Home Workers and Fast Fashion: A Look at India’s Garment Industry

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

Google ‘labor abuse in fashion’ and a whole mess of articles with headlines like “Hundreds of H&M and Gap Factory Workers Abused Daily, Report Says” (Global Citizen), and “Child Labor In Fashion Is Still A Major Problem” (Refinery29) pop up. The exploitative conditions that workers in these factories face include low wages, overcrowding, and unsafe work environments. During a 2010 fire in a Gap Inc. factory, at least 27 people died and more that 100 were injured as people jumped from the factory’s 10th floor to escape the blaze. Home workers also make up a large portion of the the garment industry, while making lower wages compared to factory workers and receiving far less attention in the international call for labor rights.

Home workers have a long history in the garment industry. Finishing work on garments, such as embroidery, beading, or even quality control has been done outside of a factory setting, and usually by women, for more than 200 years. These women and girls are frequently from minority groups. In India’s garment industry, they are employed by subcontractors and make pennies for every dollar their garments may bring in. Mehala Sekar, a Chennai woman, told Reuters,“I have three children to take care of and cannot join a factory. The price I pay for that is very low wages.”

In addition to low wages, women in home-based work also face an an inability to seek recourse for unfair and abusive conditions. This perpetuates the subordinated status of women at home, as undervaluing a person’s work undervalues the individual in question. According to numerous reports, 85% of home-based workers in the garment sector are working on products for export to the US and the European Union. The women in question are without written contracts or agreements, which is the primary reason that the shadowy nature of such employment continues. They are often paid by the garment and face harsh penalties if they do not complete their work within the time frame set out by their contractor.

Literacy is a major factor in the experiences of home workers. Those who are literate are able to keep better track of their work and wages, while those who are not are more likely to face fluctuation in their pay or to be paid unfairly compared to the amount of work they are doing. It is important to mention here that the conditions of home workers in northern and southern India very greatly, with northern workers being at a higher risk of exploitation. Considering that literacy rates in Southern India are more than 3 times that of the north (27% in the north and 97% in the south, according to Tainted Garments), there are considerable differences in the experience of these workers.

At this point in time, most are aware of the rise of fast fashion, and the environmental and labor costs that the industry exerts on the world. By outsourcing their labor, corporations like Nike, Adidas, Gap, and many other well-known brands are able to produce products so cheaply that their absurdly low pricing still leaves room for a huge profit. Of course, some of this can be attributed to the fact that at this point in time many large apparel brands have become so massive that the majority of their profits come from stocks, which are fed by brand identity. The production and sale of clothing has thus become simply a way to further the brand’s image.

Female exploitation in the workforce is something that continues to be a major problem, as women are expected to take care of their home and families while also often times needing to help support or fully support their household. The continued devaluing of “women’s work” feed a system of oppression across the world. The ethical ramifications of fast fashion are manifold, but conscious consideration of labor costs compared to the number on the price tag is the first step in dismantling the one element of the global patriarchy.

The commercial fashion industry has created 50-100 micro seasons, as opposed to the traditional 2 seasons. This leads to increased pressure on the consumer to buy more clothing that they do not need. Additionally, although people own more clothing, they keep it for half as long. Cotton makes up almost 33% of the fibers in textiles, and takes about 2,700 liters of water a year to produce. Not only is this equivalent to what the average person drinks in a year, but textile manufacturing produces almost 20% of industrial water pollution. With with 5.4 billion people expected to be in the global middle class by 2030, the cost of fast fashion is only going to get worse. To combat some of these problems, wear your clothing as long as possible. Avoid purchasing trendy clothing that may only last or be fashionable for one season. Try to be conscious of where your clothing is coming from. Most importantly, refuse to look at clothing as disposable.


