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Faculty Chair's Blog

June 7, 2019

June 7, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Hello and a final greeting to The Handmaid’s Tale aficionados—and at this wonderfully replete time in the One Book One Northwestern year, we all count as Handmaid’s Tale aficionados.  It has been a rich Spring Quarter, and if you made it to even one or two events in these past months, then consider yourself lucky.  Before a recap of this quarter’s One Book riches and a last good-bye, let’s have some anticipation and excitement for next year’s pick, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures:  The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.  Coinciding as this book does with the 150-year anniversary of Northwestern’s decision to admit women in 1869, Hidden Figures could not be a more challenging and inspiring choice for collective engagement.  Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak pastiche of historical atrocities that remains silent about the racist genealogy of the American injustices it appropriates.  Hidden Figures is a real and revelatory history of the entanglement of American racial and gender discrimination, science, world war, and the Black women computers whose profound and previously unsung contributions shape science to this day.  It’s going to be a wonderful conversation.

All of the events heralded in my penultimate blog happened—and, at the risk of too brisk a summary, they were fantastic.  I highly recommend this year’s One Book video for vivid testimonials from this year’s student Ambassadors and Fellows, because I can give only partial testimony here.  World-renowned feminist and human rights lawyer Catharine MacKinnon spoke at NU in late April, offering an impassioned affirmation of the #MeToo movement and further thoughts on the legal articulation of sexual violence—most provocatively, she suggested that defining sexual violence as a function of non-consent is preemptively sexist and the consent standard should be replaced.  NU alum and MacArthur genius novelist and short-story writer Karen Russell visited the next day to read from her new collection Orange World and engage in thoughtful and lyrical dialogue with English and Creative Writing professor Juan Martinez.  Our keyword panel on pleasure and our English Department faculty conversation about the Handmaid’s Tale were provocative and nuanced.  It’s been a fantastic quarter at the Block Cinema with the One Book film series “Visual Pleasures:  The Work and Play of Women’s Liberation,” including, to name a few, Carolee Schneemann’s visionary erotic film Fuses (whose orienting point of view is not the male gaze but a cat’s gaze); a two-day retrospective of shorts by the formally ground-breaking lesbian director Barbara Hammer; the intra- and extra-marital drama of loss and ecstasy Losing Ground, perhaps the first American film to be directed by an African American woman, Kathleen Collins; and, last but not least on this abbreviated list, Nine to Five, whose slapstick vision of the taming of a predatory sexist boss does not conceal the film’s uncompromising vision of what it takes to make a liberated workplace.

What a quarter, and what a year, it has been.  It’s sad but, with Hidden Figures on the horizon, it’s high time to sign off.  I hope that even a fraction of this year’s conversation stays with us as we forge ahead into America’s brave new world of fetal heartbeat legislation and—surely—more handmaid demonstrations.  I’m left with mixed feelings about the handmaid as a template for feminist calls for abortion on demand—reproductive injustice and intersectional oppression will never be so unambiguously visible in our variously blinkered American publics as bright red gowns.  But how could anybody gainsay the urgency and necessity of that costumed protest? Let’s hope that Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, will blow our minds and steel our nerves on September 10, 2019.  The Handmaid’s Tale lives on.  Thanks to all, organizers and attendees alike, for your incredible contributions of attention and energy—here’s to a great year and a great summer!

March 10, 2019

March 10, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Congratulations to all on the edge of Reading Week or the final week of Winter Quarter classes.  Incredible that we have come so far in our journey with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale!  On the big Handmaid announcements front, I’m delighted to let you know that a graphic novel of the book will drop soon, illustrated by acclaimed Canadian graphic artist Renee Nault, who’s been working on it for the last four years.  It’ll be out on March 26 with Doubleday—I’ll refrain from commenting on the sneak peek except to say that you can easily catch your first glimpse on line. And yes—there will be a One Book One Northwestern panel conversation about the artistry, politics, and impact of this new graphic text with Juan Martinez (English and Creative Writing), Terrence Gant (owner of Third Coast Comics—check this fabulous store out and start your comics habit!), and me in mid-May with the Evanston Literary Festival, so please get the graphic novel and plan to join the discussion.

There’s been a lot of amazing One Book One Northwestern activity in the past two weeks, but before I dive in I just want to alert everybody that next year’s One Book pick is on the horizon.  You’ll get the big announcement later this month. I promise that it is going to generate a lot of excitement and anticipation. Yes—very happily, there is One Book One Northwestern life after Handmaid.  Stay tuned!  

On February 28, One Book and Gender & Sexuality Studies hosted a panel discussion among five activists (four of them Northwestern alums) on the Reproductive Justice movement from the front lines of Chicagoland.   Contributing to this conversation, which demanded that we appreciate how comprehensive the politics entailed by reproductive justice are, were alum Devin Sizer of the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF); alum Megan Jeyifo of CAF; alum Sarah Daoud, a therapist at the Howard Brown Health Center, former reproductive justice educator at Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, and former intern at Chicago Women’s Health Center; alum Kyra Jones, staff member at Northwestern’s Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) and advisor to NU’s Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE); and Lavette Mayes, an Advocate with the Chicago Community Bond Fund.  

This riveting series of presentations resists a fine-tuned synopsis, so instead I’ll gesture to the range of interconnected crises and structural injustices whose urgency our speakers brought to life—in part through the narratives of how their organizations are enacting change in venues and registers that exceed the conventional parameters of liberal politics and liberal feminism.  We heard from Devin and Megan about the Chicago Abortion Fund as first and foremost a site of compassion—and of compassion, inversely, as a form of political action that leads with storytelling. Rather than treating abortion as a shameful but defensible right, CAF moves beyond the reproductive rights framework to align itself more broadly with the structural struggles of women of color and low-income women.  CAF gives $100 – $400 increments of funding to support community abortion access. But as a member of the National Network of Abortion Funds contiguous to midwestern (and, more distantly, southern) states where abortion availability is nonexistent and fetal personhood amendments encroach profoundly on reproductive rights, CAF does far more than pay for a medical procedure: it makes possible transportation, childcare, lodging, and other forms of holistic sustenance crucial to the feasibility of women’s long-distance travel to Chicago.  CAF activists must be case managers, Devin and Megan affirmed, to sustain the complex needs of women as far away as Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Broadening the parameters of reproductive justice further, Sarah of Howard Brown affirmed its relevance to justice for Palestinians, whose control by Israeli roadblocks interferes with women’s ability to receive care throughout the entire trajectory of pregnancy and childbirth.

Kyra, an NU alum who works for CARE, challenged us to think more expansively about the mandate and reach of this Northwestern confidential sexual awareness and response center.  More than an invaluable source of counseling for survivors, CARE should be considered a resource hub broadening the boundaries of what might constitute Northwestern community support for healthy sexuality in all forms.  Just as Kyra suggested that the restriction of educational resources is a mode of sexual violence, Lavette Mayes of the Chicago Community Bond Fund extended the political framework of reproductive justice to include mass incarceration.  Mayes exemplified the politics of storytelling as a critical foundation for reproductive justice politics by sharing her own harrowing experience: jailed for 571 days after she could not pay $25,000 bail on a bond of $250K, even after the bail was lowered to $9,500, Mayes lost her business, her house, and sustaining contact with her own children.  Speaking for the urgency of the Chicago Bail Bond Fund’s mission as an integral facet of reproductive justice extending to pretrial incarceration perpetrated against mothers, Mayes asserted that about 1,900 women are currently incarcerated in Cook County because they are unable to pay bail determined by a judge in a timeframe, on the judge’s side, of about four seconds.  The arbitrary and devastating pretrial incarceration of women could be eliminated, Mayes suggested, if bail was statutorily restricted at $1,000. As Mayes demonstrated with her powerful testimony, for women who are heads of families, jail time means the effective incarceration of entire families. Reproductive justice extends to decarceration—and certainly to the decarceration of women convicted of no crime.

Another gripping One Book event was last Friday’s Block Cinema screening of the documentary “Birthright: A War Story” (2017), directed by Civia Tamarkin.  The penultimate film in Block Cinema’s Winter Quarter One Book film series, “Reproductive Systems: Gender, Power, and Society,” the film was followed by a Q & A with Tamarkin and Dr. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Director of the Women’s Center at Northwestern, who critically enabled Tamarkin’s visit to Northwestern.  As an expansion of our grasp of what abortion politics mean for constituencies of women (and men) whom we wouldn’t expect to be implicated, let alone punished, this movie is an unparalleled, staggering shock. A highly charged exposure of how recent legislation defending fetal personhood criminalizes a stunning range of actions by pregnant women, “Birthright” offers a bleakly corrective portrait of the present state of reproductive rights in the USA.  Reproductive unfreedom is the only label that seems apt for the excruciating cases documented in this film—again necessarily amplifying our sense of what reproductive justice means, Tamarkin affirmed that the instances of medical surveillance, prosecution, disinformation, manipulation, and flat-out misogynist abuse she captures in her documentary amount to, among other things, “class war.” The film illuminates the tragic lack of fit between unprivileged women, victims of zealously protected fetal personhood that clearly induces no ethical posture towards persons outside the womb, and their persecutors, often ambivalent doctors obeying either the state or the Catholic health system (frequently the sole accessible medical provider in rural America).  Tamarkin’s documentary is mandatory viewing for any American who still entertains the notion that despite all the static, abortion is still basically legal. It is not. “Birthright” will also change your mind if you think that the online availability of the so-called morning-after pill makes restrictive laws moot. They are not, because, as “Birthright” shows us, many fetal protection laws criminalize maternal ingestion of any medicine the legislators deem risky. “Birthright” is a galvanizing corrective—watch it on Hulu if you missed the screening. A feminist activist since the 60s, Tamarkin wondered why we aren’t all in the streets today. After seeing this film, you might be moved to get out there.

