Featured Research: Female Authorship | National Humanities Center

Featured Research

Featured Research: Female Authorship

September 5, 2023

This month we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2023–24 whose projects focus on the voices of women writers, from medieval hagiographers to contemporary rappers, exploring the ways that an author’s gender influences her perspective—across genres, eras, and geographies.

Bibi Burger

Project: The Whiteness of Afrikaans Literary Feminism

Bibi Burger is a lecturer teaching Afrikaans literature at the University of Cape Town’s School of Languages and Literatures. At the National Humanities Center, she is working on a book project investigating the impact of race on Afrikaans feminist literature. Burger is a 2022–24 Iso Lomso fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, a 2021 Short Stay Fellow at Ghent University’s Africa Platform, and a 2017–18 ACLS African Humanities Program postdoctoral fellow. She is a regional editor, focusing on Afrikaans-language literature from Southern Africa, for Tydskrif vir Letterkunde: A Journal for African Literature, as well as an associate editor of Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society. She is also the coeditor of the Afrikaans-language feminist newsletter, Turksvy.

book cover
The cover of Vrou en Feminist (1921) by Marie du Toit. Marie du Toit was the sister of prominent Afrikaans poet Totius and the publication of her book points to the early influence of feminist thinking in Afrikaans, while the illustration of the cover also points to the racial and classed dynamics of this early Afrikaans feminism.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

When I first read the little-known Afrikaans-language novella Erf (1986) by Lettie Viljoen, I was struck by how formally inventive it was and by its evocative representation of the everyday life of a conflicted middle class white woman during South Africa’s state of emergency. Black Afrikaans feminist poet Ronelda S. Kamfer challenges, in Chinatown (2019), the canonization of white women writers as feminist heroes, pointing to their complicity with Afrikaner ethno-nationalism. This prompted me to return to Erf and other older feminist texts. I am still interested in how historically white women writers attempted to exceed the (heterosexist, racist, and artistic) limitations of their environment. I am, however, also investigating the extent to which their imaginations ultimately remained constrained.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I was surprised by how seemingly feminist some plaasromans (farm novels) from the 1930s were. In Laat Vrugte (1939) by CM van den Heever, for example, much attention is paid to the repression of female characters by the patriarchal protagonist. This even includes a sympathetic portrayal of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Reading the novel in conjunction with sociological texts of the time, most prominently the Carnegie Corporation’s “Poor White” study, reveals, however, that its proto-feminism can best be understood as an attempt to empower white women so that they, in turn, can uplift the Afrikaner volk. This ‘upliftment feminism’ is premised on a concomitant dehumanisation of Black women and their placement on the lowest rung of Afrikaner nationalism’s racial schema.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

Historiographical writing on Afrikaans feminist literature is scant and I hope that my research will function as a synthesis of this literary tradition. I attempt to theorize the specific whiteness of this tradition and the limited nature of its attempts at intersectionality. This will hopefully enable comparison with similar examples of postcolonial, and especially settler, literary white feminisms elsewhere in Africa and the world. My main aim is for my research to allow for both an appreciation of Afrikaans feminist literature, as well as for a contextualization and critique of it.

Sean L. Field

Project: Women Writing Saints’ Lives: Gendered Authority and Female Authorship in the Middle Ages

Sean L. Field is professor of history at The University of Vermont, where he has taught since 2003. He is a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and a Correspondant étranger of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. His translation of Jacques Dalarun, To Govern is to Serve: An Essay on Medieval Democracy was published by Cornell University Press in 2023, and he is the author or editor of 14 other books, including A Female Apostle in Medieval Italy: The Life of Clare of Rimini (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), The Deeds of Philip Augustus: An English Translation of Rigord’s Gesta Philippi Augusti (Cornell University Press, 2022), and Courting Sanctity: Holy Women and the Capetians (Cornell University Press, 2019).

manuscript on parchment
Paris, Archives nationales de France, L 1020 no. 26A (sealed document issued by Agnes of Harcourt, abbess of Longchamp, in September 1266). Photo by Sean Field.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

The spark that led to this project was realizing, after twenty-five years of studying medieval saints and medieval women, that female authors writing about female saints give us some of our most intriguing and intimate portrayals of medieval women as founders, visionaries, and reformers. When a male author and a female author both wrote ‘Lives’ of the same female saint in the European Middle Ages, it is striking how consistently the female author is treated as an afterthought, an add-on to the more important (usually better educated) male author. This project intends to flip that dynamic on its head and consider female-authored portrayals of holy women as foundational for our understanding of the relationship between gender and sanctity in medieval Europe.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I am always surprised by how much there always is to learn by studying medieval manuscripts. Each manuscript is a unique artifact, and often a puzzle to be solved or a riddle to be deciphered. For the historian working with medieval manuscripts, research is nothing but a string of genuine surprises!