Sources:

Tainted Garments by Siddharth Kara, for the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the University of California Berkeley January 2019

A Thousand Cuts, Results from India by Garment Worker Diaries, www.workerdiaries.org, April 17th 2019

India’s ‘invisible’ home garment workers exploited by fashion brands by Anuradha Nagaraj, www.reuters.com, February 1st 2019

Workers jump to their deaths as fire engulfs factory making clothes for Gap by Saad Hammadi and Matthew Taylor, www.theguardian.com, December 10th 2010

The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics by Deborah Drew and Genevieve Yehounme, www.wri.org, July 5th 2017

The Fabric of Women’s Community

By Kathleen Quaintance
Kathleen is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence and will graduate in 2020.

Engaging with women’s history sometimes means one has to brush away years of dust before the treasure of knowledge can be examined. The dust is not only literal (today, in the archives, I found myself sneezing periodically), but metaphorical, in that it represents the erasure of women’s contributions and continual efforts to undermine or entirely ignore their work. I am prepared to wipe away some dust in several different ways, as I have become connected to a history that has been very faintly recorded. If one were to think of the histories of the men contributing to this artistic movement that I am studying as having been written in pen, then these women were recorded in very faint pencil. The layers of dust do not settle equally over every archive.

There are several barely mentioned women who I aim to retrieve from the dark and inaccessible archives, all of whom worked as designers and craftswomen in the Interwar period in Britain. These women came together to work, carving and inking woodblock prints with strikingly modern designs and placing them on large bolts of fabric, spread out over the floor of a dockside warehouse or spare barn. Sometimes, for lack of a better method, they stepped on the blocks to imprint the patterns. One of several of these workshops was called “Footprints” as a nod to these beginnings. Footprints was run by a woman, Joyce Clissold, who hired only women to work in her studio. There’s a small photograph of the employees of Footprints, and it is difficult to spot a man in the crowd of women wearing eccentric dresses made from their modern patterns.

Some of these British artist-craftswomen working during the Interwar period were educated at the Royal School of Art, like Enid Marx, who was initially a painting student but transferred to the design program which was less overpopulated by traditionalist men. Marx’s designs were abstract, modern, and revolutionary – they seem ahead of their time aesthetically, but they are executed using age-old woodcarving and printing techniques. Marx’s work was deemed too “abstract” and she was denied a degree. Rejected by the word of “fine art,” Marx embraced design. She became an apprentice to another woman-run fabric printing workshop, headed by the remarkable Phyllis Barron and her long-term significant other Dorothy Larcher. Marx would go on to become a prolific designer and illustrator. She became the first woman engraver to be designated a Royal Designer for Industry, and in 1937, she designed the pattern for the fabric that would upholster the seats on the London Underground for years to come. She went on to find a life partner of her own, the historian Margaret Lambert, with whom she researched and collected British popular art.

Many of these women were involved in art which could facilitate social change, or at least the well-being of society. This contrasted their male classmates at the the Royal College of Art, who were mainly involved with commissions and exhibitions. Instead, these craftswomen, including the radical leftist tile designer Peggy Angus (nicknamed “Red” for her communist tendencies), used their artistic ability to contribute to public projects and spent their lifetimes teaching the next generation. Almost all of these women participated in projects for the betterment of society: Enid Marx was one of the artists involved in Kenneth Clark’s “Recording Britain” programme, a wartime effort to illustrate British landmarks in case of bombing, while Peggy Angus created tile designs for schools and airports. All of these women, however, could be found in the realm of printmaking, which could be considered the most “democratic” art, in that it can be reproduced and distributed. Their practice of printing on fabric combined two crafts. “Craft” as a domain is often demoted below “fine art,” because craft has long been gendered as “feminine,” an embodied task in contrast to the more “intellectual” art. It thus is necessary to think about craft when thinking about feminist art history, and ask the question of how craft is considered lesser and omitted from histories of visual culture, particularly when it is created by women?



