Durable Disorder: The Global Health Effects of War on Women

By Mariah E. Crystal

Mariah E. Crystal is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas (KU) in the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.  She is also currently a KU Institute for Policy and Social Research Doctoral Research Fellow.  She studies women’s roles during war and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa and how gender was strategically deployed as a tactic of war. 

Aligning with one of Re/Visionist’s themes for the month of April, I focus this blog post on the global health effects of war on women.  In 2018, Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict,” (Nobel, 2018).  In response to this honor, Mukwege described how in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, “rape is used systematically, methodically…women are ashamed and stay silent,” (Economist, 2018, p. 59).  Another scholarly piece acknowledges that, “rape, mutilation and kidnappings remain central strategies of war…(of which) women experience victimization far more than men,” (St Germain & Dewey, 2012, p. 165). Mukwege and Murad’s Nobel Prize and other recent current events have pointed to renewed awareness about the vital link between the effects of war and global health, including sexual violence (Economist, 2018; St Germain & Dewey, 2012; Turshen 2007). Many scholars have studied the sexual violence that is often implicit during war (Bradby, 2016; Goldenberg et al., 2016).  Others have reported the devastating effects of sexually transmitted infections which are also often integral to wartime reality, especially for women (Iqbal & Zorn, 2010; Goldenberg et al., 2016). And finally, there have been studies documenting sexual violence during times of war being waged with genocidal intent, often with the intent to “pollute bloodlines,” (St. Germain & Dewy, 2012; Chandler et al., 2010).

Gendered Impacts of War

Equally significant to the physical violence endured during times of war are the psychological and emotional ramifications of war.  Trauma is inherent to experiences of war. Many scholars cite the unique needs and circumstances of female combatants: need for contraceptives, the stigmatization and often banishment of women who have been sexually assaulted by their family and friends (Bradby, 2016; Turshen, 2007; Darden, Henshaw, & Szekely, 2019).  Many women reported stress, anxiety, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder following sexual assault during civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Bartels et al., 2010). Survivors of wartime sexual assault as well as their families face social stigma due to the perceived shame of their experiences, and thus often face the destruction of familial and community support networks (Bradby, 2016).

Wartime sexual violence results in political and economic impacts that often outlast the end of conflict (Turshen 2000; 2007). In bringing attention to the material value of women’s productive and reproductive capacity on top of any legal right to land or other material possessions, Turshen brings attention to overlooked facets of war and conflict and the significant ramifications that they bring to women and girls.  

Complicating an already complex and multifaceted issue, migration adds an additional challenge to conflict.  Conflict migrants also face a range of “environmental hazards that include landmines to disease epidemics like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis,” (Turshen, 2007, p. 84). For example, in Kenya, following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, many individuals were internally displaced, and many individuals contracted HIV. It is difficult to reach these displaced populations to provide HIV/AIDS treatment and other forms of healthcare (Feikin et al., 2010).  

It is vital that women’s global health priorities become recognized and addressed as one of the many unfortunate byproducts of war and conflict.  The experience of war and conflict forces women to navigate challenging dynamics of power. These power dynamics in turn shape women’s responses to various global health challenges and their role and status within society.  Additionally, urgent attention is needed to address the global scourge of GBV during wartime. Experts also call for highly individualized policy solutions that are sensitive to the unique needs of the culture and context of a conflict situation (St Germain & Dewey, 2012; Mindry, 2010; Benshoof, 2014) as well as working with survivors to design appropriate health services after a conflict (Bradby, 2016). The UN Security Council plans to use international humanitarian law to protect girls and women who are affected by rape deployed as a tool of war.  In a recent policy brief, the UN Security Council asserted that wartime rape is a form of “war wound,” and that injuries and consequences of wartime rape, including pregnancy, must be treated on par with any other wartime injury (Benshoof, 2014). The UN Security Council emphasizes the, “need to increase the social, legal, economic and political empowerment of women war survivors through active involvement in peace negotiations and sharing of their experiences nationally and internationally,” (Bradby, 2016, p. 84). Increased awareness about the significant health impacts of war on women and girls may result in the demand for better care and resources for those affected by war, as well as upriver solutions to lessen conflict in the first place.  


