Interrogating Gender: Traditions and Opportunities in the Framing of Women’s Identities

Saturday, February 7, 2015
11:30am – 12:45pm
Greenleaf Conference Room, Jones Hall 100A
Moderated by: Dr. Supriya Nair, Department of English, Tulane University

Poto Mitan or Helpless Victim: An Analysis of Women’s Representation in Haitian Proverbs
Rachel Denney, University of Kansas

This work examines competing notions of Haitian female identity as reflected through Haitian proverbs. Using a postcolonial feminist framework, this research analyzes entries from one of the world’s largest collection of Creole proverbs to understand how gender norms are both constructed and reinforced. These proverbs present a complex picture of female identities and gender relations in Haiti, in which women appear as entrepreneurs, partners, and caregivers, experiencing and eliciting the full range of human emotion. In doing so, they contradict the stereotypical “victim narrative” of Haitian women that permeates the underlying ideology of much humanitarian assistance, as well as undermine simplistic notions about women’s strength and resiliency. This project builds on literature that examines the social construction of identity through content and rhetorical analysis.

Ancient Maya Women’s Identity: An Analysis of Costume in Pre-Columbian Maya Art
Elizabeth Haughey, Tulane University

Ancient Maya textiles were made of natural wool or cotton that was dyed with natural vegetal dyes and woven by women on a backstrap loom. Evidence for these practices can be found in ancient Maya depictions of the act of weaving (often performed by the goddess Ixchel, or Goddesses O and I), as well as Jaina Island figurines and more. While some of the methods of textile production have changed throughout time, others have largely remained the same. Evidence from the Conquest period suggests that some Pre-conquest elements in Maya costume were also retained in 19th century women’s garments and beyond. Specific designs and colors in Guatemalan textiles today can often be linked to certain towns or regions of the country, especially the woman’s huipil (blouse) and corte (skirt) (both elements that originated in ancient times), and serve to provide the wearer with a sense of identity; not only Maya identity, but a specific identity tied to birth town or town of residence. Though little evidence exists that specifically links the Post-Classic Maya period to the period of the Spanish conquest, it may be true that the element of regional identifiability in textiles has persisted since ancient times. Ancient Maya women’s costumes may be seen worn on prominent Maya women, such as Lady Xok of Yaxchilan, Lady Rabbit of Bonampak, Lady Night of Piedras Negras, and others. These ladies can be found on a variety of ancient Maya art, including painted pottery, carved stone lintels and stelae, three-dimensional figurines, and the Maya codices, from sites such as Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and Motul de San José. Analysis of such depictions of women’s costume in Pre-Columbian Maya art can be employed to discover the ways in which the Pre-Columbian Maya may have distinguished regional identity.

(Sup)Plantation Narratives: Reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song as a Textual and Sexual Revision of The History of Mary Prince

Laura Mellem, Tulane University

This paper examines a contemporary novel, Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010), alongside a prominent historical text describing the experiences of an enslaved woman in the West Indies, The History of Mary Prince, originally published in 1831. In depicting the sexual encounters of enslaved women–coerced, for pleasure, and for economic or legal gain–in Jamaica in the period between the abolition of the slave trade and full emancipation (1807-1838), I argue that Levy’s novel especially responds to the deliberate silencing of aspects of Mary Prince’s sexual experiences as an enslaved woman in the original slave narrative. Ultimately, Levy’s novel reveals what Prince’s testimony does not say, that sexuality was a central tenet of enslaved women’s lives and that they did with it what they could. Writing back to the public furor that erupted over Prince’s sexual omissions, moreover, Levy pieces together the claims made about Prince and reinvents a full story of her life, and other enslaved women’s lives. In doing so, she makes clear the contradictions inherent in the unrealistic Victorian demands being made of enslaved women, including the idealization of motherhood and the insistence on women’s chastity. Unapologetically portraying an enslaved woman’s rejection of her dark-skinned child and highlighting her relationships with men, both black and white, for economic gain, Levy disrupts the binary logic of “the woman card” in the debates between abolitionists and pro-slavery supporters. Instead, she portrays a complex female character who is neither simply victim nor concubine. Reading Levy’s The Long Song alongside The History of Mary Prince allows us to fill in the blanks deliberately left in Prince’s testimony, while also appreciating, perhaps even more, the boldness of Prince’s original work.