About slcwhblog

SLC Women's History Blog is an online publication created by students of the Sarah Lawrence College Women’s History Graduate Program. In the interest of fostering dialogue, SLC Women's History Blog aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms. We are focused on the intersections of lives realities and histories, such as the experiences related to race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. We strive to keep the question of who gets to write history on the table.

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 and Gender 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. 

Bibliography

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. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED070157.pdf.

Hoff, David J. “Kentucky Teachers Cancel Strike Plans.” Education Week. February 22, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/10/27/09caps-1.h24.html.

“Louisville Schools Are Closed by Strike by Teachers.” The New York Times. December 01, 1976. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/01/archives/louisville-schools-are-closed-by-strike-by-teachers.html.

“Thousands of Kentucky Teachers Strike on Pay.” The New York Times. February 24, 1970. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/02/24/archives/thousands-of-kentucky-teachers-strike-on-pay-they-want-300-more.html.

Walker, Reagan. “Kentucky Schools Out For Funding Protests.” Education Week. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1988/03/23/26ky.h07.html.

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. 

END NOTES

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.

Transgender Incarceration and Kamala Harris

Written by B. Clark.

Clark is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Transgender visibility week serves as an important and influential time for transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex people across the world to come together through social media and community work to create an atmosphere of support and acceptance. It also creates a platform to address the challenges and systematic forms of discrimination that our communities face such as economic (in)security, access to reliable transitional health care, and mental health resources. One issue that has emerged at the intersection of these problems is the targeting of TGNCI communities for mass incarceration, prison violence, and police brutality.

Among the people tweeting support to TGNCI folks during this week was an unlikely supporter, former California State Attorney General and current 2020 presidential candidate, Kamala Harris. Harris began by tweeting a picture of a transgender pride flag with the caption: “This week, we’ve proudly added the transgender flag in front of my office. I want all transgender Americans to know that I see you, I’m with you, and I stand by you in the fight for equality. #TransVisibilityWeek” This was followed two days later with another tweet that stated, “Transgender people deserve to openly live life without fear. This Transgender Day of Visibility, let’s show dignity and respect to trans friends, family, and the community as a whole. #TransDayOfVisibility.”

While at face value these messages of support seem inspiring and a symbolic promise to politically uphold the rights of transgender people, Harris’s political track record tells a different story. In 2014 Harris’s office argued that supporting a program to parole more people who were currently incarcerated would drain the state’s source of cheap labor. This ensures that those who are incarcerated in California serve longer sentences in their facilities for the purpose of providing the government with unpaid labor. In 2015, Harris fought to stop a Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a trans woman in California’s prison system, from getting reassignment surgery. (1)

Also in 2015, Harris adamantly supported California’s criminalization of sex work. Harris’s office stated that this criminalization is necessary because “[p]rostitution is linked to the transmission of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases”; the state has an interest in “deterring the commodification of sex”; and “[p]rostitution creates a climate conducive to violence against women.” (2) Not only are these statements factually incorrect and contribute to the stigmatization of sex work, but they also disproportionately lead to the incarceration of transgender people. Many transgender people, and specifically transgender women, rely on sex work for survival because of their hyper-sexualization and discrimination in other sectors of employment. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 19 percent of all trans people, and 47 percent of black trans women, have engaged in sex work. Those who lost a job as a result of anti-transgender discrimination are three times more likely to engage in the sex-trade. (3)

Incarceration is an obstacle to transgender liberation. Lambda Legal reports that one in six transgender Americans have been incarcerated, while half of all black transgender Americans have been incarcerated. (4) Issues concerning transgender people who are incarcerated should concern all of us, because it a system of discrimination deployed through the policing of our communities.

While Harris’s tweets and messages of support could be interpreted as a sign that she has reformed her views and now prioritizes addressing the challenges that face transgender people, it is more likely that she is voicing her support for transgender people as a tool to gain political leverage by rallying support from progressive voters, most of whom are not transgender.

Kamala Harris’s moderate reputation and confidence in policing and the criminal justice system has already gained her criticism from progressive Democrats, the same faction of the Democratic Party that demonstrated its power in influencing elections through its support of the Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign in 2016. Transgender rights have emerged as a key topic of discussion surrounding social justice and progressiveness. By voicing a message of support for transgender people she is attempting to rally the support of progressive voters who are not transgender and may have no relationship to the problems facing transgender people. If elected into office, Harris’s political background as a state attorney suggests that she will likely continue to rely on the criminal justice system as a mechanism for targeting crime, which in turn will only reinforce incarceration rates for transgender people.

Kamala Harris’s support for the transgender community is nothing more than an empty promise that offers no material support to the hardships that we currently face.

