A Feminist Response to “List Ten Books that Stayed with You Some Way”


A Completeness Ravished. A painting by my grandmother, Isota Tucker Epes about the life of Virginia Woolf

I noticed right away that a cool 80% of the books listed in the above mentioned Facebook challenge were by male authors. I taunted some for at least one woman’s name. A couple had two, even three. But for sure, none of the listings were all women, or even more than half. Just because.

I think it’s fair to say my grandmother was Virginia Woolf’s #1 fan, and later in her life, she dedicated her time to painting about her novels.  They were widely acknowledged as the product of someone totally dedicated to all angles, versions, historical accounts, and re-readings of Woolf’s divine puzzles.

She retired to a farmhouse at the end of a mile long road on Horn Harbor at the Chesapeake Bay. Gardenias the size of navel oranges hung in the front of the house, and in the back, figs as big as plums.There, all by herself, she raised goats and geese, painted, grew an organic garden, maintained the house almost single-handedly, and read all evening. 

When it was dark, it was pitch black and the water on the harbor came to an almost complete silence. By bright yellow mosquito lights, she read me Austen, the Bronte sisters, Sand, and Eliot. Her bookcases were overwhelmingly populated by women writers from Walker to Lispector, mostly Virginia Woolf in first and second editions and frayed everyday copies she could read for the umpteenth time.

I offer her up to the rest of us for a little balance. Since her last bookcase was broken down long ago, I asked a team of feminist artists and curators to write a list of ten books that stayed with them in some way, exclusively by women.  I link out to Abe’s Books (Amazon if I couldn’t find a match) so you could easily get a copy for yourself.

Miriam Schaer

Toni Morrison. Beloved, The Bluest Eye

 Mary Kelly and Sabine Breitwieser. Mary Kelly: Post-Partum Document

Joan Didion. The White Album

Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Rebecca Solnit. The Far Away Near By

Alice Walker In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens

Jennie Klein and Myrel Chernick, Editors. The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art 

Adrienne Rich. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution 

Jane Gross A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents— and Ourselves

Lorelei Stewart

Doris Lessing. The Golden Notebook

Alice Munro. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Jeanette Winterson. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Jeanette Winterson. Sexing the Cherry

Carson McCullers. Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Margaret Atwood. The Blind Assassin

Josephine Hart. Damage

Donna Tartt. The Little Friend

Claire Messud. The Last Life

Jhumpha Lahiri. The Namesake

Andrea Dworkin. Intercourse

Judith Warner. Perfect Madness

Helen Molesworth. Work Ethic

Linda Nochlin. Women, Art, and Power

Virginia Woolf. Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas

(Ack, I left off Hilary Mantel and Rebecca Solnit!)

Here’s just a few more:

Hilary Mantel. Bringing Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall

Rebecca Solnit. Men Explain Things to Me

Irène Némirovsky. Suite Française

Zadie Smith. White Teeth

Sabina Ott

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

Aqua Viva by Clarice Lispector

The Passion of the New Eve by Angela Carter

House of Incest by Anais Nin

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

The White Album by Joan Didion

The Sea,  The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

I Love To You by Luce Irigaray

Syncope by Catherine Clement

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Tales of Love by Julia Kristeva

The Blazing World by Suri Hustvedt

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

and, of course- Lalleshwari (1320–1392) the great Kashmiri saint-poetess.

Jennifer Reeder

Great Expectations: Kathy Acker

Play it as it Lays: Joan Didion

No one belongs here more than you: Miranda July

The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath

Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

Dawn: Octavia Butler

Between Our Selves: Audre Lorde

Collected Short Stories: Flannery O’Connor

Collected Short Stories: Alice Munro

Wayward Girls and Wicked Women: Angela Carter (editor)

To Kill a Mockingbird: Nell Harper Lee

Jessica Cochran

Ann M. Montgomery. Anne of Green Gables

Beverly Cleary. Ramona the Pest

Ann McGovern.Shark Lady, True Adventures of Eugenie Clark

Janet Frame. “Prizes” (short story)

Joan Didion. Blue Nights

Patti Smith. Just Kids

Sherli Heti. How Should a Person Be

Zadie Smith. NW

Susan Buck-Morss. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History

Zora Neal Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Pamela M. Lee. Forgetting the Art World

Sarah Beth Woods

Feminism is for Everybody, Bell Hooks

The Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga

Black Girlhood Celebration, Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown

Girl Groups, Girl Culture:Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s, Jacqueline Warwick

Interrogating Postfeminism, Yvonne Tasker Diane Negra, Editors

Mothernism, Lise Haller Baggesen

Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, Maria Elena Buszek

String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, Elissa Auther

The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir

Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, Amelia Jones

Kandice DeSoi-Shirley

"This is from my childhood because that is when I learned to love books.  These are great for young women as they have strong, creative female characters."

Judy Blume, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Anna Sewell, Black Beauty
Cynthia Voigt, Homecoming


Anna Akhmatova, Herstory. By Isota Tucker Epes.

Major Events: Miss Major and What Trans Women are doing for Feminism


Trans Icon, Miss Major the subject of a new documentary

Every year to celebrate Jane Addam’s birthday (a fellow Virgo, but of course), the Hull House Museum hosts influential speakers on topics relevant to feminism, labor and human rights. This year, trans activist Miss Major spoke on September 4 as part of the celebration. Earlier that day, the Hull House hosted a Wikipedia Queer/Trans Edit-a-thon much like the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Editathon that took place last year. Sadly, but not all that surprisingly, Miss Major did not have a page before this event. Given her long and distinguished career fighting for the rights of trans women, most specifically advocating for their rights in prison and for trans women of color, it was high time. Through reading her Wiki page, and seeing the trailer for an upcoming film on her life, Major! I became more familiarized with the extent and impact of her life’s work, and developed a deeper understanding of its potential for feminism.

