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Getting Medieval: Have We Really Progressed?

By Dr. Linda Mitchell, Martha Jane Phillips Starr Missouri Distinguished Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

I had just finished writing an assessment of a new book on divorce medieval-style for the promotion file of a colleague at another university, in which she had described the kinds of spousal abuse that might lead to a legal separation or divorce in the Middle Ages as being “of astonishing violence.”  Indeed, this author had written a fantastic book on conflict in marriage in late medieval England a number of years ago in which she described the kinds of casual day-to-day abuse endured by wives of the period as a level of violence no modern-day woman in the developed world would tolerate.  And yet, this ubiquitous abuse was not just overlooked by the church, which was more interested in the stability of marriage than in the safety of the people within the marriage, but also by wives whose husbands were trying to dissolve their marriages.  Her estimation was that women were also concerned more with their financial security and social condition than, perhaps, their own safety.

I have heard this argument before: the period we know as “medieval” was 1) unusually violent; 2) prone to extreme levels of violence against women; 3) like nothing the West now experiences in terms of both phenomena.  And for a long time, I accepted this notion as a given.  As the years have gone on, however, I have wondered about the characterization of medieval violence against women as “nothing like” today.  And then there appeared an article in the New York Times of 18 August 2013: “A Call for Aid, Not Laws, to Help Women in Italy.”  Apparently, in the decade between 2002 and 2012, an average of one woman every two days was KILLED by her husband/partner/ex-partner in Italy.  These are not just poor women, or immigrant women, although the situation is very dire especially for North African refugee women.  This level of violence is just the tip of the iceberg.  According to the article, 32 percent (according to a UN report) of women in Italy experience daily abuse; 90 percent of rapes go unreported; there are only 500 spaces available in battered women’s shelters (instead of the recommended 5,700); and the most typical advice for women who are abused is that they should “stay home” because there are no services available to them to provide counseling, protection, or financial assistance.  Sounds pretty medieval, eh?

In one way Italy has progressed beyond the Middle Ages: The Italian government has decided to beef up the punishment for perpetrators of abuse.  Unfortunately, they have not addressed the real problem, which is that the laws that are already in place are overlooked, unobserved, and dismissed.  The notion that a man has the right to kill his wife or partner/ex-partner with impunity because he is “moved by passion” is still alive and well in Italy.

The article on Italy was horrifying, but how effective are laws against abuse, against bullying, against violence directed at women and children, against exploitation of women and children in the United States?  How many spaces are available in the USA for women in need of shelter against an abusive spouse or partner?  How willing are the law enforcement agencies—including those of the military—to address this persistent problem in ways that are actually helpful to women?  How often are women told that they are the ones responsible for the abuse they endure?  And, perhaps most importantly, how willing are family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and strangers on the street to challenge abuse when they see it; to confront the abusers; to take action to protect and support the victims?

As we begin this new school year, I wish that everyone even remotely involved in the life of UMKC would take a pledge not to look the other way when witnessing abuse or bullying.  We all need to LEAN IN: to reject the idea that uninvolvement is the best course of non-action; to challenge and confront such behaviors and demand that the victims gain the protection and advocacy they need; to reject social, cultural, and religious conventions that blame women for being women and that consider women to be inferior or exploitable.  This is what feminism is all about:  not just the revolutionary notion that women are PEOPLE, but also that no one in today’s world should experience the kinds of horrors discussed as so casually occurring in the medieval world.


Dr. Jennifer Phegley Awarded the 2013 Curran Fellowship for Research and the WGS Faculty Research Grant

Dr. Jennifer Phegley, Professor and Co-Chair, Department of English, was awarded the 2013 Curran Fellowship for Research on the 19th-Century Press by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals.  She also recently received a Women’s and Gender Studies Faculty Research Grant for her project on mid-19th century niche-market periodicals for women, boys, and girls.

Dr. Phegley and Miun Gleeson received funding from a Friends of the Library Grant for the purchase of Fanny Trollope’s series of wedlock and widow novels.

