My name is Ana Stevenson and I completed my Ph.D. at The University of Queensland in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, I held the honorary position of Visiting Scholar in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. Since January 2016, I have been a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa. I now live in Bloemfontein, a city I had never heard of before moving here.
1. Describe your PhD research.
My doctoral research considered how nineteenth-century social reformers in the United States embraced a specific and problematic form of feminist rhetoric: the woman-slave analogy. Inspired Women’s rights reformers since the seventeenth century had compared themselves to chattel slaves to develop arguments about women’s subjugation in society, culture, and politics. This was a fraught rhetorical strategy; the woman-slave analogy was often used to emphasise the situation and concerns of privileged white women over that of enslaved peoples. But such rhetoric was actually ubiquitous in nineteenth-century American culture: it was embraced across a variety of social movements, from antislavery and women’s rights to free love; by novelists and slave narrators; in song and verse; by journalists and cultural commentators; and even by proslavery ideologues. My Ph.D examined how the theoretical framework of the woman-slave analogy was mobilised to contribute to these different and often competing political projects.
2. Why does it matter?
Women’s rights reformers and feminist activists, both past and present, have embraced variants of the woman-slave analogy. The fact that such rhetoric continues to emerge – for example, when the film Suffragette (2015) used the 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst quote, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” in its marketing campaign – and become controversial suggests lessons from the past remain crucially relevant.
Essentially, I hope that by better understanding the limitations of analogy throughout women’s history, feminists worldwide can begin to create more innovative and inclusive rhetorical strategies in support of women’s rights and intersectional feminism.
3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
Currently, I am endeavouring to turn my Ph.D. thesis into a book. Quite apart from the challenges that emerge purely from a writing perspective, the process of securing a contract has been an uphill battle. In the spirit of acknowledging that scholarly research is as much about failure as it is success, I’m now onto the fourth iteration of a book proposal. I’m really, really hoping it’s a case of fourth time lucky.
My new research project considers the impact of similar rhetorical strategies from the late twentieth to the early twenty-first century in the United States, Australia, and South Africa. In spite of the controversy race-based analogies caused amongst women’s liberationists and feminist scholars, particularly in the United States, their use has nonetheless continued unabated. Since the 1960s and 1970s, new variants upon the woman-slave analogy have included the sex-race analogy, the sex-colonisation analogy, and the gender-apartheid analogy. The latter in particular absolutely dumbfounds me. It is fascinating and disheartening to see how these rhetorical strategies flourish in both national and transnational contexts.
4. What do you love about being an historian?
The intellectual freedom of being a historian is the most exciting aspect of my job. Today I’m finalising an essay about transpacific women’s suffrage cartoons and beginning a book review about the writings of nineteenth-century workingwomen; yesterday I was editing an essay about Emily Hobhouse and the South African War. I am aware of no other job that offers the opportunity to engage in such a variety of pursuits. While nineteenth-century women’s history will always be my first love, I’ve recently found myself drawn back to the disciplines I studied as an undergraduate – mainly film and cultural studies. Being able to write essays on topics such as the anti-suffrage legacy in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964) and gender representation in ABC’s At Home with Julia (2011), for example, has been both fun and cathartic.
5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
I feel deeply lucky to have been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship so soon after graduating with my Ph.D. I love South Africa and it has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to live here. But in spite of the professional advantages, of which I am very conscious, it has also had personal consequences.
Since moving away from my hometown of Rockhampton, Queensland in 2009, I have lived in Canberra, Brisbane, Boston, Northampton, Pittsburgh, Melbourne, and Bloemfontein. This much movement has been as exciting and rewarding as it has been difficult and dislocating. Since 2014, I have periodically lived on a different continent to my partner of seven years; and since January 2016, this has been permanent. Currently, he lives in the United States and I live in South Africa, while my family and friends mainly live in Queensland. Although the stress of having no clear job prospects had previously dominated my concerns, these personal challenges now shape my daily realities. Having a fulfilling job and living in proximity to friends and family shouldn’t be an unreasonable expectation.
It has also been difficult to maintain ongoing engagement with Australian academic networks, and not only on account of geographical distance. Living in the Global South, in a country sorely afflicted by serious fluctuations in currency ranking, has professional consequences. This is a situation that Australian conferences do not account for, in terms of registration fees and travel costs. However, founding VIDA: Blog of the Australian Women’s History Network in July 2016 with Alana Piper has helped me feel more connected with scholars in Australia.
6. What do you find most exciting?
I am grateful for the travel opportunities afforded by my studies and career. While I didn’t pursue a thesis in American history specifically so I needed to travel for archival research, travelling has definitely been an excellent by-product. This is an aspect of doctoral research that I feel can often be overlooked by Australian Ph.D. candidates: library fellowships, travel funding, and other bursaries, both in Australia and overseas. It is a bigger step to then apply for jobs overseas, especially because ongoing rather than contingent employment should be a reasonable expectation as we begin our careers. But I think looking further afield can be both an exciting and ultimately rewarding prospect for early career researchers.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
If I had the opportunity to time travel back to any historical period, I would attend any significant nineteenth- or twentieth-century women’s rights, feminist, or women’s liberation conference. I would use such a providential opportunity to counsel the white women not to compare themselves to slaves…