Have a wonderful spring break, One Bookers!  We have much on the horizon in Spring: a keyword panel on pleasure; a Spring Quarter Block Cinema series dedicated to women’s pleasure (and work); another fantastic English faculty conversation; a visit from NU alum and genius author Karen Russell; a visit from the hugely influential feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon; Earth Day programming on plastics and sustainability; a performance by NU alum and feminist body comedian Sarah Squirm—and, seriously, much, much more!  We’re on the edge of our seats waiting for the graphic novel and, yes, season three of The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu series.  It’s going to be an incredible spring, so be sure to check out the One Book calendar on line!

February 24, 2019

February 24, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

At the midpoint of Winter Quarter and the One Book One Northwestern year, it’s exciting to report that our collective engagement with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has expanded to include a new constituency.  Last Wednesday, February 20, about twenty Northwestern faculty, graduate students, and undergrads traveled to Statesville Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison in Crest Hill, Illinois.  The visit was facilitated by Professor Jennifer Lackey (Philosophy), Director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP). As the sole Statesville newbie on a panel of three speakers (with Benjamin Frommer, Professor of History, and Casey Caldwell, Ph.D. candidate in English, both of whom have recently taught courses at Statesville), I felt some trepidation.  The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about America’s mutation into a grotesquely exploitative theocratic patriarchy.  But it is also a novel about one individual person’s accommodation to her abrupt and extrinsically imposed loss of freedom.  What insight about Atwood’s vision of this experience could I possibly bring to the Statesville readers, whose histories of divestiture are as deep and sobering as anything Handmaid asks us to fathom?

I need not have worried.  Although they transpired within a hierarchical built environment, our One Book-Statesville conversations were level, generous, and lively.  Following the panel and some Q & A, we broke into small-group discussions, guided by pre-distributed discussion questions about Handmaid that I wrote in Fall 2018 and later tailored for the Statesville readers.  While it would be impossible to capture the texture of the dialogue at our table, I was struck by the inmates’ attention to one question in particular:  “When Offred ponders how old her daughter is, we learn that Gilead has been in place for three years. Does three years seem like a long or a short time for Offred to reach the level of acceptance she is at?  How does your own experience adjusting to the new reality of Statesville enable you to reflect on or relate to Offred’s adaptation to her drastic loss of freedom?” One reader rejected the premise of this question outright.  Incarceration at Statesville and handmaid status in Gilead are not comparable, he argued, because imprisonment is legitimate punishment under the laws of the current system. While Offred must adjust to a totalitarian coup, this inmate suggested, he chose to commit acts whose outcome he knew could entail the forfeiture of his freedom.  However, others were more willing to consider various modes of identification with Atwood’s protagonist. On the topic of how long it takes to adapt to a drastic abridgement of freedom, one reader noted that three years—how long Offred has been a handmaid in the book—is more than sufficient time. He asserted that it took him about six months to adjust to Statesville, a figure with which others at the table agreed.  Another reader discussed the attitudinal shifts that occurred in the course of his adjustment to prison—upon first entering Statesville, he remarked, he judged minor acts of rebellion (like stepping over a line where you are supposed to stop) foolish and useless. But now, he affirmed, he respects the significance of such apparently small gestures as exercises of freedom in a system that does not allow bigger ones.

It isn’t possible to offer a neat synopsis of the Statesville visit, incomplete and unresolved as it inevitably felt to me.  Incomplete because three hours with a book isn’t enough, no matter who the readers are. Unresolved, for want of a better word, because it was such a brief foray into prison existence that its reality started to recede as soon as the ride back to Evanston—that is to say, it was difficult to sustain Statesville’s presence upon the return to Northwestern, a campus that affords so many opportunities for so many capacities (from gym to laboratory, food to library), that it’s easy to take this abundance for granted.  This is one among so many insights Statesville lends Handmaid.  With its emphasis on blindness to past atrocities as the prelude to blindness to atrocities yet to come, The Handmaid’s Tale does not speak from or for the position of those Americans who already know unfreedom all too well.  Many of One Book participants in the Statesville Correctional Center discussion left the prison with the intention to return—to continue the conversation, to keep Statesville present to Northwestern.  Please consult the NPEP website for more information about Northwestern’s Prison Education Program.

Of course, at any given time in Chicagoland there are multiple unaffiliated events that resonate with One Book and The Handmaid’s Tale.  Opening last Saturday at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is a retrospective of the artist Laurie Simmons, “Big Camera, Little Camera.”  Whether you have a honed interest in feminist art or just want some sense of what it is, this is a must-see exhibition. Simmons works largely as a photographic artist (she eschews the label “photographer,” since she apparently dropped that class) engaged with artifice—think plastic miniature objects and persons staged and shot in rigorous, absurd, poignant, and sometimes surprisingly beautiful ways, terms which extend also to plastic sex dolls and a 45-minute dramatic film starring Meryl Streep and a ventriloquist’s dummy.  (Yes—if you have seen Lena Dunham’s first film, “Tiny Furniture,” you encountered Simmons in the act of photographing a fancily shod foot and, well, a tiny plastic piece of furniture; she is Dunham’s mother.) Simmons has interrogated gender norms since the advent of her career in the 70s (she is a member of the so-called “Pictures Generation,” along with her friend and famous peer Cindy Sherman), and it’s along these lines that her photo and video art as well as her sculptural assemblages remain most devastatingly resonant. Highly recommended, especially if you’re into uncanny plastic/ makeup/ flesh indeterminacy.  

Closer to home, on this Wednesday, February 27 at 5 PM in Kresge 1-515 we’ll hear from a stellar panel of activists (some of whom are NU alums) about the Reproductive Justice movement.  This marks a critically intersectional dimension of the fight for reproductive rights which addresses the lethal imbalance of health resources and maternal and infant sustenance in the USA.  I am as eager as anybody to listen, learn, and be informed about how to support local activism and advocacy. And—for a date on the far horizon, a date which promises to speak powerfully to #MeToo and urgent recalibrations of the feminist movement, the international human rights lawyer and legal theorist of sexual harassment as discrimination Catharine MacKinnon will be speaking at Northwestern on April 25.  Save the date—more details to come!  I hope you had a happy Oscar-viewing night, if that’s your thing, despite the egregious (and recurrent) failure of the Academy to nominate one single woman for the Best Director award.  

February 17, 2019

February 17, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Happy post-Valentine’s Day!  I hope the salutation brings a sense of repletion (if chocolate was involved) or relief, whichever suits you most.  This week has included lots of exciting programs, including a dinner discussion at the Norris Center’s Dittmar Gallery featuring Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Theresa K. Woodruff.  But I can only blog about what I’m able to attend, and my week’s big event was One Book and Block Cinema’s Valentine’s Day screening of “The Stepford Wives,” which I was lucky enough to introduce. Screened as part of Block Cinema’s Winter Quarter One Book film series, “Reproductive Systems:  Gender, Power, and Society,” “The Stepford Wives”—the original 1975 version (please! would we screen the incoherent and superfluous remake?)—features a conceit which I’m about to spoil, so stop reading right now if you wish to preserve your Stepford innocence.

The cool thing “The Stepford Wives” shares with Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out,” the film to trope most successfully on “Stepford,” is the fact that we can read what happens to the main character literally, as what really happens in the world of the movie, and we can simultaneously read what happens to them allegorically, as a horror-movie enactment of their victimization by big, diffuse, pervasive (but no less violent) socio-historical forces.  “The Stepford Wives” is based on a book of the same name published in 1972 by Ira Levin, who is also the author of Rosemary’s Baby (definitely the best devil’s-spawn-surrogate-mom horror plot out there).  The crucial context for Stepford is the American women’s liberation movement, aka the second-wave feminist movement, which gathered momentum by the late 60s and was in full swing by the mid-70s when this movie was released.  “Stepford” itself—a fake name for a fake suburb in Connecticut, within distant but isolating commuter range of New York City—flags a key early moment in American second-wave feminism, the best-selling release in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s feminist blockbuster The Feminine Mystique, a book that decisively exploded the ’50s myth of the happy suburban housewife’s joyful fulfillment in domestic labor.  Friedan’s book was not the sole catalyst for the women’s movement by any means, but it extended and popularized feminism in precisely the domain represented by Stepford, the upper-middle class white suburban home.

