In an effort to give Holding Our Own network members an opportunity to get to know each other just a little better, we will be spotlighting a couple of local feminists each month. We hope that this will help give you more opportunities to connect, collaborate and leverage your resources. Do you want to be next, or know of anyone you would like to see featured? Email email@example.com and we will set up an interview. We hope to have lots of participants!
For this spotlight, we were lucky to speak with Barbara Sutton, an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany. She is also affiliated with the departments of Sociology and of Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies. She earned a law degree form the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina (1993) and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Oregon (2004). Her scholarly interests include globalization, body politics, human rights, and women’s movements, particularly in Latin American contexts. Her book, Bodies in Crisis: Culture, Violence, and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina, won the National Women’s Studies Association Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize in 2011.
As someone who has studied and participated in activist efforts, what influenced your decision to work in academia?
My decision to work in academia was shaped by my days as a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology and affiliated with the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon. I experienced academia as a vibrant intellectual and political site; not only a place for learning, but a potential vehicle for social transformation. The university was a place where I could explore new ideas, be challenged, and be changed. It was also a place that offered me the possibility of doing meaningful work. I saw it as a site from where I felt I could make a contribution: through my research, my interactions with students in the classroom, or the connections and resources that academic institutions afford. I had the privilege of meeting and learning from brilliant and caring professors and fellow graduate students, academics engaged with the world. Many of them embodied “praxis,” the unity of theory and action, and did not shy away from tackling difficult or controversial issues: the linkages between the capitalist economy and environmental degradation, gender inequality and welfare reform, racism and immigration, class inequalities in higher education, youth political movements, struggles over gay and lesbian civil rights, violence against women, and global inequalities, among others. These formative years, no doubt, influenced my decision to remain in academia and become a university professor. Despite many challenges, I continue to believe that there is a generative potential to the university and I put my heart into the work I do as an academic.
What changes in academia, if any, have you been witness to over the years, both in Women’s Studies and the institution at large?
Over the years, and from the vantage point of someone situated in the public university, I witnessed the increasing corporatization and privatization of academia. These trends need to be understood as embedded within larger social, economic, and political trends at the national, and even global, levels. These are processes that connect individuals and communities across the world in sometimes unexpected ways. Already when I was at the University of Oregon I had a glimpse of the influence that a notable alumnus, Phil Knight (Chairperson of Nike), had on university affairs. Not only many of the buildings and infrastructure at the university depended on his multi-million dollar donations, but when students organized to ensure that university apparel manufactured overseas was produced in humane conditions (through monitoring by the Workers Rights Consortium), tension with Knight ensued, creating uncertainty about the flow of his donations and what this would mean to the university.
Since my joining the University at Albany in 2006, I saw significant changes in the university. Most notably, decreasing state funding resulted in grave economic challenges for the institution.
Due to budget cuts, faculty and staff were stretched thin as they strove to keep the university functioning at an adequate level. Valuable academic programs were terminated or dramatically downsized, jeopardizing the employment and undermining the life projects of a number of faculty members, including award-winning scholars who had devoted decades to the university. These actions also had a chilling effect on those who remained. For many years, faculty who left were not replaced, and even though there have been new hires more recently, a number of programs never rebuilt to previous levels. On the student side, things did not look great either, as they faced more crowded classrooms with less personal support from instructors, reductions in course offerings due to the loss of faculty, and higher tuition (as this was one institutional response to make up the difference of lost revenue). Many of our students have struggled to stay afloat in a depressed economy, balancing their studies with precarious jobs, and/or relying on parents who are also struggling economically. However, these changes were not just passively accepted by many at the institution, as it also stirred protests and organizing from students and faculty. New student led-activist groups emerged and the faculty and professionals labor union’s local chapter (UUP-United University Professions) was revitalized.
Women’s and gender studies programs/departments in SUNY as well as at other institutions have made great efforts not only to stay afloat, but thrive, even under the kinds of difficulties described above. At UAlbany we were finally able to add a new faculty member to our department (after having lost valuable faculty without replacement), and we are doing our best to keep offering students unique learning opportunities through our honors program, the teaching collective, partnerships with the broader Albany community, critical engagement with the media, public speaking and research opportunities, and non-traditional modes of learning and generating knowledge. As of late, we changed our department’s name to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies to better reflect what we do and in line with broader trends in the field, which has expanded and transformed. The department’s emphasis is on interdisciplinarity, the analysis of intersecting inequalities, and a commitment to social justice. In the last few years, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) has undertaken many exciting initiatives, for example, to document and promote civic engagement as an integral dimension of the educational experience in the field. NWSA has also encouraged a focus on intersectional analysis, accounting for the interlocking of gender, race, class, sexuality, bodily ability, nationality, and other inequalities in an increasingly globalized world. Overall, the field of women’s studies has greatly expanded in the last decades. In the words of Allison Kimmich and Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, from NWSA:
Women’s studies grew out of the civil rights, student and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, its earliest practitioners determined to include women’s experiences, voices and scholarship in university curricula. That vision was often met with resistance. Some of the fields’ founders recall organizing planning meetings in the basement and women’s restrooms on campus because they were refused regular meeting space.