I have been told by someone very wise that history is “speaking for the dead,” so it is imperative that I am a very respectful and conscientious necromancer. I have recently visited an archive where I pored over the pictures and letters of Winifred Gill, a woman who worked for the Omega workshop, a crafts studio founded by the artists of the Bloomsbury group. Gill’s name is very difficult to find in any histories of this workshop, although she was a key craftsperson. She went on to work in the Bristol University Settlement, engaging with community through crafts. She participated in archaeological digs, made puppets, and waxed poetic about the beauty of crafting techniques that had yet to change. I found one letter, addressed to Walter de la Mare and scrawled in her characteristic chicken-scratch, which reads:

“Best of all to me are the effigies in dust of oval rush mats on the floors of stone age houses in old Jericho, made exactly as they are made in England to-day. Once the right way to make something is found, it stays that way. I once showed a photograph of the base of an oval hamper, probably a cradle, found in the same Lake Village, to one of the Dryad men. I asked if it has been ‘set-up’ the right way. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that.’ He simply refused to believe me when I said it was at least nineteen hundred years old.”

The 1935 letter has grown old, and the paper has become so yellowed and thin that it is nearly transparent. Yet Gill’s sentiment stands, and it stood for her contemporaries who felt that their printing methods, in the paradox between ancient and modern, were the “right way to make something.” The next item that catches my eye is a tiny sepia-toned photograph of Gill in a garden, using her crafts: she wears a long Omega necklace and holds one of her handcrafted marionettes, which she is playfully dangling over a fluffy white dog. In other tattered photographs, she stands in a doorway with her arms crossed, glancing wryly at the camera. In another, she faces a mirror, where her reflection stares confidently back.

These photographs are so impactful because they represent the opportunity to bring Winifred Gill’s contributions to light, as part of a larger project to rescue women’s histories from obscurity. Gill concludes one of her letters with what seems to me to be a reminder of how to work with archival material and engage with forgotten histories: “how can you convey all that you do, over and above what you actually state? When a catalogue giving the exactly the same information just plods along. You dip your words in magic.”

Sarah Lawrence College Students Occupy Westlands Administration Building Demanding Racial Justice

Students occupy Westlands in March 2019

By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program.

Disclaimer: The Re/Visionist fully supports student’s rights to protest. This blog post includes opinions about the protest that belong to the writer of this blog specifically.

In the early hours of Monday, March 11th, 2019, undergraduate students collected at the Westlands Administration Building at Sarah Lawrence College to begin what has now been a 57 hour long occupation of the building (at the time this blog was written). The Diaspora Coalition, an organization created by students of color to speak to and address the injustices they face at the hands of the Sarah Lawrence Administration, organized the occupation.

Loudly chanting the words “Sarah Lawrence, what a shame? 30 years and still the same! Sarah Lawrence, what a shame? 50 years and still the same!” protestors reference the treatment of students of color over the college’s history. The Diaspora Coalition organized, demanding that the institutional and racial issues faced by students of color, which have been generationally ignored, be addressed in a swift and collaborative manner. One organizer explained that some of the current demands were copied from former protest demands, indicating that the protests of 1969 and 1989, among other protests, have not led to the substantial outcomes students have hoped for.

It is the belief of this writer that students of Women’s History, Gender Studies, Queer Studies, and Africana Studies are, by the nature of what we give voice to, inherently activists. Therefore, the Women’s History Blog took time to interview some of the organizers to find out their thoughts on the occupation and related protests around campus, as well as their thoughts on how graduate students fit into the protest. The organizers have requested that we keep their identities out of the blog post and other social media posts for their anonymity. Therefore, the three students we interviewed will be referred to as Organizer One, Organizer Two, and Organizer Three.

“None of us are at a point where we are trying to convince people of the validity of our humanity.” Fiercely and passionately stated, Organizer Two made clear that their intentions were focused on supporting the needs and demands of students of color, many of which are related to intersections of institutional and structural policies that are any combination of racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ageist, and ableist, among others. Demands that vary from more affordable housing and meal plan options, to free access to necessities like laundry detergent and affordable summer storage, to more hiring of faculty and staff of color, their demands were diverse and extensive.

The list of demands is comprehensive, covering a wide variety of issues that students of color experience. Recognizing that despite their best efforts to include the voices of all students of color at Sarah Lawrence, Organizer Three referred to the Talk Back event as an opportunity for students to share feedback on the demands. Understanding that “it was impossible for us to talk to everybody,” Organizer Two made clear that the demands were not meant to be the only demands expressed by students, but a place to open the conversation. Organizer Three added, “The things that we are asking for are things that we believe will benefit the larger Sarah Lawrence Community,” and if people in the community did not feel like their voices were being heard, that it is the job of the organizers to listen to that feedback and address those needs. The Talk Back event is scheduled to be held in Resigner in the PAC on Wednesday evening starting at 5:30 PM.

