Current Issues in Education: Kentucky Teachers on Strike

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah McCandless is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence in Women’s History. Her research interests include education, women in Appalachia, and the Civil War.

Though a completely incorrect assumption, I grew up thinking that there were not that many activists in the state of Kentucky. I thought for some reason that activism happened in large cities, which Kentucky is especially short on. I don’t know why I thought this, but that was what I assumed. Sometime during college I realized that activism was everywhere, it was just poorly publicized. It wasn’t until about year ago, in late 2017 and early 2018, that a protest in Kentucky gained the kind of national attention that I imagined was required for activism to really have made it to the big time. (Yes, my ideas about what activism meant were very skewed, I’m working on it.)  

Kentucky teachers went on strike. The Kentucky legislature was working to pass laws that would affect teacher pensions, both those of current and future teachers. Already one of the worst pension programs in the country, teachers were obviously infuriated. Inspired by other states’ teachers, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers went on strike en mass. Wearing all red, the teachers worked to have the pension plan not pass. When the plan was signed by the governor, Kentucky’s elected officials overthrew the plan with a veto. Kentucky teachers had in large part been a deciding factor in this political action, and it made a difference. 

Though I did not realize it at the time, Kentucky teachers (largely women) had long been advocating for themselves. The laws on state workers in Kentucky protesting are skewed toward keeping politicians in power without backlash, and so many Kentucky teachers, who are not unionized, found themselves in difficult situations with their activism. But as it turns out, Kentucky teachers have been protesting for many years with some of their most prominent protests happening in the years of 1970, 1976, and 1988, as well as the strikes in 2018. The pattern of activism had to start somewhere, and though it was likely long before 1970, when the first major protest was documented, this is where we begin our historical journey. 

On February 23, 1970, seventeen thousand teachers from 72 districts did not show up to their classes. That day, only 120 of the 193 school districts held classes, while teachers across the state protested. Because so many teachers took off, numerous schools closed. Teachers were fighting for more money and demanded a pay increase of $300. With one of the lowest salaries of any teachers in the country at an opening salary of $5,000, they were fighting with elected officials for a more substantial and economically sustainable pay. Not only was the pay not enough to survive on, but it also caused some teachers to decide to leave the state completely. Because teachers were not unionized, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) which most teachers were a part of, advocated to have more say in non-salary issues, such as sick and vacation days.  

Throughout that school year, the National Education Association, or the NEA, documented 180 teacher strikes, times when teachers stopped working, or “interruptions of service,” across the country. In the same report, it said that there had only been five state wide strikes across the country in the last ten years. Two of them were in Kentucky, one in 1966 and the other in 1970. Documentation on the 1966 strike is more sparse, but it is clear that the tradition of teacher activism goes back further than what is properly documented. There were numerous protests throughout the 1970s organized by teachers, and their most significant success was a 5% pay raise. Also during these protests, two significant decisions were made. First, these were the protests that would lead to a court battle to prohibit Kentucky teachers from striking in the future. Second, these protests led to an unsuccessful bid to allow teachers to unionize. Both of these losses would create issues for teachers down the road. 

Jumping forward to 1976, a strike by teachers in Louisville, Kentucky, the 18th largest school district in the country, led to just over 100,000 students missing school for multiple days in November. Ths strike came on the heels of a court order to desegregate and the merger of the city school district (which mostly had African American students) and the county school district (which mostly had white students). The merger seemed to put a new strain on teachers whose classes were too big and whose salaries were too small. Teachers were striking for better pay and better over time benefits, but the district was already strapped for money because the merger also took significant funding from the budget. Some 5,600 teachers demanded better pay, especially for teachers who had bachelor’s degrees. The full demand was for an additional $23 million in order to cover the raises. The Board of Education was able to instead pull together a meager $8.1 million for raises and reduced class sizes. Though very little, the teachers once again affected great change in their pay. 

On March 17th, 1988, 92 out of 178 Kentucky school districts voted to close their doors and add an extra day at the end of the year so that their teachers could attend a rally in Frankfort, Kentucky. The rally urged lawmakers to vote no on the new governor’s budget which had low teacher raises and cut successful educational programs while pushing money into new, untested programs. This protest and the reaction of the school districts, many of which had the support of their school boards, was unique in that it was one of the first times where the educational community all seemed to be on the same page regarding what needed to be done in order for education to continue to successfully work for students and teachers state wide. The newly elected governor, Wallace G. Wilkinson, had pledged major changes during his bid for the office. His view was one which mainly supported his new ideas on education and did not take into account the successful measures pushed through the legislature a mere two years earlier which were well supported and liked by the educational community. The protest took place one day before legislators were to vote. It was spurred in part by a desire for change, but also by harsh words from the governor which showed his disinterest in Kentucky teachers, their needs, and their students. A heated debate, massive support, and a petition with 47,000 signatures later, the legislature promised not to let the spending plan go through. 

