Madison is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s and Gender History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Civil Rights activism in Cleveland, Ohio and Black women’s activism in the United States.
Let me take you back to 1942, only a few years after the Great Depression, in the midst of World War II. In many ways, the United States was struggling on the homefront. With no one to work the jobs that were too low paying to sustain the American dream, there was no way to meet the demands of consumers. In a quick fix to the lack of able-bodied laborers here in the states, millions of migrant workers from Mexico were welcomed with open arms to ensure that our agriculture industry continued despite feeling the effects of war. At that moment, the Bracero Program was born. Bracero in this context, which literally translates to “laborer” in Spanish, meant one who works with their hands.
On August 4, 1942, the United States entered into the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement in order to sustain the large farm industry in the United States. Over the course of twenty-two years, it’s estimated that over two million Mexican immigrants signed contracts to work on American farms and railroads on a temporary basis for wages lower than Americans not fighting in the war were willing to work for. This program was later enacted into law as an amendment to the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951. The extension of this agreement repeatedly brought Mexican workers back to the states to work in return for housing, low wages, and “humane treatment.”
As one could imagine, the housing was poor, the job came with risks, and the workers were not treated humanely. But that isn’t why I wrote this piece … I want to talk about the immigration rhetoric we currently hear from the most recent occupant of the White House. The fact of the matter is that at one point, we were welcoming Latinx immigrants to the United States because we were in need of help. Now, only four decades later, there are people advocating for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. By ignoring this history, we allow a false narrative of the “bad hombre” to be perpetuated.
Yes, this was a bilateral deal that was beneficial to both parties in some way, but the logic that follows this history is the notion that there are jobs in America that Americans simply won’t do. We outsourced laborers to fill our needs and we still do. Imagine if every immigrant worker left right now … do we have enough people left to sustain the economy? I don’t know but I don’t think we want to find out.
In case you didn’t know, September 15th through October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month, and I feel compelled to write this in honor of LatinX immigrant history. When I first heard of the Bracero Program a quick Google search returned few results. I feel like if more people knew about the program, they would have the same questions about immigration that I have. How can we turn our backs on people in search of opportunity when that’s what brought European immigrants here? How would we sustain life as we know it in the United States without people willing to do the hard labor that others shy away from? I might not have the answers to any of the above questions, but as an aspiring historian who has ample access to historical resources, I felt obligated to share information that I believe has the power to change the way people look at immigration.
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.
Korbin Painter (he/him/his) is an M.A. candidate in the History Department at the University of Iowa. He was born and raised in Kansas and he is an alumnus of the University of Kansas. His research interests include LGBT history of the United States and Germany, focused on LGBT politics, social movements, and the history of emotions. Korbin can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
In Kansas, before the election of Governor Laura Kelly, there were no laws on the books at the state-level to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination in employment, housing, and adoption. However, individual cities such as Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City have enacted such laws. In 2007, during her service as Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius issued an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, in 2015, former Governor Sam Brownback revoked this order. In fact, during Brownback’s tenure, there had been many attempts by the Kansas state legislature to restrict the civil rights and protections of LGBT people in both the public and private sectors. Former interim Governor Jeff Colyer signed a law in May of 2018, which allowed adoption agencies in Kansas to refuse to place a child with LGBT couples on “religious or moral objection” (Polaski).
It is clear that many Kansas leaders do not support LGBT Kansans. In at least the last decade, many Republican legislators have not only refused to support or enact legislation that protects LGBT people and their families, but they have also championed discriminatory and harmful legislation that threatens the lives and livelihoods of LGBT Kansans (Mallory and Sears). The elections of democratic Governor Laura Kelly and democratic Representative Sharice Davids signify the resilience and efforts of LGBT Kansans and serve as reminders of Kansas values and spirit. As we move into Pride Month, I am reminded of the radical history of LGBT people in Kansas.
Often, people who live in “blue states” and large coastal cities are quick to dismiss Kansas as merely “fly-over” country, characterizing Kansans as “backward” and deeply conservative. Without dismissing the patterns in Kansas electoral politics, this perception and characterization is unfair, inaccurate, and obscures the lives and history of LGBT Kansans, who have been active in fighting for their civil rights and protections for decades.
One example from LGBT Kansas history takes us not to Lawrence or Kansas City, often characterized as liberal hubs in the “red state”, but to the city of Wichita. Wichita, Kansas is perhaps best known as the home of airplane manufacturing, McConnell Airforce base, and the BTK killer. It may be surprising to some that Wichita holds an important place in LGBT history in the United States. In fact, the designer and creator of the iconic rainbow pride flag, Gilbert Baker, was born and raised in Wichita.
