative action program directed by women, and establish a Women’s Studies department. Directly following the protest, administrators began to meet the demands. The Hilltop Daycare Center was founded in 1972, the Women’s Studies department and Major were developed in 1972, Student Health services began to provide reproductive health options, and Marilyn Stokstad was hired as the associate dean.

The February Sisters’ tireless efforts to have their demands met should not slide under the radar, nor should those of the Chicano/a high school students of Los Angeles. In March of 1968, approximately 20,000 students walked out of their classrooms to protest the racism and the complete disregard of Mexican-American heritage by public school administrators and teachers. Students recognized their power in hitting them where it hurt; money. If the students did not attend their classes, the school lost funding. At this moment, UCLA noticed what they could do to benefit themselves and the Chicano/a community. They started offering Chicano/a Studies courses, and developed the department in the early 90s. As a result, the university marked an increase in enrollment. Without Chicano/a students recognizing their power as students in the cog of the institution, perhaps the department would not have been founded.

The unwavering courage and activism of students makes actual change. From the West Coast, to the Midwest, and all the way to Sarah Lawrence College on the East Coast, students have the power to enact change and cause unjust institutions to reevaluate the entire system. The students that occupied Westlands on March of 2019 will change the landscape of social, political, and cultural conversations at the college forever. They are calling on students, faculty, staff, and administration to recognize systematic racism, how it is perpetuated, and the lack of humanity that can exist in an ivory tower of academia. Just as the February Sisters of the University of Kansas did not rest until their demands were met, and the high school students of Los Angeles witnessed the development of a Chicano/a studies department, these dedicated and passionate student activists will push forward and make necessary demands until the change that needs to occur, does.

  1. “A Statement of Action,” KU Libraries Exhibits, accessed March 28, 2019, https://exhibits.lib.ku.edu/items/show/6835.
  2. “Women’s Rights Activism and Deans of Women at the University of Kansas.” Omeka RSS, exhibits.lib.ku.edu/exhibits/show/deans-of-women/the-february-sisters.