The Long Before #MeToo Project

The Long Before #MeToo project grew out of a student query in one of Dr. Pamela Stewart’s Fall 2016 women’s history courses on the Downtown Phoenix campus of Arizona State University. After reading Harriet Jacobs’ memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a student asked if anyone was researching the connections between what he termed today’s “rape culture” and what seemed to him – as a criminal justice student – to be a very long, deeply-embedded history of criminal sexual acts against women. He said that everything Harriet’s owner did to her fit the description of the behavior of predators, among others who believe themselves entitled to another’s body. He added that even though the institution of slavery no longer applied, it seemed that historical analysis might reveal much about the ongoing problems.

And that student was right.

Stewart responded by mentioning Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, and the discussion continued. Over time, Stewart wondered how to bypass adding additional readings and/or films to the syllabus and instead started asking herself how she could directly engage students in revealing more of that history themselves. Could they uncover that history and make it visible to a wider audience? More importantly, can any of us adequately address contemporary injustices if we don’t understand how deep their roots are?

In the Spring of 2019, students in Stewart’s HST 328: Women in U.S. History since 1880 class embarked on the first Long Before #MeToo art exhibit on the Downtown campus. As the project evolved, the objective became clear—to translate historical narratives of sexual violence into contemporary works of art that would educate viewers and spark critical conversations.

The exhibit proved to be life-changing for students, and the artistic breadth of the exhibition was impressive—from news-zines to visual collages, redaction poetry to a range of digital art pieces. The projects helped students overcome their own fears and biases while simultaneously growing their ability to articulate the deeply gendered and racialized history on which they were based.

The Spring 2020 semester brought a new, larger class of students to Stewart’s HST 328. Danielle McGuire, the author of At the Dark End of the Street, zoomed with the class, and a number of students used McGuire’s work as the foundation for their projects. Phoenix Poet Laureate, Rosemarie Dombrowski, also (re)visited the classroom to discuss the translation of historical and cultural data into both poetry and visual (collage) art.

Then came the challenges associated with COVID-19 and the attendant need to move courses and public gatherings online. But as Malcolm X famously noted about (inter)related contexts, “The problem is still here.”

Thus, Stewart’s students produced a web-based version of the Long Before #MeToo exhibit, with each student contributing their own page to the site, organizing it as they chose, highlighting their arts-based work and its historical context and relevance. And the results were staggering.

Rachel Caldwell produced a painting entitled Their Words Are Chains: The Case of Buck V. Bell to bring light to the court’s 1927 decision to uphold involuntary sterilizations, thereby grossly reducing women’s reproductive and human rights.

Jazmin Ramos produced a piece entitled Man Marriage, a phrase coined by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in reference to marital rape. The quotes used in her collage were excerpted from Stanton’s women’s rights newspaper, The Revolution, in which Stanton decried marriage as in institution “built upon misogynistic ideologies that ultimately stripped women of their rights as human beings” (Ramos).

Through their Long Before #MeToo exhibitions, Stewart and her students have (retrospectively) created spaces of agency and acknowledgement, outrage and memorialization. In short, they’ve participated in the cultural and paradigmatic shift of #MeToo by translating history into social justice art.

By Pamela Stewart & RD, TRR editors