To return to the issue of reading literally or reading allegorically, I want to stress that translating Friedan’s indictment of suburban domesticity into the idiom of a horror movie is not a very big stretch because Friedan literally evokes suburbia as a horrific scene.  To give you a taste, I’ll read a short passage from a chapter in The Feminine Mystique entitled “The Comfortable Concentration Camp.”  In it, Friedan writes of the suburban wife:

But is her home in reality a comfortable concentration camp?  Have not women who live in the image of the feminine mystique trapped themselves within the narrow walls of their homes? . . .  They have become dependent, passive, childlike; they have given up their adult frame of reference to live at the lower human level of food and things.  The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding. American women are not, of course, being readied for mass extermination, but they are suffering a slow death of mind and spirit.

Friedan later apologized for invoking wives in suburbia as concentration camp victims, but the tenor of her book leaves no room for doubt:  Friedan does literally blame American postwar patriarchy for the devolutionary mutation of women in the home into “dependent, passive, childlike” drones.  The Feminine Mystique offers a horrific and histrionic portrait of doped-up, stupefyingly depressed wives, a portrait, in Friedan’s words, of “American housewives around forty [with] the same dull and lifeless look . . . [with] their lack of vitality, the deadly sameness of their lives, the furtive between-meal snacks, drinks, tranquilizers, sleeping pills.”

This is the portrait of suburbia that “The Stepford Wives” translates to the screen with its funny, over-the-top, and excruciating rendition of wives transformed into mindless housekeeper robots—though the crucial supplemental irony entails the viewer’s, as well as our soon-to-be-mechanized protagonist’s, initial failure to notice the difference.  I would add too that in an exact replication of Friedan’s own devastating blind spot, the protagonist’s best friend, in a throw-away comment, notes the symptomatic fact that the Stepford wives do not employ “maids” to perform their domestic labor for them—are maids then the proxy human performers of labor which upper-class white women must be murdered and mechanized to be made to perform?  Here the film inadvertently puts its finger on a core problem for second-wave feminism, centrally addressed by critical thinkers in the movement as diverse as Shulamith Firestone and Angela Y. Davis—if women are to be liberated, who continues to sustain domestic life or, that is, who has historically been compelled to do this work for others? (After she is robotized, one character, Charmaine, fires her maid—the only non-mechanized paid domestic laborer actually represented in the film, this maid is, we are told, German.)

“Stepford Wives” poses the question of how close the fit between movie and feminist critique might be, the question of whether the movie is a serious indictment of suburban isolation and violently oppressive masculine privilege or whether it’s a parody of feminism as white elitist paranoia.  Perhaps tipping us in the direction of literal horror are the famously terrible costumes worn by the Stepford wives—sure to populate anybody’s nightmares is Stepford’s extravagantly punitive version of the prairie dress, which I personally think is as bad as Margaret Atwood’s handmaid uniform.  The dedicated attendees of our V-Day screening were lucky to enjoy a faded but still uncannily relevant print of this feminist backlash film, released five years ahead of the election of Ronald Reagan, the emergence of Operation Rescue, and the rest of the real historical backlash to come.

Stay tuned for our Reproductive Justice panel at 5 PM Wednesday, February 27 (Trienens Forum Room, Kresge 1-515).  This is an urgent conversation you do not want to miss. In the meantime, I heartily recommend my favorite recent feminist dystopian novel, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas.  In a future blog, I’ll do a book report on three recent specimens of this genre (Red Clocks; Vox by Christina Dalcher; The Water Cure by Sophia MacIntosh).  And I’ll end with the question they have left me pondering:  does representing a speculative antifeminist dystopia automatically make a book feminist?  I’m no longer sure.

February 10, 2019

February 10, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

To the One Bookers out there with an abiding fascination for all things handmaid—you know who you are, but casual references to slight twists in Offred’s novelistic self-presentation might be a good sign—I hope to see you tonight at Andersonville’s Women and Children First Bookstore for some The Handmaid’s Tale fan fiction.  As a mode of imaginative empowerment, critique, appreciation, and speculation, fan fiction promises even more avenues of exploration for Offred than it does for another devoted object of fan-fictional elaboration, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, and as an eighteenth-century lit scholar I do not write these words lightly.  Due reverence for Lizzy aside, has she been chosen as the template for reproductive rights activism in the USA and beyond? Even if we harbor some important ambivalences about what kind of feminist politics the handmaid figure can sustain.

This quarter’s Gender & Sexuality Studies/ One Book One Northwestern keyword event, dedicated to the keyword “reproduction,” took place before a packed audience last Tuesday.  The panel comprised a dream team of Northwestern University feminist scholars, activists, pedagogues, and practitioners of structural (legal, medical, political, economic) reform—and this cluster of terms applies to each individual speaker.  First, we heard from medical clinician and psychologist Dr. Angela Lawson, who asked us to ponder how she, a self-described radical feminist, squares her feminism and her work as a counselor in a fertility clinic. Lawson stressed that the fertility clinic is a key venue for feminism, both in terms of whom it serves (including LGBTQ parents) and the array of crises and interventions it addresses.  Lawson underscored the relative difficulty of conception in the face of prevailing assumptions that it’s easy—and exposed the devastating corollary of the latter myth, the implicit premise that “it must be the woman’s fault.” Debunking the prevalent ascription of fertility problems to feminine stress, which is simply not a real factor—women under extreme stress still conceive—Lawson affirmed that, as in The Handmaid’s Tale (as Offred’s predatory gynecologist knew all too well), male factor infertility plays a major unacknowledged role.  Reciprocally, women who choose not to reproduce, Lawson noted, are demonized, told they’ll regret it, or compelled to justify their status as voluntarily childless—a title that’s ideologically and politically not the same as the one Lawson prefers, childfree.  

Next we heard from Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Director of the Women’s Center and Faculty Affiliate in Gender & Sexuality Studies.  Nzinga-Johnson claimed as her point of departure Margaret Atwood’s reply to the final audience question floated during her Q & A at Pick-Staiger Auditorium last October 30, a question asking Atwood to reflect on the racially inclusive casting of the Handmaid’s Tale Hulu series (perhaps most notably, the casting of African American actress Samira Wiley as Offred’s college friend Moira) in relation to the apparently white-supremacist totalitarian regime in the book.  Reflecting on Atwood’s reply, during which Atwood remarked that in the mid ’80s, when Handmaid was published, the USA was less diverse, Nzinga-Johnson expressed some surprise at its obvious inadequacy—was Atwood intimating that there weren’t people of color in the USA in the ’80s?  Taking this lost opportunity for dialogue as symptomatic, Nzinga-Johnson offered a framework for the history of reproductive oppression in America extending to women of color, indigenous women, and transnational women.  It is politically lazy, she argued, to assume that female fertility has been unilaterally valued in the American historical context: what about North Carolina’s government-sponsored eugenics program, which performed sterilizations upon poor women of color without their consent?  What about the forced or economically coerced labor of surrogacy performed by women of color, which provides the historical ground for Atwood’s speculative construction of Gilead? In the present moment, Nzinga-Johnson showed us, an intersectional lens on reproduction is imperative, because racial and reproductive inequities sustained by incarceration, border cages, the child welfare system, and transnational flows of feminized labor cannot be captured by a univocal focus on patriarchy.

We heard next from WCAS student, English major and poet Sloane Scott, co-president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action NU.  Scott testified eloquently to PPGA as a site of both knowledge and advocacy in defense of abortion care as well as political action, which affords the opportunity to connect with other engaged student activists nationwide over the summer (PPGA accepts all interested students for its summer meeting).  Scott affirmed the activism performed by PPGA right here on campus and warned us that the Trump-Pence administration is currently attempting to undermine Title X (the Title X Family Planning Program, enacted in 1970, is the only federal grant program dedicated to assisting low-income people with family planning and related preventive health services).  The current administration’s hostility to reproductive rights extends far beyond its attacks on Planned Parenthood, Scott affirmed. Our next speaker, Feinberg Medical School professor, lawyer, and recent author (Scarlet A:  The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion with Oxford University Press) Katie Watson, turned to the vividly dramatized persecution of abortion providers represented in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Stressing the very recent genealogy of women’s status as American citizens—the Fourteenth Amendment enfranchised only African American men, Watson noted, and women’s legal personhood was annulled by marriage well into the twentieth century—Watson surveyed a set of landmark contraception cases from 1965 to 1977 that foreground evolving understandings of heterosexual intercourse.  Contraception and abortion delink sexual pleasure and the prospective birth of a baby, illuminating the profound power at stake in ongoing efforts to tether women’s sexual agency to pregnancy. In this analysis, fetal rights claims become a proxy for antifeminism—the viability paradox or the question of potential life adjudicated in the Roe v. Wade decision as a matter of the viability of an embryo is jettisoned in favor of an indefinitely capacious definition of fetal personhood.  Watson stressed that abortion rights must be viewed as an issue of economic justice—women without the means to obtain a private procedure are the most vulnerable to economic coercion. Finally, our last panelist, Sera Young (Department of Anthropology), offered an ecological framework for thinking about healthy infant feeding, suggesting that social inequity on a global scale and within the US is replicated by barriers to breastfeeding. She affirmed that breastmilk is an amazing substance which benefits mothers, babies, and society as an ecological whole.  