From those modest beginnings, women’s studies has become firmly entrenched and far-reaching. Fifteen universities now offer Ph.D.s, more than 40 offer master’s degrees and more than 650 offer undergraduate majors or minors. Women’s studies courses, and some degree programs, are now offered online as well, while feminist scholars at U.S. universities regularly partner with their global counterparts to address gender issues. (http://www.nwsa.org/files/MsFall2012WSsection.pdf)
And what changes would you like to see in the university system, and how do you think we should get there?
I believe the public university should provide access to quality education to students from all socio-economic backgrounds, not just to a privileged few. Unfortunately, some of the economic and policy trends I described jeopardize this goal. Public funding for education—from K-12 to university education—needs not only to be restored, but increased. I also think that students should have the opportunity to have a life of the mind and explore fields of study they feel passionate about (and not be treated as mere cogs in an economic engine). Small and large academic programs need to be supported and allowed to thrive. Reasonably-sized classes, in which students can have face-to-face interaction with the professor and other students should be preserved. Online education should be a supplement and not a replacement for face-to-face courses and programs. In other words, online classes should not be seen as “the” solution to universities’ economic woes. I hope for tenured and tenure-track faculty to be recognized based on the excellence of their work broadly defined, and not under narrow metrics such as numbers or size of grants obtained. Furthermore, universities currently greatly rely on underpaid and underappreciated contingent faculty whose working conditions need to be improved—they deserve job security, higher salaries, and promotion opportunities.
I would also like for the university to foster diversity and inclusion by investing in this goal—putting the money where the words are—and reevaluating priorities and incentives according to the institution’s stated commitment to diversity. This means not only workshops and educational events on issues such as discrimination or problematic disparities in the university but also the following: hiring highly qualified faculty representing the diversity in our society (aiming for a critical mass, not tokens); fostering a campus climate that is friendly and conducive to retain diverse faculty and students; supporting the departments that make diversity and inclusion a central part of their teaching, research, and service; recruiting and supporting students of diverse backgrounds along multiple axes of difference; recognizing the value of having diverse and differently-sized academic units and appreciating the different functions these units fulfill.
In order to promote diversity, we need actions at different levels, from symbolic to material measures: We need to make diversity and inclusion something that matters to the university as a whole and sustain university units that specialize in this area. It means supporting people in marginalized positions as well as interrogating the structures that uphold privilege and inequality. This is a matter of fairness and justice (and certainly not a handout). But additionally, if we do not take diversity seriously, we risk losing valuable faculty members; we lose innovation and cross-fertilization of ideas; we lose areas of knowledge that contribute to the vitality, strength, and critical edge of academic institutions; we deprive our students of role models and access to their histories; and we lose a key part of engaging in a meaningful way with communities—diverse communities—outside the university.
Overall, I believe that initiatives to improve the university system need to be developed through consultation and shared governance structures, and not simply as a result of top administrators’ designs or out of mere economic expediency.
In your book Bodies in Crisis, you make a point of addressing the privileges you had in relation to many of the communities you worked with in Argentina. What advice do you have for others who want to work as allies in social movements?
I am still learning how to be an ally as well as a productive participant in different social change groups. In the Holding Our Own network alone, there are many amazing women, veteran and relatively new activists who have rich experiences and insights to share.
Yet from what I know so far, I feel it is important to be mindful of one’s privilege and the effects this has on interactions, proposed courses of action, and what might be at stake for different participants. It is also important to acknowledge that people come to an issue from diverse standpoints and differential positioning in the prevailing power relations. They also come with different resources (material, experiential, educational, etc.), but no single set of resources can be assumed beforehand to be best to resolve the issues at hand. Moreover, we need to be wary of assuming in advance that we already know the nature of the problem itself, or the needed solutions. These definitions need to be the result of a collective dialogical process. Thus, actively listening and engaging in honest conversation with group participants is essential.
The people most directly affected by the problems at hand often have special insights that are crucial to the analysis of the problem and the preferred course of action, so allies should make a point to truly listen. This does not mean that they should be passive or abstain from contributing skills or resources they may have. It simply means that they should refrain from imposing their own assumptions or solutions. At the same time, I also think that allies need to take responsibility to inform themselves about issues that may not affect them directly, and not just expect individuals already shouldering the burden of the problem to educate them or be spokespersons for whole groups. Allies also need to examine their own place in structures of inequalities, and acknowledge that the work to dismantle them is not only in the benefit of targeted groups but something for society as a whole, as social injustice involves us all in different ways.
What do you think we can learn from the efforts you’ve documented and participated with in Latin America?
Among other things, my work has documented and analyzed how ordinary people, especially women, have dealt with the effects of neoliberal economics (you can see this in my book,Bodies in Crisis: Culture, Violence, and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina, Rutgers University Press, 2010). Such measures have been applied not only in Argentina, my country of origin and the focus of my study, but also in many other parts of the world, often via conditions imposed by international financial institutions. In the United States, the influence of neoliberal ideologies is also evident in public policy and political discourse, as privatization, budget cuts, and other “austerity” measures are implemented in various realms of social life. My study adds to scholarship that shows the flawed assumptions and negative effects of “trickle down” economics in terms of the real lives of ordinary people.