When talking about how organizers intended to reach the students, faculty, and staff who had turned the other cheek, Organizer One said that they hoped to bring in people who agreed and disagreed with them, faculty and staff, undergraduate and graduate, to talk about the needs of this community. It is hoped that the Talk Back, modeled after the 1989 Talk Back, can be a space for people to come forward with questions and contributions. The format is set up to allow for a rotation of questions and comments from students, faculty, and staff. When asked about the representation of graduate students, the organizers were especially hopeful that graduate students would be able to attend because, as Organizer Two put it, “We have it bad, but [graduate students] have it on another level of bad.”

Concerning their efforts to include the needs of graduate students in the list of demands, organizers stated support for people of color at Sarah Lawrence, “including international students, graduate students, faculty, and staff” in the opening of their demands. As they looked to connect with graduate students, the organizers, many of whom are friends with graduate students, found that their access to graduate students of color was sparse. When they did know graduate students of color, some were concerned that sharing organizing information with too many graduate students, many of whom work at Sarah Lawrence and whether they were students of color or not, might lead to administrators finding out. The possibility that students would be met with backlash, possible harm, or threats of arrest when preparing to enter Westlands was a real concern. As a white, middle class, cis woman, I understand that these are experiences that I am rarely exposed to, and I personally understand and respect their decisions to keep themselves safe in their organizing efforts.

As a graduate student who is involved with the Graduate Student Senate, an organization which is meant to highlight and advocate for the voices of graduate students, I would like to publicly state that some of the major issues facing graduate students are financial. Specifically, two major issues we face include a lack of affordable, on campus housing and a lack of funding for thesis research and fieldwork travel. New York City and surrounding areas are very expensive to live in, and on campus graduate housing is not available to us, making Sarah Lawrence a massive financial burden for many. As it relates to research, fieldwork travel, and other expenses related to intellectual and professional development, our grant funding sources are sparse, causing many graduate students further financial strains. Additionally, due to the high quantity of non-traditional students within graduate programs, I believe that it is imperative to include their needs in the list of demands, such as considerations for educational cost, family housing, and affordable daycare. It is important to note that some of these issues are class specific and affect many students, but are especially important to address when intersections of race are included in one’s identity as a graduate student.

Later, organizers were asked about their efforts to connect with administrators before occupation, one organizer said that through various committees, they had worked to have their voices heard. Another organizer affirmed this, saying that “sometimes the format of those spaces doesn’t really allow for us to say what we need to say.” Again, understanding that my experiences are related to my own privileges, I personally support their actions within a system that is more apt to support someone who looks like me, and I understand that more radical forms of protest are often necessary in securing meaningful change.

After the interview took place, I chose to spend a few hours with the protestors in Westlands in solidarity. Reflecting on my experience while there, my own job on campus as a graduate assistant, and on feedback I have heard from other graduate students, I firmly stand with and support the Diaspora Coalition in their efforts to affect structural and institutional change at Sarah Lawrence. I believe that, to those with frustrations about the protest, it is important to note that no protest is perfect. Even the Women’s March in 2017, though attended by thousands of women across the country and world, was not fully inclusive of women and nonbinary people of color, both at the planning table and in working to support those people in in attending the gathering. Similarly, this protest has some places for improvement. It is my belief that the Diaspora Coalition efforts to reach graduate students since the protest began have been genuine and helpful in reaching the goal of greater inclusion.

Wrapping up the interview, the sentiment was that many of those protesting are exhausted both physically and emotionally. The students are asking for your support. Anyone can support in a variety of ways, including visiting their Facebook page, or by looking for them on instagram or twitter under @slc50sitin. You can also view their demands here. Another way that people can participate is by calling using the scripts provided in on the Facebook page, linked above. Please consider supporting the students however you see fit.