More than twenty years ago, there were somewhere around 300,000 people in prison.  Today, that number is over 1.3 million.  This is why the prison system in this country is often referred to as a complex, or an industry—indeed it is financially.  I began to think about the ways it uses gender as a form of punishment and compliance. Trans women’s experiences in prison make this clear. The stories Miss Major shared in the documentary trailer are harrowing: they are tortured, humiliated, and under the best of circumstances, left without their basic needs for physical and emotional well-being.  Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish describes the penal system and how it is acted out in non-prison environments such as schools and hospitals. It’s surprising a wider discussion on gender never took root, as they are so evident in the prison culture, particularly towards those who are non-compliant like trans and queer women. In fact, Miss Major describes trans women and genderqueer people as living outside the law, historically faced with constant rejection from both mainstream and LGBT communities.

Feminists and trans women have been tense partners. The New Yorker published an insightful article about this relationship by Michelle Goldberg called What is a Woman? As a feminist, I found this a difficult piece, the fights for rights and definitions among the powerless  is heartbreaking and leaves two, less-empowered groups. It may be unnecessary. Trans women actively engage in conversation with feminists, and have a strong desire for inclusion in the debate. Miss Major described the rift in the relationship, albeit with a statement as awkward as the feelings between trans women and radical feminists. According to her, feminists who are rape survivors, for instance, resent trans women for having male privilege. Trans women don’t rape women according to Miss Major, and in an attempt at a joke, she said if a woman got raped by a trans woman, she was standing still too long, since trans women are usually wearing heels. The comment was a mess, but the desire to explain is a reality: trans women are not looking to join the world of men, but women. And women, both biological and trans, are oppressed groups. Whatever rights that came with being born biologically male are clearly no match for the prison industrial complex.

Earlier this week, a surprising study on trans women in the workplace illustrates gender bias from the perspective of those who operated in it as men, and as women. For feminists, this brings up many justifiable issues: women have been saying as much for generations, yet their lived experience accounts for nothing. In this case, however, trans women provide unique insight into these gender relations by lived experience in two places. The findings are both predictable and infuriating: women simply aren’t taken seriously on the job, and by and large, are considered incompetent, or aggressive. The findings also lay bare race and class intersections, as a black trans man reported being perceived as “dangerous” instead of just “obnoxious” as a black woman.

A woman by choice or by birth is still the same old second class.

From Schneeman to Smith: A Personal Feminist Timeline

My personal feminist timeline is featured in the International Museum of Women’s show, Imagining Equality.  “In this fresh take on “the personal is political,” multi-media artist Melissa Potter situates her identity as a third-wave feminist within her family’s history and evolving national and international laws.”

The Namesake


Melissa Hilliard, sister of Landon Hilliard.  Melissa is my namesake, Landon, my son’s.

Landon AranzamendezPotter. This was the name one of our doctors told us was the only possibility in their database, which did not allow hyphenation or spaces. No “-” or ” “. Not possible, no matter how many times I asked. This is the 21st Century, I protested. Combined names are…well, they aren’t so usual, but the principle is clear, isn’t it? What about families of other origins, for whom name variants didn’t match their silly system? No, we are sorry, ma’am. You have to choose for the database. That day, we chose Potter. It’s just simpler. They wore us down, dammit.

We talked about how we would combine our names, which would come first, whether we’d shorten, or rearrange it. As an artist, my name is my trademark, the way people can find me on the internet. As the family history goes, the Hilliards were descendants of Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I’s court painter who painted her in miniature size. They came over on the Mayflower, and were so bored with the Puritans they moved the party to North Carolina. I was named for one of the daughters, Melissa Hilliard. Her brothers were Landon, Louellen, and Logan. On a family tree a fellow named Algenon Augustus Zollicoffer stood out as the person I’d least likely name someone after.  In our family, we carry the whole person in our name, as their last name becomes our middle name. I am Melissa Hilliard Potter.

When I got married, I kept my name. I shouldn’t say I kept it—it wasn’t even a debate to say that any decision was made around it. Even through the 1900s, coverture dictated that a woman was a man’s property by name and station. She had no rights to property, and even into the 60s, her own line of credit. I get that Potter is my father’s name, but by keeping it my own, I also keep Melissa Hilliard closer. One more woman whose memory isn’t buried by marriage.

Aranzamendez—my husband’s last name and a rich history reaching from the Philippines to possibly Moorish Spain—and Potter represent completely different religious and cultural backgrounds. (In fact, very little tangible information on this branch of the Aranzamendez and Potter families exists beyond a couple of generations.)

A-R-A-N as in “Nancy”, Z as in “Zebra”, A-M as in “Mary”, E-N as in “Nancy”-D-E-Z as in “Zebra.”

But in full commitment to parity, when we had a child placed with us, we chose “Aranzamendez Potter” for the last name. No middle name. No hyphen. Just a space between: two names, two people with two proud histories.

