Professor discusses U.S. empire
Jack Rooney | Sunday, March 23, 2014
On Friday, Laura Briggs, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, delivered a lecture titled “Imperialism as a Way of Life: Thinking Sex and Gender in American Empire,” in which she argued for the necessity of feminism in scholarship and activism.
The lecture was the keynote address of the two-day American Empire conference, which was sponsored by several Notre Dame departments within the College of Arts and Letters.
Briggs framed her argument within the field of U.S. empire studies, which was the focus of the conference and said the scholarship within the field is influential, though it is hard often difficult to see the results.
“We live and work in the belly of a great war-and-money-making machine and if we’re serious about challenging it, we’re going to feel the sting,” Briggs said. “No one is going to thank us for our services as intellectuals, calling to people’s conscious what they know or suspect about academic freedom or educational opportunities. … And even worse, I want to tell you this is what success looks like.
“In all my years as an activist I have never found myself on the front page of the New York Times, nor cited by the Secretary of State. … What I have learned from all this is simply that academics have a great deal of power to affect change, particularly when we act collectively, but nobody is going to tell us that, and we are going to have to look hard for the evidence that we are being effective.”
Briggs outlined the feminist, gender and sexual implications of torture, microcredit lending and environmental issues, and ultimately said academics must remember feminism’s importance in empire studies.
“As much fun as it is to complain about all of this, I’m more interested in actually making a case to those who, like me, are generally inclined to view feminism and issues of sexuality and reproduction generously, to think with more consistency about these issues,” she said. “A few years ago I found myself struggling to think of ways feminism still seemed important to me.
“I want to suggest that feminism is not old nor passé nor liberal. On the contrary, I want to address the possibility that our work on empire will never be as good as it could be if we don’t attend to feminism and to gender and sexuality. Feminism … provides us with powerful intellectual tools and an important activist tradition in which to engage the study of empire.”
Briggs concluded with her “manifesto for the continued urgency of our need for a feminist and queer politics that makes race and empire central,” and said scholars and the general public alike must keep feminism front and center when considering the issues of the American empire.
“We cannot effectively contest torture without speaking of its sexualization,” she said. “We cannot push back against neoliberalism without recognizing how crucial its understanding of women and gender is to the work it is doing. We can’t resist extractive industries, climate change and the enclosure of the global commons … without feminist fiction or indigenous movements grounded in feminism.
“We can’t make sense of how enemies are being produced without an analysis of the narratives of rescuing women and gays. We cannot, finally, do the scholarly or activist work that we want to contest U.S. empire without feminism.”