An absolute powerhouse, the Kentucky Teachers Association and its members would prove to be a force to be reckoned with. In 2005, the governor at the time was going to pass a bill which would increase health insurance costs and dig too deep into the 3% raise teachers received that year. Teachers had already organized for a protest if the governor did not change his plans. Just days before teachers would surround the capital, the governor changed his plans out of fear of backlash. Governor Bevin should have thought back to this when he criticized the teachers for protesting his pension plan in 2018, because when he fought back, he was hit with a firestorm of criticism from teachers in the state and across the country, taking away even more power from his proposed plan. Kentucky apparently does have a long history of activism. With elections around the corner and teachers being one of the largest groups of any profession in the state, candidates better watch out, because those teachers? They’ll get ya. 


Brant, Elizabeth. “Teacher Strikes, Work Stoppages, and Interruptions of Service, 1969-1970 NEA Research Memo.” National Education Association, August 30, 1970, 1-13. Accessed March 8, 2019.

Hoff, David J. “Kentucky Teachers Cancel Strike Plans.” Education Week. February 22, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019.

“Louisville Schools Are Closed by Strike by Teachers.” The New York Times. December 01, 1976. Accessed March 09, 2019.

“Thousands of Kentucky Teachers Strike on Pay.” The New York Times. February 24, 1970. Accessed March 09, 2019.

Walker, Reagan. “Kentucky Schools Out For Funding Protests.” Education Week. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019.

Stranger Things, Erica Sinclair, and the Representation of Black Women in the Science Fiction Genre

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence College in Women’s History. Her interests include popular culture, LGBT+ history, and the history of movements through music. 

Spoiler alert: This blog contains spoilers from season three of Stranger Things. 

On October 27, 2017, the highly anticipated second season of the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix original series, Stranger Things, premiered. Coated in mid-1980s nostalgia and four puffs (no more, no less) of Farrah Fawcett hairspray, audience members crowded around their iPhones, tablets, laptops, and television sets to consume the strange events that would unfold. Prior to its release, comedians and fans questioned where Lucas Sinclair’s, one of the only main characters of color, family was. Surely, he wouldn’t be the only person of color in Indiana, right? Ergo, season two episode two, titled “Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak.” The Duffers introduced us to his parents, Mr. (Bradford Haynes and Arnell Powell) and Mrs. Sinclair (Tara Wescott and Karen Ceesay), and his younger sister, Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson). For the first time, women of color appear in the series. 

Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair Photo Courtesy of The Mary Sue

Once season two came to a close, audience members and fan theorists took to the internet to exclaim that they needed more of Erica Sinclair in season three. No longer a background character in the third installment, Erica becomes a key player in battling the Mind Flayer, tracking down the Russia lab, and navigating dangerous terrain. Premiering on July 4, 2019, every episode features the tactful, witty, and bold young woman. A multidimensional character, she defies stereotypes of nerds and nerd culture, asserts her worth, and demands the respect that the other characters don’t always give her. Within and outside of this Science Fiction universe, Erica Sinclair speaks to an audience of young Black women and girls that take on the white patriarchy that seeks to undermine their worth and importance. 

Looking at the history of black women in SciFi, Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Uhura, a bridge officer, on Star Trek in 1966. She was the first Black woman cast in a supporting role, and it spoke to the young Black people that tuned into the program that hadn’t seen themselves represented in popular culture. While she wanted to leave the program to become a Broadway actress, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked for her to reconsider, as the show had become a staple in his own home. Nichols ultimately remained on Star Trek, knowing that she was changing the way that young Black men and women viewed themselves based on her prominent role that subverted Hollywood stereotypes. Similar to Lieutenant Uhura, Erica Sinclair subverts the notion that Black women must fall into stereotypical roles and that the role of hero belongs to white faces. Without her, the Upside Down wouldn’t have closed in Hawkins, as she knew exactly how to guide each character to where they needed to be, and they wouldn’t have been able to break into the Russian lab. In short, Hawkins would be no more. 

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, Photo Courtesy of Paste

Erica Sinclair and Lieutenant Uhura are only two of the countless examples of Black women utilizing the genre of Science Fiction to challenge the stereotypes that they are commonly written into. As the genre is predominantly white and male, authors Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkins, and Nora K. Jemisin use their platform with the genre storytelling of SciFi to provide their audience with empowering characters of color. Their novels showcase the importance of representation in all formats; whether television, movies, and/or written formats. Butler uses her authorial power to craft stories about Black women who face a challenge shrouded in historical accuracy of the dangerous white heteropatriarchy, navigate it, and come out on the other end to challenge these structures that are placed upon Black women in history and contemporarily. She is one of the most, if not the most, influential Black woman author of Science Fiction and Afrofuturist literature in the 20th and 21st century. 