Finding a first name that fits with both is a challenge. Trying to find one that was relatively gender-neutral, an extra challenge. In the world of domestic open adoption, name choices don’t belong to the adoptive parents, they are a joint decision between birth parent and adoptive parents. One of the first questions in the match meeting is names for consideration. We presented Landon, Adrian (for the Adriatic sea, and sounds reasonable with both our last names), and Wallace (for a close friends father, Wallace Terry, a famous author and civil rights activist.)

Our birth mother agreed on Landon, and when he was born, she gave that as the first name to be recorded on the birth certificate.  She added a name she chose to remind her of what she would have named him herself, followed by her last name.  When our adoption finalizes, the birth certificate changes to the name we agreed on together, Landon, and the last name, Aranzamendez Potter.

What is in a name? An awful lot, actually. Between feminism, family histories, and open adoption, we created quite a few bends in the tree. Perhaps interesting or a pain in the neck to our son one day, whose identity is multi-racial and multi-family, and can’t be properly defined by just one name.

Cybersluts and Technophobes: an Interview with Tiffany Funk on the Strange Intersection of Technology + Parenthood


Pietà (Memento Maury) is a video compilation of clips taken from 200 episodes of The Maury Povich Show, filtered through facial recognition software programmed to search for faces resembling the Madonna’s of Michaelangelo’s Pietà.  Copyright: Tiffany Funk

What can I say, I’m a lucky blogger: this interview with artist, cultural critic, professor, and PhD candidate, Tiffany Funk brought up at least five aspects of parenting, technology, and the bizarre interfacing of the two I had never considered before. Tiffany and I got to know each other in the department where we both teach, and even more intimately as I’ve taken on parenting and really look to her for sage advice and a shared value system. This one is worth at least a few reads—you’ll walk away as fascinated and inspired as I am. 

Tell us a bit about your blog, Fetal Circuit.  You have a great manifesto that inquiring luddites like myself want to know more about.  What is cybernetic reflexivity? What are technoutopias?

Fetal Circuit (fetalcircuit.com) is a funny animal - I started it on a lark, because I saw how Tumblr functioned as a cross between social media and blog entity.  Originally Fetal Circuit was just a place for me to repost interesting tidbits so that I could come back to them later for research purposes, but I came to realize that it could be a vital part of my practice.  The blog functions as a meta-commentary on what Tumblr is - a reflection and meditation on internet sharing and what procreation means in a cybernetic context, spiked with commentary here and there on technology and art.  In the future, I want to beef up the commentary part of it and share more original artwork.

The manifesto for Fetal Circuit came organically, and I riffed on several sexy key terms central to my interests as an artist and historian of computational art practices.  Cybernetic reflexivity sits at the very center of Fetal Circuit, and I’ve been heavily leaning on the concept in order to explain my thoughts on human/technological relationships; N. Katherine Hayles, the She-Ra of Cybernetics and Post-human history and theory, explains cybernetic reflexivity as a shibboleth amongst information theorists and cultural critics immersed in media theory; basically, if one believes that all things - all living organisms and their surroundings - are part of larger feedback systems that continually inform and recreate one another, she is part of the third wave of cybernetics; in fact, she goes on to claim that this line of inquiry not only unites disparate academic disciplines (which is at the core of what the founders of cybernetics intended), but has come to fundamentally alter the human sensorium.

In her text “Boundary Disputes,” she provocatively states, “Half a century beyond the watershed of the Macy conferences, feedback loops have become household words and cybernouns are breeding like flies, spawning cybernauts, cyberfutures, and cybersluts. People no longer find it strange to think of material objects as informational patterns.”  In other words, we no longer think of ourselves as discrete beings, but part of larger self-organizing systems.  You only have to turn on a television and watch a yogurt commercial filled with rhetoric about probiotics and bacterial flora to see these concepts at work.

But the main crux of arguing for an understanding of reflexivity is to explode so many concepts that seem mutually exclusive.  My inclusion of “technoutopias” and “technodystopias” is an attempt to approximate the two, perhaps to urge readers to confuse and elide them.  I often tell my students that one’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and that holds true for the various science-fiction futures we imagine for ourselves and our children.  A technoutopia, where all our problems are solved by technology, is such a vague concept.  I’d imagine that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner denizens, the ones who live in the awesome crash pads in the clouds, live in something that approximates that. Technodystopia is for all the underworld citizens, or the people in the various poor districts in The Hunger Games.  But the reality is that children of the working poor on the South Side of Chicago don’t have access to computers, but the majority have smart phones and regular access to Twitter and Facebook.  They can’t get fresh fruits or vegetables, but they can post everything they do to Youtube or Instagram.  There’s hints of dystopia and utopia mixed up in all of that.  In reality, the two can’t exist separately.  You cross a street in Chicago, and you see Divvy Bikes… or an Apple Store… and these things are hints of that unachievable technoutopia.


We had a great conversation online about parenthood and technologies/conveniences that promise to streamline the process. Do these “improvements” inform culture, or are they a product of it? Do you think they have a role in evolved family units?

A: Both, and in a fascinating variety of ways!  One of my pet projects, and one that I explore in-depth in my dissertation research, is the concept of “prosthetic relationships.”  When I had originally read Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents,” I was absolutely struck by his claim that “Man has… become a kind of prosthetic God,” but hedging it with, “… they still give him much trouble at times.”  He follows this with one of the saddest but truest passages I’ve ever read:

"If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him."

And that’s where we’re left; we continually solve problems that create yet more problems to be solved.  As technological beings, we continually invent, and through our inventions, re-invent ourselves.  And these inventions re-invent our relationships with each other!  This is the essense of what I call the prosthetic relationship.  My description of it is an attempt to reconcile media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler, both so influential but fundamentally at odds.  Unlike McLuhan, I believe that media is much more than just an “extension” of ourselves.  However, I wouldn’t go so far as Kittler, in which he describes technology as autonomous to humans.  Media are neither simply attachments to the body, as we would imagine a kitchen appliance with multiple functions.  But, to temper Kittler, it is important to focus on humans as the center of the argument, as technology has yet to demand a moralistic autonomy (contrary to whatever science-fiction entity claims otherwise).  Regardless of whether we ascribe to cybernetic reflexivity as a foundation for reality, I believe that so many humans are treated in sub-human ways in the name of capital (and thus at the mercy of “things”) that it is absolutely crucial to argue first and foremost for human-centered theory and practice.  It’s a moral imperative.  I’m not ready to jettison humanism for some sort of trans-humanist or post-humanist philosophy because of this.  Of course, I’m not the first theorist or artist to expound upon these ideas - there is a wonderful interview by Adam Zaretsky in which Shannon Bell explains these reservations more eloquently than I have here.

(Side note: This is my main problem with the growing interest in Object-Oriented Ontology as a mode of discourse.  I’ll just leave that there without an explanation and let google and Wikipedia do the work for me.)

Portraits (Terminators, 2001) Single channel video, 3D tracking and postproduction software. Copyright: Tiffany Funk

You mentioned online breast milk sources in your response to The Feminism of Fast Food.  It got me thinking about the fact that I really consider my biological involvement in parenting very, very little. How does biology play a role in our contemporary culture in ways that convenience culture and technology seek to answer? Can we evolve past our biology without going the Handmaid’s Tale route? What about outsourcing, and the role of race, class, and gender exploitations necessitated by it?

A: This is a tricky subject, and a lot of it is wrapped up in that nasty concept of the “natural,” and how it’s so co-opted by neo-liberal capitalism at this point that it’s absolutely impossible to get away from it, no matter your economic status and political leanings.  There’s such an emphasis on what is conceived of as “natural” that any intervention seen as even hinting of “technology” (another co-opted and misconstrued term in this context) is demonized by a variety of groups.  I remember when I was pregnant, my absolutely wonderful and feminist doctor told me to “stay away from the internet crazies,” and I soon found out what she was talking about.  The moment you even bring up the idea that you might put disposable diapers on your child on parenting forums, you are worse than Hitler.  You’re supplementing with formula?  Hitler.  You didn’t space out your vaccinations?  Hitler.  And don’t even dare bring up circumcision…

But to get back to the point, convenience culture seems to be something that we are conditioned to be ashamed of, and for complicated reasons.  My gut tells me that it’s wrapped up in issues of history (the myth of the perfect 1950s housewife, for one example) and class and economic stability.  All of this has that sheen of conservative, prudish “OMG WE ARE SO AFRAID OF WOMENS’ BODIES!”  In short, if you have the economic means, you can still go “natural” with a ton of expensive work-arounds - like using diaper services that advertise 100% eco-friendly methods, online breast milk sources with same-day guaranteed shipping, or live-in surrogates that promise to keep to any crazy dietary restriction you demand.  That way you can stay far away from actual biological involvement, but still be “natural”.  In so many ways, we’re already living in a quasi Handmaid’s Tale, but without the dictatorial politics.  The handmaids in this reality are invisible or ignored because their wares are internet-based, or we refuse to discuss the reasons they, for instance, sold their eggs or put their womb on craigslist.

That would be a terrifying and interesting project - tracking down and interviewing people who went through the process of donating eggs.  From everything I’ve heard, it’s not at all pleasant.  How’s that for a Handmaid’s Tale sequel?  The Handmaid’s Tale II: Electric Boogaloo, or: Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Painful Hormone Injections for Cash and Profit?


You also mention some great stuff about technology and the younger generation.  I don’t even know where to start, except that I haven’t had a phone conversation with a person under 30 in years. What is your take on technology in the contemporary American family, and in 21st Century communication? How does that relate to gender roles?

A: There’s a technophobic vibe I get from so much parenting material, as I alluded to above.  These phobias seem to be directed at women more than men, which I find especially disturbing.  But instead of making this a screed against anti-vaxxers and those internet memes that shame mothers for answering emails on their cell phones while their children play on the playground (“You’re missing their precious and magical childhoods, you self-absorbed monster!”), I’ll point out this wonderful article I read a year ago in the Atlantic about tablet usage and children, called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” written by Hanna Rosin.  

Without all the sensationalism so rampant in parenting media, Rosin explores a lot of the research that had been done about how children use touchscreen technology, particularly iPads. She researched how various media was “engineered” to focus on educational content for specific age ranges, and interviewed various technologists and writers on their studies on the effects of technologies and childhood development.  Most of the article paints the media as fairly benign, and at best actually serves to develop a sense of social norms and interest in educational materials in even the youngest children.  When faced with the question of technology and childhood addiction, she concludes by conducting an experiment with her own son, in which she allows her toddler to play with her iPad whenever he wants instead of limiting his time with it.  She recounts that, for ten days, he used the device heavily, sometimes for hours on end and past his bedtime.  However, at the end of this binge, the iPad simply fell out of rotation.  He dropped it under his bed with some of his less desirable toys and didn’t even look for it.  Rosin, fully aware that one case such as this doesn’t hold true for all children, nevertheless correlates usage of iPads and gaming devices to books, explaining that she realized that all media can be used to avoid social interaction.

