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Undergraduate Susan Heck interns conduct wide-ranging gender research during shelter-in-place summer

Sep 28 2020

The Susan Heck Summer Student Internship is designed for Stanford undergraduates, teaching them about gender and gender research, funding their own gender-related research projects, providing mentoring by Institute PhDs, and including them in the Institute community over the duration of the summer. Continuing the program during the pandemic was a priority for Clayman Institute leadership, so the internship took place online. In addition to their own research, the five interns participated via online learning in a weekly Gender 101 workshop lead by Postdoctoral Fellow Melissa C. Brown. Most had to adapt their original research interests to match the realities of public health guidance and sheltering in place. With flexibility and resourcefulness, they succeeded in completing diverse research projects, which they presented at the end of the program. This summer, they also wrote summaries of their research for publication, presented here.  

Julia Milani

photo of Julia

Despite being cast as opposing time periods in American history, the 1920s and 1950s share key economic similarities that influenced youth culture. The post-war affluence of the 1920s as well as the growing movement toward greater sexual freedom created a dating culture that revolved around public consumption of goods and services. You could always find teens at the movies or local dance hall with a date on the weekends. Fast forward to the 1950s, and you find a strikingly similar scene; the 1950s offered post-war peace and wealth that facilitated a thriving commercialized dating culture. 

As a rising junior majoring in history and concentrating on American history, I have found that historians point to the dating culture of the 1950s as the modern origins of “date rape,” or assault by an acquaintance. Countless scholars have conducted studies, particularly of college students, that begin their timelines of acquaintance assault in the ‘50s.  Few scholars have undertaken research into any sexual assault or date rape of young adults in the strikingly similar social world of the 1920s. 

This past summer, I have had the privilege of conducting my own research into the topic of campus sexual assault through the Clayman Institute’s Susan Heck Summer Internship Program.  Through my research, I concluded that – supported by a campus culture that empowered men over women – the emerging dating culture of the 1920s bred instances of sexual assault on the Stanford University campus. Despite common knowledge of the existence of what would come to be known as “date rape,” students did not categorize this type of coercion as assault.

Before and during the 1920s, male students far outnumbered female students on campus, putting women at a simple disadvantage numbers-wise. In addition to being outnumbered, women were regularly excluded from extracurricular activities, like writing for the Stanford Daily student newspaper. With the introduction of modern dating practices, which moved women into the male-dominated public economic sphere, female students were further placed in a position of vulnerability. Through an analysis of Stanford Daily articles from the decade, I found that students understood that this power imbalance existed, and that men could coerce women into “necking” or “petting.” Despite this knowledge, no one appeared to criticize this behavior, but rather normalize it through inclusion in satire work in campus publications. Ultimately, my research suggests that popular timelines that point to the 1950s as the beginning of instances of date rape must be amended to include the 1920s. This extension begs further research into acquaintance assault during the inter-war period in order to fill in the gaps between 1920 and 1950. 

Charlie O’Donohue

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My name is Charlie O'Donohue, I use they/them pronouns, and I am a rising senior majoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and minoring in theater and performance studies. My research involved interviewing 30 people who identify as transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, or third gender, in order to highlight their everyday experiences with gender(s), especially as it relates to and intersects with racial, ethnic and cultural identities. My research seeks to understand how race and gender inform each other to impact lived experience, and pays particular attention to how racialized notions of womanhood, manhood, and of queer gender conceptions themselves impact how people experience and are experienced at these intersections of identity. In my interviews, which I transitioned to be remote in accordance with public health guidelines, I asked questions about how individuals conceptualized their gender, about which identities feel salient in navigating the world, about relationships between their gender and racial identities, and about how the racialization of gender impacts their embodied experience. 

In this first round of synthesis, three key concepts emerged in all or almost all interviews: 1) gender is a social, cultural and racialized project; 2) colonialism, imperialism and arbitrated borders suppress gender expansiveness; and 3) gender liberation restores wholeness to all people. By this knowledge, we can understand that the mission to honor past, present and future gender variance and expansiveness is inherently a project of decolonization, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and collective liberation.  As one interviewee – Jas (they/them), a Chicanx gender non-conforming, anti-binary, femme person – noted, when asked about what a liberated world is to them, “If we want better, we have to be willing to lose the mediocre we have currently. We have to be willing to get uncomfortable. My future world, where everyone can be seen for who they want [to be], is a world where we stop relying on assumptions, stop finding the easy way out. Because that’s what the whole gender binary is about, it’s trying to categorize and make life as simple as it can be: one or two. People don’t like complicated, and I don’t know why. But we’re human beings - we cannot be simple, we cannot be simplified.” 

My research is based on the principle that documenting lived experience is an essential part of scholarship. I aim to amplify the most marginalized voices, respecting each person’s story and self-identifications. I do not take authority in this work, but rather center each new voice I document as the knowledge production itself. It has been an honor to be trusted with the stories of my broader TGNC community members, especially those rooted in knowledge that is not inherent to my own life as a white non-binary person. 

From my original research proposal to where I stand (or rather, sit on Zoom) now at the end of the summer, I remain most grateful for what this opportunity allowed in highlighting voices of communities about which I care deeply. The scope of my outreach, as well as my ability to compensate my research participants for their time and knowledge, would not have been possible without the support of the Clayman Institute. 