For links to local resources like the Midwest Access Coalition, the Midwest Access Project, or the Chicago Women’s Health Center, among others, whether you’re interested in learning more or contributing your own activist energies, please consult the Women’s Center, Gender & Sexuality Studies, or One Book One Northwestern.  In the meantime, please plan to come to our upcoming panel on Reproductive Justice on February 27 (Wednesday) at 5 PM in Kresge 1-515. Reproductive Justice is among the most revolutionary and urgent feminist movements of our moment, so you don’t want to miss hearing from key activists. On another note, if you’re looking for a parody of white suburban antifeminism that has some bite—and some truly nightmarish costuming choices, especially if you’re bemused by the current unfathomable prairie dress trend—be sure to attend Thursday’s Valentine’s Day screening of “The Stepford Wives” (1975), introduced by yours truly.  I hope to see you there and at the vital conversation about Reproductive Justice later this month!

February 3, 2019

February 3, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Happy February!  Congratulations for making it to the other side of the polar vortex.  A special greeting to those intrepid enough to slog through yesterday’s slush to see the Block Cinema screening of the documentary film “Jane:  An Abortion Service” (1995, dir. Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy), with a special visit by Judith Arcana, former Jane and writer, teacher, and reproductive rights activist.  “Jane: An Abortion Service” documents the incredible story of Jane, formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, an underground female cooperative of counselors and abortion providers that operated illegally from 1968 until 1973 (when Roe v. Wade, which decriminalized abortion in the USA, passed).  Before we settled in to watch the movie, Arcana reminded us that we’d experience three historical moments simultaneously—the years when Jane served women in the Chicagoland community and beyond; the mid-90s, when the film was made; and today, a moment when Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, contingent on the judgment of a US Supreme Court whose anti-abortion majority was clinched by the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.  Arcana encouraged us to “try to hold all three time periods in our heads as we watch,” advice that resonated through the vital Q & A session after the gripping hour-long film.

Asked by her rigorous and sympathetic interlocutor Amy Partridge (Gender & Sexuality Studies) to evoke the historical moment that produced Jane, Arcana emphatically asserted the success of the anti-abortion movement in changing our collective sense of what abortion means.  We feel “wildly” different about abortion now than in the days of Jane, dating back to the late 1990s when Arcana visited clinics in Oregon as part of a writing project about her Jane experience. The difference? The predominance of shame, fear, and the notion that abortion is evil.  The shame, Arcana declared, is new. Asked to situate Jane in relation to other political strands of the women’s liberation movement, Arcana affirmed that Jane emerged as a work group in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, part of CWLU’s holistic programming. While asserting that she personally loathes the term “choice” as the keyword of fight for women’s reproductive rights (later, she clarified that choice is too light a word to evoke the gravity of the forces compelling a woman to undergo this grave procedure), Arcana suggested that abortion must be part of a liberation agenda that no longer views childbirth as women’s naturally given destiny.  The CWLU’s and Jane’s political work to liberate women included the distribution of handbooks on birth control and STD’s (produced by college students at McGill University in Montreal, Canada) as well as circulation of the inaugural version of the feminist medical guidebook Our Bodies, Ourselves, then an eight-page pamphlet.  Collaborators in CWLU’s pro-abortion feminist work included the Clergy Consultation Service (whose papers, by the way, you can check out in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections right here at NU).

One of the most moving aspects of Arcana’s talkback with the audience was her account of her own transformative experience.  To move into her own power, to do valuable feminist work in the world, blew her mind, Arcana said. The lesson for us today is that Jane really happened, and Arcana invited us to deploy the useful thinking:  if she could do it, I can do it! “Jane” the film offered mind-blowing testimony indeed to the expertise and gentleness of women who possessed no official medical training, who were taught dilation and curettage methods by the man who initially offered his paid services to the group (whose own credentials were, as the Janes came to learn, shaky).  The film affirmed the tremendous connection and compassion exercised between women in unmediated relation to each other’s bodies. The doula movement today builds on this critical breakthrough. But whereas Jane was, Arcana noted, an open secret in Chicago (until a late-breaking bust; charges were dropped after passage of Roe v. Wade and after nobody agreed to testify against the defendants), today’s anti-abortion climate is far more dangerous.  Abortions are still being performed, however, and political activism post-Jane—perhaps most urgently expanded under the banner of the Reproductive Justice movement—is, Arcana insisted, cause for optimism. She referred the audience to Robin Marty’s comprehensive, resource-rich manual Handbook For A Post-Roe America (you can buy it on Amazon, but why not head down to Women and Children First in Andersonville?).  I know I’ll get my copy soon, while reflecting on Arcana’s advice to figure out what actions we each are willing to take and find others who want to take them too.

One Book programming on the horizon will follow up on the issues broached by “Jane” and Judith Arcana.  This Tuesday, February 5 at 5 PM (Trienens Room, Kresge 1-515), Gender & Sexuality Studies and One Book will host a panel discussion about the keyword “reproduction,” so central to The Handmaid’s Tale and our reality in the USA and across the globe.  The fantastic group of speakers will each address the word from the vantage of her own academic and activist experience; they include Sera Young (Anthropology and Global Health), Sekile Nzinga-Johnson (GSS and Director of The Women’s Center), Katie Watson (Feinberg Medical School), Angela Lawson (Feinberg Medical School) and Sloane Scott (Planned Parenthood Generation Action).  Please plan to participate in this urgent and timely conversation! On Wednesday, February 27 at 5 PM (same venue) we’ll follow up with an equally fantastic panel discussion on Reproductive Justice (details to follow).  Finally, if you are seeking horrific dystopian possibility seasoned with a heavy dose of camp, then look no further that “The Stepford Wives” (1975, original version), screening on Valentine’s Day at 7 PM at the Block Cinema.  Happy post-vortex to you all, and please show up to contribute to conversations whose contemporary urgency simply could not be greater.  We need to hear from each other, think around our own settled vocabularies, test new feelings—and find feminist comrades who, as Arcana attested, don’t have to be our best friends, but with whom we can do what we decide we need to do.

January 21, 2019

January 21, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Greetings and happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  I hope you take the opportunity to listen to Dr. King’s voice today.  I heard a speech he delivered in the last year of his life, during which he condemns “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” (April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, New York City).  In his speech, Dr. King advances a devastating denunciation of the Vietnam War, fusing antiracism at home and pacifism abroad: “I speak for those whose land is being laid to waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted.  I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.” Dr. King goes on to demand that the US lead the way in “a true revolution of values”:

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. . .

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.”  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

King’s true revolution calls on us to exert our own hard judgment, not just of our country but of ourselves.  It compelled King to insist that the Vietnam War was fundamentally racist, both abroad and at home. It compels us today to include the US military in the same analytic framework as racism and economic justice.  And finally, it invites us to ponder whether King’s third triplet, “extreme materialism,” can be pried apart from racism and militarism—to wonder which of our own materialistic attachments King’s true revolution might enjoin us to relinquish.

Novelist Maria Dahvana Headley, who visits Northwestern this Wednesday, January 23 (with the support of One Book One Northwestern, the Department of English, and CompassionKnit), has recently published a book that brings King’s indictment of the giant triplets into the present age of so-called forever wars, inaugurated in 2003 with the bombing of Baghdad under President George W. Bush.  Of course, today not only King’s “men” return home—or, at least, exit the battlefield—but women too. In Headley’s novel, the veteran is Dana, a woman whose near-unspeakable trauma bleeds into the apparition of her very unusual son, Gren. When Gren connects with a boy living in an upscale gated community, and the kid’s wealthy, protective mom Willa is not exactly thrilled by their surreptitious playdates, serious catastrophe ensues.  Does any of this plot sound familiar? If so, that’s because Headley’s book, The Mere Wife (2018), is a modernization of the epic tale Beowulf.  I won’t say more, though there are more ingenious resonances to relate, because you can hear Maria Dahvana Headley in conversation with English professor (and medievalist) Barbara Newman at 5:15 PM this Wednesday, January 23 in Harris Hall 108.  I’ll only add that The Mere Wife represents the enmeshment of racism, materialist privilege, and state-sanctioned violence as they are performed and suffered by women.  In dialogue with The Handmaid’s Tale, The Mere Wife also invites comparison with the Hulu series—Yvonne Strahovski’s performance as the Commander’s wife captures some of the agony of Willa’s vicious, hopelessly complicit entrapment in patriarchal privilege, even if Willa’s pain can only be a lesser double of the soldier Dana’s.