Also, these toddlers took to touch-screen swiping, pinching, and poking commands faster than adults.  They are being tactilely and kinetically prepared for a future that we can’t even imagine yet, and I find that incredibly exciting.  I often feel like I’m in the minority, however, especially amongst cultural critics.


If you could make the ideal scenario for any human wanting to explore career and family simultaneously, what would it look like?

A: Aside from monetary issues (because, if I start on that, I would say that it would make everything a ton easier if one were independently wealthy), I would urge anyone to tap into every avenue toward community-building that they can.  Having a child, especially without an extended family very close, can be extremely isolating.  I grew up in rural Wisconsin, but only just recently, upon re-watching The Shining, did I see the close connection between what we can crudely call “cabin fever” and the sort of depression and mania that can befall a primary caregiver. I was watching Wendy doing laundry and organizing canned goods, and I remembered my aunt saying something about how she felt her brain was warping because all she used was kid-speak all day with my young cousins, and the only adult conversation she was privy to was daytime soaps.  Suddenly I was so disinterested in Jack and his stupid privileged alpha male writer’s block psychosis and fascinated by what I presumed was Wendy’s uncomplaining, stoic adherence to a caregiver’s routine; I started to invent scenarios in which her horror was not at a haunted hotel but the overpowering awareness of her mistreatment and subjugation flooding into her consciousness all at once.  (Now I’m thinking of menstrual blood and that elevator opening scene, and even though that’s certainly a ham-handed interpretation of that image, it gives me a chuckle.)   

I connected with that feeling of isolation because at that time I was sharing caregiving responsibilities with my partner - my son was born in July of 2013 - and using the rest of my time to teach graduate seminars at Columbia and research and write my dissertation.  That’s almost all we did for nearly a year, and it took its toll.  I saw my partner very little, and rarely spent any time with him alone.  And being a teacher and lecturing isn’t the same thing as having a conversation with peers.  I was always in the role of the caregiver or educator, and I found myself absolutely starving for a conversation outside of those contexts.  It caused a considerable amount of emotional trauma, some of it I’m still trying to figure out now.


Tell us about your PhD project, and what it’s been like at UIC.

A: There have been a ton of changes - mostly positive - at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the development of the newly minted School of Art and Art History.  For one thing, there’s more communication between those studying art history and theory and the practitioners.  That wasn’t the case when I started at UIC, and around the time I finished my MFA in New Media Arts there, I saw the beginnings of that positive transformation.  I’m also very pleased that UIC, as a public institution, is getting such recognition on the strength of its graduates.  I’m not going to name drop, but I think so many of the strongest and most interesting artists around these days are UIC MFA graduates.

My own research has really benefitted from being involved in a public institution - particularly one with such an amazing history of computing.  The University of Illinois system has long been at the center of computational research, especially research into the computer in the arts.  (UIUC had one of the first and only Departments of Computer Music, and the University of Illinois at Chicago still has the Electronic Visualization Lab.)  

Currently I’m writing about John Cage’s involvement at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s, specifically his partnership with the computer scientist and musician Lejaren Hiller, Jr.  They worked on an immense computer-assisted event called HPSCHD (pronounced “harpsichord”), involving both live and recorded musical elements generated by the university’s revolutionary super-computer, the ILLIAC II.  It took nearly two years to develop, but there exists very little scholarship about the process.  The crux of my thesis is that the programming aspects of such a large computational construct need to be considered part of the performance, not only because it explains computer art in such a way as to contextualize it within the larger art historical movements of the 60s and 70s - primarily conceptual practice and performance art - but also serve to expound upon how software is programmed, executable behavior and not a literal, tangible object, regardless of how neo-liberal capitalism has cast it.

Also, by opening up the history of computing to art history, I will eventually be able to further explore so many important female figures that were key to the eventual development of art and technological practices, such as Laeticia Snow and Jasia Reichardt.  I see much of my future practice continuing to explore gender roles in media, both in the procreation of humans and technology.

Gender Assignment Turns One


A year ago today, I was sitting in the A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago interviewing gallery visitors with the BEM Sex Role Inventory. The conversations were so interesting I decided to start blogging about what struck me.  Starting with a post about John Hughes’ character, Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles and ending a month later with a review of all the BEM test findings, I called it a day. I have my wonderful former student, Haley Nagy among some others to thank for suggesting I keep it up—it hadn’t occurred to me.  So I did.

In that short year, just 12 months and 365 days, so much changed. I curated a show called Social Paper with my colleague Jessica Cochran that highlighted my life’s passion on the intersection of social practice, hand papermaking, and feminism; finished a film that languished during my cancer treatment; fell in love with the Jane Addams Hull House; planted a garden with my former student, Maggie Puckett and deepened my connection to Chicago through the eyes and ears of Sabina Ott. Most recently, I became the parent of an incredible boy, a challenge and opportunity in this still very sexist, racist, and class obsessed society.

Gender Assignment had a profound impact. I learned that thinking through writing is my favorite form of creative endeavor.  I don’t know why it took so long to discover this, but I have this blog to thank.  Through interviews with some incredible people, like poet Jeremy Loveday and performance artist, Jail Flanagan, I learned about organizations and ideas that enriched my activism and art making. I reconnected with my past through friends and memories that go all the way back to high school, and engaged with them on the topic of gender.

