Bowles-Smith presents on feminism

Rachel Russell

Monday Nov. 17 Visiting Professor of English Emily Bowles-Smith gave a talk entitled “Feminists: Tattooed sex objects, docile embroiderers, man killers — or women (and men) just like you and me?” The event, sponsored by the Gender Studies Department and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, OMA, was the first of three that OMA will present this term.
Bowles-Smith, who has an admitted weakness for long titles, has published several articles on seventeenth — and eighteenth-century female writers. On Monday, she read aloud a portion of an essay she had written on two works by Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn. She began with “Oroonoko,” a travel narrative that involves slaves in Surinam, tattoos and one death by disembowelment.
Bowles-Smith noted that while Aphra Behn would not have called herself a feminist — the term did not really mean what it does now until the late nineteenth century — the way that she writes about the objectified and “fetishized” body of one tattooed female slave is something worth considering in light of contemporary feminist theory.
Her essay then took up the theme of needlework and a nun who makes it into what Bowles-Smith called “gendered resistance.” In “The History of the Nun,” a cunning Isabella kills two pursuers with one needle when she sews a sack, carrying the dead body of a man she has already murdered, to her husband’s own clothing when he is about to throw the body into a river. This statement surely presenting something for audience members to ponder.
What does Bowles-Smith herself ponder when she isn’t dissecting travel narratives and nuns-turned-double-murderers? “I like to find ways of opening up conversations between historical literature and contemporary feminism,” she said. Fittingly, she closed the talk by asking several questions of her audience. One such question was “What does embodied resistance to gendered norms mean to you?”
Bowles-Smith was well-received by her audience which included many gender studies majors, some of whom hung around after the talk to chat with their professor. “I liked that she took gender studies, something usually studied in a classroom setting, into a public forum.”
For those interested in further exploring venues focusing on feminism, Bowles-Smith suggested two student groups on campus that meet to discuss feminist issues. V-Day meets Mondays at 7 p.m. and Downer Feminist Council meets Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., both in the second floor lounge of the Diversity Center.