Women’s Center Symposium discusses feminism, labor through art, literature

The Women's Center at 55 Talbot Ave. is pictured on Feb. 19, 2019. Sara Renkert / The Tufts Daily Archives

The annual Women’s Center Symposium on Gender and Culture was held on Friday, Feb. 22, in the Crane Room. The four-hour event, themed “Divisions/Revisions of Labor,” tackled the meaning of modern labor, beyond the traditional definition, and dealt with topics including gendered and emotional labor.

Jessica Mitzner, a graduate assistant at the Women’s Center who organized the event, said she came up with the theme when questioning how labor interacts with identity.

“There’s a lot of discussions right now relating to gender and emotional labor so we were just kind of interested in asking questions about what kind of labor do we expect from different sorts of people?” Mitzner, a Ph.D. candidate in the English department, said. “How do our identities inform the work? … What do we expect from different people because of their identity?”

The event featured two panels, an art performance, a display of visual artwork and a keynote address entitled “Catwalking in Bombay: Cruising, Pride, and Fashion as Queer Work” by Brian Horton, a Ph.D candidate in anthropology at Brown University.

Mitzner said that event included people from a myriad of disciplines and universities and people with a variety of interpretations of what labor is. Although predominantly featuring students from Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), the event also hosted presenters from other colleges such as Simmons University and Brandeis University.

“We’re not focusing on trying to send a message as much as start a conversation,” she said. “The central goal is to bring all these different perspectives into a conversation … about what kind of expectations there are for different kinds of people to perform.”

The first panel, titled “Affective and Gendered Labor,” featured three presenters. The first presentation, called “Witch’s Work, Or Putting Brooms to Better Use in Howl’s Moving Castle” by Paige Sammartino of Simmons University, discussed power dynamics and gendered work throughout the children’s fantasy novel “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

The book follows a girl named Sophie, who is transformed into an old woman by a witch and works as a cleaning lady for a wizard named Howl, according to Sammartino. She cleans up Howl’s castle and eventually helps fix his self-absorbed demeanor with her practicality.

“Consider that [Sophie] is the eldest daughter that always looked out for her younger, freer siblings,” Sammartino said in her presentation. “Consider that she’s in the body of an old woman. Consider that she’s the victim of a curse. Consider that she’s a witch … They’re tropes — gendered tropes, female tropes that inform a worldwide cross-cultural unconscious equation between gender and position in society role in the household and expected work.”

The second presenter, Meghna Usharani Ravishankar of Brandeis University, detailed the discomfort of being asked questions about race and the responsibility to answer these questions, specifically as a woman of color. In her presentation, titled “The Power Dichotomy: Negotiating Responsibility, Opportunity, and Identity,” Ravishankar, who is originally from India, said that she had not experienced different treatment based on race until moving to the United States for college. It was a shocking experience for her. 

Ravishankar recalled a conversation with a friend about race.

“I felt like she was demanding too much of me in explaining things relating to microaggression and trauma and things like that,” Ravishankar said in a question-and-answer session after the panel. “But I felt a sense of responsibility to explain because she is my friend I think a lot of people of color have this sort of responsibility.”

She also said that there are many other spaces, other than asking friends who are people of color, to learn about these kind of issues.

“I wish my white friends would think more when they ask questions, but then the question is: How do I learn about something if I don’t ask you?” Ravishankar said in an interview with the Daily. “There are so many people of color who [are] taking the time to express themselves — putting that experience into words is difficult, and a lot of people have done that work.”

The final presentation of the panel came from two Tufts seniors, Madeline Lee and Ana Sofia Amieva-Wang, about their final project in an anthropology seminar last semester. The project, titled “A Plant Meal: Intimacy and Unfamiliarity,” was a collaborative activity that culminated in the creation of a plant-based meal for six guests that did not know each other and a book that detailed the process, according to Lee.

“I think some of the main, central concepts that we were taking away from the project is paying attention to the history behind the ways that we interact with plants and really unlearning the treatment of invisibility of plant life and our everyday lives,” Lee said.

Then Thalia Berard, a graduate student in the MFA program at the SMFA, presented a performance piece titled “Two Semesters in Labor.”

“I began carrying a weighted pregnancy belly in the middle of November to talk about the visibility of artist labor at institutions and in general in society,” she said in her presentation.

Berard read excerpts from a journal she has kept throughout the project detailing different types of labor, from the physical pain of carrying around a weight on her stomach to the emotional labor of motherhood and love.

Berard said the project originated in response to a policy prohibiting SMFA graduate students from joining the graduate student union on the Medford campus. 

“That decision that was made felt very devaluing of the work we do as artists on the SMFA campus so the performance began in kind of a painful place,” she said.

Berard plans for the project to end upon her graduation in May.

In the keynote address, Horton said that he spent over two years in Mumbai, previously Bombay, conducting over 100 interviews with queer people as part of his dissertation, called “Shimmers of the Fabulous: the Reinventions of Queer Life and Politics in Mumbai.”

“This chapter [of the dissertation] is loosely on what I call catwalking in the city, which … [are] the ways in which queer subjects are tasked with the project of reclaiming space in a mode of different ways,” he said. “So not just physically but through gesture, through fashion and using those ways to think about critique.”

The symposium concluded with a panel by two presenters on “The Work of War and Nation.”

The first panelist, Tufts senior Celeste Teng, gave a presentation titled “Military Service and the Production of the State of Singapore” about the effects of compulsory military service for only men in her home country of Singapore.

“Growing up, I remember asking or being asked why women don’t have to do national service,” Teng said as part of her argument in her presentation. “Women can do national service by having children.”

She said that while the men spend a minimum of two years serving in the military, women fall into a role of maintaining the household, something that continues even after the men return.

The last presenter, SMFA graduate student Paulina MacNeil gave a presentation called “Mother Ireland and Irish Mothers in ‘The Butcher Boy.’” Using the novel “The Butcher Boy,” MacNeil discussed the literal and symbolic burden that women bear during reproduction; this includes the physical pain of the act and also the responsibilities that come with shaping the next generation. Through the context of the novel, she likened the country of Ireland to a mother, imposing its own responsibilities, duties and values onto its citizens.

The symposium also displayed the artwork of SMFA first-year Kiara Reagan, titled “Baby Prints.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora; the Department of Sociology; and the Tufts Graduate Student Council, according to Mitzner.

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