Her works have been adapted into a variety of formats in theatre and in graphic novels in order to reach a broader audience. Undoubtedly, there is a growing interest in Afrofuturist popular culture, with the release of Black Panther (2018) and Sorry to Bother You (2018). It speaks to the importance of representation of Black men and women in the Science Fiction genre, especially in works that are not considered “indie” and enter mainstream popularity. The SciFi genre broadly promises a world where any and all things are possible, and characters like Erica Sinclair, Lieutenant Uhura, T’Challa, and Okoye are showcasing that exact ideology to young Black men and women. They subvert racist stereotypes and their presence in popular culture empowers their audience. Science Fiction, through these characters and by representing Black men and women, has the ability to challenge injustices and provide commentary on society, culture, and politics, even if it appears detached from the 21st century – 1980s Hawkins, Indiana. 

For more on Afrofuturism, please listen to The Afrofuturist Podcast.


All the World’s a Stage, and All the Women are More than Just Players: A Spotlight on Women in Theatre Production

By Vickie Nidweski

Vickie is a second year in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College and has been working in theatre production professionally for almost a decade.

This past June marked the 73rd annual Tony Awards. Known as the highest honor in United States theatre, it recognizes excellence on the Broadway stage. As I sat in my own theatre, mere blocks away from the ceremony commencing at Radio City Music Hall, tears of pure joy started to run down my face. Holy Shit, Jessica Paz just won a Tony for Sound Design. Not only did Jessica win, but she became the first woman to be nominated in the category. Jessica, along with Director Rachel Chavkin and Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck, all took home Tony’s for their work on the production of Hadestown. While this is certainly a significant moment to recognize, I am dismayed that many in the community know very little of the rich history of women directors, designers, and other women in theatre production who contributed to the rise and success of modern commercial theatre.

In 2010, American Theatre Historian, Helen Krich Chinoy stated that, “While accepted, even encouraged, as performers and occasionally, playwrights, women have largely been excluded from most aspects of show business.” She further states that this exclusion, specifically in the creative and technical aspects of production, is due in part to the labeling of these occupations and trades as “for men only.” Chinoy defines this reasoning as the hierarchical power structure of theatre; if the organization is experimental or community-oriented, or the artistic skill is new, women are more likely situated in a lower tier. Once skills and trades become more formalized into legitimate professions, women’s participation becomes diminished, ignored, and forgotten. 

Many Theatre Historians have explored women’s earliest contributions to theatre production. Specifically, during the rise of American Theatre in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century, production and design quickly developed as legitimate vocations. Like Chinoy, historians often cite individual women in their achievements in backstage work as an example of how “women’s talent and skills have challenged the barriers erected by the male domination of the professional production process.” In addition, Theatre Historians sometimes cite small networks of women working with women. No offense to Chinoy, but by stating that there were networks, and to simply make note of achievements of specific women in behind-the-scenes theatrical production, without illustrating how incredibly vast and influential these networks were and still are, is problematic. It does not pay favor towards the exploration of the gendered division of theatrical labor. 

Yes, Chinoy is correct that women’s participation in these skills and trades have been diminished, ignored, and often forgotten. But if one dives deep enough, there is actually a treasure trove of women that helped formalize the trades and skills in technical production. Let us look at the Lighting Designer, Jean Rosenthal. From 1930-1969, Jean Rosenthal was indeed a pioneer in the field of light design for theatre and dance, lighting over one hundred productions in her thirty-nine-year career. Yet, she never received any awards while she was alive, despite her work on notable productions such as West Side Story, Cabaret, and Orson Welles The Cradle Will Rock, or with such dance companies like Martha Graham and City Ballet. She did posthumously receive a special Outer Critics award in 1969.

Rosenthal was instrumental in developing the standards of drafting light plots that are still implemented today. She created a methodical and unified approach to lighting. Rosenthal, while involved with United Scenic Artists of America Local 829 – an autonomous local of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and PaperHangers of America – she also worked with her peers (including Peggy Lee Clark and Tharon Musser) on creating the standards of how the union must treat Lighting Designers. Born in 1912 in New York City to Russian immigrants, she studied acting and dance in 1929 at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, founded by Irene and Alice Lewisohn. The Neighborhood Playhouse, was part of the Henry Street Settlement, created by Lillian Wald. The Henry Street Settlement continues to serve its original intent as a nonprofit social service agency to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is important to note that this playhouse was the first theatre in New York “to design and make all its own scenery, costume and properties-thus launching the concept that stagecraft could itself be a significant art form.”