In May of 1978, Washington Post reporter Bill Curry visited Wichita to report on a major political battle over a gay rights ordinance passed in September of 1977, which would protect Wichitans from employment and housing discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. While Curry was in Wichita, he observed the anti-gay slogan “From Cowtown to Gaytown” littering car bumpers across the city. Wichita is known as “Cowtown” because, in the 1860s and 1870s, the Chisolm Trail, the Southwest Railroad, and the Santa Fe Railway ran through the newly established city of Wichita. Wichita thus became a major center of commerce and trade, as well as a railhead for cattle drives from Texas. The bumper sticker indeed represented some Wichitans’ homophobic fears about an encroaching degenerate sexual minority who “cannot reproduce so they have to recruit” (Curry).
In the 1970s, there were a large number of gay and lesbian people and organizations in Wichita. Gay and lesbian Wichitans lived and worked, attended Church, and frequented bars and other community gatherings around the city. One of the early gay rights groups in Wichita was called the Homophile Association of Sedgwick County (HASC). In 1977, the HASC took a proposal for a city ordinance to the Wichita City Commission and Mayor Connie Peters. Wichita City Ordinance No. 35-242 would prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the city of Wichita. Gay and lesbian leaders Bruce McKinney, Pat Kaslo, and Robert Lewis led the fight. “Kansans are conservative, but they’re not bigots, not all of them,” one woman told Curry, “if they were, we wouldn’t be voting on a referendum” (Curry).
Soon after the ordinance was passed by the Wichita City Commission in a 3-2 vote, Anita Bryant – celebrity, anti-Gay crusader, and spokeswoman of Florida Oranges – mobilized in Wichita. Bryant and her organization, “Save Our Children”, had just won a fight to repeal a similar gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Bryant and “Save Our Children” began recruiting many Wichita pastors, like Ron Adrian, and campaigned to put a stop to homosexuality in the heartland. “The whole strategy of homosexuals,” commented Adrian “is to get homosexuality recognized as a normal lifestyle and an accepted lifestyle – and they’re getting a lot of publicity, that’s for sure” (Curry).
A fierce battle played out among Wichitans as the city commission voted to hold a referendum for the gay rights ordinance. In this particular historical moment, Wichita, Kansas became the battleground in the United States over sex, deviance, civil rights, and religious liberty. However, on May 9th of 1978, the ordinance was repealed. Gay Wichitans became the subjects of sensational news coverage across the country. In fact, the night of the repeal, the gay residents of San Francisco’s Castro Street marched on Union Square, chanting, “Wichita means fight back.”
As a gay man, born and raised in the small town of Augusta, Kansas, I was filled with excitement on election night in 2018 as I watched the results come in. Representative Sharice Davids became the first openly lesbian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is openly lesbian but serves in the Senate). Alongside Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Davids was also among the first Native American women to be elected to the House. In the Kansas State Legislature, Representatives Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodard were elected as the first LGBT state legislators in Kansas history. Laura Kelly’s election to the governorship of Kansas was significant as she expressed support for the LGBT community and has a voting record in favor of LGBT rights. One of Kelly’s first moves in January as Governor was to reinstate former Governor Sibelius’s executive order and restore state-level protections for LGBT state-workers (Shorman). On election night, I felt an immense swell of pride and hope that Kansas leaders may soon recognize the dignity of LGBT Kansans and move to provide us with civil rights and protections.
As we celebrate Pride month on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it is critical now, more than ever, that we remember gay and lesbian radical liberation politics in the 1970s. When we do this, we discover that these stories extend far beyond the “Gay Meccas” of New York City and San Francisco. These stories remind us that LGBT people, love, and resistance are everywhere; even in Wichita, Kansas.
I am no journalist, but as someone passionate about government and politics, I considered Gwen Ifill, who died a week ago on Monday, a role model and inspirational figure. This reporter and anchor for the PBS NewsHour impressed upon me the seriousness of each story she told.
In 2008, Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate between then-Senator Joe Biden and then-Governor Sarah Palin. I knew of her before then, but I don’t consciously remember any particular news stories she had reported. Perhaps that’s a testament to her ability to keep our attention on her subject, not herself. I could put a name with a face though. After that debate, her spirit of skepticism (with a healthy dose of comedy) was immortalized by Queen Latifah in an SNL sketch that is still on a repeating loop in my head.
Ifill hosted Washington Week, a Friday program that wrapped up the week in national politics. By the end of my week, when I wanted to decompress and had access to a TV, I could rely on that show to give me a dose of politics – and not the five pundits yelling at each other kind – that I wanted as a political science student.
I thought it was awesome when Ifill and fellow journalist Judy Woodruff became co-anchors of the NewsHour in 2013. Women taking over the news! Ifill and Woodruff were co-managing editors and decision makers for each night’s newscast! As a woman of color and daughter of immigrants, Ifill remains a role model who shows the importance of determination and hard work in journalism, broadcasting, and writing. This is something that Gwen Ifill took to heart. In an interview with civil rights leader Julian Bond, she said: “…and to this day, when people approach me and tell me that they’re glad to see me on television because they have daughters who see me… that makes my day. That’s what I want to know. The sense of possibility.”