Dr. Phegley was invited by the 18th- and 19th-Century Studies Group at the University of Missouri-Columbia to present “Victorian Girls Gone Wild: Matrimonial Advertising in the London Journal and Bow Bells” on March 8.  She also conducted a workshop on “Approaches to Scholarship in Transatlantic Nineteenth-Century Studies” at the Kansas State University English Department Graduate Student Conference on March 30.



Dr. Virginia Blanton Awarded a 2013 NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grant

Dr. Virginia Blanton, English; Dr. Jeff Rydberg-Cox, English and Classics; and Dr. Nathan Oyler, Chemistry have been awarded a 2013 National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Startup Grant for their proposal A Digital Studio for the Optical and Chemical Analysis of Manuscripts and Printed Books.  The grant provides $59,896 to begin a project in which they will analyze the chemical properties of inks as examined under various light frequencies.


Recent Publications from Dr. Kristi Holsinger, Dept of Criminal Justice & Criminology

We are pleased to announce recent publications for Dr. Kristi Holsinger, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.


Teaching Justice: Solving Social Justice Problems through University Education. Farnham, England: Ashgate.

Refereed Articles

Submitted:   Hodge, Jessica and Kristi Holsinger, “Assessing the Status of Gender-Specific Programs through the Lens of Juvenile Justice Staff.” Submitted to Feminist Criminology.

Forthcoming:   Joanne Belknap, Kristi Holsinger and Jani S. Little, “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth in Juvenile Facilities.” In Dana Peterson and Vanessa R. Panfil (eds.), The Handbook of LGBT Communities, Crime, and Justice. Springer Science + Business Media Publishing.

“The Feminist Prison.” In Frank Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson, and Mary K. Stohr (eds.), The American Prison: Imagining a Different Future. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Joanne Belknap and Kristi Holsinger, “The Gendered Nature of Risk Factors for Delinquency: A Pathways Approach.”  In Meda Chesney-Lind and  Lisa J. Pasko (eds.), Girls, Women, and Crime: Selected Readings, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [article reprint]

Joanne Belknap, Kristi Holsinger and Jani S. Little, “Sexual Minority Status, Abuse, and Self-Harming Behaviors among Incarcerated Delinquent Girls.” Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 5:1-13.

Kristin A. Bechtel, Leanne Fiftal Alarid, Alexander Holsinger and Kristi Holsinger, “Predictors of Domestic Violence Prosecution in a State Court.” Victims and Offenders, 7:143-160.

Joanne Belknap and Kristi Holsinger, “The Gendered Nature of Risk Factors for Delinquency: A Pathways Approach.” In Stacy L. Mallicoat, Women and Crime: A Text/Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [article reprint]


Grant Work

“Evaluation of the Development and Implementation of Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) Protocols and Policies in Johnson County, Kansas.” Vera Institute of Justice. With Dr. Toya Like-Haislip.


WGS Faculty and Graduate Student Research Grants Announced

The UMKC Women’s & Gender Studies Program is pleased to announce that the following faculty and graduate students have been awarded research grants in April 2013:

Faculty Awards

  • Brenda Bethman (WGS and Foreign Languages and Literatures): “Site Visit for Study Abroad Program to Senegal”
  • Miriam Forman-Brunell (History): “Girls in America: A History of Girlhoods”
  • Jane Greer (English):  “On Pins and Needles: Working-Class Women &the Rhetoric of Organized Labor at the Donnelly Garment Company”
  • Kathy Krause (Foreign Languages and Literatures): “The Gendered Visages of Allegorical Narrative in BnF fr. 378”
  • Jennifer Phegley (English):  “‘A Mania for Founding Magazines’: Samuel Beeton, John Maxwell, and the Development of Periodicals for Women and Children in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England”

Graduate Student Award

  • William Brent Wright (English MA): “Emma Goldman and Mother Earth: Incubators for Anarcho-Feminism”

Congratulations to the recipients!

WGS Director Awarded Fulbright Grant

Brenda Bethman, director of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program and the UMKC Women’s Center, and Affiliated Faculty in German in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures, has been awarded a Fulbright Grant to attend the 2013 Baden-Württemberg Seminar for American Faculty in German and German Studies. The award includes seminar fees, room and board, and travel to/from Germany. Participants must be teaching at U.S. universities and only 15 are selected.