But Rosenthal is just one of many. Also deriving from the Neighborhood Playhouse is Scenic and Costume Designer, Aline Bernstein. Aline became the first woman to join USA829 in November of 1926 with fellow Scenic/Costume designer Gladys Calthrop and Carolyn Hancock. (I am saddened to say, I have yet to find more information on Hancock but I hope further research will open up her story.) Without Aline’s tenacity in joining USA829, Jean Rosenthal would never have been able to advocate for the equal rights of Light Designers. We can still see Aline Bernstein’s influence today in founding the Costume Collection along with Irene Lewisohn, now housed at the MET Museum. It is important to note how important the Neighborhood Playhouse was in cultivating such revolutionary women. Biographer Carol Klein in her book on Aline notes that during her time at the Neighborhood Playhouse “These women (Bernstein and the Lewisohn sisters) believed that what they were doing for the neighborhood had cultural implications that extended far beyond it.” With newspapers citing the Neighborhood Playhouse as a “women’s theatre”, it is a site of origin to explore the vast network of women working with women to help contribute to the rise and success of Theatre in New York City. 

Rachel Chavkin stated in her acceptance speech for her Direction on Hadestown (the only woman nominated), “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.” And there have been Rachel. There have been women in this field that have been silenced. Their work has been diminished and forgotten. Jean and Aline are just two, and there are so much more. It is a failure on theatre history to not acknowledge the incredibly vast network of women and I hope that by continuing research of this vast and incredible network of women working in production, will to drive and inspire the theatre community and recognize their equal contribution to Theatre. We are equal players, it’s time to recognize it. 


Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins. 2006. Women in American Theatre. Rev. and expanded 3rd. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 179.

Klein, Carole. 1979. Aline. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 173.

How the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality Influences Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine

By Katie Swartwood

Katie graduated from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College in May, 2019.

A Latina woman named Rosa Diaz stands before a Pictionary drawing pad; her card says “wedding.” Her black marker hits the paper, drawing two feminine stick figures holding hands. Her mother calls out a guess, “friends.” Rosa keeps drawing, adding a heart above the women’s heads. She yells out, “sisters.” Rosa frantically scribbles hearts all over the paper while her mother guesses, “business partners” and “co-owners of a chocolate shop.” Rosa frustratingly cuts her mother off to exclaim that it’s a wedding. She takes a deep breath before addressing her parents. She explains that she could either end up marrying a man, like her parents want, or a woman, because she is not simply going through a phase. She is bisexual. Her dad interrupts, “There’s no such thing.” Rosa assures them that bisexuality does exist because she identifies as such.

This scene if from Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s episode, “Game Night.” Over the years, this sitcom has proven itself to be a progressive comedy focused on highlighting social issues. Its diverse cast, which includes the Jewish main character, two Latina detectives, two African American men in positions of power, one of which is gay, an Italian assistant, and three white male detectives, has discussed topics like LGBT issues and police bias against African Americans. Despite its comedic center, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not shy away from sensitive issues. In “Game Night,” the show combats a number of stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding bisexuality.

When Rosa, played by Stephanie Beatriz, comes out to her parents it is in a turbulent scene in which her parents allude to the fact that they would be happier if she was a mistress in a heterosexual relationship rather than be in a romantic relationship with a woman. Before storming out, Rosa tells her parents that their worst fears have come true. She is in a relationship with a woman. Despite this conflict, her parents still invite her to family game night, giving Rosa hope that they will be accepted. However, her parents do not hesitate to bring up her sexuality. Her mother explains, “…No matter what you call yourself you still like men. So you can still get married and have a child.” When Rosa defends her sexuality, saying that she can do the same  with a woman, her father proclaims that she will do it with man because she is only going through a “phase.”

This scene is significant in a number of ways. For one, the show does not rely on a token LGBT character. Brooklyn Nine-Nine depicts multiple ethnic/gender/sexual identities. The fact that Rosa is in a female queer relationship is worth note. Historically, women’s homosexual relationships have often been overlooked. Judith Bennett in “The L Word in Women’s History” explains that as historians, “Most still see the past in heteronormative terms, closeting our thinking by failing to consider that the dead women we study might have been other than heterosexuals, other than wives, mothers, and lovers of men.” (1) Her article presents two critical mistakes historians tend to make when writing about the histories of women. The first is that historians often frame women in the context of their heterosexual relationships, instead of the lives of the women. 

The other issue historians face is interpreting subtleties that could indicated women participated in homosexual relationships. This is also influenced by cultural and societal understandings of women’s homosexual relationships. Although Bennett’s focus is on medieval women’s same sex relationships, she helps trace a historical ignorance towards such relationships. As she explains, since women’s homosexual relationships could not disturb bloodlines, i.e., result in a child, and if no phallic props were used, it was seen by some medieval writers and priests as less sexual and, thus, less sinful than other sexual relationships. (2) While she examines ideas that are several centuries old, I do not believe they are completely left in the past. For instance, sex is popularly defined in terms of men penetrating women Many people understand how heterosexual couples and male homosexual couples have sex, but when two women engage in sexual intercourse they are met with questions like “How do you have sex?” or “How do you lose your virginity?” 