I made mistakes. I took some risks on conversations I had with myself, and wanted to have with others. Some positions were challenged. Short hair in the white community is not the same political issue in the black community.  Feminists need to find ways to have conversations across race and class, and we need to do it fast. The radical feminist community is misguided about trans women. Selfies for non-conforming men and women can be transgressive. Through hundreds of emails, Facebook posts, and blog responses, I learned more, and listened more. As always, my students are a kind of guiding light connecting me to living in the here and now, both politically and artistically.

What a difference a year can make. Change doesn’t have to take long, it just has to be encouraged in the right environment. We need to make spaces where we can be wrong, where our biases are challenged in ways they can be transformed. We need to make other voices heard—it’s what I love about the blog interview format. So many people have such extraordinary things to say on the topic of gender and feminism.

Thank you, readers and interviewees for one of the most amazing years of my life. I’m looking forward to more gender shenanigans in the next!

The Feminism of Fast Food


Oh, it all seemed like such a good idea: less landfill refuse, earlier potty training, the good feeling of working with a local business (woman owned to boot!) These are the things I remind myself between 3:20 and 4 am when our child needs not only a bottle, but also a changing. I grab my glasses—which are usually somewhere on the floor thanks to Big Brother, Nigel the Cow Cat—and quickly mix formula. After the feeding comes a diaper change. Sometimes, it drops on the floor, or plops on the quilt as I do a quick switch from sopping wet to dry cloth. The plastic tab that stretches across the front to hold it all together rubber bands now and again across the room (dammit, where is the backup?) My unbelievably congenial baby takes it all in good stride. Imagine the parent who is dealing with midnight poops and caterwauling. I can afford a $21/week service to pick up and drop off diapers (though the $44/week “all in ones” that make what I just described a distant memory, not so much.) I thought about trying to save a little and wash them at home. Ha ha. It’s about 2 extra loads of laundry a day, pre-soaking, and undue wear and tear on a rental apartment washing machine.

I’m going to confess that I think cloth diapers are awful. They require twice the changing (the disposables use all sorts of gels and crazy chemicals to wick the wetness, so the baby doesn’t know the difference until it fills like a balloon,) fourteen times the hassle, and are a real drag when you want to leave the house.

I’m sticking with it, because less landfill waste is important to us, and I would like to avoid the chemicals in disposables and the companies that manufacture them.

But they are in no way convenient.

This got me thinking about another recent event, a wonderful project my Book & Paper program co-hosted with the Illinois Humanities Council called Moveable Feast hosted at North Branch Projects. Students from the program led an interactive workshop on cookbooks and the ethnography of food. As we went around the room sharing our favorite family food memories—most of which were about women—I panicked. In fact, the food in my household had little, if anything to do with extravagant recipes handed down by generations of women. I talked about a wonderful Betty Crocker pound cake my mother used to make, but it wasn’t the real story.

The story of food in my household is the story of second-wave feminism, working women, and conveniently ready-made, or simple-to-make foods. My youth was filled with fish sticks and corned beef hash, meatloaf and iceberg lettuce. Before my mother went back to work, we were on a very fixed income.  And after she did, she and my father had virtually no time to do more than hold down the fort. One of my most vivid childhood recollections is what I call “The Corned Beef Hash Stand Off.” It was a pretty typical situation: my mother and father told me I was not going to leave the table until I finished my corned beef hash. I wasn’t trying to be a pill, the stuff really gave me the gag reflex.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s inedible, and I sat there for hours. I realized even then this wasn’t just a discipline struggle.  My mother had business to attend to—hours of grading and classroom prep—and I was making that impossible.image

Something akin to the travel trailer my parents took us around in during summer holidays. Cheap. Seriously not convenient. Dad’s struggles with the septic hookups on this sucker is the stuff of short stories

The contemporary food debate denounces all packaged food as a vast corporate movement to Monsantify our dinner table. By extension, it condemns the middle class and working families for whom it is something of a necessity, and more specifically, the women who continue to do the lion’s share of domestic labor.  The culture of convenience freed women to do things they had never before thought possible, things beyond their biological responsibilities and gendered labor. In a fantastic episode of the PBS series, 1900s House, I am reminded of my mother’s Betty Crocker cake, which she lovingly made for me every birthday. In 1900, a stove heated up so slowly, inconsistently, and unevenly that making a cake wasn’t just an all-day affair—it was darn near impossible. It wasn’t so long ago that the cooking, cleaning and childcare were chores that took more than a full workday without respite.

Women of a certain stature can buy convenience: they outsource childcare, cooking, and house work. They can also buy time in their kitchens, making the best wholesome foods for their families and elevate cooking to a transcendental affair. But save family connections, you can’t buy your way to the top, which is why the “opt out” generation promptly wanted back in five years after they left the workforce. Time is a privilege no technology can yet answer. My mother made her bargain with a middle-class life at a time when the feminist revolution tried to free women from a life of domestic and familial servitude. And, as the opt-outs realized despite their arrogant refusal to remember the women who actually fought for this: domestic labor isn’t always fulfilling. It gets rather dull, this equal-and-opposite-reaction thing.

Each in a battle for more time, we seek to simplify the routines that let us outwit our traditional, gender-restrictive cultures. Pre-packaged food clearly isn’t the answer, but I respect what it meant to my mother and grandmother.  As a great friend of mine who worked 12 years to finish her PhD said: “We need more women in leadership. Period.”

