Thursday, March 22, 2012

Julie Berebitsky

Julie Berebitsky is professor of history and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South. She is the author of Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood.

Her new book is Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire.

Last week I asked Berebitsky what she was reading.  Her reply:
My scholarly research interests have always centered on the question of how changing cultural understandings of gender affect everyday life, so I spend a lot of time reading about gender! I mostly focus on historical accounts, but I’ve really enjoyed two recent books that speak to our moment in time.

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, left my head spinning—and not just because of the wonderfully mix of poetry, comic strips, and even a recipe that keeps company with more traditional essays. My head was turning round and round by the sheer variety of gender identities the authors described. The internet has opened up a space for creating communities that would have been impossible even a decade or so ago which has been wonderfully freeing for countless individuals. I was especially moved by Julia Serano’s “Performance Piece,” which takes on gender scholars like me who embrace Judith Butler’s notion that “gender is a performance.” I’m still not convinced that it isn’t, but Serano offers an eloquent critique and reminds us that the punishments for transgressing gender norms are not mere theater.

In Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine offers a warning about the studies that make their way into popular media. All the talk about “biologically different brains,” Fine suggests, provide justification for different—and unequal—social roles even though much neuroscience research is deeply flawed. My favorite part of the book is when Fine looks at parents who say they engage in “gender neutral parenting.” Fine makes it pretty clear that even the best-intentioned parent can’t escape the influence of a pink and blue world. Ultrasound technology has even made it possible to engage in in-utero gender conditioning: parents who have learned the sex of their child subsequently use terms like “not terribly active” to describe yet to be born daughters! I never thought I would like a book about neuroscience, but there is plenty of humor and anecdote to make this a pleasurable read.

For this winter’s pleasure reading, I devoured Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), a novel in short story form. Olive, a middle-aged math teacher who is generally short on sympathy and long on criticism, is both extraordinarily clear-sighted and completely blind. And, though none of the stories are what you could exactly call happy, they did make me pause to reflect on moments in my life or in the lives of my friends—those moments that make a person feel both melancholy and deeply connected to the human race. Olive’s golden-age relationship with a widower was a bittersweet yet joyous confirmation of the need for and possibility of growth and compromise as each year passes.
Learn more about Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue