Gender and identity

In the first of a series of diversity lectures, Melissa E. Sanchez gave an inclusive overview of women’s rights history and discussed the work being done at the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies.

An image of a Black woman with a flower crown. Text reads "no pride without Black trans lives"
The work of BIPOC activists is integral to the history of women's rights and LGBTQ+ rights, says Melissa Sanchez

In the first in a series of diversity lectures offered through the Office of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity Programs, Melissa E. Sanchez delivered an virtual University-wide talk, “Addressing a More Complex and Encompassing Understanding of Identity.” The series aims to foster civil discussion and promote cultural understanding, said associate director Ralph J. De Lucia, who introduced Sanchez.

Sanchez, director of the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies at Penn, began with the modern history of women’s rights, often characterized by three “waves” of feminism: the first driven by a desire for suffrage, the second by equal pay, and the third which challenged the power of the patriarchy. This narrative “presents a false history and limits what we can imagine for a future work towards diversity, justice, and inclusion,” she said.

A smiling woman stands in front of a building
Teaching, research, and administration roles all complement one another, says Sanchez. “I think of balance in relation to yoga... having balance doesn’t mean I’m comfortably sitting on this chair.” Balance isn’t an end point, she says, but something she constantly works toward in the midst of change.

The history of feminism has rewritten the movement as one centered on white, heterosexual, cis women, Sanchez said. “This narrative has the effect of rendering BIPOC [Black and Indigenous people of color] and trans scholars and activists either invisible or belated and therefore not only slighting their significant role in the past but also marginalizing them in continued work in the present and future.”

This imagined arc towards progress continues to center white women in the movement and whitewashes the “significant racism” of noted figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Sanchez said, referencing Anthony’s comment, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” This conflict is often glossed over, she said, showing an image of a Central Park monument that depicted Stanton, Anthony, and Sojourner Truth sitting together, “conspiring, as it were, to get women the vote.”

Sanchez also referenced the problematic history of Alice Paul, the Penn graduate, suffragist, and former namesake of the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies. In consultation with southern women, Paul refused to march alongside Ida B. Wells, the Black suffragist and anti-lynching activist who came to Washington to march for suffrage. The white activists decided that Wells and her contingency could march in a segregated section at the back. Wells refused. Black and Indigenous women “cannot afford to identify by gender alone,” Sanchez said, because their identities intersect with the rights of other groups as well.

Sanchez said this false narrative arc of white feminist achievement, which diminishes the contributions of early activists like Wells and Truth, along with others like Jovita Idár, Tye Leung Schulze, Gloria Anzaldúa and the Combahee River Collective, parallels the rewriting of gay history as well. The rewriting of the Stonewall narrative centers white, cis men in the Stonewall Inn riots, which pitted patrons against the police. Trans women, notably Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were in fact central protagonists of the Stonewall riots, she said. Furthermore, the primacy of the Stonewall story ignores the earlier Compton Cafeteria riots of 1966, which centered on trans women in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

The Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies looks to situate BIPOC narratives in the center of their work, Sanchez said, following a call to “come out of your ivory towers and into the street.” The theme of this year’s academic programming is “care for the future,” referencing both care work as well as environmental responsibility, she said.

Next year, the theme will be abolition. The theme will not only reference the prison abolition movement but “the really outsized role that that society gives police in enforcing issues that would be much better handled in other ways,” Sanchez said, in addition to social issues, family issues, immigration, and environmental issues. The “normative structures” within these have hindered abolition, including the “white feminist discourses of safety and security, which we’re recognizing have not only enabled mass incarceration but have also been used, and continue to be used, to argue against transgender rights, including such simple things as the right to have accessible bathrooms,” she said.

During the Q&A, a participant asked about the legal threats to trans rights and the increasing voice of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or Terfs. The Center has a role to play in starting “a much broader conversation and education of people in our community,” Sanchez said, to provide people “with information and facts and compassionate, inclusive perspectives that resist the kind of violent, cis-normalization that so many Terfs are making acceptable.”

The Center is also collaborating with the LGBT Center and others on campus to push for more inclusive measures, including offering seminars on trans-inclusive pedagogy and pushing for all-gender restrooms in every building on campus, Sanchez said. The Center is also beginning work on an oral history project about trans people.

Another participant asked about how conversations around care work might positively change the climate at Penn. COVID-19 really revealed the inequities inherent in care work, Sanchez said. “I’m hoping that one positive side of all of the extraordinary exhaustion and anxiety that was wrought by the pandemic, one of the ups, hopefully, will be that we begin an honest conversation and reassessment of what we need for care and for family support, more generally, that does not depend on a model of the primary caregiver, which falls again along gender lines that are seriously outmoded, and have been outmoded for decades now.”

Additional talks in the diversity lecture series will feature Mia Bay on “Traveling Black: A Social History of Segregated Transportation” in March and David L. Eng on “Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans” in April.