Last Thursday, January 17 saw our second quarterly English faculty conversation about The Handmaid’s Tale, a fabulously rich and demanding discussion.  Amin Ahmad (English and Creative Writing) reflected, from the vantage of the legacy of his family’s experience in the Partition of India in 1947 and his current experience under the presidency of Donald Trump, on the uncanny stability of our built environments as they endure from one regime to the next—a deep concern of Atwood that is manifest, Ahmad showed us, from the very first paragraph of Handmaid.  Atwood’s preoccupation with the unsettling familiarity of a school gym repurposed as a handmaid training center casts a chilling light on the capacity of buildings as liberally intentioned as public schools to betray that original use.  In Ahmad’s analysis, even objects as anodyne as dishtowels can become accessories to fascism, in Gilead and elsewhere.

Professor John Alba Cutler (English and Latina/Latino Studies) offered incisive scrutiny of the protocols involved in crossings of national border as well as the other thresholds that feature so centrally in Handmaid.  As Cutler showed with Offred’s escape attempt, legitimate border crossers cannot look too happy, anxious, carefree, or subservient, but rather the right degree of each—an attunement to the performative demands of US border control that Handmaid presciently manifests before the age of ICE.  Cutler examined the scene in the Hulu series in which Moira and Offred escape the Red Center (a departure from the book, in which only Moira tries and gets away) and Offred is apprehended on the Boston subway platform—in his reading, the racial dynamics of US border militarization, entirely effaced by Atwood’s novel, are sublimated in the show as well, in which Moira is played by the African American actress Samira Wiley.  As Cutler pointed out, racial difference has always heavily shaped the possibility of border and other crossings in US history, but the Hulu scene does not acknowledge race as a key variable in the theatrics of licit border crossing.

Professor Kelly Wisecup (English and Center for Native American & Indigenous Research) gave us a soaring overhead vision beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of Gilead—from the prehistory of Gilead in Puritan New England to Gilead’s demise as evoked in the book’s Historical Notes.  Wisecup argued that the presence of Indigenous people before America’s founding is the historical reality solicited and disavowed by The Handmaid’s Tale:  first, in Atwood’s adoption of the Puritan genesis story proclaimed by Atwood’s former Harvard University teacher, Perry Miller, in his famous American history Errand into the Wilderness—in which “wilderness” includes Native people only as obstacles to the Puritan quest.  Wisecup then read Nunavit, the location of the novel’s Historical Notes, as a version of Nunavut, still unceded Native territory whose land claim against the state of Canada remains ongoing.  As Wisecup showed, Atwood projects a place and a time external to Gilead—respectively, wilderness and Nunavit—while repressing the political reality on the ground in both instances, emptying out and then re-colonizing indigenous lands both before and after the event of her novel’s dystopia.  

Wisecup, Cutler, and Ahmad gave us critical, poignant, and mobilizing takes on The Handmaid’s Tale.  Their analytic tools give us unprecedented interpretive—and political—leads.  I am tremendously grateful to their vital contribution to the One Book conversation and look forward already to the Spring Quarter final installment.  In the meantime, get ready for Maria Dahvana Headley in conversation with Barbara Newman on Wednesday, January 23, at 5:15 PM in Harris 108. And have a galvanizing MLK Day and week!  

January 7, 2019

January 7, 2019 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Happy 2019 and welcome to Winter Quarter! It’s been only a month since my last blog, yet the national political landscape is looking a little different—especially after the swearing-in of our newly elected members of Congress, over 100 of whom are women for the first time in American history. The performative rules of elected women’s political participation seem to be undergoing a post-Hillary Clinton mutation—we’ve seen newly re-minted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rebuke the President with the already T-shirt enshrined reality check, “please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats,” and we’ve seen freshwoman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib promising to “impeach the m*****f*****” and refusing to apologize for her expression of this particular commitment. (Which seems only fair—if eye-witness accounts of the current White House are to be trusted, her chosen idiom is not outstandingly profane.) In the sphere of popular culture, watch the movie The Favourite, in which Queen Anne of England (1702 – 1707) and Great Britain (1707 – 1714) acts a lot less than regal in any accepted sense of that word—in one memorable scene she gorges on cake, vomits, and keeps eating, but there are lots to choose from. (Olivia Coleman won a Golden Globe for that full-body rendition of Queen Anne last night.) Beyond the provincial and too-canonical models of Queen Elizabeth and Hillary—what other unexpected expressions of female political power can we anticipate in 2019?  Time will tell, and soon.

In the lead-up to our inaugural Winter Quarter One Book programming (consult the One Book website for details and my previous blog for a recap), I’ll offer a feminist twist on the “What did you read over vacation?” report, distilled down to two books. (Which is basically accurate; almost nothing else was pure vacation reading anyway.) The feminist twist is courtesy of legendary cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and you probably know it as “the Bechdel Test”—as the criterion for choosing a movie, the test requires that “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man” (Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985). Applied to my two vacation novels, the results of Bechdel’s standard are mixed. The more ambitious book, not just on my short list but for all time, The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018), is about trees, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and the humans who love and try to save them; so maybe it’s unfair to restrict its relational range to humans. But Bechdel makes me notice that, over the course of this long, tree-paced book’s cycles (that is, rings) of sensitivities instilled, activist efflorescence, and ongoing devastation, Powers mobilizes almost all of his human environmentalist actors as also romantic pairs, which are male-female. Read The Overstory—it’s a stunning intervention, both in the form of the novel (worked, impossibly, to try to hold both trees and our loss of them) and in the communication of incommensurable loss. Yet it passes the Bechdel test only because when the activists come together, they all talk strategy and some speech acts occur between women.

The other book I read was Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (2018). Of course I cannot refrain from defending this pick—it got a rousing recuperative review, it’s a thriller, it has glitter assimilated into its entire dust cover, it was vacation. And it’s built around a female friendship, so it is Bechdel-proof. No question. Well—until the night in a New York club in an isolated bathroom where the protagonist, a persona-stealing, improbably precarious grifter, kills her gorgeous, super-rich new bestie Lavinia after Lavinia discovers that the protagonist has—of course—been getting together with Lavinia’s ex. Genuine question: if one of the woman kills the other halfway through, does it still pass the Bechdel Test? (They did talk about things besides men, like how much they love poetry.) This is one of the dilemmas my vacation reading has left me. I look forward to returning to reading, engaging, and thinking with all of you—now on my nightstand is Maria Dahvana Headley’s gripping The Mere Wife (2018), a very contemporary rewrite of Beowulf, in anticipation of the author’s visit to campus this January 23. Stay tuned for more on The Mere Wife and Headley’s upcoming visit to Northwestern in my next blog!

December 7, 2018

December 7, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Happy Reading Week to you lucky students in WCAS, and happy upcoming Exam Week to us all! There’s much to ponder in this last blog before holiday break. First of all—Margaret Atwood did not troll us when she visited campus last October. A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is officially in the works, to be published on September 10, 2019. According to Penguin Books, it will be called The Testaments, it is set 15 years after Offred’s concluding scene in Handmaid, and it’s narrated by three female characters. It will bear no relation to Season 2 of the Hulu series. And yes—you can pre-order The Testaments now, which I highly recommend doing!

In a follow-up interview in the Los Angeles Times, Atwood noted that she is “almost finished with it”—but she won’t spill any secrets. Look out for the book’s cover announcement from Penguin and sign up for Penguin’s newsletter, which will stoke our anticipation for this massive publishing event. Atwood’s sequel is big news in our own cultural and political world—how many books will sell? How many will be printed? Will we all start reading digitally at 12:01 AM EST on September 10? (I know I will! Anybody up for a September 11 The Testaments book group?) Just how pointedly will Atwood refer to the legislative entrenchment of motherhood in many American states, whose encroaching criminalization of elective non maternity threatens to render Handmaid’s dystopian prescience redundant? In The Handmaid Tale’s own future world, of course, there are just as many questions to ponder. Will one of Atwood’s promised three narrators be Offred/June? Or her daughter? Or, fingers crossed, a Martha or an Econowife or a Wife? Will Atwood plot the fall of evangelical theocracy, with its already manifest hypocrisies, into a post-puritanical mutation of patriarchy more in line with reality-TV abuses of the Trump age? Will Atwood wield her incredible talent with politico-corporate satire-speak, honed since 1985 in her MaddAddam trilogy, even more incisively in Handmaid 2.0? So many questions to ask, and only nine months to ask them. Please forward your speculations to me—I’d love to compile them for a later blog post.

