Laura Briggs, the new chair of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department tells us about what led her to study Women and Gender studies and her new book on the history of international and interracial adoptions.
Where are you from?
In many ways my roots are in the valley. My undergraduate degree is from Mount Holyoke College, so this position is like returning home for me. I have worked in the Southwest for the past 15 years, which I loved, but my family and my roots are in the Northeast.
What led you to study Women and Gender studies?
When I was first in school it was an exciting time when disciplinary boundaries were being blurred and the traditional canon being challenged. Those academic movements, tied to political movements for social justice spoke to me, and brought me to this field. In Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies I have been able to tie together my interests in international policy, feminist science studies, reproductive politics and more. I've never been very disciplined! I always had trouble understanding why history, sociology, anthropology, political science, and literary studies could be interested in remarkably similar problems but not borrow much from each others' insights. The field of Women's Studies demands both an interdisciplinary approach and an intersectional approach. In other words one can't simply study gender without looking at race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and so on. This intersectional analysis is what distinguishes the WGSS department here at UMass. As a program approaching the end of its 4th decade, we have a long standing commitment to and experience with intersectional analysis.
As a new professor and chair of the department, how are you enjoying teaching at UMass so far? What do you hope to bring to this university?
I bring years of commitment to public higher education--as a teacher, an administrator, and as a citizen demanding better access for everybody to affordable higher education. Quite simply, I don't think you can have democracy without real opportunities for all people to pursue higher education if they wish. I love working with state university students, and UMass students are community activists as well as very smart people.
Would you mind telling us a little about the class you’re teaching?
It's an undergrad course, Race/Gender: Genealogies, Formations, Politics, that explores the centrality of race AND gender to US policy and social movements in the 19th and 20th century. We talk a lot about intersectionality, but I wanted to explore how, in different historical periods, the issues and the questions that really caught people's imaginations or embodied their fears were those that entwined race and gender. Abolitionists focused on sexual violence against slave women, anti-lynching activists were unable to pass a federal anti-lynching law because of the specter of interracial rape. In the post-WWII period, we study how racial justice activists like SNCC or the Young Lords Party focused on reproductive politics--stopping unwanted sterilization and making birth control and abortion available to those who wanted it, or the surprising roots of the feminist movement in anti-eviction organizing or its elaboration in the welfare rights movement. Right now we're studying the rise of conservative movements in the 80s and 90s, and how they built support for their opposition to taxes and government programs (including support for things like state universities) by beginning with AFDC and welfare mothers--the entwined politics of race and gender.
After being head of Gender and Women’s Studies and Associate dean at the University of Arizona, how has your experience here at UMass differed?
UMass has always had a strong institutional commitment to WGSS. At UA I was able to expand the program and begin a Ph.D. and I anticipate being able to grow this program as well.
Would you mind telling us a little about what you’re currently working on?
My forthcoming book, with Duke University Press, is Somebody’s Children: Global Inequalities and the Circulation of Children, which looks at the history of international and interracial adoption, particularly of Native and African-American kids in the U.S. and Latin American babies and children from outside the US. It is particularly interested in how mothers--usually single mothers--lose those kids, and how we can track the role of war, economy, and policy in making it more likely that they will.