Judith Butler, Renowned Gender Theorist, Takes Up Residency At Bryn Mawr

On Monday, preeminent gender theorist Judith Butler delivered her first lecture as the 2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer at Bryn Mawr College.

Butler’s lecture was titled “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear,” and examined, as was explained before the lecture, “how the right to appear challenges certain conceptions of the public sphere, why gender and sexuality are crucial for thinking about what counts as public, and whose actions are considered political.”

Butler’s lecture is the first of three on the topic of Gender Politics, Alliance, and the Right to Appear, which she has been invited to deliver as part of her three week residency at Bryn Mawr College. The Mary Flexner Lectureship brings leading humanists to Bryn Mawr College to present a series of talks that introduce unique scholarship or present new developments in their work.

Tickets to the lecture, which are open to the public, were sold out within minutes of being put online, said Sibelan Forrester, Associate Professor of Russian and member of the Gender and Sexuality Department. “She’s clearly someone people in the Tri-College community very much want to hear,” Forrester said.

Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Her most famous book, 1990’s Gender Trouble, is one of the canonical texts of queer theory and post-modern feminism. The book challenged the assumption that sex is biological while gender is constructed by arguing that both sex and gender are socially constructed. It criticized contemporary feminism for dividing the feminine into two socially constructed parts, and replaced it with the argument that “gender is preformative.”

Since then, Butler has published six other books and many other articles on anti-war politics, AIDS activism, and human rights. Some of her recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy and state violence in Israel-Palestine.

Nina Cohen ‘12, a senior at Bryn Mawr, explained that she was looking forward to the lectures. “As a senior philosophy major, I will be attending the three Flexner Lectures; these will be my first major exposure to Butler and gender theory,” she explained. “That being said, Butler’s work is very popular and widely read in the Bi-Co, and I’m sure she’ll enjoy a very engaged and knowledgeable audience.”

Allie Lee ’12, an English major, said that she has encountered Butler’s work in her courses at Swarthmore, saying, “her ideas resonate in a lot of the essays I’ve been reading in my “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies” course. All the arguments we have today that challenge binarism and the construction of gender and sexuality are bolstered by Butler or are in dialogue with her theories.”

According to an e-mail by Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe, the faculty committee charged with selecting the Flexner Lectureship awardee began its work in Spring 2010. The Provost conferred with Harvard University Press, which publishes the Flexner Lectureship, throughout the process of selecting Butler for the Lectureship.  President McAuliffe announced Dr. Butler’s selection in January.

The Flexner Lectureship is Bryn Mawr’s most prestigious endowed fellowship, and was founded in 1928 to by Mary and Bernard Flexner to honor Bernard Flexner’s sister Mary, who was a Bryn Mawr alumna, class of 1895.

In the 1990s, the Lectureship only hosted two lecturers, but was revived by President Nancy Vickers during the 1999-2000 academic year. An e-mail response from President McAuliffe explained, “President Vickers saw the intrinsic value of having scholars of ‘Flexner caliber’ in residency to work with undergraduate and graduate students, as guest lecturers in courses or in other curricular settings.  These opportunities enrich the students’ experience of the life of the mind, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.”

Cohen agrees, saying, “it’s definitely an honor to have a scholar of her stature at Bryn Mawr.” Lee thinks the Lectureship is particularly special to students at small schools like Bryn Mawr or Swarthmore, saying “I feel like we get less “superstar academic” speakers than bigger schools do and it feels like a rarer, more special event.”

Accordingly, the Lectureship has tried to create opportunities for students to interact with Dr. Butler. Tri-Co students who are majoring or minoring in either philosophy or gender and sexuality studies were invited to an RSVP-only “Coffee Hour with Judith Butler” on Thursday. During the summer the  Lectureship launched the online Flexner Book Club blog, where faculty member, two students, a staff member, and an alumna blogged about the texts on a reading schedule of Butler’s works that was made available to faculty, students, staff and alumni.

Tracy Kellmer, Communications Projects Manager, explained that she decided to start the blog so that “faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i, and other interested audiences could become acquainted and/or engaged with the work of the current Flexner lecturer. We started with Judith Butler because we imagined that there may be alumnae/i and current students studying abroad who can’t be on campus for the lectures, but who would be really excited about Butler coming to campus. We also thought it would be helpful to provide a “primer” on Butler’s work in advance of the lectures and a blog seemed like a great way to involve faculty, students, graduate students, staff, and alumnae/i, and to open up the discussion around her work.”

Butler will be attending courses at Bryn Mawr that deal with her work and that were scheduled to coincide with her residency. She will also be attending screenings of films related to or about her work, and leading three faculty seminars on the topic of each lecture.

Butler’s second two lectures will be held on November 14th and 21st. in the McPherson Auditorium, Goodhart Hall, on the Bryn Mawr College campus. The lectures will be published by Harvard University Press, and have been scheduled for publication in Spring 2013.


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