Fortuitously enough, Atwood’s November 28 announcement coincided with the imminent re-ascension of California Representative Nancy Pelosi to her former position as House Speaker following the return of the US House of Representatives to a Democratic majority after the mid-term election. Pelosi’s resumption of her claim upon her post was not precisely a hard-fought victory—nobody actually volunteered to take her place—but she withstood dissent within her own ranks as well as a tsunami of vicious, frankly misogynist opposition publicity along the lines of the witch hysteria that engulfed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The most powerful surviving female politician in the USA, Pelosi has achieved that considerable feat—survival—at age 78. Atwood is 79. Let us savor the power of these near-octogenarian women, drivers of global politics and global culture at a moment when America’s most powerful near-octogenarian man fails to approximate their ethical or intellectual standards.

The final One Book One Northwestern event of the Fall Quarter took place last night at Northwestern’s Block Cinema. Screened for an audience that included some die-hard fans since the movie’s 1984 release, the last film in the Women at the End of the World series was the cult zombie-apocalypse evil-government compound classic “The Night of the Comet,” directed by Thom Eberhardt and starring Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran, and Warhol Factory veteran Mary Waronov. Watch this film for truly unadulterated ’80s fashion and hair—and for those of us who lived it, this film serves as a reminder that contemporary ’80s retreads, including “Stranger Things” and “GLOW,” pull their punches on the metallic make-up, hair feathering, floppy elfin boots, and Lycra leotard fronts. What I would not give now for a pair of those boots—which star at a crucial moment in the movie’s gentle carnage as a synecdoche or stand-in for the entire protagonist, because with a $700,000 budget, this film had to cut corners. A bracing, important precursor to the girl-action genre and a central influence on Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Night of the Comet” follows Regina and Samantha, sibling survivors of a comet that desiccates almost all of humanity and leaves most of the rest short-term undead, doomed soon to turn into dust.

Navigating murderous zombies, punked-out squatters in a department store where they’ve gone to have fun, and sadistic government agents who drain victims’ blood in hopes of concocting a serum, Regina and Samantha—especially Regina, played by Stewart with a centered seriousness that’s more Ripley (think “Alien”) than Buffy—are kick-ass Valley Girls who expose this prototype’s edgier feminist origins before it got smoothed into good-girl TV fare. Myrna Moretti, a PhD student in Screen Cultures, introduced “Night of the Comet”; Moretti insightfully placed the film’s blood thematic in the context of the burgeoning AIDS crisis, whose neglect and stigmatization by the Reagan administration might help us appreciate the film’s portrayal of bunkered-down government heavies as literally vampiric predators more monstrous than the zombies themselves. It was a funny, potent finish to the Women at the End of the World series—huge admiration and thanks to Michael Metzger, the Curator of Media Arts at Northwestern’s Block Museum, for the attentiveness to feminist filmmaking and challenging resonances with Handmaid that have made this series so unique, successful, memorable, and fun.

Stay tuned for next quarter’s One Book One Northwestern Block Cinema Series, “Reproductive Systems: Gender, Power, and Society.” This stunning line-up will engage human biological reproduction, so central to The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the reproduction of social life, social inequity, and gendered forms of power. For this series, I’ll introduce my very favorite anti-feminist-backlash horror film, the original “The Stepford Wives,” on Valentine’s Day. Mark your calendars now! Off screen, the English Department will host the second iteration of our quarterly faculty discussion of Handmaid, featuring faculty members Amin Ahmad, John Alba Cutler, and Kelly Wisecup, at 5 PM on January 17. On January 23, Maria Dahvana Headley, author of the critically acclaimed The Mere Wife, a fierce feminist re-imagining of Beowulf, as well as a forthcoming translation of Beowulf, will visit Northwestern for a reading and conversation with Northwestern medievalist faculty member Barbara Newman. The Gender & Sexuality Studies Program will present our second keyword panel discussion on “reproduction,” with an incredible panel of scholars, medical faculty, and activists, at 5 PM on February 5. For details about these events and many more, please consult the One Book website and virtual newsletter. Have a wonderful break and be inspired! See you in 2019 for more Handmaid and more dialogue.

November 27, 2018

November 27, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

I hope this blog finds the Northwestern community energized by our November break and our first blizzard! In the absence of One Book One Northwestern events over the long weekend, here are some ruminations about the final feminist dystopian novel we’re reading in my One Book first-year seminar this Fall Quarter, Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Alderman’s book has received too many accolades to list (a few: Winner of the 2017 Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction; one of President Obama’s favorite reads in 2017; a top ten selection on the New York Times Book Review’s 2017 list) and its pedigree is directly related to One Book: Alderman was Margaret Atwood’s protegé in 2012 – 2013 under the Rolex Mentor and Protegé philanthropic initiative. The Power is also being made into a TV series by Sister Pictures. With all that, of course you should run out and read it now. So here is the mandatory spoiler alert: do not proceed any further if you want to be surprised by The Power’s plot or its premise.

One last chance!

The conceit—and the ambivalence—of The Power is right there in its title. In this novel, whose main action is set in our time and our world, teenage girls suddenly acquire the capacity to deliver electric shocks through their fingers. Not static electricity—excruciating, devastating surges of power. Then, jump-started by daughters or comrades, older women discover that they possess the power too. The book’s initial thrills come as women in variously abusive patriarchal contexts—though, working on a global scale, Alderman must of necessity be selective—learn singly and collectively to combat their oppressors. We get a utopian glimpse of separatist female strength at a commune headed by a prophet of the new order, Mother Eve, where girls cohabit, play, and amplify each other’s power. But this utopian vision is fleeting. In The Power, the potential for physical dominance defines gender (and civilization), so we wind up not with feminist utopia but reversal of the status quo. In this fictional economy, power is finite, and one gender gets it at a time.

Rather than going into detail, I’ll mention The Power’s key ambivalence: is it real or is it figurative? At the level of the novel’s internal referential world, the power is real—it’s a physiological mutation that installs a bunch of fibers called a “skein” over women’s collarbones, sustaining their ability to deliver an electrical charge. But on a figurative level, the power might represent our power—“our” meaning persons gendered female today—to laugh, say no, resist, hit back, hit first, take over. As somebody who had a formative relationship to Joss Whedon’s late ’90s to early 2000s show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for me Alderman’s power conjures the fantasy of killer fighting prowess as well as the more fuzzily metaphorical promise of tapping raw energy that must be down there somewhere. First published in October 2016, The Power anticipates the recession of women’s power—at least in our immediate American moment—into metaphorical shadow, though perhaps the 2018 mid-terms will help restore the book’s literal punch.

The Power delivers an additional conceit, a book-within-a-book twist indebted to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. (Here, Alderman borrows a debt from her mentor Atwood, who affirmed in her October campus visit how much she admires Swift’s satire.) Framed by obsequious letters to Alderman from a certain “Neil Adam Armon” of “The Men’s Writers Association,” The Power, we realize, is a speculative reconstruction written from the vantage of a far distant future in which women have always, or for almost all of (re)recorded history, dominated men. Neil Adam Armon and Naomi Alderman are rough anagrams because in Alderman’s meta-fictional frame, the male author masquerades as Naomi Alderman for the sake of literary credibility. The Power ends on the brink of nuclear cataclysm, which will be triggered by women to start civilization over with the capacity to oppress men built in from the beginning. As in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, no abuse occurs in The Power that has not historically already been inflicted on women. In this speculative future (unless men acquire super-powerful skeins?), the identical suffering will be endured by men.

So my critique of the book follows (go ahead and skip this paragraph if you do not want criticism—as an English professor, I find it hard to desist). The Power is brilliant in suggesting that gendered behavior, including the capacity to rape, proceeds from a group’s structural position in society. In a recurring dialogue between male and female news anchors, we watch the man devolve into a petulant, frivolous, irrational sidekick (he is, of course, swapped out for a younger, cuter model some years into the plot) while the female anchor puts on glasses and acquires gravitas. The Power insists that feminized behavior is a function not of biology, but of social vulnerability. The book’s meta-fictional frame reminds us that feminine and masculine behaviors are naturalized, made to appear biologically innate, as a result of who dominates: re-start human history with the skein and 4,000 years later men will seem naturally feminine. But I get tripped up in the premise that gets the experiment rolling. The skein proceeds from a genetic mutation—in Atwoodian fashion, Alderman attributes it to chemical weapons fallout from WWII. It’s a body part that’s difficult, to say the least, to extirpate. Isn’t that kind of having it both ways? Irrespective of anybody’s body, men can be feminized just the way women are now—but only because women’s DNA irrevocably mutates to produce a new body part.

Figuratively, the power might mean finding your power. But the Swiftean logic of the book invites us to imagine justice millennia in the making, justice that dictates more of the same and thus may not feel much like justice at all. It’s an addicting read (warning: The Power contains scenes of intense violence, including gender-reversed sexual violence). If you’re looking for a challenging, bracing, equivocal feminist novel whose contemporary answer to The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely not a happy ending, look no further than The Power.


