Center director Dr. Leslie Dwyer told the audience that the money would be used to support her students--one of who was a police officer in Sierra Leone and learned from experience that improving the intersection of law and society required a deeper understanding of gender. So, he came to Arlington, VA for an education.
Her stories were touching. I was invited to give a short little keynote that I am sharing below. The invitation caused me to think more deeply about my professional journey with gender. In sum, this piece is a thank you to the women and men who both made room for women in academia and who support research methodologies beyond the experimental design and beyond the confines of logical positivism.
** Keynote **
When I first spoke to Elizabeth Mount, (the executive director of the gender center) about this event, the gender components of my work were not immediately apparent to me.
I have spent the past five years studying the role of the French national railroads in the transport of deportees in WWII. The 75,000+ individuals crammed into cattle cars and shipped off to Auschwitz has become the focal point of a transnational debate regarding whether or not this company (the SNCF) has done enough to make amends. I interviewed 120 individuals (80 survivors, lawyers, ambassadors, SNCF executives and others) in English and France in both countries to understand the company’s role in the war, its efforts to make amends and whether it ought to be able to bid for U.S. based contracts until it pays victims directly.
Nothing to do with gender, right?
Well, actually wrong.
The fact that I was able to do this research and the way in which I was able to conduct the research has everything to do with the “gender” work of those before me, whether or not they know it. Firstly, it enabled me to get a PhD and secondly, it legitimized the methodology of my research.
How did it enable me to get a Ph.D.?
In the late 1990s, I completed an undergraduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania under Drew Faust, then the head of the Women Studies department and now the president of Harvard. Under Dr. Faust I created a study and conducted research on Penn Women in the 1960s, interviewing those women who had completed their PhDs during that decade. The finding was surprising, these women who became biochemists, physicists and academicians did not participate directly in the women’s movement of the 1960s.
They were in class studying.
They were not attending lectures with 100 men to make a point, they were not trying to “liberate” women, they told me. They were just trying to get an education. But it was precisely because of their efforts and the men who supported them in their endeavors that I could pretty much pounce into a doctoral program without concern that my gender would be an issue.
Since that time, “women’s studies” has really developed to consider how different approaches to knowledge and learning are legitimized. Gender studies and other social science disciplines have pushed back on logical positivism as the only way to “know” something.
So, thank you to the many academics in the past four decades who have expanded what methodologies are considered valid.
As a result, I was able to hang out with Holocaust survivor Clara in her little apartment outside of Paris, eat cold hard-boiled eggs and talk about her family and her concern about the Palestinian and Syrian children.
I could spend a day with Auschwitz survivor Claude roaming around the Versailles gardens hearing about his thoughts on survivor needs, trauma, violence today and the resurgence of antisemitism.
I spent time with survivors before and after their cancer treatments. We walked, went to events together and shared meals.
We “hung out”, told stories...
Lilly and I spent the afternoon in her Manhattan apartment looking at pictures and even dancing around to old records.
As a result, I learned more than their thoughts on the French railroad company. I learned what mattered to them and how the trauma impacted them over the years. They touched me and changed where I put my focus.
Because of the expansion of what the academy considers legitimate research, I was able to produce a piece of research that could be intellectual and scholarly as well as emotional and spiritual.
My scholarships funded these activities, my faculty supported this "purposeful hanging out" and the result was a piece of research that became a vehicle for voices not able to be heard in the cacophony of lawsuits, legislative debates and mudslinging.
Some of you may know that Dr. Leslie Dwyer, the director of the Center recently was awarded tenure. I celebrate for and with Leslie for her success and for all the great work work that will be able to be done because someone like her has been acknowledged by the academy. She deeply embeds her students in the lives of those they study--no one can emerge from her coaching untouched.
In sum, this is really a thank you to those who paved the way for me and those who continue to support the work of this center. There is much need today to not only understand women but to understand and support these unemployed young men around the world looking for a purpose and finding it in gangs based on hate filled ideology. I think the research out of this center could be a contribution to this area as well.