An Interview with Field Museum Scientist, Danny Balete: The Male Basket Weavers of Barling, Philippines


copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

My research at the Field Museum and working with the 10,000 Kwentos project got me invited to an event at the Philippine Consulate last week, where the director of the new Natural History Museum in Manila came to collaborate with Field researchers and scientists. My friends from the anthropology department, Jamie Kelly and Michael Armand Canilao were in attendance. I also had the opportunity to meet Field Museum scientist, Danny Balete there, too.

Balete is a distinguished Field Survey Leader for the Field Museum. (Here is a wonderful video introducing his work.) He spends much of his year cataloging the biodiversity of the Luzon region in the Philippines, where he grew up on a farm (and coincidentally, where my mother-in-law is from—I have been there twice.) His work has been pivotal in new research and preservation efforts for the country. The Philippines is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, and it also—like all modern, industrializing societies—faces an urgent need to protect its endangered natural world.

It is in this region that Balete collaborated with locals on his research, and discovered their basket weaving tradition. In Barling, the basket weavers are men. Here he describes some of his experiences, which include commissioning them to make a cell phone and laptop case in their traditional weaving styles. What does the future hold for these artisans and their distinctive culture?

copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

What region and town are the basket weavers you’ve visited and collaborated with in the Philippines from?

These weavers were from Barling, an upland municipality on the slope of Mt. Amuyao, Mountain Province, in the Central Cordillera mountain of Luzon. Barlig is especially famous for its basket weaving.

What has your experience been living with these people while you are on research?

They stayed with us in camp as guides, camp cook, or porters. Back in their villages they were farmers, hunters, and ironsmiths. While in camp with us, after things have settled down for the day, the men would sometime weave something- handle for tin cups, woven design on a walking stick or bolo handle-from rattan they’ve gathered while we were in the nearby forest.


copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

You told me due to the tough nature of the rattan fiber, the men are the basket weavers. Have you seen this any place else?

Yes, mainly in the Cordilleras (Kalinga and Benguet, for instance), where basket weaving (rattan, bamboos, and forest vines) is still prevalent and somehow closely tied to planting, harvest, storage and transport of agricultural products. Though basket weaving is still widespread all over the Philippines, especially among the indigenous peoples in Mindanao and Palawan, I don’t know how much participation there is among the men in those societies.


copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

What are the implications for other gendered labor in this region? Do women do anything that isn’t gender predictable?  Are there other surprising aspects to their interactions?

Barlig still retains a very egalitarian traditional society common in the Crodilleras and women have prominent roles in society in general. Overall, I do sense some level of division of labor along gender lines, but otherwise there’s much shared labor on their main livelihood, which is rice agriculture. For instance textile weaving (backstrap and loom) is primarily a female activity in the Cordilleras, hunting and basket weaving are predominantly male domain, but most of the activities associated with rice agriculture-planting and harvesting rice- are participated in by both sexes largely equally.


copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

How did you decide to ask them to make some items for you?  Did they describe the meaning of the lizards they chose for the pattern?

During my first visit to the area in 2006, to negotiate a permit from the tribe to allow us to survey small mammals on the mountain near their village, Mt. Amuyao, our guide was sporting a small, finely woven rectangular rattan basket that turned out to be his cellphone case. I was struck the quality of the workmanship and its very elegant but very subtle geometric design. You have to look at it very closely to actually see the design. Clearly a work of a master weaver. It turned out our guide himself wove the cellphone case, and he told me that mostly men do the basket weaving. When he told me that he can weave me a case for my cellphone, we struck a deal.   When we returned to do the survey the following year, the men who stayed with us were weavers and we placed an order for several items, including a couple of backpacks and a laptop case, from several of the men. On my next visit a couple of year later to finish the survey, I have a case made for my cellphone that I showed you. The lizard is a common animal motif in their weaving, basketry and tattoing. Apparently it is a good luck symbol (traditionally associated with head-hunting, when the practice was prevalent prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines during the 16th century).


copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

I really liked what you had to say about these items being created on an as-needed basis for the local culture.  Of course, this is exactly how village life works, and it really helps me understand that micro-industry initiatives try to overlay a capitalist economic system on an agrarian, traditional society—with mixed results in my experience.  Do you think these handicrafts will be preserved in this community? What opportunities do these cultures have to preserve their traditions? What do you think the future holds for them?

Clearly, basket weaving is a very specialized craft – accumulated knowledge over time of the type and quality of materials needed, seasonality and availability of the various materials, the shape and types of weaves, various design elements, symbolism of designs, etc.  Having the men with us in camp enabled me to see the willingness and readiness of the older men or more experienced weavers to teach the younger men the tips and techniques of certain weaves, for instance. I am hopeful that at least in Barlig, there’s a second and third generations of weavers learning from their elders. Hopefully, the booming local tourism will provide the continuing demand for certain traditional products, like back packs and baskets, aside from the village-level demand for local use related to the harvest and storage of agricultural products, that would ensure that the knowledge and technology remain actively practiced. After initially witnessing that some of them have already adopted the craft to non-traditional uses (cellphone case) which I encouraged them to do and told them of various other uses of their basket weaving (laptop case, card holder, etc.), I am encouraged to think we’ll continue to enjoy and admire their woven products for years to come.