A Graduate Student’s Response to the Occupy Westlands Sit-In

Sarah Lawrence students occupy Westlands in 1989

By Katherine Swartwood

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


Disclaimer: While this post provides some critiques of the Occupy Westlands protest, it in no means serves as statement of opposition. The author supports Sarah Lawrence College’s students of color and their mission to increase diversity and inclusion on campus.

The protest occurring in Westlands is indeed a noble endeavor to end discrimination on Sarah Lawrence’s campus, increase opportunities for minority students, provide a diverse faculty, and more. However, it is important to highlight those students who the Diaspora Coalition overlooked – graduate students. When Re/Visionist editors interviewed protestors and organizers, they expressed their desire to include graduate students at Sarah Lawrence, but found it difficult to get in contact with us. One organizer explained, “When it came to graduate students, we felt like we hit a wall” when attempting to reach out to graduate students of color. It was proposed by some Coalition organizers that the organizers may have feared graduate students working in administrative offices would have spoiled the protest by telling their bosses. I disagree with both reasonings for this exclusion.

Firstly, graduate students share several spaces with undergraduate students: The Pub, Bates, the Library, classes, campus committees, some graduate students even work directly with undergraduates in their campus positions. Therefore, there was opportunity to include graduate students of color, LGBTQIA+ graduate students, low income graduate students, and first generation graduate students. Secondly, I disagree with the assessment that graduate students working in administrative offices would reveal the plans, ruining the element of surprise and causing physical harm to protestors. While a fear of violence is not irrational, it may be unfair to assume graduate students would be the instigator of such violence by reporting the Coalition’s plans and allowing administrators to contact police and/or security. As graduate students we would never wish harm upon any member of the Sarah Lawrence community. As activists, we would never perpetuate the systemic and institutional racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. of the ivory tower of academia. Could graduate students of color not be passionate enough about inequality on campus to join the occupation and not side with administration. Are we not social activists as well? Do we not reject institutional racism and discrimination? Would we not also risk our campus jobs along with the undergraduates in order to support such an important cause?

Precisely, it’s these graduate students working on campus and those serving in leadership roles with GSS or on campus committees who could have constituted an important resource to the Coalition. Without sharing confidential information, we could have provided a unique look into Administration operations, the conversations occurring in committees and Board of Trustee meetings, especially those regarding diversity, education, faculty, and health that undergraduates may not have been privy to through their previous efforts to engage with these governing bodies. Furthermore, graduate students could have provided insight into both the similar and special issues they face as minority students within the Masters’ programs.  

The Coalition has created a necessary set of demands, but almost none included the issues graduate students experience. Some can be interpreted to include graduate students of color, but clearly defining how these demands could include graduate students is important. We too have international students, students of color, low income students, first generation students, and LGBTQIA+ students who lack resources and programs that lack diversity. For instance, Sarah Lawrence offers no graduate on campus housing options (besides limited positions as Graduate Housing Directors.) Students can only work a maximum of 20 hours a week with pay as little as $12 an hour. Some jobs do not even provide the fully allotted 20 hours of work. How, then, does Sarah Lawrence assume low income, international students, students of color, etc. are meant to pay tuition, eat, and afford rent in one of the most expensive counties in the country? With some departments offering little funding, some students are forced to rely on the “Graduate Student Scholarship,” (which provides for some students $6000 or less before you petition, but not nearly enough to make tuition affordable), Graduate Loans, and the PLUS Loan, adding to their already massive undergraduate student loan debt, to simply survive. Other students, like Human Genetics, are forced to pay out of pocket for required clinical rotations, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars in the hope that the small Graduate Student Senate reimbursement grant reserve for thesis research, internship travel, conferences, etc., (funded by graduate student activity fees) can cover the entire cost (it can’t). These issues like those listed in the Coalition’s demands, result from intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class status, etc.