This phallocentrism is important to recognizing the significance of depicting Rosa, a woman character engaged in a homosexual relationship, on mainstream television. While television has made great progress in creating dynamic LGBT characters, the focus has been on male gay characters. In their 2016-2017 “Where We Are On TV” report, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that gay men make up 49% of the LGBT regular or recurring characters on broadcast television alone, while lesbians make up only 17%, and bisexual characters rose 10 percentage points to 30%, with the majority of these characters presenting as female. (3) Additionally, their report helps illustrate how queer female characters struggle to remain in the story once they have been introduced. They found that more than 25 queer female characters were killed off since the beginning of 2016, often for no other reason than to further the story of the usually cisgendered, straight main character. (4) These statistics show the continued emphasis on male queerness while queer women are often overlooked.

Furthermore, it is important to look at Rosa’s representation as a Latina LBGT character on television. GLAAD reports that only 26% of women of color characters are Latina and only 6% are LGBT characters across five main broadcasting networks. (5) Rosa’s character is statistically uncommon, making her significant addition to the small screen. She has the ability to show queer Latina women that their stories are worth telling. Moreover, Rosa’s character does not sit on the sidelines on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Her involvement is important to plot lines since she serves as one of the main characters. Furthermore, alongside her other Latina co-star, she highlights that Latina women serves as more than maids or sex symbols. 

It is also worth noting that the actress who portrays Rosa, Stephanie Beatriz, identifies as bisexual herself. This is critical because while LGBT characters account for a minority of overall characters, the actors that play them are often cisgendered or straight. This fact that straight actors continually win awards for their portrayal of LGBT characters, while LGBT actors are not awarded for any roles. For example, no openly gay actor has been awarded an Oscar for Best Actor, while straight or cisgendered actors have won Oscars for playing queer characters. Having a bisexual actor portraying a bisexual character is essential because it allows for not only authenticity, but it also provides LBGT actors and actresses the opportunity to broadcast their talents. 

Stephanie Beatriz has spent six seasons on a popular show, playing a character that resembles herself. Something she explains as noticeably absent while she grew up. (6) This is not only in terms of race and gender, but also her sexuality. Beatriz actively engages with the media to discuss her struggles. She raised awareness for several issues she has experienced, such as diversity, disordered eating, and her sexuality. She came out via twitter, apparently before even telling her parents, who she explained were not as thrilled about her sexuality as the general public was. (7) This is a similar reaction that her character, Rosa, faced. Beatriz allowed her own experiences to direct her character, adding depth and credibility to Rosa on screen. 

Recently Stephanie Beatriz had the opportunity to portray another lesbian women of color on the small screen when she guest starred on Netflix’s One Day at a Time as Pilar. Pilar was a married, lesbian relative of the Alvarez family, the main focus of the show. On this episode Pilar served a role model for the young Elena, a Cuban-American who identifies as lesbian and dates her non-binary partner, Syd. In this episode, Elena clings to Beatriz’s character since she serves as a representation of someone similar to herself. This is why authentic representations of queer women on screen is essential. It allows young women to realize they are not alone, that other women like them exist, too. 

End Notes:

  1. Judith M. Bennett. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.), 109. 
  2. Judith M. Bennett. “The L-Word in Women’s History.”, 111. 
  3. “Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion ’16-’17,” GLAAD, 6. 
  4. “Where We Are on TV,” 3.
  5. “Where We Are on TV,” 12, 18.
  6. Stephanie Beatriz, “On My Radar.” 
  7. Trish Bendix, “Stephanie Beatriz on Coming Out as Bisexual and Her Celebrity Crushes.”, August 10, 2016. 


Beatriz, Stephanie. “On My Radar: Stephanie Beatriz Shares Why Diversity On TV is Important.”, August 6, 2016.

Bendix, Trish. “Stephanie Beatriz on Coming Out as Bisexual and Her Celebrity Crushes.”, August 10, 2016.

Bennett, Judith M. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

“Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion ’16-’17,” GLAAD.


A Love Letter to Michelle Obama

By Hannah McCandless

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

Dear Michelle Obama, 

You’re a great writer. (I mean really, really good.) I think a lot of people ready your book and it filled them up in a way they didn’t know they needed. It did the same for me and sometimes I still go back to read a random chapter or two just because of the comfort of it. Though titled a love letter, this is more of an extremely positive book review of Becoming. (Now that I’ve written it, I can say this is less of a book review and more of a wow-what-a-great-book-I-am-still-processing review.) Don’t get me wrong, I totally love you, Michelle Obama. I am so very thankful that you are a person in this world. But folks gotta know about this book because at its core, it creates strength and hope in others. 