November 17, 2018

November 17, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

This past week featured three One Book events that we were inimitably lucky to experience at Northwestern—a marquis appearance by the field-shaping Black feminist literary theorist Hortense Spillers; a Block Cinema screening of Lynne Littman’s nuclear war film “Testament” (1983); and a Block Cinema screening of the revolutionary experimental film “Born in Flames” (1983), followed by a Q & A with its director, Lizzie Borden. Many themes and energies unite these three occasions, but I’ll stress their
distinctive point of view, their strenuous avoidance of a bird’s-eye, top-down perspective in favor of the intimate, the domestic, the not-abstract, even the familial—if we accept, as Spillers forcibly and lyrically reminded us, the fact that America’s family romance intractably intertwines intimacy and violence.

A guest of the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, Spillers spoke on Thursday, November 15 to a packed auditorium in Harris Hall. Her talk, “To the Bone: Some Speculations on the Problem of Touch,” offered a searching and searing frame for the problematic of touch in American history and American literary history. In its absolute resistance to abstraction, touch, Spillers suggested, marks the most horrifying aspect of
American slavery. As a concrete imposition on the body and as the power to haunt those, like Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, on the nominally free side of the Ohio River, the violent career of touch extends to the master’s family as well as his “shadow family,” to the touch imposed on female slaves by the master and also to dominant white familial forms. What, Spillers wondered, was it like to be manhandled, to be ready to hand? Does the unsentimental touch of forced cross-racial contact derail—or condition—the entire institution of American intimacy? Today, can we reanimate our critical sensitivity to touch against the grain of our technologically mediated perceptual lives?

Spillers proposed an American metaphysics of touch—by that, I mean an account of US slavery as the inescapability of direct fleshly contact, of fleshliness as the horror of being ready to the master’s hand. Watching “Testament” at the Block Cinema later last Thursday evening, I realized that this wife’s-eye-view of nuclear cataclysm shares a relentlessly—and necessarily—anti-sentimental vantage on American familial life. Its sometimes sappy soundtrack aside, “Testament” musters a staggeringly harrowing vision of nuclear holocaust without a single overhead shot of the damage. “Testament” gives us no top-down perspective, unless you count the hapless men trying to wrangle this white San Francisco exurb’s increasingly decimated town meetings. The movie follows Carol: her husband fails to come home on the day of the strike, and her three children, her town, and her own life quietly proceed to fade out. Without violence, international drama, or any clue exactly what happened, the movie conjures nuclear horror from kitchens and bedrooms, from a mother bathing her ailing child. As Erin Andrews (a Ph.D. candidate in English), who offered an excellent introduction to the film, reminded us, Carol is like Margaret Atwood’s handmaid Offred in her bounded point of view. Littman’s film is, with The Handmaid’s Tale, an indictment of patriarchy; but the force of “Testament” lies in its rigorous, even cool, fixation on the seepage of nuclear devastation into the finest grain of familial existence.

On Friday night, Lizzie Borden’s “Born in Flames” was introduced by Lauren Herold (a Ph.D. candidate in Screen Cultures), who helped us ponder whether this film is revolutionary—or better, how this experimental, formally subversive, fiercely feminist work was revolutionary in the Reagan-era mid-80s and might remain revolutionary for ustoday. Set in ’80s New York City after a socialist revolution—although the gritty downtown bears no trace of economic redistribution—the film is powered by the conceit that post-socialist America is as sexist and racist as it ever was. Its punk aesthetic encapsulates highly fragmented, increasingly explosive acts of resistance mobilized by the Women’s Army, coextensive with insurgent radio shows, montages of women’s work and play, and musical and spoken word performances, most notably by the riveting Adele Bertei. The second-wave radical Black feminist lawyer and activist Florynce (Flo)
Kennedy also delivers a stunning performance. In the follow-up Q&A, brilliantly steered by Professor Nick Davis (English and Gender & Sexuality Studies), Borden generously enlarged on the deeply collaborative and situational aspects of the five-year process of creating the film. Chilled by the sexism and elitism of the established art community she encountered as an art student, Borden partook in the vibrant avant-garde world of downtown New York in the late 70s and early 80s (as she recalled, the likes of Blondie’s Debbie Harry and John Zorn passed through her loft to borrow tools and space). Borden made “Born in Flames” in $200 increments because so many fellow artists helped her for next to nothing—and such collaborative energies were shared. Offering the most galvanizing feminist challenge—a call for an explosively dis-unified feminism—as well as testimony to the power of film rooted in the radical energies of its creators and its place, “Born in Flames” ended the week on an inspiring note. Stay tuned next week for the final movie of the Block’s Women at the End of the World series, “Night of the Comet,” for a post-apocalyptic Valley Girl prelude to Exam Week (7 PM, Thursday, December 6).

November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

In the week and a half since Margaret Atwood’s visit, much has transpired—the midterm elections (with pending outcomes and infrastructural disarray in GA, FL, AZ and elsewhere), another horrific mass shooting, and the deployment of thousands of US troops to our country’s southern border. These are Atwoodian times. But One Book One Northwestern’s programming continues to help us grapple with them—and perhaps try to change them.

On Tuesday, November 6, One Book hosted its first Dittmar Dinner of the year, featuring Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer (Pritzker School of Law) on the topic of “Rape Law in a Time of #MeToo.” Drawing on her scholarship and professional experience in the New York County District Attorney’s Office, where she specialized in domestic violence prosecution, Professor Tuerkheimer discussed her collaboration with the American Law Institute (ALI), an independent organization that produces scholarly work aiming to modernize, clarify, and improve the law (the latter phrase is taken from their website: see In her talk, Tuerkheimer addressed a crucial problem with the Model Penal Code, completed by the ALI as a guide to criminal legal procedure in the American states. The Model Penal Code formulates a definition of rape that contains a requirement of force—that is, the defining criterion for rape is that the victim be physically overpowered. But the force requirement, Tuerkheimer argued, nullifies the question of consent. As Tuerkheimer cogently put it, if there is no force, then there can be no rape. But, she asked those in attendance, do we believe that the absence of consent also defines rape, even if no force is deployed, as when the victim is asleep, drunk, or unconscious? The unanimous response was “yes.” The Model Penal Code, Tuerkheimer suggested, enshrines a definition of rape that is out of step—indeed, this definition of rape would fail to criminalize the Ceremony in The Handmaid’s Tale. Here, we can appreciate that when Offred rationalizes her own so-called choice to participate in the Ceremony, she is trapped by an understanding of rape that privileges force over consent. Yet as Tuerkheimer confirmed, passive bodies are not consenting bodies.

Tuerkheimer turned to the problem of he said/she said testimony so consequentially enacted for us all in the Supreme Court hearing of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh. To explain how it is that the default position of police and investigators is doubt even though women’s false reports of rape are not common, Tuerkheimer deployed the term “credibility discounting.” Even though corroborative evidence supporting the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford existed, for example, it was neglected and the FBI investigation was cut short—reflecting, Tuerkheimer affirmed, the impact of credibility discounting in this case and in the vast majority of rape cases pursued by police. Credibility discounting, also known as biased disbelief, is the dominant feature in the criminal investigation of rape, Tuerkheimer stated. We are left to ponder this fact, as well as the fact that after five years of redefinition, there is still no consensus among those trying to revise the Model Penal Code’s definition of sexual assault.

Following these stimulating and challenging remarks, audience members hunkered down at our tables in the Norris Center’s Dittmar Gallery with a list of five questions composed by Tuerkheimer. (And a shout-out to the first-years who attended this event! It was inspiring to be in your brilliant and illuminating company.) This was another high point of the evening, a chance to get to know each other and think together about such topics as the impact of #MeToo on credibility discounting and popular misconceptions that might
impede victims’ believability. At my table, we were especially intrigued by Tuerkheimer’s gesture toward the massive, elusive sexual gray area to which she referred as “unwanted consensual sex.” What, if anything, can the law be expected to do about such sex? Do we want the law involved? What social and cultural factors, off and on campus, compel consent to sex that is not wanted? These are hard, demanding questions, which it was a privilege to discuss in Tuerkheimer’s and every attendee’s company.

Stay tuned for One Book’s Winter Quarter Dittmar Dinner. In the meantime, check your calendars for multiple amazing events this week—including a talk from world-famous Black feminist literary critic Hortense Spillers (Thursday, November 15) and a Q&A with the director of “Born in Flames,” Lizzie Borden, with a screening of this must-see film (Friday, November 16).

November 4, 2018

November 4, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

This week’s blog will be dedicated to author Margaret Atwood’s recent visit to our Chicago and Evanston campuses, which took place, fittingly enough, on Halloween Eve, last Tuesday, October 30.  We’re still processing Atwood’s commentary on the cultural and political afterlives of The Handmaid’s Tale—as well as her hint that this book’s afterlife may be extended in a sequel!  November 29 is the date by which she promised that we’ll learn more. One Book will stay tuned for information from Atwood’s publisher.  Either she was trolling us all (a verb, incidentally, that Atwood claims to enjoy) or the Handmaid phenomenon is about to get even bigger.

