Studying women’s experiences in areas of history not commonly associated with gender issues can reveal important information about politics and society, Dr. Alicia Decker told students and faculty Monday afternoon during the 22nd Annual Women’s History Month Lecture.
Decker is an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and African studies at Pennsylvania State University. She earned her master’s degree in women’s and gender studies at Makerere University in Uganda. Decker is also the author of the book “In Idi Amin’s Shadow: Women, Gender and Militarism in Uganda,” which inspired the topic of her lecture.
The lecture, titled “Gender and the Politics of Invisibility: Making Historical Sense of Enforced Disappearance in Post-Colonial Uganda,” explored the narratives of women affected by the abduction of citizens by the Ugandan government in the 1970s under the regime of Idi Amin.
“It was they, the wives, mothers and daughters of the disappeared, who refused to be silenced, who gave voice to a crime that was supposed to leave no trace,” Decker said.
Decker said while doing research for her book about gender and militarism in Uganda, people often told her enforced disappearance was not an issue that affected women.
“People kept saying to me, ‘You’re going to focus on enforced disappearance? Well that’s not for women. That’s all about men. Men were the ones who were abducted by the state. It wasn’t a women’s issue,’” Decker said.
In spite of others’ protests, Decker thought women played an essential role in the history of enforced disappearance in Uganda.
“Who are the people who are left behind?” Decker said. “Because if all the men are being abducted or running away, the whole story of Uganda in the 1970s is a story of women, and who’s left.”
Decker said the example of how enforced disappearance affected the women of Uganda shows how women’s history is relevant even in topics not traditionally considered from the perspective of gender.
“I use it to demonstrate how you can read women’s history into stories that aren’t traditionally thought of as women’s issues, and how you can also read gender into all kinds of political, military histories if you’re asking the right questions,” Decker said.
Every March, the history department has hosted a lecture in honor of Women’s History Month. History department chair Dr. Kimberly Kellison said in the U.S., Women’s History Month originated in the early 20th century from an emphasis on recognizing women’s labor.
Since then, it has evolved to emphasize the diverse roles of women throughout history.
Dr. Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué, an assistant professor of African history, said it’s also important to consider women’s history from a global perspective, since one lives in a globalized world.
“What’s really unfortunate about women’s history is that we tend to focus on only a certain class or race of women,” Mougoué said. “I think it’s important to look at multicultural women, or women in Latin America, or women in Africa to tell a fuller story of women’s history and to look at the diverse stories that women have been contributing to history.”
Kellison said Women’s History Month is still relevant, and studying women’s roles in history is important for all of society.
“We all contribute to the world we live in, not just men,” Kellison said. “So thinking about what women do, or what other groups of people do, or individuals do, is significant.
We’re in a society that recognizes that to a point, but we’re still not all the way there, so focusing on women exclusively still makes sense. It speaks to a lot of individuals about how we work collectively and how women are as important as men.”