The German-American Fulbright Commission describes the seminar as offering “professional development in all areas relevant to the teaching of German Studies including German Language, Literature, Culture, Professional Education, Politics and Higher Education.” It will be held June 9-22, 2013. The primary location is University of Tübingen in the state of Baden-Württemberg, but the program also includes visits to other universities in the state.

The Feminist Prison – Dr. Kristi Holsinger, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology

It was a surprising email.  A prestigious professor from graduate school wrote out of the blue asking me to write a book chapter for a new book he had envisioned and recently received a contract for.  The book title was The American Prison: Imagining a Different Future.  Great idea!  I am not a big fan of many aspects of our current correctional system, not to mention the fact that we are #1 in the world in terms of incarceration rates.  The chapter topics in the book proposal were interesting; for example, “The Faith-Based Prison,” “The Racially Just Prison,” “The Healthy Prison,” and “The Green Prison.”

The book chapter the professor had in mind for me was “The Feminist Prison.”  Honestly, I could hardly get my head around it — isn’t this term an oxymoron?  Nothing about the word “prison” connects in any meaningful way to the word “feminism” for me.  Yet I was intrigued at the possibility of thinking more creatively about what a “feminist prison” might look like.

The book comes out this month.  I hope you will request the book or the book chapter through our inter-library loan system.  I welcome dialogue (or even an email) about my attempts to connect these two seemingly contradictory words and envision a vastly different prison system for women.

Holsinger, K. (2013). The Feminist Prison. In F. Cullen, C.L. Johnson, and M.K. Stohr (eds.), The American Prison: Imagining a Different Future (pp. 87-110). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dr. Holsinger received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati.  Her areas of research and interest are Juvenile Justice; Women, Crime and Criminal Justice; Corrections; Gender-Responsive Policies and Programs; Mentoring; and Restorative Justice.

“Latina Spiritualities” – A Lecture by Professor Lara Medina

 Join us for a special presentation by Dr. Lara Medina, California State University at Northridge

“Latina Spiritualities: Paths of Creativity and Responsibility”

Thursday, April 25th

6:00 ~ 7:30 p.m.

Katz Hall 101

Reception will follow the lecture

Dr. Medina’s presentation will provide an overview of the diverse strands of Mexican American/Chicana spiritualities, beginning with an historical perspective on our indigenous lineages, the impact of Christianity, and ongoing creative strategies to sustain spiritual and political activism.  This event is sponsored by Latina/Latino Studies Program, Women’s & Gender Studies Program,  and the Bernardin Haskell Lecture Series Fund.

The lecture is open to UMKC students, faculty, and staff, and members of the Kansas City community.



A History of Kansas City Women Making History – Fall 2013

Dr. Mary Ann Wynkoop, noted scholar on American Studies, women’s history, post-World War II history, the Civil Rights Movement, and film history, will be teaching “A History of Kansas City Women Making History” for the fall 2013 semester.  Dr. Wynkoop is retired from UMKC, where she was an assistant professor in the Department of History and director of the American Studies Program.

The course will examine Kansas City women who made a difference in the city’s history. From the city’s early years as a rough and tumble frontier town, through its growth as both a major Midwestern farming and cultural cneter (both “Cow Town” and “Paris of the Plains”), to its current status as a major metropolitan competitor in the arts, sports, and economics, women have been central to the ways in which Kansas City has developed.  Major themes in women’s history will be examined through the lens of local leaders in social and political reform, economic development, and cultural advances.  For example, students will read about and study the suffrage movement with its famous leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but will also look at less well known Dolly Dallmeyer, who worked for the vote in Kansas City.  And students will learn about Dorothy Gallagher, who founded Guadalupe Center, and Claude Gorton, who fought against the Pendergast machine and its corruption.  Readings will include both a general women’s history text and individual articles about Kansas City women.

The class will meet Thursday evenings, beginning August 22, 5:30 to 8:15 p.m., at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.  The class is listed as History 300C, section 0001.

For more information, please contact the Department of History at UMKC, (816) 235-1631.