The Diaspora Coalition has now invited graduate students to speak at their Talk Back event on Wednesday 3/13, at 5:30 PM in the Miller Lecture Hall, which I encourage any and all graduate students to participate in. However, it does not negate the fact that they, along with administration, donors, and Trustees, have neglected to consider how these unequal practices have affected minority graduate students. Even when graduate students speak up in meetings, we are overlooked in favor of undergraduates. We do not doubt that their issues matter, but we simply ask to have graduate students’ treated with respect by the administration.

Therefore, while it is promising that the Diaspora Coalition asked us to participate, they should have considered us from the start and included us more directly and clearing within their demands. We can only hope the administration takes these demands seriously and incorporates graduate students within these changes moving forward.

Since this post has been written, undergraduate and graduate students have reached an agreement to collaborate on a list of demands that are inclusive of both groups. Further developments will be posted as the protest continues. Stay resilient. -Blog Staff

Sidelined: The Fight for Gender Equity in the World of Ultimate Frisbee

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

Watching the broadcast rerun, it’s hard to tell if the background sounds are cheers or static from the poor video quality. Either way, people were watching. The footage is from an NFL live stream of the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings preseason game where, during halftime, the Minnesota Windchill and Madison Radicals were in the throes of a showcase game. While neither team made a show of running onto the grass, that all changed once the eighty foot video board lit up behind the goal post: there, on the field, a white plastic disc cut through the air, and the game had begun. Although it wasn’t broadcast on television, for the hundreds of thousands of fans in the stands of U.S. Bank Stadium and anyone watching online, it was their first glimpse into the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. And, although the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), to which both the Windchill and Radicals belong, is technically open to people of any gender, of the fourteen players on the field at any given moment of that game, all were men.

It wasn’t surprising, given the AUDL’s historic lack of female representation in the eight years since its inception, that there were no female players on the field. Still, the backlash was swift and grating: comment boards, Reddit threads, and niche ultimate news sites filled with criticism from both sides. Some—mostly male—players and fans criticized the league for playing a showcase game in the first place, as if such a mainstream platform would strip the sport of the its counterculture identity. The match, however, sat much differently with female players. “Thanks for the reminder that women aren’t welcome at real games or showcase games,” wrote Seattle club player Kat Overton on Twitter. When the AUDL promoted a showcase game featuring only male players, they sent a message, intentionally or otherwise, about whom their sport was, and still is, intended for.

From its inception, ultimate Frisbee was off the beaten path. Created in 1968 by a group of high schoolers, participants first played games in parking lots, using telephone poles as goal markers. By 1972, the first ever college game premiered, a match between Rutgers and Princeton. In 1984, the inaugural college championships were hosted by USA Ultimate, the newfound national governing body to the sport. In the finals, Stanford beat Glassboro University by a score of 21 to 18. The women’s division wasn’t introduced until three years later.

The sport is more popular than ever, and is continuing to grow. The biggest matches are shown on sports channels like ESPN 2, and there’s talk of a possible sport for ultimate in the the 2028 Olympics. However, ultimate remains loyal to the game’s philosophy, rooted in spunk, fun and sportsmanship, known in the official rule book as the “Spirit of the Game.” Players wear fake mustaches in the field; tournaments hold trophies for best costume; post-game spirit circles include dance-offs, in which victory is more coveted than in the game itself. Ultimate, at its core, rejects the conventional mold. Therein lies the question: why, for a sport that is said to go against everything that traditional sports values, is gender representation such a large issue?

Up until a couple years ago, it was rare to find high-quality, full-game footage of the women’s division, while men’s leagues had been producing live streams and highlight reels for years. The High School National Invite consisted of only eight girls’ teams in its inaugural year in 2017, compared to sixteen teams in the boy’s division. In ealy 2017, the World Flying Disc Federation was slammed with criticism for failing to hire any female commentators, to which Communications Director Rob McLeod responded by claiming “[we don’t] live in a patriarchy,” and the affirmative hiring of a woman would not be putting “the best commentator on the mic.” Traditional sports are criticized for giving women’s divisions a fraction of the media coverage men receive, and ultimate is no different: the nicer fields, bigger opportunities, and better time slots, are given to men.

