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Meet the Fellows: 2017 Women’s Studies Fellow Anne Gray Fischer

The Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies supports the final year of dissertation writing for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences whose work addresses women’s and gendered issues in interdisciplinary and original ways. The 2017 class of Fellows includes Anne Gray Fischer, doctoral candidate in history at Brown University. In her dissertation Arrestable Behavior: Women, Police Power, and the Making of Law-and-Order America, 1930–1980, Ms. Gray Fischer examines the sexual policing of women as the sexual and racial politics of American cities underwent massive transformations across the twentieth century. Here, she reflects on aa token from her research:

Of all the mementos I have acquired through my research on the sexual policing of women, the item I treasure the most is a white t-shirt that hangs on my office wall. Designed by members of the Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts (PUMA)—an organization of women active in the 1970s—the shirt was a gift from one of the PUMA leaders who, by an incredible coincidence, is my neighbor. On the shirt, a sphinx gazes straight ahead and across her chest a message reads: “I Belong to No One.”

I greet the sphinx every time I enter my office. “I belong to no one” has become my daily koan. When I first received the shirt, I read the message as a declaration of liberation and autonomy: nobody can own me. But on more despondent days, I find isolation and loss of control in the sphinx’s words: I don’t even belong to myself. Of course it is both. But the message, most importantly, is a dare: to affirm both realities at the same time. With this message, we can more fully appreciate how the women of PUMA transformed exploitation, entrapment, and violence into sustaining power.

In the early 1970s, sexually suspect women were refused admission to women’s shelters: one more path to safety denied. My neighbor and her friends in PUMA pooled their AFDC checks and created the Transition House, the first nonjudgmental women’s shelter in the region. A few years later, my neighbor taught herself how to push the institutional levers of power and secured funding for the Finex House, which is still in operation today, nearly thirty-five years later.

In my work, I have chosen to turn my focus on the everyday police practices of morals enforcement. But as I study the encounters between police and the women they target, the sphinx reminds me to center this story around her gaze—and the complex message she offers.


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