Each year the Women’s Studies Department awards prizes for the best undergraduate and graduate essays on women written at the University of Michigan. The prizes honor the memory of Dorothy Gies McGuigan, a distinguished alumna of the University of Michigan who taught in the School of Business Administration and the Residential College. Essays are evaluated by an interdisciplinary committee for their contribution to our understanding of some aspect of women's lives or roles, as well as for their originality and clarity of presentation.
In 2019, two winners were named at both the graduate and undergraduate level; two undergraduate honorable mentions were also named.
Daughters of Eve: Corporeal and Symbolic Representations of Adolescent Female Sexuality and Prostitution (1912-23)
This essay explores the representation of adolescent female sexuality between 1912 and 1923 in the medical and literary texts, and it offers a reading of prostitution in the late Ottoman context through the lens of the wartime politics of sexuality. Especially during World War I, Ottoman government’s endeavors to cope with the war effort concerning human resources led it to employ measures aimed at safeguarding the nation’s reproductive health. To do so, the Ottoman government and the medical professionals systematically promoted pronatalist policies that stemmed from the norms of heterosexual sex and marital bonds. In this context, the male medical and literary circles of the time reconfigured an “appropriate version of female sexual pleasure,” through the vaginal penetration in a marital relationship. Besides, the early twentieth century advice literature framed sexuality not as hereditary but as learned; adolescence, accordingly, was the only and the best time to teach girls to become “decent women” so that they would not practice the “perverse” sexual desires as lesbianism and extramarital relations, which were defined as the leading causes of the spread of prostitution.
Herbivorous Men, Carnivorous Women: Multiple Femininities and the Reproduction of Gender in the Marriage-Hunting Market
Although the occasional “crises of masculinity” are often a topic of scholarly inquiry, the impact of femininity and feminization in these periodic challenges to established gender hierarchies has been less explored. This essay examines the role of femininity in the ongoing renegotiation of gender ideals in the arena of dyadic romantic relationships and against the backdrop of the demographic and socioeconomic changes in contemporary Japan. Drawing on forty-four in-depth interviews with young married and unmarried Japanese men and women and ethnographic data, Anna Wozny examines how everyday actors make sense of two oppositional categories of “herbivorous men” and “carnivorous women.” She argues that these categories represent a rhetorical device in which femininity and the threat of feminization are used to systematically engage, manage and assuage anxieties pertaining to the changing roles of men and women. The findings suggest that these categories can serve three distinct, but overlapping functions: 1) they rationalize gender transgressions by denouncing them as performative and necessary; 2) they help make sense of these transgressions by linking them to the broader cultural and economic changes (which impact men and women divergently); 3) they recuperate normalcy by policing gender boundaries and elevating normative gender roles. Ultimately, a repudiation of feminization and non-normative femininity ideologically serves to buttress the increasingly confined vision of normative masculinity and femininity and helps reestablish a symbolic hierarchical relationship of asymmetrical complementarity.
Looking through the Archival Absence- My Mother’s Narration of Home
Iman Ali's richly detailed exploration of her family tree in “Looking through the Archival Absence: My Mother’s Narration of Home” offers the reader a glimpse into both the everyday life of a young girl in Lebanon, as well as geopolitical contexts of the 20th and 21st century. As seen through her mother, Zahra, we are brought to her childhood images of cherry trees alongside realities of Zahra’s eventual exit from school: “school was more often closed than it was open, for the teachers couldn't’ deliver a lesson on trigonometry with the snipers of sectarian militia penetrating the walls of their school and the homes around them.” Zahra’s life, as told by her “wanna-be anthropologist daughter” moves from Lebanon, to Syria, and later to America, and through these moves, we hear her daughter, the author, working to make sense of a life that has played out privately but is also a case study of war, diaspora, and family. Ali gorgeously weaves the images and stories her mother has shared with her through family sharing and interviews, with insights about human connection, mourning, loss, and survival that bring both details and important questions of how daughters come to know their mothers (and vice versa), in the presence of everyday violence, pain, and teaching children to survive. Ali turns brilliantly to complex questions of identity development in these contexts, both for her mother and for herself as generational lessons are transmitted across generations. She analyzes how her mother’s development was affected by stereotypes of being Shia, poor, and hyper sexualized for being an orphan, and deftly turns this analysis to her own upbringing: “I grew up hearing that women should be not be heard, which contradicted my own experiences growing up with my mother being the loudest woman in the room.” When asked, her mother retorts, “Well we had to talk over the bombs, how else would be heard?” Ali’s essay is a model for how historical and political analysis is always right in front of us, in our bodies and families and with a keen eye, invites us into her life and her family as a way to see so much more.
Woman, Flesh, and the Body of God: The Phenomenon of the “Holy Anorexic”
Jo Chang’s extraordinary illustrated text, “Woman, Flesh, and the Body of God: The Phenomenon of the ‘Holy Anorexic’” is a masterful weaving of drawn images, historical research, and personal reflections that dive into a complex conversation about women’s bodies, eating, suffering, and spiritual devotion. The physical text itself is worth noting: constructed and illustrated within a spiral-bound notebook, the book is filled with fine-line detailed illustrations of Saint Catherine and many other characters and images of Chang’s analysis. Reading the text is itself a visceral and embodied experience. The notebook alternates between the author’s reflections on learning about anorexia, historically researched details about religious worship through transforming one’s body, and contemporary discourses about young women and eating disorders. As Chang writes, “I explore the various sociocultural factors within the Medieval phenomenon [of “holy anorexia”] by focusing on the famous fasting saint Catherine of Siena, and how those implications can provide an additional insight into the modern phenomenon of anorexia nervosa.” This historical graphic novel deftly analyzes the complex relationship between faith-based fasting and contemporary diets that stress “clean eating” and treating one’s body as a place of (internal) worship. The text offers sophisticated analysis of food and moral purity: for example, “if you eat a Bad food you are bad, and if you eat a Good food you are good.” The text closes with a “gallery” of historical images of Saint Catherine of Siena produced over several centuries that allow a reader to see how these images interact with the images in Chang’s analysis, ultimately providing an incredibly rich tapestry of art, feminist analysis, and historical detail that teaches us to see something in a new way.
Undergraduate Honorable Mentions
Blaming the Victim: Carceral Responses to Systemic Violence
Obstetric Violence as a Potential Cause of Maternal Mortality in the United States