1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
My scholarship focuses on working women in relation to gender, race, and popular culture and the modern U.S. as a hub for global labor and capital. In my current project, I argue that U.S. colonial experimentation with the labor of Puerto Rican needleworkers helped to propel a disaggregation of manufacturing by the early twentieth century, yet an American fascination with poor white southerners led the media to spotlight Crystal Lee Sutton in the 1970s. The dissertation does not simply recover Sutton but reevaluates the context in which she labored, expanding it beyond the South to the Atlantic U.S. as a whole, including Puerto Rico. The media attention on Sutton led to a Hollywood movie production, Norma Rae (1979), which recycled the narrative of a white working class in isolated, local circumstances. The result elided a long history of southern labor activism and contributed to the erasure of Puerto Rican needleworkers. In addition, the Norma Rae icon that emerged from movie publicity in the 1980s served the neoliberal turn in American society. The icon’s embedded narrative of American exceptionalism and triumphant individualist rebellion converged with the rhetoric of leaders like Ronald Reagan. As it reinforced that aspirational discourse of bold individuals free in the market, the icon did work to make neoliberal economic projects both more alluring and more rationalized.
The project makes interventions in three fields: cultural history with its attention to the power of narrative, history of capitalism and its consideration of political economy, and labor history with its interest in workers. I use an intersectional frame of analysis to examine the ways gender, race, class, sexuality, and status shape and are shaped by cultural narratives and economic mechanisms. The resulting history bridges common conceptual and historiographical divisions to set the U.S. into a transnational framework and to explore the connections between economic, cultural, and social structures in modern capitalism through the study of women, gender, and work.
2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
I had an interest in working women during the 1970s—popular representations as well as their labor and activism. I am intrigued by the dynamics between women’s decisions, behaviors, work, and status and the cultural narratives about working women and “woman’s work.” When I conducted several searches, images and articles related to the 1979 movie Norma Rae appeared over and over. I decided to dig into coverage of the movie, explore the images contained in it, and find out who made the film. I discovered a controversy regarding the woman who had inspired it. Crystal Lee Sutton had participated in a 1973-1974 local membership drive as a member of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA). That drive was part of the TWUA/ACTWU 1963-1981 national campaign to organize J.P. Stevens. Due to her appeal as an attractive, married, working white mother and poor southern mill hand, two major media outlets centered Sutton, one in a long magazine article and the other in a television segment. That attention led to the interest of two women producers and the esteemed director Martin Ritt. When Sutton questioned certain aspects of their screenplay, the producers and Twentieth Century-Fox removed her from the production.
Movies cannot capture the complexity of historical legacies and contemporary circumstances, and they are usually products intended for sale to as wide an audience as possible for the highest return on investment. So they cannot be measured for simple “accuracy”—but how a production team makes its decisions to condense or change life stories and the final results offer important insights. They reveal power relationships and capitalist systems of labor and distribution within the culture industries as well as the ways such products participate in the dissemination, debate, reconstruction, and subversion of meanings.
When I described this project to a friend, she mentioned that her mother had moved from Puerto Rico to New York and then to Massachusetts for work in garment factories in the 1970s. Her story contradicted the dominant historiographical narrative that I was reading of a direct linear relocation of manufacturing from the Northeast to the South to the Global South. I began to research Puerto Rican women in the textile and garment industry and discovered they were integrated into the national economy as “Puerto Rican needleworkers” at the same time as “Southern mill hands.” The various groups of women provided distinct labor markets for manufacturers. Although the women did not interact personally, they were interconnected if not interchangeable labor markets at the macroeconomic level with differing wages, categorizations, and migrations.
At this phase, I am most excited to concentrate on my material from the 1980s and the ways individualist cultural narratives like Norma Rae converged with the ascension of neoliberalism. I have been reading extensively on neoliberalism as a nexus of economic, cultural, and political projects and hope to find more primary sources related to its culture of personal choice in the market and individuals as the principal locus of rights, responsibilities, and power. The speeches and legislation of the Reagan years will offer rich research into the dynamics of neoliberalism and American pop culture. I look forward to the time to immerse myself in the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan in particular, because he was so savvy at engaging the media and performance for political and economic policymaking. The ascendance of neoliberalism was contingent not only on the economic crises of the 1970s and collapse of Keynesianism, but also on the ability of Republicans and right-wing thinkers to deploy cultural narrative and hold sway over national discourse. America’s captivation with stories of individual heroism fit well with their rhetoric.