The issue of gender equity–along with inequalities in race, class, and other intersections of privilege–is one that ultimate has dealt with since its inception, and will continue to until the sport prioritizes marginalized players. This is not to say changes haven’t been made–filming company Fulcrum Pro has been at the forefront of producing high-quality women’s games, and the USA Ultimate Transgender Inclusion Policy was recently revised to become more inclusive regarding trans players. However, the fight is not over, and for every step of progress, there seems to be another two backwards, a constant reminder of how far the sport still has to go in order to achieve the inclusivity it is so keen on promoting.

This essay was originally written in Spring 2018, and less than nine months later, the Vikings hosted another showcase game of ultimate during halftime. This time, the game was between Windchill and Chicago Wildfire, another AUDL team from the Midwest Division. Yet again, the game was live streamed, and yet again, that same eighty-foot scoreboard lit up with video of players throwing the disc for what felt like miles, only to be caught by the majestic dives of their teammates onto the green and white turf. The crowd cheered louder than they had perhaps the entire first half of the football game, the game they paid hundreds to attend. It was spectacular, history making, even–and there wasn’t one woman in sight.


This was an excerpt from a longer piece. 

Revolutionary Women of Music: Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew

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

This morning on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019, I woke up to Lizzo’s “Juice” stuck in my head. Off to a good start, I continued my morning routine while Carly Rae Jepsen, Cherry Glazerr, Rico Nasty, and Dream Wife – amongst others – shuffled and played on my Spotify playlist. As Tacocat’s “Hey Girl” came on, it hit me, why aren’t we talking more about the women that have pioneered not just music as a whole, but have used their platform as artists and musicians to promote social, political, and cultural change? Of course, there are the greats we all know, but what about Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew? For this week’s post, I will share a portion of the activist efforts of these women.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, was a notable African American jazz, R&B, and gospel singer and songwriter, as well as a civil rights activist. While Simone initially aspired to become a concert pianist, her desire for social and political justice led her down a different path. Gaining mainstream success from her debut album Little Girl Blue, her song “Mississippi Goddam,” inspired by the racism that plagued (and continues to plague) the United States, propelled her to the forefront of the civil rights movement. For the rest of her career, Nina Simone spoke and performed at civil rights meetings and protests. Her political activism never disappeared from her music, and her desire for justice continued up until her death in 2003. For more on Simone’s life please see autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1991).

Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said on July 3, 1957, was a British woman of color and the frontwoman of the punk band X-Ray Spex. Styrene started the band after running a local news ad that stated she was looking for “Young punx who want to stick it together.”[i] As a result, X-Ray Spex was born and so was the beginning of their critique on capitalism which would last for their entire career. Styrene questioned bondage in every aspect of the word. Whether it was sexual, social, political, capitalist, or other, she would deconstruct the entire system with her singing. As Maria Raha states in Cinderella’s Big Score (2005) “amid all the jubilant chaos, they were able to provide a solid, relevant social commentary.”[ii] Styrene continued to promote listeners to fight back until her untimely death from metastasized breast cancer on April 25, 2011. Please see Cinderella’s Big Score for more information about Poly.

Valerie Agnew, born January 13, 1969, was the drummer of the Seattle based Riot Grrrl feminist-punk band 7 Year Bitch. Agnew was a longtime friend of The Gits singer Mia Zapata. While 7 Year Bitch’s lyrics are so incredibly politically charged, it wasn’t until the rape and murder of Zapata that Agnew’s platform as a musician and as an activist came to a head. Agnew, alongside fellow feminist punks, formed the Home Alive collective in the mid-90s. The collective – still around to this day – strives to provide affordable self-defense courses for women and members of the LGBTQ community. Punk-feminists were sick of seeing the people that they cared for become victims to such violent crimes, and Agnew stood up and said that enough was enough. Since the formation of the collective, people have continued to utilize the educational tools that they have learned and that their website now provides. While Agnew is only one of the founders, she and 7 Year Bitch stick out for their unapologetically anti-patriarchy songs such as “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “M.I.A.”

Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are only three of the hundreds of women that have used their platform to question injustices, capitalism, and the patriarchy. For the sake of time and length, I have chosen these three because of their impact on me personally. While they all reside in different genres of music, the three of these women have their determination towards social, cultural, and political activism in common. On this International Women’s Day (as well as the entirety of Women’s History Month), I encourage you all to look at women who have started a revolution through music, and how big of an impact music can have when women such as Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are at the frontlines.


[i] Maria Raha, Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground, (California; Seal Press: 2005), 86.
[ii] Raha, 89.

Integrating The Transformational Writings of bell hooks Into Formal Education

By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

Growing up in the South, my exposure to black women writers in an academic setting was far and few between. Though late in my academic career, I distinctly recall three instances that led me to uncovering the absolute importance and prolific writings of black women. It was not until a Women and Literature class in college first led me to the poetry of bell hooks. It was not until some free time during a gap year and a used bookstore’s 50% off sale led me to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. And it was not until a Master’s level course on women’s history led me to the historical fiction novel, Beloved written by Toni Morrison. In each of these experiences, I found myself enveloped by the masterful writings of black women who, prior to a few years earlier, I had little to no knowledge of.

Reflecting on this absence gives an easy to find but troubling answer: the writings of white men are predominantly taught from kindergarten through college. This form of institutional racism and sexism is not necessarily a surprise to many, especially those studying race and gender, but it is frustrating nonetheless. Outside of two classes specifically focusing on women and women writers, and a stroke of luck in a bookstore, my exposure to black women writers was abysmal. The lack of available classes covering women and African American Studies were in large part to blame. But even then, this was at the collegiate level. What about the lack of black women writers in elementary through high school?

With that information in mind, this blog post aims to present the works of bell hooks, one of the most influential feminist writers of the past forty years, as one possible author whose work can be used by educators from kindergarten onwards. It is the hope that these examples will help educators integrate bell hooks, and other black women authors, into their curriculums in order to foster a more holistic and representative educational experience.

Something especially exciting about bell hooks’ work is that she also wrote children’s books in addition to writing poetry and feminist theories. Published in 1999 and illustrated by Chris Raschka, Happy to Be Nappy shows all of the exciting ways in which girls with “nappy” hair can wear and be proud of their hair styles. Published in 2002, Homemade Love is a story which helps children understand what it means to be unconditionally loved. Both books promote representation for black girls and are easily accessible for kids of all backgrounds. These books can easily be integrated into the story times of pre-K and kindergarten aged students, further broadening kids’ horizons.

Moving into upper elementary and middle school, much of hooks’ poetry, which can be found in her book And There We Wept, can be taught to students as an entry point in their exposure to poetry. Often a part of the Language Arts portion of learning, students begin learning about poetry as early as the first grade and continue through high school. Some of her more academic works, such as Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, published in 1981, and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, published in 1984, are both books which can be as educational tools to inform students on the social importance and implications of feminism, as well as some of the earlier writings on intersectional feminism. Students in high school and college can be challenged to broaden their views of the world and on culture through her writings. hooks is especially accessible for students in this age range because many of her books, articles, and other published works do not rely on overly formal or academic writing.  

Looking back, I feel a deep sadness about my lack of exposure to black women writers. I wonder what my life might have been like had I read the works of Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, or Angela Davis much earlier. I truly believe that they would have changed my perspective on everything from politics to representation to feminism. With bell hooks specifically, her writing has been the most understandable and tangible for me to read and comprehend. Her theory is not bogged down by unnecessarily big words, and her writing is a critique of everyday life. This exposure can put many more on the path toward an intentional critique of culture and of self, opening the doors of activism for young people everywhere.

Educating students of all ages through the writings of black women is integral to a more whole and intersectional education, an education which teaches the ideas of many rather than a select few. School boards can be persuaded by those in the community to change their reading lists. School boards can also be voted out of office when they are not pushing for the best educational experience for students. As a citizen, you can use your power to advocate and vote for the inclusion and representation of black women writers in your school’s curriculum. For more information about your state’s educational requirements, visit your state’s Department of Education web page or contact your school district directly to find out what students are being taught.