I recently lectured to eight hundred students about US colonialism for a course called Empire and Its Ruins. In the class, I introduced a quotation from anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler: “Who bedded and wedded with whom in the colonies … was never left to chance.”1 When I asked students to share the most meaningful idea they took from my lectures, many referenced this quotation. They did so because Stoler conveys what decades of feminist scholarship have tried to untangle: how political structures and social hierarchies built themselves on gendered and raced sexual relations. It speaks to Stoler’s influence that many of her ideas—that history is not just political action disconnected from daily domestic acts, that intimate relations are worthy of serious study—seem self-evident in 2021. That was not always the case.
I first encountered Stoler’s work in the early 1990s, when I was a graduate student in a reading course with feminist historian Kathleen Brown. Kathy had opened up her house to me and Jennifer Baszile, a fellow graduate student who worked on African American and Indigenous history. Over morning coffee and muffins, we explored intersecting scholarship on feminist theory and global colonialism. Kathy would discuss many of these readings in a state-of-the-field essay she published a few years later.2 While many of my male grad-student peers went for after-work drinks with faculty at Princeton’s famed Annex restaurant, I had a literal seat at the table in a burgeoning feminist community.
I still have a faded and marked-up photocopy of Stoler’s article “Making Empire Respectable.” Her work focused on European colonial practices in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries, and unfailingly centered colonized subjects as important historical actors. She asked what seemed like “a basic question: in what ways were gender inequalities essential to the structure of colonial racism and imperial authority?”3 Her answer offered what Kimberlé Crenshaw would later name an intersectional approach, and it connected the regulation of cross-cultural sexual relationships to the institutionalization of colonialism.4
In this and subsequent essays, particularly those gathered in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power (2010), Stoler convincingly shows how racial policy could be enacted through sexual regulation across imperial contexts, reshaping how we understand the connections between private life and public rule. Stoler took complex theoretical interventions and made them exceptionally legible to readers across disciplines and regional expertise.
Beyond the Objectivity Myth
When it came time to choose a study for my fellowship year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), I did not base my decision on which famed intellect had previously thought deep thoughts at a given desk. Instead, I aimed for a good view of the wandering wildlife. Nonetheless, when I arrived for my fellowship, I was faced with the names of those who had chosen study no. 37 before me. As my key hovered in front of the doorknob, I read the lengthy pinned-up list of the “Ghosts in the Studies Report.”
Academics traditionally talk about pedigrees as if our accomplishments derive from the intellectual bloodlines of advisor-student relationships. There are entire websites that consolidate academic genealogies. Ghosts add another complexity altogether. In my own work, I rely on scholars who use the idea of archival haunting to address how historical processes like genocide, dispossession, and enslavement create what is too often multigenerational trauma.5 The ghosts of CASBS, meanwhile, seem to be constructed more as friendly lingerers whose ferocity is in the imagined residue of their powerful thoughts.
So, at the door to study no. 37, I couldn’t help but look. And—because I am a historian who interrogates sexism and racism, as well as a digital humanist who embraces data—I began charting patterns in my study’s previous residents. The first 29 names on the list of ghosts were men. Seven were affiliated with Harvard—the same number as all those who came from US public universities combined. I believe that historian John Hope Franklin (1974) was the only Black scholar who had had the chance to enjoy this study’s bucolic view of strolling deer. The first woman’s name appeared in 1984, when Dorothy Cheney shared the office with her husband and fellow primatologist, Robert Seyfarth. While fewer than one-quarter of all fellows in study no. 37 were women, the post-1984 percentage of women tops 40 percent, a much more encouraging number.
Ann Stoler was listed as the study’s occupant in 1999. The “Report” classifies her as an anthropologist, even though many historians would happily claim Stoler’s work for our discipline.
Our intellectual genealogies are far more productive when constructed as a chosen family rather than a pedigreed one.
Stoler’s early scholarship challenged traditional approaches to imperial histories, which focused on politics, governance, and the metropole. In the early 1990s, the history of sexuality was taking shape alongside translations of Michel Foucault’s work and feminist and LGBT civil rights activism.6 Indeed, the Journal of the History of Sexuality had just been founded at the start of the decade. If imperial historians addressed sexuality at all, it was too often with misogyny and without theoretical sophistication. For example, the study of what one scholar categorized as “sexual opportunity in the overseas empire” implicitly foregrounded the male colonizers’ perspective, concluding that men’s natural sex drive, “even in its weakest manifestations, has repercussions on how men relate to other people and how they go about their work.”7
Stoler’s scholarship rejected such biological determinism. Moreover, it explained how colonized people contributed to—and fought against—cultural, social, and political meanings of sexuality.