3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
This fellowship year at UCHI allows me the ability to dedicate intensive time to my scholarly pursuits and writing. I am eager to read primary and secondary sources with the opportunity to move from reading to notes to writing with directed, consistent attention. Exploring the subtleties and intriguing relationships between groups of working women and between economic and cultural structures has required sustained time and reflection. Some recent scholars have shifted away from past divisions between cultural history and economic history and into a new history of capitalism that uses multiple angles and methodologies. As scholars of contemporary history address the Internet, social media, and globalized pop culture, knowledge about the potent but slippery relationship between culture, labor, and finance will be crucial. Old arguments about culture existing only in a distinct “superstructure” or as a set of aesthetic distractions from “real” structures will continue to give way to more nuanced analyses of how economics, politics, and culture interact. The time at UCHI will help me contribute to this growing conversation.
I am also eager to join regular discussions with other humanities scholars who are diving deeper into their research and writing. The opportunities for such dialogue exist in every department, but intermingle with teaching and other duties. As a scholar with a working-class background, finances have been a persistent concern as well. I feel honored and privileged that I will have the funding and institutional support for daily time and space with exciting scholars who are also fully engrossed in their research pursuits. UCHI exists as a place of concentration and exchange that is unique to the campus and the local region.
UCHI has been a vibrant part of my graduate studies at UConn. At events with visiting speakers, Publishing NOW, campus dialogues, and public humanities advocates, I have met interesting scholars, heard innovative research, and received guidance on writing and submissions. Most importantly, the events foster community for faculty, students, and staff who often work in solitude or departmental enclaves. The interdisciplinary links have enriched my thinking and scholarship, and I am anticipating more time at such stimulating events as a UCHI fellow.
4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
Humanities studies have been at the center of my growth and explorations since childhood. As an avid young reader drawn to stories of all types, humanities classes have inspired my educational, creative, and career pursuits and shaped my participation in daily life as a citizen and neighbor. In my experiences, the humanities include rich documentaries, thoughtful investigations, biographies, and long-form essays as well as the courses, articles, and books of academia—all of which cracked open the world for me. I was a girl from a working-class background who went to the public library and watched public television to hear stories, meet people, learn histories, and travel to places I could not go without humanities studies. I later became the first member of my family to go away to college, to publish in magazines and journals, and to attend graduate school. The humanities made that possible because at a young age I understood the wider world as a complex place filled with obstacles and catalysts, unforeseen consequences and power dynamics, wide-ranging languages and shifting traditions, so I could jump into it without unbearable trepidation.
Beyond personal enrichment, the humanities enhance a society and all the people who speak, build, work, teach, parent, vote, open businesses, do public service, or run for political office. The current ascendance of neoliberalism, with its entwined economic and cultural emphasis on deliverables and transactions, has pushed many humanities scholars to defend our studies in those terms. We list articles, monographs, op-eds, digital archives, and online exhibits. While we all must engage in both the rigorous peer exchange required for a scholarly pursuit of knowledge and the pragmatic demands of our institutions and employment, it behooves humanities folks to offer their significance and value in other terms as well. These terms might bring academic humanities studies into unconventional realms where we do not produce deliverables but rather deepen conversations and shift understandings. Humanities studies and public events shaped around them can encourage us to stop reacting with impulse, to slow our actions, and to share ideas and questions before our responses. They guide us to face people and places unknown with a curiosity about similarities, differences, inspirations, and foibles rather than with angst; they help us to see familiar people and places with questions about our own assumptions, inertia, and attachments without the fear of losing ourselves.
At this critical moment of accelerating and intensified global technological change, the humanities are extremely vital. When people address their societies primarily from the perspective of efficiency in productivity and digital technology, they cannot raise the necessary questions to consider broad possible implications and effects. I have a side research interest in the recent history of Silicon Valley, information technology (IT) venture capitalists, and social media executives. In articles and interviews, many of them make extreme idealistic comments about the ability of their IT programs, apps, and social media to create a utopia in which people no longer do manual labor and smart technology solves all manufacturing, service, education, transportation, and climate problems. Humanities scholars recognize that technology is not neutral or inevitable. We have the ability to connect changes in technologies to power, politics, economics, and culture in ways that IT professionals do not usually consider. Revelations about Russian agencies and right-wing American digital consultants like Brad Parscale manipulating social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign have exposed the naiveté of many IT leaders and the shallowness of progressive politics disconnected from the critical perspectives of history, philosophy, literature, and cultural and political studies. If Silicon Valley capitalists and executives had a more substantive background in such fields, they might have been prepared for the ways authoritarian leaders and the quest for power can infuse and bend technologies. They might be prepared for the inability of smart technology and robotics to solve the problem of the inequitable distribution of resources, income, and wealth. As digital, robotic, and medical technologies offer increasing capacities to intervene in organic processes, societies need humanities studies and scholars—not only for specific discussions that interrogate the contingency of “technological progress” and the diverse possibilities it raises, but also to enrich our societies to imagine and experience other priorities, people, and ideas outside the digital. Humanities studies of any time period, society, school of artists, thinkers, or writers push for better questions and empathy and nudge us out of our entrenched reactions and into explorations of how other human beings have faced the dilemmas and joys of their existence.