I was lucky enough to hear Atwood’s interview with Professors Deborah Tuerkheimer (Pritzker School of Law) and Angela Lawson (Feinberg School of Medicine) at noon on the Law School campus.  Right now, the most crucial piece of that conversation is Atwood’s exhortation to the audience to vote on Tuesday! Despite the bleakness of her vision in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood affirmed that she is an optimist and that “we’re not there yet.”  But in Atwood’s opinion, American democracy has been precarious since the country’s founding.  In an earlier conversation, I learned that Atwood spent four years working on her Ph.D. in British literature at Harvard University, where she also studied with the world’s most influential scholar of American Puritanism, Perry Miller.  It appears that Atwood was deeply influenced by Miller’s account of the repressive Massachusetts Puritan hierarchy, which, Atwood said at the Law School, was a foundational scene of fundamentalist “oppression” even though the USA was instituted as a liberal democracy.  This aspect of Atwood’s intellectual history illuminates her decision to place the center of Gilead at Harvard. She also mentioned that she finds the eye atop the pyramid on the US dollar “creepy”—perhaps in this fusion of the economic and the divine we find one referent of the Gileadean mantra “Under His Eye?”  

On the Evanston campus, the dialogue with Atwood continued, in a Q & A session with me at Pick-Staiger Auditorium.  As on the Chicago campus, Atwood was a witty and generous interlocutor, eager to share autobiographical experiences about her exposure to World War II and its aftermath or her childhood scrapbooking practice with 1950s advertisements (backstage, she recounted a hilarious anecdote about a girlhood nightmare in which she was chased by a Maidenform bra).  Atwood insists upon the ongoing urgency of the message The Handmaid’s Tale sent in 1985 under the shadow of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and hard right backlash in the USA:  asked, in reference to the handmaid Offred’s model for regressive political change, whether we are still in danger of being boiled to death in a slowly heating bathtub, she answered “Yes!”  Topics ranged from Atwood’s capacity to sustain her sense of humor in the midst of her dystopian visions, Atwood’s commitment to satire and her debt to Jonathan Swift, Atwood’s decision to craft a protagonist who is not a feminist activist, and Atwood’s relation to Hulu’s television adaptation of the book.  Many of her responses continue to elicit further reflection. For instance, her suggestion that Offred is an “ordinary” person thrust into an “extraordinary” situation leaves hanging the capacity of ordinary people to resist—do they then become extraordinary, or might resistance be something even ordinary people like me could muster?  In addition, Atwood suggested that the racially inclusive casting of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu reflects a more diverse USA than at the time of the book’s publication; this answer did not address the politics of the novel’s appropriation of forms of intimate violence endemic to the institution of American slavery.  These are questions I wish that we’d had more time than our allocated 75 minutes to pursue, as I am certain that Atwood would have engaged them with the acuity, forthrightness, and courage that characterized her visit from start to finish.  

It was a profound privilege to meet Margaret Atwood and get a sense of her worldview.  In one memorable exchange, I relayed the plot of the film “Nausicaä” to her (see my previous blog!), stressing that the film’s happy ending, such as it is, pivots on the Princess’s sympathetic interaction with a gigantic mutant bug.  Atwood’s riposte was something to the effect of, “that’s ridiculous—of course the bug would have killed/ eaten her.” This visit has left me with a doubled sense of Atwood’s dystopian vision. On the one hand, Atwood, daughter of biologists, including one entomologist, and herself an environmental activist and writer of eco-dystopia, insists on what I’d call an insect logic driven by ruthless laws of survival.  (Though I would be happy to stand corrected by NU’s resident entomologists—and Atwood herself might exempt bees from this characterization.) On the other hand, Atwood’s speculative fictions make room for human acts of altruism and resistance. Atwood’s dystopias sit at the crossroads of insect logic and altruism, perhaps anticipating a place and time where these two impulses find some accommodation. But to return to Atwood’s most urgent and clear exhortation to our community:   Get out and vote on Tuesday! The endurance of our democracy is indeed at stake.

October 21, 2018

October 21, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

I hope this blog post finds you savoring Evanston’s bright flash of autumn as we head, incredibly, into week five of Fall Quarter.  It has been a busy start of One Book One Northwestern, whose inaugural events have been caught up in the amplified relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale this political season.  With Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Supreme Court hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, we resonate anew to the specter of sexual assault, which, even in the age of #MeToo, may still form the backdrop of college experiences as typical and ubiquitous as parties.  I’m a little younger than Justice Kavanaugh; my memories of how matter-of-factly my friends and I learned to navigate campus cultures of sexual predation are newly activated and propel me to renewed action.

Last week, several One Book events gave us revelatory focus on Handmaid’s contemporary urgency or ushered us into an inspiringly different dystopia.  Our inaugural Gender & Sexual Studies/ One Book keyword panel, on “consent,” could not have been more timely.  Panelists from History, Political Science, and the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN) discussed historical, theoretical, and disciplinary dimensions of “consent” that foreground its limits and liabilities—“consent” was not, in American history, an action available to many people.  The history of consent in America attests to the restricted set of persons with the power to perform this act; the conceptual underpinnings of consent, the lynchpin of social contract theory, reveal a surprisingly low bar—for example, the notion of “tacit consent” equates actions like using a highway and implicit consent to obey a country’s laws.  Panelists from Northwestern’s Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE) and Sexual Health Assault and Peer Educators (SHAPE) offered a more local and immediate aspiration for “consent” as the standard of actively consensual sexual reciprocity upheld for our Northwestern community. The gulf between America’s less-than-active or less-than-inclusive histories of consent and the standard of consent upheld by CARE and SHAPE illuminates the ongoing contradictions and complexities sustained by “consent” in the midst of #MeToo.   How do we mobilize active consent as an ideal today when it was not, historically, realized by the majority of Americans?

A full house watched director Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 masterpiece “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” the first movie in the “Women at the End of the World” Fall Quarter Block Cinema film series.  This anime film is an epic, visually dazzling tale of ecological cataclysm, set in a toxic future world dominated by gigantic mutant insects. The heroine, Princess Nausicaä (from the manga comic written by Miyazaki in 1982 – 84), confronts a range of hostile forces who aim to colonize her people’s valley for its uncontaminated air.  What ultimately protects Nausicaä and the valley are not only her thrillingly rendered feats on her wind sailing machine, but her sympathy—her love, even—for a kidnapped baby bug (which is still as big as a garage!). Miyazaka’s film offers us a female action hero and a stunning vision of ecological ethics after mind-blowing disaster.  Saturated as I am in all things Handmaid, “Nausicaä” was a soaring relief from the claustrophobic confines of Gilead and a reminder that dystopias can come packaged with utopian challenges too.  As the autumn light shines brightly but the days get inexorably shorter, this is a good place to end. Stay tuned for the English Department faculty discussion of Handmaid on Tuesday, October 23, 5 PM and, most of all, our keynote visit from world-renowned author Margaret Atwood on Tuesday, October 30.


July 2, 2018 | Helen Thompson, One Book Faculty Chair

Warm greetings to the Northwestern community, and special greetings to our first year students! Welcome to One Book One Northwestern and our electrifying choice for this year’s conversation, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Chances are, you know that The Handmaid’s Tale is a seriously dystopian book. In Atwood’s dystopia, American women lose their money, jobs, identities, and rights. Some women become “handmaids,” forced to bear children for the new regime. The Handmaid’s Tale envisions a nightmarish dystopia, but it’s a dystopia that compels us to look both backwards and forwards. Most crucially, Atwood inspires us to imagine other, better futures—and to recognize our power to produce the society we want.

As you probably also know, The Handmaid’s Tale is having a huge cultural moment right now. A new TV adaptation is streaming on Hulu; lots of people in America and across the world are talking about this book. We’re thrilled to launch the conversation at Northwestern. We’ll have podcasts, reading groups, TV viewings, and a short-essay writing contest. We’ll host an open mic where you can share your own dystopias. There will be many other events during which we’ll talk, listen, watch, act, produce, and debate the meanings of Atwood’s book. Most important, we’ll hear Margaret Atwood speak about The Handmaid’s Tale and its centrality to the current moment when she visits Northwestern’s Chicago and Evanston campuses on October 30.

I grew up in Bangor, Maine. I won’t give you any spoilers, but this town, coincidentally, ends up being an important place in Atwood’s book. Therefore, it feels a little like fate to welcome you to One Book One Northwestern and The Handmaid’s Tale. In the English and Gender & Sexuality Studies classes I teach at Northwestern, reading is always an incentive to ponder not only past history but the future we will make together. With friends and colleagues at Northwestern who shape that future every day, I welcome you to the start of our conversation about The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a scary but energizing vision, whose meanings for ourselves, our communities, and our world we will explore together this year.