Bartels, S., Scott, J., Leaning, J., Mukwege, D., Lipton, R., & VanRooyen, M. (2010). Surviving sexual violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 11(4), 37-50.

Benshoof, J. (2014). The other red line: The use of rape as an unlawful tactic of warfare. Global Policy, 5(2), 146-158.

Bradby, H. (2016). Global perspectives on war, gender and health: The sociology and anthropology of suffering: Routledge.

Chandler, R., Fuller, L., & Wang, L. (2010). Women, war, and violence: personal perspectives and global activism: Springer.

Darden, J. T., Henshaw, A., & Szekely, O. (2019). Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars: Georgetown University Press.

Economist. (2018, October 11, 2018). Rape during conflict: The wolves of war.

Feikin, D. R., Adazu, K., Obor, D., Ogwang, S., Vulule, J., Hamel, M. J., & Laserson, K. (2010). Mortality and health among internally displaced persons in western Kenya following post-election violence, 2008: novel use of demographic surveillance. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 88, 601-608.

Goldenberg, S. M., Muzaaya, G., Akello, M., Nguyen, P., Birungi, J., & Shannon, K. (2016). War-related abduction and history of incarceration linked to high burden of HIV among female sex workers in conflict-affected northern Uganda. JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 73(1), 109-116.

Iqbal, Z., & Zorn, C. (2010). Violent conflict and the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Journal of Politics, 72(1), 149-162.

Mindry, D. (2010). Engendering care: HIV, humanitarian assistance in Africa and the reproduction of gender stereotypes. Culture, health & sexuality, 12(5), 555-568.

Nobel. (2018). The Nobel Prize – Denis Mukwege. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/mukwege/facts/

St Germain, T., & Dewey, S. (2012). Conflict-related sexual violence. International law.

Turshen, M. (2000). The political economy of violence against women during armed conflict in Uganda. Social Research, 803-824.

Turshen, M. (2007). The impact of civil war on women and children in Africa. In M. Ndulo (Ed.), Security, Reconstruction and Reconciliation:  When the Wars End: CRC Press.

Turshen, M. (2014). The Political Economy of War: What Women Need to Know. In Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies (pp. 44-56): Routledge.


The Ridicule of Consent in Marital Rape (An Excerpt)

By Katherine Swartwood

Katie is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

This piece is an edited excerpt from her thesis, which will be completed in May 2019. Portions of this work have been removed for understanding and clarity; it may fully reflect the completed thesis.

Content warning: This blog post may contain triggering content including sexual assault, rape, and violence against women.

Lenore Walker, an activists and scholar working on battered women, later began serving Colorado as a psychologist focused on working with courts to provide expert testimony for women who killed their husbands after suffering from Battered Women’s Syndrome. [1]  In 1980, she wrote a letter to Laura X, the director of the National Clearinghouse for Marital Rape. In this letter, Walker described a conversation she had with a Montana State Senator, Patricia Regan, involving a piece of legislation she introduced in Montana regarding marital rape as well as three other issues concerning marriage and battered women. According to Walker, Senator Regan noticed her male colleagues disapproved of legislation completely criminalizing marital rape, so Reagan tried to appeal to them by compromising. Regan altered the legislation to make marital rape illegal only in instances where couples lived apart or separated.