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I hope my research will bring new visibility to a set of creative female hagiographers who wrote during the European Middle Ages, most of whom remain deeply underappreciated by all but a small handful of specialists.

Natasha R. Howard

Project: Relationship Themes and Scripts in the Music of Black Female Rappers, 2012–2022

Natasha R. Howard is assistant professor of communication studies at Morehouse College. Her areas of specialization include Black women and motherhood, autoethnography, hip hop culture, and representations of the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and respectability in the media and popular culture—with a particular focus on Black women. At the National Humanities Center, Howard will be working on journal articles and a book proposal for a monograph on Black women rappers between 2012 and 2022.

collage of images cut from magazines
Photo of a collage of cropped pictures of popular Black female rappers from music videos they released in 2021. Image by Jimmy Hawkins III.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

I grew up listening to hip hop music, with the music of Black women rappers being of particular interest to me. Recognizing the impact that this music had on how my friends and I conceptualized relationship dynamics, style, and beauty standards, made me curious about interrogating the messages in the music and videos of Black women rappers today. What intrigues me is looking at how the music of these women reflect ideas and phenomenon about interpersonal relationships today, particularly among young millennials and Generation Z. Additionally, in examining the scripts these artists present in their music videos, I am looking to analyze what images and messages about womanhood they are presenting in their work.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

Having studied this topic for almost thirteen years, it has been interesting to look at how much has changed in terms of the themes in the music of these artists as it relates to relationships with other women. Previously, Phillips, Reddick-Morgan and Stephens (2005) found that a common theme in the work of Black women rappers was calling for solidarity among women. However, in my work I’ve found that in many songs of Black women rappers today, instead of championing all around sisterhood or female solidarity, there are more messages that focus on describing either individual friendships they have or insults to women they don’t like. While there are still some songs that have a pro-woman messages, overall female unity and solidarity is not promoted as it once was.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

By exploring the themes and scripts from the songs and videos featuring Black women as the primary artists, I am hoping that my work can be a bridge leading to more media effects research aimed at looking at the effects of these artists’ songs and videos on various audiences. Additionally, I hope that this research will reinvigorate work utilizing hip hop today as a cultural text that continues to bear examining in terms of the messages they reflect about cultural trends and phenomenon.

Karima K. Jeffrey-Legette

Project: Black Girls Write the Future: A Scholarly Investigation of Speculative Fiction by or about Women and Girls of African Descent

Karima K. Jeffrey-Legette is associate professor of English at Hampton University. Interested in African-diasporic literature and multi-ethnic American studies, she has written and lectured extensively on topics related to cultural/cross-cultural expression. Her particular interest is in the response that scholars/writers have to colonization or oppression. Her current project, “Black Girls Write/Right The Future: Speculative Fiction by or about Black Women and Girls” continues the conversation, examining contributions to fiction, music, and animation/comics. In this instance, focal consideration is given to women as the content-creators.

collage of movie posters and book covers
2018 UNCF/Mellon Black Girls Right/Write the Future Teaching and Learning Institute poster

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

The driving question for this project is how empowering/disempowering renderings of African-descended women and girls are in today’s American popular literature and culture. In highlighting the innovations of writers like Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jeminson, and Nnedi Okorafor, I argue that the canon of African American literature has always been rooted in the fantastical (spirituality, conjurings, ghost-visions, hauntings, etc.). In addition, the project’s interdisciplinarity shows how others are comparably contending with what it means to capture reflections on race, gender, ethnicity/culture, and/or sexuality in their texts: for example, musicians and songwriters such as Solange, Janelle Monáe, and Missy Elliott, along with comicbook writers/inkers/animators who are further presenting provocative imaginings of Black women and girls in the mainstream media.

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

Undeniably, today’s entertainment is more diverse than it has ever been. Turn on your television, stream footage, visit local movie theaters/concert halls/performance stadiums, and you will be remiss not to discover various representations of culture, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic experiences/perspectives. This discovery is refreshing. In addition, it has been reassuring to see an increase in gate-keepers/content-creators—particularly in film (horror—a surprise) and the comics. However, deficits remain. Subsequently, a paradoxical “catch-22” dilemma: Audience=Demand. Demand=Content. Content creates Audience. Racist/sexist/misogynistic images will persist as long as women, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ individuals are denied equal “seats at the table,” but such invitations are linked with consumer interests and values.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I am trained as a traditional literary scholar. However, in doing this work, I am excited about adding my voice to a thriving field of cross-disciplinary work on Black speculative fiction. Along these lines, I have created a website, where I can blog on current topics. I will continue to tweak my syllabi, offering students opportunities to link their personal intrigue with academic pursuits (for example, research projects on gaming, Manga/anime characters, etc.). I am also excited about public lectures/conference presentations, whereby I can induce scholars and lay audiences to not only indulge in but think critically about popular entertainment. Also, I hope to explore pod/webcasting and other means for talking about speculative depictions of African-descended bodies, experiences, and perspectives.