VOL. 112 | NO. 179 | Friday, October 2, 1998
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
The Center for Research on Women at the University
of Memphis focuses on issues of race, gender and class
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
The Daily News
What many people think Southerners believe about race and gender probably does not represent the average Mid-Southerners outlook on either issue.
Studies of race and gender issues are rare in the Mid-South, and many of societys views on those topics spring from research that has been conducted elsewhere, said Dr. Barbara E. Smith, director of the University of Memphis Center for Research on Women.
"This area of the South has been understudied relative to the Southeast and the upper South," she said.
"I think that is probably because there have been more institutions of higher education and better-funded institutions of higher education in places like North Carolina, for example, or Virginia.
"You have scholars there who have done a lot of research in the areas adjacent to them or the states in which they live, and so studies of this area have really been neglected," she said.
To address this oversight, the Center for Research on Women applied for and received a grant that will fund six research fellowships focused on issues of race and gender in the Mid-South.
The fellowship program, titled "The Making of Race and Gender: Memphis, the Delta and the Mid-South," is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
The fellowships will begin in the fall of 1999 and occur over three years. Applications for the two fellowships in the first year of the program are due by Jan. 15, Smith said.
Prospective fellows must have completed a doctoral program and selected fellows will spend a year in residence at the U of M.
"We are really interested in people who have some background in the social context and history of the Mid-South and who are really trying to deepen understandings of this area," Smith said.
She said the center is specifically interested in promoting research in three areas.
The first is the theme of migration, both to and from the South and rural to urban, as well as transnational migration into this area.
The second focus is on women, particularly on promoting the history of women in the Mid-South and calling attention to racial differences among women.
The third point of emphasis for the fellowships is varied aspects of culture, Smith said.
"We are interested in people looking at different aspects of culture and cultural dynamics, whether it be music, religion, recreation or the arts, and ways in which culture is a site for struggles over race and gender," she said.
The fellowships will emphasize the Mid-South is a unique environment with its own notions of race and gender, said Dr. Kenneth Goings, chair of the history department at the U of M.
"Its sort of amazing," he said. "Because we live here in the Mid-South, we dont really realize how unique the Mid-South really is. There simply has not been that much study done on the area."
He said popular perceptions of race relations and gender that are usually applied to all of the South are not necessarily applicable here.
"Given our history, given the population mix, given what is happening currently with the mixing not only of African-Americans and white Americans but a growing Hispanic population, there are some unique things happening," Goings said.
"Thats what were hoping people will be studying with these grants."
He said increasing numbers of people from outside the Mid-South are recognizing it as an "untapped, unstudied" area.
"We have a lot of graduate students from universities around the country doing doctoral dissertations here," he said.
Goings, who has been with the U of M for four years, is directing the fellowships along with Smith.
He said he has long been interested in race and gender issues and has been involved with the center since he came here 10 years ago.
"I try to make my courses and my scholarship reflective of gender as well as race, so its just sort of a natural tie-in," he said.
The Center for Research on Women was founded in 1982 to address womens studies in terms of university curriculum development and from a perspective that emphasizes diversity among women in race and class.
"Since then, race, class and gender has become a very popular approach," Smith said. "Its almost trite now, but at the time, it was not at all.
"The center was founded to do something that was really quite in the vanguard of what was happening in terms of womens study scholarship."
The center has done extensive work in curriculum integration and transformation changing teaching across social sciences, humanities and, in some cases, natural sciences to incorporate considerations of race, class and gender, Smith said.
The center also has promoted research on women of color and women in the South.
"The way that we pursue all of this really runs the gamut from things like this fellowship program to more research that is focused in the Memphis area that addresses issues of concern to women and girls locally," Smith said.
Last year, for example, the center conducted a "baseline study" in conjunction with the Womens Foundation of Greater Memphis that addressed the basic social and economic status of local women.
The study gave a profile of womens and girls situations in Memphis and the challenges they face, said Beth Dixon, executive director of the Womens Foundation.
It focused on income disparities, womens employment issues and discovering "poverty pockets" within the city, or areas most in need of help.
For example, a survey of Downtown ZIP code area 38126 showed 77 percent of households in the area are headed by females. Within that area, 27 percent of the population is unemployed, and 72 percent of the households live in full poverty. The median income is $5,433, and only 38 percent of the population completed high school.
Compared with the ZIP code 38139 in Germantown, where the median household income is $77,000, 98 percent of the population graduated from high school and the number of males and females per household are about equal, the contrast is apparent.
"We think that womens economic conditions sort of set the course for their futures, and a living wage is what we would hope for, not a minimum wage," Dixon said.
"All of the things that come with single households headed by women transportation problems, child care all of these things have to be solved, because they impact the children and their futures."
As a result of the survey, the two groups formed an Economic Task Force Initiative to look at issues that need to be addressed to raise the economic level for women in the area, Dixon said.
Another area being addressed by the Center for Research on Women is reaching girls at adolescence to address problems early.
The center has been working with Partners in Public Education on a program funded by a grant from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. called the Advocates for Girls Survey.
This survey addresses the needs and limitations of young women growing up in the Memphis area.
"We feel we could do more almost preventive work if we could look at what pre-adolescent girls need to stay on track, to meet their personal goals, to graduate from high school and just to sustain themselves," said Sonia L. Walker, executive director of PIPE.
"Adolescence is such a vulnerable time, especially if you are not feeling very good about yourself. So, we need to look at what it is that girls need to be successful and goal-focused in school and in their lives," she said.
PIPE and the center will hold a forum on Nov. 4 for women who are leaders in the community to examine the best practices for meeting these needs and challenge participants to work to help young women in the community, she said.
The Center for Research on Women also addresses other issues that affect women in the Memphis area, such as sexual assault and welfare reform.
The fellowship program is an interdisciplinary effort that will touch on many areas addressed by center, Smith said.
Goings said he hopes the program will open the region to a flood of scholarship on race and gender.
"What Barbara and I hope grows out of this will be a collaboration of people who are interested in ideas of race and gender and who will be supportive of each other as we produce this scholarship," he said.
"I think it has the potential of really changing a lot of what we think about in these areas."