In her acceptance speech for the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award in 2015, Ifill shared some of her beliefs about journalism: “At our best, we are all truth-tellers, although sometimes imperfect ones. At our best, we reject bias and understand that the most dangerous bias is found in the stories we do not tell.” Gwen Ifill helped viewers learn new things and adjust our own lenses when she selected the coverage through her own unique worldview.
In the most basic way, Ifill is important to women’s history by the fact she accomplished a “first.” More importantly, she helped change the symbols of the newscast and anchor. Ifill spoke to this in her interview with Bond. She said she saw herself as “exploding myths about who we are….My presence explodes a lot of notions… about what limitations are.”
For historians, her work matters. In a time when TV news can be loud, theatrical, ideological, and sometimes incendiary, we must be wary of our sources. When we look back on the early 21st century, I hope we’ll view Gwen Ifill’s journalism as a credible, reliable source. As scholars seeking answers, we’ll know that she wasn’t a reporter pitching softball questions to our leaders, and we’ll thank her for asking the questions she did.
On Thursday, in response to the results of the presidential election, SLC raised this banner proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” on the front of the Performing Arts Center. Students, faculty, and staff gathered outside to bear witness, to listen, and to speak their response to the monumental decision to elect Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.
Did you attend this gathering? Do you have a response as an SLC alum? Help us put on record the history of our community here at SLC by sharing your experience. Thank you.
COMMENT POLICY: We at RE/VISIONIST aim to be a forum for dialogue, debate, and a genuine exchange of ideas. That said, we support the maintaining of a safer space for a discussion free of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other oppressions. We do not tolerate comments that ascribe to any of the discriminatory language or ideas that fall under this umbrella.
If you enjoyed the last blog post on scholarly work on women leaders around the world, you may be interested in reading some of the leaders’ own work. I’ve collected a list of books by presidents and prime ministers of the past. Full disclosure: I haven’t read all the books. So I cannot pass judgment on them at this point. If you have read one of these books, maybe you’d like to share your thoughts (good, bad, or complicated) on Re/Visionist. Let us know!
Today, we have a crucial U.S. presidential election, which could choose the country’s first woman president. I thought I would find out how women who are heads of government have fared—not in elections but in the databases.
Through online research, I selected, somewhat arbitrarily, several leaders to feature here. I wanted to get a mix that covered regions around the world (so if you don’t see your favorite leader here, it may be because I didn’t want any one region to dominate). If you do any basic research on this topic, you’ll notice a number of subtleties that affect who could be listed here. In short, although we are historians of women’s lives, let’s not overgeneralize about the pool of leaders overall. The content available on specific figures is on what we should focus.
Historical Abstracts (EBSCOhost)
String “” search*
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Australia)
Chancellor Angela Merkel (Germany)
President Michelle Bachelet (Chile)
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia)
President Park Geun-hye (South Korea)
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Hasina Wajed) (Bangladesh)
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark (New Zealand)
Former President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil)
Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thailand)
Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina)
Former Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica)
Former President Joyce Banda (Malawi)
Former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago)
Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Norway)
Prime Minister Beata Szydło (Poland)
To locate documents written by academics, I specified peer-reviewed results in my search. Since we primarily access resources in English, I specified English language documents.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia is not a household name, but she may have topped this list because she is from an English-speaking country. (Australian publications are included in the database). (However, Gillard did catch our attention with her notable “misogyny speech” in 2012.)
As scholars, we typically need grants, fellowships, or other special funding to complete research that requires travel. So, it’s not altogether surprising that some leaders are not discussed in peer-reviewed work of the database. We may only study history domestically and, therefore, have less access to relevant primary sources on certain political figures.
Countries like Malawi and Jamaica may receive less attention, compared to, say, Germany and South Korea, due to the latter’s strategic alliances with the U.S. Nevertheless, the leaders of Malawi, Jamaica, and other countries deserve our attention too. Not only does it serve us to learn the lessons and challenges of women in leadership, but the knowledge of political leaders abroad also helps us understand the context in which the civilian population lives.
So, historians: look at your options! Could the stories of one of these leaders be your research niche?
Thanks to Margot Note for her assistance and comments with this project!
*I searched each person’s name with quotes (e.g., “angela merkel”, “joyce banda”) to ensure that results would feature those documents where the first and last names are found together. Where an individual has a hyphenated name, I searched the name with quotes, with and without the hyphen (e.g., “Portia Simpson Miller” OR “Portia Simpson-Miller”). In the case of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, I searched for variations of the name using the OR boolean tool.