The [photo below] shows one of our guides.  Notice also his backpack of a different design and a cellphone case hanging from his belt, both woven of rattan.

copyright DSBalete/Field Museum

Post-Partum Document


Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document. Fecal stains, feeding chart

I have volumes of writing in me since the adoption of a child. And I don’t feel it is safe to write them yet. Adoptive parents do not have full legal rights until approximately 6 months after placement.  For us, that is November.  I can’t wait, I itch with ideas.

I often say “I’ve learned more in x amount of time than at any other time” about a variety of amazing experiences I’ve had, from teaching, to traveling, and working with people.  I can say that in triplicate now.  Adoption is a profound exercise in love for humanity, thinking of family beyond the boundaries of blood, both with a child, and a large web of people who are connected to that child.  It is a renegotiation with every person in my life.  Rather like my experience during illness, I would say it is for the best, as most have opened their hearts and minds to what adoption means for us, and for them. Those that haven’t help me refine my thoughts on what this means to every aspect of my life.

What is family? In the culture I was raised in, we say what we mean. We are not for platitudes, or words we can’t follow through on. You finish what you start, you live by your word. “Family” is serious business. (This was hugely stressful as a child, but a great lesson for adult life.) Perhaps this is why the Balkans appeal to me so much: it is a team of loyal-to-the-end types, who say what’s on their mind just like my colleagues in the NYC not for profit sector! My “nuclear family” is at its best inside a huge extended family held together by friendship, not blood. We want those intense ties to protect us from so many things: being hurt, left alone, betrayed. We want them to be certain. Nothing is, of course—what is certain is that the more you open yourself to the world, the more love, loyalty and affection you open yourself to. In my life, it has been worth the risk and failure at times. And yes, I’ve failed miserably.

At our well-baby visit, the doctor (female) asked me to fill out a post-partum depression survey. It opened up some interesting conversations with her—I’m an adoptive parent. Though she was still concerned (after all, parenting isn’t just about hormones,) I replied that I thought they should reconsider this test for any primary caregiver, regardless of gender (which in our case, would mean both my partner and I should get the test.)  She liked that idea, it was clearly a first anyone had brought it up.

Here is the test. I’ll play with it in November. Suffice it to say for now I don’t have anything that looks like post-partum depression. Thank you, Kitty Hubbard, for always helping me think through the most profound things with humor.

Biology, of course, is not the only thing that binds us.

There are a wide range of emotional reactions following the birth of a baby, including “baby blues” and “postpartum depression.” Your answers to these assessments will help us assess your risk for postpartum depression and find out if you need additional help.

To determine your risk for postpartum depression, answer yes or no to the following questions, then discuss with your health care provider.

  1. My parents or siblings have a history of depression, anxiety or mental health issues.
  2. During the past year, I have experienced a lot of negative stress and change (example: loss of job, loss of loved one, undesired move, etc.)
  3. This was a very difficult pregnancy for me emotionally and/or physically.
  4. This was a very difficult birth for me emotionally and/or physically.
  5. I have a history of an emotional problem (depression, anxiety, abuse, eating disorder, etc.) that was not related to childbirth that may have been treated with counseling or medicine.
  6. I had depression or anxiety in the weeks/months following the birth of another child or pregnancy loss.
  7. I have taken medication for depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder during the past year.
  8. I often feel emotionally unsupported by those around me.
  9. I had depression and/or anxiety during this pregnancy.
  10. I am currently having difficulty with depression, anxiety, anger or frightening thoughts. I look happier on the outside than I feel on the inside.
  11. I have thoughts of hurting myself and/or my baby, and am afraid that if I tell someone how I feel they will not understand.
  12. My baby is in the Neonatal ICU.
  13. I have delivered a multiple birth.

Are You Experiencing Postpartum Depression?

Using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) below, please circle the answer that best describes how you have felt over the past seven days.

  1. I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things
    0 = As much as I always could
    1 = Not quite so much now
    2 = Definitely not so much now
    3 = Not at all
  2. I have looked forward with enjoyment to things
    0 = As much as I ever did
    1 = Rather less than I used to
    2 = Definitely less than I used to
    3 = Hardly at all
  3. I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong.
    3 = Yes, most of the time
    2 = Yes, some of the time
    1 = Not very often
    0 = No, never
  4. I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.
    0 = No, not at all
    1 = Hardly ever
    2 = Yes, sometimes
    3 = Yes, very often
  5. I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason.
    3 = Yes, quite a lot
    2 = Yes, sometimes
    1 = No, not much
    0 = No, not at all
  6. Things have been getting on top of me.
    3 = Yes, most of the time I have not been able to cope at all
    2 = Yes, sometimes I haven’t been coping as well as usual
    1 = No, most of the time I have coped quite well
    0 = No, I have been coping as well as ever
  7. I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping.
    3 = Yes, most of the time
    2 = Yes, sometimes
    1 = Not very often
    0 = No, not at all
  8. I have felt sad or miserable.
    3 = Yes, most of the time
    2 = Yes, quite often
    1 = Not very often
    0 = No, not at all
  9. I have been so unhappy that I have been crying.
    3 = Yes, most of the time
    2 = Yes, quite often
    1 = Only occasionally
    0 = No, never
  10. The thought of harming myself has occurred to me.
    3 = Yes, quite often
    2 = Sometimes
    1 = Hardly ever
    0 = Never

If your total score is 12 or higher, contact your health care provider. If less than 12, you may repeat weekly to track your scores.