Becoming was a beautifully written reflection on a life, though nowhere near done, was well lived. Splitting the book into three sections, she captured her life development with herself, her life development with a partner and young children, and her life development with the country. This book, the first I have read for pleasure in a long time, I found refreshing, often reading chapters in between readings for class. 

The beginning of her life could be characterized as light. The love she had for her family, her family for her, and the memories she shared were all full of joy. Her mother, stern but understanding, was a driving force throughout. Her father, a man who dealt with MS and various other related health issues, was a mentor and role model she spoke of with high esteem. Her brother, her best friend and fiercest cheerleader from day one, was one of my favorite characters. His name was Craig and he was in so many ways the person who pushed Michelle to be a planner, but also someone who was highly ambitious. Her memories of her childhood neighborhood in Chicago make you miss home. 

Her childhood and young adulthood shaped her to be a woman who was well rounded, strong, determined, loving, ambitious, and so much more. Her education at Princeton and Harvard were shaped by her class and race in major ways which gave her a lens to view the world she did not have when she attended school in a relatively diverse elementary, middle, and high school. She was able to have a complex understanding of class at a young age and that understanding clearly followed her into the work she took on later. 

I remember the love story she described between her and Barack. Their first kiss after an ice cream date made me feel giddy, like I had just heard the story of a friend in middle school having her first kiss. Sometimes I wonder what love means, and I think, among other things, moments where everything melts away are moments of love. Feeling the affection and love of another and feeling like you can find a way to make anything work. As described by Michelle Obama, the love between her and Barack melted away any anxieties either of them had which helped them both become fuller versions of themselves. 

Michelle and Barack found a way to make their love work, much of their lives shaped by his own ambition. Their lives and loves overlapped in a way that allowed them to share values that supported social equity, but different enough that each of them found a sense of self in their own work. Their children brought great joy to them. Michelle’s story about having a miscarriage was powerful, showing women through the written word that it does happen, it is painful, and it is not your fault. Her reflections on motherhood were also meaningful, making me wonder and think about what I might someday be facing as a mother. I think her balance between work and parenting was realistic, and it was something that helped me see that life as something that could work and be meaningful for me as well. 

What ended up sticking out to me about the final set of chapters was how Michelle brought up events that I remembered. Listening to her reflect, I too was able to look back on various times in our country’s recent history where I felt broken and moved, joyous and inspired. Her reflections on these moments were meaningful and often brought me on the verge of tears. For her, I am thankful, because those reflections helped me to feel once again more connected and thankful to my country after feeling very disillusioned after the last election. This was a wonderful book and I am so glad I was able to find the time to read it. 

Please read it. It will hit you right in the feels (in a good way).

Matilda Hamilton Fee: Abolitionist Educator

By Hannah McCandless

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

Having just returned from a period of exile in Ohio, Matilda Hamilton Fee was putting together the frame of a bed in her home when she heard the firing of cannons. Subjected to nearly four years without a house, moving from place to place in Ohio with her family, Matilda finally came home. The decision, spurred by Matilda and her husband John’s ongoing religious passion for building a coeducational and integrated school, was fraught with danger. In the heart of Eastern Kentucky, Berea College sat in a utopian settlement existing inside a donation of land from Cassius M. Clay. This land became the foundation of what is now a bustling college and small town. Situated in the hills of Madison County, Berea was just far enough away from any big cities to feel rural, but close enough to Lexington, Kentucky to hear the battles of the Civil War as they moved south. 

Matilda and her family fled Madison County in 1860 when her husband, Rev. John G. Fee, had been chased by a mob of 62 men out of Kentucky. A non-denominational Christian family with abolitionist values, the Fees started the long process of building Berea College from the ground up in 1853. By 1855, a small church building was raised and would be used for church services and school lessons. Initially opened as a school for primary through postsecondary education, the small schoolhouse was packed with a small and newly flourishing community. Today, the school stands as a haven for liberal arts education in Kentucky that is both high quality and free to those who attend the school. It’s history and founding are of great significance as it was the first college in the state of Kentucky, as well as the first college in the regional south, to allow black and white, female and male students to be educated together. 

Though Matilda Hamilton Fee was one half of the couple and team that took Berea College from a dream to a reality, she is wildly under written about in the school’s history and the town’s history. Born to the Hamiltons, a historically Quaker family, in 1824 in Bracken County, Kentucky, Matilda was grew up to convert to Christianity. Her religious convictions were the foundation for everything she did and believed. Her commitment to building community was seen in everything she did. From active involvement in the church and Women’s Temperance Union, to her organization of the community to clean up the cemetery and to shut down the local saloon, to her role as both a teacher and administrator within the school, Matilda was a powerhouse of a woman. Her work as the President of the first Ladies Board of Care, for example.  stands out as one contribution to the schooling of women which was likely used by other schools moving forward. 