As legislators and legal experts began studying marital rape, they often allowed marital rape myths to permeate their opinions and actions. For instance, in Kansas, a 1982, Special Committee on the Judiciary met to evaluate their state statutes regarding rape. On the topic of marital rape, the committee concluded that while they should not allow a total marital rape exemption, they should limit the criminalization to include only separated couples. This was because, “The Committee believes that rape does occur in marriage, but that it is most likely to occur when marital discord is evident and the parties are estranged.”[3] The suggestion by the Committee shows that while legislators could admit that marital rape occurred, they were reluctant to acknowledge that it could happen in any kind of relationship. The language employed by the Kansas legislators demonstrates how marital rape could have been seen as a type of revenge from husbands against their estranged wives. Instead, most believed that charges of marital rape portrayed vindictive wives’ attempts at revenge against their husbands.

Rather than understanding spousal rape as something that could and did happen in marriages that appeared happy and successful from the outside, these legislators asserted that it most often took place in estranged marriages.

Furthermore, by stating that marital rape does occur, but solely focusing on estranged marriages, the Kansas legislators disregarded women in their own state who experienced marital rape if divorce proceedings had not begun. To them, these women did not matter enough because these women were not raped enough. For many legislators across the country, marital rape myths like this impeded the State’s ability to produce comprehensive legislation to protect wives in their own homes. Other prevalent myths at the time included: the idea that marital rape was not as serious as other types of rape, spousal rape fell under marital privacy and the government should not step in, women claim marital rape to enact revenge on the husband, and marital rape simply does not exist.

The ignorance displayed by the Kansas legislator was not unique. Returning to Senator Regan in Montana, we can see how male politicians disregarded issues like marital rape. In order to retaliate against Senator Regan’s proposed legislation, some unidentified male legislators crafted a “Consent Agreement” for their wives. The agreement states in capital letters,


It also asked the wife to check one of four options for consent with sex with her husband: “Beg, Ask, Agree, Grudgingly agree (please pull my nightgown down when you are through)”[6] At the bottom of the form, it states that more copies can be found with Senator Regan. These were then distributed to all of the legislators in order to mock Regan’s attempt to outlaw marital rape. Under the condition that couples must be living separately for marital rape to occur, one male legislature even commented that since their profession required most of the male legislators to have separate living arrangements in the capital city, they could be found guilty of such misconduct. This joke alone alludes to the fact men hardly evaluated their behavior towards their wives. Furthermore, it shows how men whose female constitutes charged their representatives with the responsibly of advocating on their behalf, failed to even respect them.

Walker states in the letter to Laura X that this Consent Agreement “…was probably responsible for winning the vote to pass the marital rape legislation in Montana…”[7] and that following the distribution of the form and the male legislator’s “plea” for Regan to understand how their circumstances (living separately from their wives during session) meant they were vulnerable to the proposed law. “Everyone laughed, embarrassed a bit and then [were] shamed into voting to pass the bill.”[8] These two comments made by Walker assume that without these interruptions, the marital rape bill in Montana would have failed. Thus, these male legislators, in an effort to undermine the authority of a female colleague and mock an important piece of a legislation dealing with women’s autonomy and a right to make decisions about her own sex life, actually pushed the bill into passing.

Should marital rape activist have be thankful for this “humorous consent form”[9] as Walker describes it? It appears that without it, the legislation most likely would not have passed, but is it fair to put the victory on the shoulders of misogynistic men who were more apt to poke fun at rape, rather than try to educate themselves about this traumatic crime? Regan’s male colleagues forced her to turn a situation meant to humiliate and mock her into a victory for women in Montana. Walker asserts that Regan used her “great sense of humor”[10] to defuse the situation. While this could have been a show of Regan’s humor, I find it more likely to be a display of resilience. Regan understood that she was operating in a boy’s club in politics and knew that she could not display any sign of backing down. It is important to emphasize that Regan worked hard for this victory, though it did come at the cost of many women in sexually violent marriages (with the requirement that only separating couples could charge one another with rape). Misplacing the men who created this document at the front of this achievement, ignores the efforts Regan made as a state legislator to not only change the law in Montana, but also the culture of sexism among her male colleagues.