Faatimah Solomon

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My name is Faatimah Solomon (she/her), and I am a rising senior double majoring in African and African-American studies and human biology. I am from Sudan, but I’ve spent most of my formative years in both Saudi Arabia and the United States. My general academic interests include Black feminist theory, diasporic identity formation, and global and community health, with an emphasis on disability and the impact of structural violence on the health and wellbeing of Black women and gender-marginalized people globally.

I spent this summer researching the experiences of Sudanese immigrant women living in the diaspora, specifically examining the ways in which they conceptualize “home.” Beginning in the early 20th century, colonial and imperial violence prompted an exile of indigenous people from Sudan, resulting in a diaspora of immigrants and refugees to the United States. In my research, I draw from Black feminist theoretical frameworks, including bell hooks’ homeplace and Katherine McKittrick’s anti-imperial theories on space and geography, to interrogate the way “home” is conflated with geographically, ethnically or nationally bound constructions, often in the form of a nation-state. I analyzed data collected from in-depth interviews with diasporic Sudanese women living in the United States about oral narratives, homemaking practices and belonging. These women’s narratives show how remembering and reconstructing “homeplaces” is an emotional, embodied, and sensual practice that resists a matrix of patriarchal impositions on the meaning of home-making. This research is important because through its use of a Black feminist geography framework, it acknowledges and centers indigenous sovereignty in ways that much research on immigrant experiences does not. Through this research, I hope to counter the invisibilization of Sudanese women in the diaspora, and with care, document their stories, experiences and narratives of resistance.

This internship with the Clayman Institute gave me the time, support, and resources to explore a research topic that I’ve always wanted to explore. I will be using this research as a foundation for my honors thesis that I will be writing my upcoming senior year. My Clayman Institute mentor, Dr. Melissa Brown, has been incredibly supportive and helped me develop invaluable skills related to gender research, as well as provide crucial feedback and guidance. From this experience, I have been able to learn more about independent research and gain a stronger sense of my research interests in the future. I greatly appreciate the support from the Clayman Institute staff, especially Sara Mrsny, who always provided me with advice and resources that deepened and strengthened my research. 

Sophia Beauvoir

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Hi everyone, I’m Sophia Beauvoir. My research looks at how historically constructed stereotypes of Black women influence their contemporary experiences with healthcare and criminal justice systems after they survive sexual assault.

I put a lot of thought and effort into centering Black women’s experiences because they are often overlooked or completely erased from feminist and gender study conversations. It is very important to me that Black women’s experiences are researched and understood as distinct from white women’s and Black men’s experiences. 

I focus on two stereotypes of Black women that originate from slavery: the stereotype of the hypersexual Jezebel, and the stereotype of the superhuman “mammy” figure.  These two stereotypes explain a lot about the mistreatment that Black women survivors of sexual assault experience today when they interact with healthcare and law enforcement personnel. I hope to bring awareness to this issue so that we can understand our harmful perceptions of Black women, and how – regardless of intent – we often perpetuate violence and harm against them. 

I also seek to understand the experiences of Black women who are not able-bodied, cis, straight, light-skinned, etc. In my research paper at the Clayman Institute, I center the most marginalized within the Black community. I acknowledge that women experience oppression differently, and that each of those experiences is worthy of research and discussion. 

This is both an individual and systemic issue, and I believe that research like mine helps people understand that these incidents and experiences are not isolated or coincidental.  They actually have a very clear historical origin. 

Elaine Kim

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I’m Elaine Kim, a rising senior majoring in English with a creative writing emphasis. Earlier this year, I had an idea for a novel set in Korea during the first half of the 20th century featuring kisaengs (courtesan-entertainers), but struggled to find the right time and strategy to conduct initial research. My internship at the Clayman Institute provided me with the resources and guidance not only for period background research, but also research on specific health policies regarding venereal diseases—also called “the prostitution disease”—in Korea in the years 1945-48.

It took me a while to settle on the topic, but while reading through an internet archive of newspapers, I was able to locate a series of struggles that started in the year 1945 between kisaengs and the Japanese colonial government over mandatory STI testing. Kisaengs typically found the procedure humiliating and discriminatory, which led them to take extreme measures such as quitting their jobs, going on strike, or even taking their own lives. Even after liberation, the U.S. government, which had stationed American military troops in Korea, continued attempts to control the spread of venereal diseases from kisaeng to soldier. 

What I noticed, however, was that venereal diseases largely remain “invisible” when in the kisaeng body until they come to infect men, usually foreign, and their traditional family structures. This made me consider how the policing of STIs could also be the policing of sexuality, regarded as illicit and profane, from spreading up the social pyramid and destroying the core of the imperialist bourgeoisie, in spirit and body. STIs, along with prostitution, were also seen as threatening the “democratic” ideals the very same imperialist bourgeois class – American forces and educated elite Koreans – sought to establish. Thus, I began to consider the spatial politics of disease, free-movement and barriers alike, in relation to class. Though kisaengs are constantly moving between spaces, they never move above their social station, except the invisible evidence of desire, which once occupied their bodies in disease form. And when the disease is not passed on, it stays unnamed in isolation among kisaeng communities. 

The broader ramifications of my research are both global and local: first, I found similarities with COVID in how disease is construed and treated according to social class. Second, it might provide some contextual insight in how AIDS is generally perceived by the Korean public as a product of “illicit” desires, or homosexuality, and also offer a new critical base on the history of sex workers in Korea. 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.