Though often open about her opinions, she was soft spoken and feminine – many spoke highly of her kindness, gentle demeanor, and her flower garden as indicators of her femininity after her passing. Unfortunately, this correct but limited perception of her leaves much of Matilda’s courageous side in the dark. On one occasion, John was approached and surrounded by men on horseback with the intention of harming him. Matilda, a skillful rider, mounted a horse and blocked the men from hurting her husband numerous times before a rock was thrown at John. Though no major injuries came of this, and a judge ordered in the favor of John Fee on the grounds of free speech, the experience is one of many where Matilda pulls herself out of a traditionally feminine role and puts herself in harm’s way in order to protect her husband, family, and mission. 

In another instance, Matilda was forced to flee with her family over the Ohio River in the middle of winter, during which time she lost one of her sons to illness brought on by the cold. Later, when she was finally able to return to Berea, she came with just her and one of her sons. They returned while the Civil War raged on and Matilda ended up being separated from her husband and in Confederate occupied land for ten weeks. When challenged on her views about education and integration by a Confederate soldier, she responded with, “…as for politics, we are for the Union, and believe slavery is wrong, and that the rebels are fighting for a lost cause.” This is merely a glimpse into one instance of her bravery because these instances for her were more common than not. 

Matilda’s bravery is remembered most by her husband and is especially documented in his autobiography. Matilda did not leave much written word behind, forcing this historian to rely heavily on the words of her peers, which often painted a picture of a doting wife. Matilda was a wonderful wife and mother, and those roles were clearly important to her, but her role as a teacher and activist and rebel are overshadowed by a skewed history. A common saying I heard growing up was some variation of, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” I would argue that in the case of the Fees, and in countless other families, next to every great man stands an equally great woman. Matilda and John were a team. I encourage you to stop looking for the shadow of a man who has done great things and start looking for the partner standing next to him, because strength in the Fee home and mission laid within the strength of a team.

Set in a Bathroom: “Purity,’’ Race, Gender, and Sexual Prejudice in Bathrooms from 1887 to Today

By Emilyn Kowaleski

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

The distressed eyes of a young white woman pierce through the camera lens and into the hearts of thousands of North Carolinians. “It’s about privacy. It’s about safety,” she assures them. It is 2016. They are watching an advertisement generated by The Institute of Faith and Family in support of Governor Pat Cory’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act commonly known as HB2. The bill proposed that people be legally required to use the restroom that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth, rather than being allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. What the young actress may not know, though the sponsors are likely all too aware, is that the ladies’ bathroom is a space that was engineered for her privacy and her safety alone. It has served her and subjugated her simultaneously. For, wafting from inside the stalls, there lies a strange, sexist history of how and why they first slapped signs on bathroom doors reading “Ladies” and “Gents.” From that odorous origin story, there follows an even messier one. One in which these sex-segregated bathrooms have become battlegrounds through which the “purity” of cis-white women’s bodies are “protected.” All the while justifying and perpetuating fears of Black, gay, trans and non-binary people through the rhetoric of contamination and threats of sexual danger. This is a very abridged history of that bullshit.

In 1870, plumbing evolved enough for the idea of multi-stall indoor restrooms to become a reality. Bathroom segregation in the United States started soon after. In 1887, Massachusetts passed the first law titled Massachusetts Act 668 requiring factories to provide separate restrooms for women, leading the charge for forty other states to follow suit by 1920. (1) Two major shifts were underway. First, young, single, working-class women were beginning to flock to textile mills to enter the workforce. Second, middle- and upper-class women were beginning to organize for their rights. Both these entries into public space were a disruption to separate spheres ideology. Separate spheres ideology heralded the idea that a white woman’s natural purity and virtue was upheld and protected in the home, while a man’s masculinity was to be found in the workplace. (2) While stringent notions of gender roles were once loose philosophy, they became “scientific fact” once women began claiming a place in the workforce, on the podium, and at the polls. Darwin and other scientists began “proving” that gender differences were based in biology, and that women were “naturally” weaker. (3) The Massachusetts bathroom law was part of a larger set of labor laws meant to protect women’s “fragile” bodies through shorter work days, mandated rest periods, and laws that prohibited women from taking certain jobs that were deemed as dangerous. (4) Nancy Cott explains in her article, “Passionlessness, An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology,” that in addition to being viewed as ‘fragile,’ women were also seen as “passionless” and “morally superior” to men. This idea satisfied both men and women because it afforded women a place in the workforce while allowing men to maintain their dominance. Men viewed women’s purity as something to be protected. (5) 