As a graduate student aiming to undertake my own study of the intersections of race and sexuality in a colonial context, I saw a whole new world in Stoler’s approach, even though we studied different centuries and continents. Connecting sexuality to broader systems of power—historicizing the ways that the personal is profoundly political—helped me write a dissertation on racialized sexual violence in 18th-century North America. During a postdoctoral fellowship in 1995–97, I expanded this into an essay directly comparing the experiences of sexual violence for Black enslaved and white indentured women, tracing the practices and structures that made particular women vulnerable to rape with little possibility of redress.8
Meanwhile, at CASBS, Stoler was working on an article comparing North American histories and (post)colonial studies; it used “intimacies of empire” as a connecting thread across time and place. She had apparently read my essay: “Recent work, such as Sharon Block’s on comparative sexual coercion in early America, does what we need more of: She questions what counted as sexual coercion by examining accounts of such acts and the discursive categories of accusation. She treats the coercion of slaves and servants, that is, of African American and white women, in a comparative frame that tells more than either instance could alone about the historical relationships between social and sexual power.”9 I read that endorsement of my work when I was an assistant professor in an at-times less-than-supportive institution, pregnant with my second child while on the tenure track, and trying to complete Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006). The intellectual shout-out from someone whose work I so admired meant the world to me. It was an early lesson in the power of feminist citational acknowledgment—which I practice and pass on to this day.
As I sit and work at CASBS, Stoler’s scholarship still looms large. Perhaps due to the new-millennium zeitgeist, she and I have both moved toward critiquing the sources on which we base our work. Stoler published Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (2009), which analyzes archives as sites of knowledge production rather than just sites of discovery: the logic of the archive exposes colonial power structures. My own work in digital humanities has turned to digital corpuses and archives, including data mining the place of women’s history within historical publishing (sadly, smaller than many think), and exploring problematic algorithms that serve up racist and sexist results in a scholarly database.10
I take inspiration from Stoler’s critical archival study as I sit where she sat. (Did she enjoy the wild turkeys as much as I do?) My new work revisits incidents of colonial North American sexual violence that I first identified in the 1990s, in some ways reading against my own grain. I previously traced the patterns of sexual violence in early America; I am now exploring the expanding impact of sexual violence on individual women and the communities they inhabited through a feminist methodology that interrogates how we produce history. This approach leans heavily on interdisciplinary scholarship that troubles the meaning of evidence and archives, central to which are Stoler’s scholarly accomplishments.
Stoler and I share a commitment to the intersectional study of sexuality, gender, race, and colonialism. While she had the recognition of a CASBS fellowship while I was just starting out, we have both worked to be meaningful contributors to a field that is bigger than the accomplishments of any one scholar. I could not do my work without people like Stoler; I am equally indebted to the many feminist scholars who have never claimed a CASBS study—scholars like Stephanie Camp, Marisa Fuentes, Ashley Glassburn, Holly Miowak Guise, Saidiya Hartman, Jennifer Morgan, and Stephanie Smallwood, to name just a few.
Our intellectual genealogies are far more productive when constructed as a chosen family rather than a pedigreed one. I think that the study no. 37 ghost of Ann Stoler would agree.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Ann Laura Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures,” American Ethnologist, vol. 16, no. 4 (1989), pp. 636–37. ↩
- Kathleen M. Brown, “Brave New Worlds: Women’s and Gender History,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2 (1993). ↩
- Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable,” p. 634. ↩
- See Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (New Press, 2017). ↩
- See Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Julia S. Jordan-Zachery, “Beyond the Side Eye: Black Women’s Ancestral Anger as a Liberatory Practice,” Journal of Black Sexuality and Relationships, vol. 4, no. 1 (2017). ↩
- Michel Foucault, An Introduction, vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, translated from the French by Robert Hurley (Vintage, 1990). ↩
- Ronald Hyam, Understanding the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 384, 370. ↩
- Sharon Block, “Lines of Color, Sex, and Service: Comparative Sexual Coercion in Early America,” in Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, edited by Martha Hodes (New York University Press, 1999). ↩
- Ann Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 3 (2001), p. 838. ↩
- Sharon Block and David Newman, “What, Where, When, and Sometimes Why: Data Mining Two Decades of Women’s History Abstracts,” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 23, no. 1 (2011); Sharon Block, “Erasure, Misrepresentation, and Confusion: Investigating JSTOR Topics on Women’s and Race Histories,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1 (2020). ↩