The consent form represents much more than just a “humorous” experience in the legislature. It showcases how male legislators in Montana in the late 1970s and early 1980s disrespected not only their female colleagues, but also their constitutes and even their own wives. These men found it appropriate to mock and humiliate a bill put forth by a female Senator because as men, they did not understand the reality of marital rape. They did not know what it meant to be coerced or forced into sex with their partner, nor understand the trauma that rape victims experience. No, to these men charged with setting the laws in their state, their wives were there for the taking.

As the form continues, it states, “This is a ‘ONE TIME AGREEMENT.’ Any sexual contact other than the above time and date will require a new agreement.”[13] Here the legislators show that they subscribe to Hale’s doctrine of implied consent in marriage. These men mocked the idea that women, especially their wives, could chose not to consent to sex from one time to the next. They saw their marriage as an opportunity to demand sex whenever they wanted. This is especially made clear by the inclusion of “Grudgingly agree (please pull my nightgown down when you are through)”[14] as an option of agreement for the wife on the form. The male legislators obviously understood that they have coerced their wives into unwanted sex. Sure the men frame this as an exasperated acceptance by their wives and it seems innocent enough, but again, they are ignoring the fact that not all women were afforded an opportunity to even “grudgingly” agree to sex. For some women in America, husbands did not stop to ask, they demanded, whether through threats or through violence.

This leads us to examine what is missing from the consent form, notably that it does not provide an option for a wife to deny sex with her husband. Based on the format of the Consent Agreement this makes sense. The form is crafted in a way that the wife must fill out the form by herself regarding the sex that is about to take place. This is done without the inclusion of the husband, as he does not have to mark or sign anything, as the wife was required. The first two of the four categories of sexual consent are for when the wife is requesting sex: “Beg” and “Ask,” while the next two presume a response to the husband’s request for sex. Therefore, all the power lies in her hands. But why is it that the wife is the only one meant to fill out the form? Why does the husband not require a form to fill out when he request sex from his wife? Categories of request could read: “Beg,” “Ask,” “Demand,” “Force.”

The husband’s lack of participation on the consent form shows that these men thought issues of consent laid with the woman. Thus this form was not about holding a husband liable for his actions with or against his wife; no, this form was meant to hold a woman accountable for agreeing to sex with her husband. This was so she could not later revoke her consent in revenge against her husband, which was a common myth used by critics of the criminalization of marital rape. The creators of the consent form wanted to demonstrate that women are fickle in matters of consent and they, the husband, should not fall victim to this. In order to protect a man’s reputation, he should have his wife put in writing that she consents to sex, otherwise, how would he be able to tell when she does and does not want to have sex? These men wanted to warn men that they should protect themselves against a potential false allegation of marital rape, rather than actually ask for their wife’s consent…


[1] “Specializing in Forensic Evaluations and Expert Testimony.” Walker and Associates. http://www.drlenoreewalker.com/walker-associates/

[2] Diana Russell, Rape in Marriage. 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, 1990), xix.

[3] “Committee Report” Special Committee on Judiciary, 1982.

[4] Original emphasis.

[5]  “Consent Agreement” Montana State Legislators, 1980.

[6] “Consent Agreement” Montana State Legislators, 1979.

[7] Walker, Letter to Laura X, 1980.

[8] Walker, Letter to Laura X, 1980.

[9] Walker, Letter to Laura X, 1980.

[10] Walker, “Letter to Laura X,” 1980.

[11] Walker, “Letter to Laura X,” 1980.

[12] I found no other information regarding the Consent Agreement. Only one other scholar discusses it, and that is Diana Russell in the new introduction to her book Rape in Marriage, which was published in 1990. She claims women working in the women’s center at the University of Montana. Therefore, I have found no evidence of Regan directly commenting on the form and what it meant to her.

[13] “Consent Agreement” Montana State Legislators, 1980.

[14] “Consent Agreement” Montana State Legislators, 1980. 

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 at Sarah Lawrence College.

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.


  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.


  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.