It was this ideology that ushered the concept of “the ladies room” into public space. The bathroom was only one of many lady specific spaces that emerged in the middle to late 19th century that re-inscribed differences in gender. These spaces were largely middle-class inventions that helped women ensure their protection and respectability as they ventured into metropolises. (6) They included ladies reading rooms, photography studios, hotel parlors, and railroad cars. (7) 

 Not all women, however, were considered “ladies” or welcome in these spaces. In 1884, famed journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells was kicked off a ladies’ railroad car because being Black disqualified her from the definition of “lady.” (8) As historian Eileen Borris argues, historically, definitions of “womanhood” and “manhood” have not been race neutral. Mythological stereotypes have pointed to Black women’s innate impurity and immorality such as the “uncleanly” or “lascivious” Black woman. (9) The myth of the “Black male rapist” is a particularly violent construction that was used to justify the widespread lynching of Black men during reconstruction. (10) While white women used the idea that they were “pure” to claim access to the workplace and public space, they wielded these racialized, gendered stereotypes to position Black people as a threat to their bodily virtue.  

Fast forward half a century to when the job market was racially integrating during World War II. White women used sharing toilets with Black women to attempt to keep them out of the workforce. In 1943, Atlanta segregationists tried to prevent the opening of regional offices for the Fair Employment Practices Committee by refusing office space to the bi-racial staff members who would be using the building bathrooms that were shared with other federal agencies. Later that year, two hundred workers participated in a strike at the Baltimore Electrical Plant over toilet integration, citing that sharing toilets with Black women would make them vulnerable to venereal diseases, which they claimed Black women were more likely to carry. In 1944, Chevrolet Motors hired four Black women. Six white women protested using the same script. 

These gendered, racialized stereotypes seep again from the septic tanks during Jim Crow segregation in the late 1950s and 1960s. Parents used similar arguments to resist the integration of Central High School, stirring fears about the intimate proximity of children’s black and white bodies. In the 1970s, in what was known as “the Potty Parable” arguments against the Equal Rights Amendment were formed from fears that it would allow Black men access to women’s bathrooms. But anti-ERA advocates did not just rest on their resistance to the bill on racist rhetoric. They upheld notions of sexual difference and separate spheres ideology citing the dirt and defilement women would be vulnerable to if forced to share bathrooms with men.  Integration of the sexes, integration of the races, and threats of homosexuality all got spun up into the tornado of immorality they claimed would inevitably destroy the American family. (11)

Sheila Cavanagh argues in Queering Restrooms that “gender impurity” is the discord between gender identity and how the body is interpreted that is policed as profane in order to keep a conception of “gender purity” intact. Bodies that don’t fit our conception of what a “pure” gendered-body looks like – Black bodies, queer bodies, non-binary bodies, trans bodies – have been positioned as threats. Today, anti-trans rhetoric spouts that if people are allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender, or if we do away with gender-segregated bathrooms that enforce a binary, women will be more vulnerable to sexual assault. These are statistically unsupported claims. Instead, trans and non-binary people, especially those of color, are at much greater risk of violence and harassment in bathrooms. (12) But people continue to place stock in the idea that cis-white women are at risk because it supports a narrative that has existed in various permutations for a long time. It is a narrative that has been architected into the bathroom. Dismantling that architecture means breaking down this narrative tile by tile and examining how these claims to protection form the grout which upholds structural dominance and continues to justify discrimination. 


  1. Terry S. Kogan, “How did public bathrooms get to be separated by gender in the First Place?” The Conversation, March 21, 2016.
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Jerry Bergman, “Darwin’s Teaching of Inferiority” Institute for Creation Research, March 1, 1994.
  4. Terry Kogan, “Sex Separation in Public Restrooms: Law, Architecture and Gender” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law. 14, no. 1 (2007). 
  5. Nancy Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850” Signs 4, no. 2 (Winter, 1978): 232, 
  6. Lynne Walker, Vistas of Pleasure: Women consumers of urban space in the West End of London 1850-1900, in WOMEN IN THE VICTORIAN ART WORLD 79 (Clarissa Campbell Orr, ed. 1995) , 86 as cited by Kogan, Sex Separation, 29.
  7. Kogan, Sex Separation, 28.
  8. James West Davidson, They Say: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2007), 67. 
  9. Eileen Boris, “You Wouldn’t Want one of ‘Em Dancing with Your Wife: Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II” American Quarterly, Vol.50, No.1 (March,1998), 81 
  10. Angela Y. Davis “Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Male Rapist.” in Women Race & Class (New York: First Vintage Books, 1983), 185. 
  11. Donald Matthews and Jane Sharon DeHart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of the ERA:A State and the Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 166. 
  12. Toilet Training: law and order (in the bathroom) directed by Tara Matai (Sylva Rivera Law Project, 2003).