Work Cited

  1. Beckett, Lois and Sam Levin. “Kamala Harris: Can a ‘top Cop’ Win over Progressives in 2020?” The Guardian. January 19, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/19/kamala-harris-2020-election-top-cop-prosecutor.
  2. Samudzi, Zoe. “Incarcerated Transgender Women’s Lives Must Matter.” The Appeal. January 28, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://theappeal.org/incarcerated-transgender-womens-lives-must-matter/.
  3. James, Sandy E., et al. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality, December 2016. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.
  4. “Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis.” Lambda Legal. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/article/trans-incarcerated-people.

A Period Memory

By Hannah McCandless

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

    Sitting in Mrs. Carter’s seventh grade Language Arts class during the fall of 2007, I slid down in my chair, legs spread out, relaxed – no care in the world. I always sat like that, not thinking about how much space I took up and loving how comfortable I felt. We learned about prepositions that day. Brandon Wilson, quite a bully throughout my time knowing him, sat directly across from me. I sometimes wonder if he ever saw it. I convinced myself he didn’t a few years ago when he reached out on Facebook to ask me on a date (I still got it). So he must not have noticed it, or maybe he blocked out the memory. Either way, it’s still pretty haunting.

Unlike the rest of my classes, Language Arts took two periods out of the seven I had. I didn’t mind. I loved the subject and Mrs. Carter was a real spunky teacher, so the two class periods didn’t bother me much. Her wit was quick, her accent thick – her class felt like the safest place to be. Though I can only imagine the 6 minutes in between periods would have been a great time to socialize with classmates, I never knew for sure. Thanks to a near disaster on a long bus ride years before, I always used the six minute break to run to the bathroom, whether I had to go or not (just in case).

    Down the hall, past my peers, I walked into my usual stall (the middle one) and my favorite bathroom (the one on the second floor of the old wing of the school), ready to sit and be alone on the toilet for a moment before heading back to class. I pulled down my khaki bermuda shorts to find a large, red stain. It looked like a murder scene. It took me a brief moment before I realized what had happened and I was quickly filled with terror wondering what to do next. I didn’t get a phone until I was in the eighth grade, so calling for help was out of the question. No one came into the bathroom during the entire 6 minute break, so there was no one I could ask for help. I didn’t carry a purse then because I felt like I had thwarted the patriarchy by being unfeminine in my clothing choices, so I had no tampon on hand. I didn’t know what to do.

School was important to me. I didn’t want to miss class. I wadded a bunch of toilet paper together, shoved it down my pants, and hoped I would make it through class. I spent the next 52 minutes of my life sitting with my back straight as a pole and my legs pressed so hard together that I could feel a heartbeat in my knees. I even crossed my ankles to the side. I took up as little space as possible. Never had I sat like such a lady during this class, or any class for that matter. I’m sure my grandmother would have been proud of my posture. I felt so small. I sat like that until the bell rang, at which point I quickly, but precisely, collected my things and went to the front office. They gave me a ratty, old pair of sweatpants to wear. Now everyone would know.


    This piece is the written form of a memory I had while listening to a speaker at a women’s history conference. The speakers were talking about the social justice issues surrounding periods: access to menstrual products in prisons, sex education and learned period shaming in schools, and access to medical services to address issues surrounding menstruation. Periods are complicated. A lot of people experience them, yet most memories and encounters with the bodily function are negative. The issues of menstruation are vast and in order to address the medical and emotional needs of the masses. It is necessary that a great many steps are taken in restructuring our educational values, how we treat the incarcerated, and the funding systems which support reproductive medical needs. The number of policy changes, and the of social and cultural overhaul which would subsequently need to occur, could very well be the topic of multiple books (and likely already are). But a simple first step is a bit more visceral.

    On top of policy changes, the action of speaking an experience into the ether can change lives. Despite the fact that billions of people menstruate, many feel isolated. The stigma of menstruation can be crushing and heavy. After years of understanding my body – how it functions and all the great things about being me – I still could not get out from under the weight of how small and dirty I felt in that classroom. That was ten years ago. I was socialized to take up less space, to be unseen, to be unnoticed and small. I thought that by dressing unfeminine, by taking up space, I could get out from under the pressure of that stigma. I didn’t. The memory rushed back without permission, and consumed my thoughts for a significant portion of the day. I wonder what might be different if we socialized kids differently: how might the human experience change?

Like I said, policy changes are necessary. But I argue that those changes are useless without changing the way we socialize kids. These discussions must start extremely young – well before the already heavy stigmas of puberty sets in. I know that many of my peers have similar memories consuming their thoughts, uninvited, on a regular basis. So I hope we can find ways to lift the stigma by fully supporting the bodies of children as we work toward lifting this harmful weight. Period.