In the context of economic crises, political discourse often focuses on the macro aspects of the economy, including financial markets, government budgets, and the situation of powerful corporations. Yet frequently neglected in such discussions are the embodied experiences of ordinary people left to deal with the crushing effects of economic downturns. Women’s experiences tend to be particularly invisible, even though women have been central to key economic processes. As I argue in my book, it is on women’s bodies, labor, time, and sacrifice that much of the globalizing economic apparatus relies.
I became interested in how seemingly abstract and macro-processes translate into deeply felt embodied experiences. Argentina has been one productive site from which to explore these linkages. In December 2001, the Argentine economy collapsed, food riots and lootings spread across the country, and the nation’s president declared a state of emergency that would temporarily restrict constitutional guarantees. This decision was met with massive street protests, and accompanied by a period of intense activism, community organizing, and political contestation. During the period of my study, a number of collective initiatives emerged and developed: bartering clubs, communal kitchens, workers-run factories, popular assemblies, cooperatives, organizations of unemployed workers, and novel connections between existing and new social movement organizations. Women were actively involved in many of these social change struggles, constituting what some activists called the “feminization of resistance.”
This period of social upheaval brought into stark relief citizen discontent with a neoliberal democracy that had failed to adequately represent the interests of most of the population. These protests also advanced a critique of the effects of years of economic restructuring in line with globalization. While the neoliberal model was supposed to bring progress and prosperity, it actually influenced the unemployment and impoverishment of millions of people. The significance of these events is not limited to the context of Argentina. As we closed the first decade of the new millennium with a globalizing economic crisis—including the United States and European countries—the Argentine experience serves as a cautionary tale. As I document in my book, Argentina’s story during the crisis is both about global economics and about the emergence of resisting voices and bodies. Women in my study shared incisive accounts of social suffering connected to economic conditions, but they also offered narratives of embodied resistance. They spoke about their discovery of unknown capacities as well as about multiple strategies of physical and emotional survival, both individual and collective.
It is my hope that lessons from this book may be used to inspire reflection about the embodied impacts of economic measures and political decisions in other places. In particular, I’d like for readers to consider what such policies would look like if people’s bodies truly mattered— for example, decisions about war, immigration, health care systems, budgets and economics in this country. As I suggest in my book, these issues are ultimately fleshly matters.
You’ve also been engaged in community efforts and activism. How do you keep busy outside of the classroom?
Besides teaching, my job also requires that I conduct research and contribute to scholarship through publications. My intellectual curiosity has been driven not only by the appeal of feminist and sociological theories, but also by a sense of urgency derived from the political issues of the day—from economic crises to the “war on terror.” My book, Bodies in Crisis, illustrates the first concern; my co-edited volume, Security Disarmed: Critical Perspectives on Gender, Race, and Militarization (with Sandra Morgen and Julie Novkov), emerged in the post-9/11 context. The topics that interest me are broad and diverse, but I am generally concerned with inequalities and with issues of transnational significance, such as globalization, militarism, and human rights. The connections between body politics and women’s lives have been a central focus of my scholarly inquiry. This, in turn, illuminated and opened new lines of research into issues such as state violence, political activism, and transnational processes. I am currently conducting a project based on the testimonies of women who survived clandestine detention centers during the period of state terrorism in Argentina. A second project focuses on the politics of abortion and women’s human rights.
I have also participated in various service activities at the university—from work in the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty council to the business of my own department. In addition to my membership as core faculty in Women’s, Gender, Sexuality Studies, I am also affiliated with the Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies, the Department of Sociology, and the Global Institute for Health and Human Rights. Finally, I have joined the Board of the Center for Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies (CELAC).
As someone concerned with the future of public education and who believes in the power of organized communities to create positive social transformations, I am an active member of United University Professions. I am part of the executive board of the UAlbany chapter of the union and a member of the Peace & Justice Committee. In the latter capacity I have helped organize a number of events to bring awareness about the human and economic costs of war— both abroad and domestically—and to think together of alternatives for a more peaceful and just world.
Though I am currently based in the United States, I also spend a considerable amount of time in Argentina, where I was born and raised and where most of my family lives—which means that I am used to straddling cultures, languages, and geographies. In that way, I am also able to connect with academic and activist communities in both places, and my thinking has been richly transformed as a result.
I love learning from other people and visiting new places. Perhaps one of the most memorable travel experiences I have had was an overland trip from Eugene, Oregon (where I did my doctoral studies) to Buenos Aires, Argentina, crossing 12 countries, camping in many places along the way, and getting to know people and the region in this unique manner. I am also drawn to the outdoors and derive much inspiration and meaning from the natural world. My 9-year old son, Emiliano, is a central part of my life and it gives me great joy to see him grow up and to share the world with him.