Professor brings women’s history alive

T.J. Boisseau

T.J. Boisseau (photo by Vincent Walter)

10/01/2015 |

It’s spring 2013, and hundreds of women, men and children are marching across Purdue’s West Lafayette campus, carrying handmade signs marked with rainbows and phrases about equal rights for women, along with human trafficking, gay marriage and other contemporary issues.

“I realized that we really wanted to celebrate not just a single event, or even a single movement, but the broader implications of that event on social movements” says T.J. Boisseau, director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program and associate professor of interdisciplinary studies, who organized the march and rally to celebrate a century of civil action that began with the historic March 3, 1913, women’s march in Washington, D.C.

Boisseau, who arrived at Purdue in 2012, says she was attracted to the university in part because of the abundance of women’s and gender studies historians. Around one-third of history faculty, for instance, study women in such places and times as modern-day Japan, 17th century Spain, and Tudor and Stuart England.

Boisseau contributes to this scholarly abundance through books, chapters and articles on white women’s colonialist travel writing and explorer celebrity status, women’s participation in worlds’ fairs and international exhibitions, black women’s emancipatory autobiographical writing, women and men’s encounters with American cinema abroad, and the state’s construction of women’s legal and constitutional status under United States law. All of this research informs her teaching.

“I don’t recommend the practice of tokenism, but it is clear when you see instructors include even one unit or one source that is centered on a woman’s life, often the female students come alive in the classroom,” Boisseau says. “I don’t have a study to support this, but it would not be surprising to find that women are more interested in the topic of history when you draw your attention to the roles that women have played — instead of allowing the assumption to be perpetuated that women didn’t do anything until about 20 years ago.”

Outside of the classroom, Boisseau uses events like the 2013 march to bring history alive in a way that the written word can’t. “As a historian, I’m pretty convinced that understanding the past, remembering it, and using it as a springboard for present and future action is absolutely crucial” she says.

-Angie Roberts
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