Hangin' with the NWSA

Beverly Guy-Sheftall 77PhD

By Susan M. Carini 04G

What difference does a president make? It is a question pricking the national consciousness as the country’s first African American president, Barack Obama, passes the midpoint of his first term. But the influence of presidents is just as vigorously debated in less-grand contexts.

Take, for instance, the past president of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), Beverly Guy-Sheftall 84PhD. Guy-Sheftall has quite a record of achievement since precociously entering Spelman College at the age of sixteen to major in English. In 1971 she returned there to teach English and so began a trajectory of feminist and scholarly accomplishment that is, in many ways, unequaled. She is the founder of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies there. Her Emory ties include receiving her PhD in American studies in 1984 as part of the Institute of Liberal Arts and having served as an adjunct associate professor of women's studies.

Among many publications she has produced throughout her career, Guy-Sheftall is coeditor of the first anthology of black women’s literature, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature and a founding coeditor of Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. Yet neither is she a prisoner of the ivy tower. Guy-Sheftall has been involved with the National Black Women’s Health Project, the National Council for Research on Women, and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Social justice is as vital to her as oxygen, so she has raised her voice for women’s reproductive rights and against intimate partner violence and misogynist images of women in hip hop.

The question is, how could someone with this level of engagement find the time to serve a two-year presidency of an organization—NWSA—that is, to put it mildly, complicated. Though many interdisciplinary organizations—e.g., the American Studies Association—have large contingents of feminists and women’s caucuses of various sorts, NWSA is the only organization focused on women’s studies.

Founded in 1977, it has had its share of ups and downs, including a walkout by women of color from the Akron conference in 1990. In the aftermath, as Robin Leidner describes it (see NWSA Journal 5:1 [1993]: 4–27), “NWSA lost a substantial number of members, the entire national staff resigned, a governance-reorganization committee struggled to redefine the political structure of the association, and a search committee hired an interim national coordinator . . . to pursue community linkages and to make NWSA more inclusive.”

Guy-Sheftall readily acknowledges the NWSA’s historical peaks and valleys, saying that “even after Akron, there were flare-ups.” But she never gave up on the organization. Indeed, her personal and professional history is very entwined with NWSA’s. She easily reels off conferences that live in her memory: for instance, Storrs in 1981 (whose theme was “Women Respond to Racism”), where she met bell hooks and where Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address. Today, she can point to having taught NWSA Executive Director Allison Kimmich when she was in the Emory PhD program in women’s studies.

Several factors influenced Guy-Sheftall’s decision to run for president, foremost among them that a number of young women of color asked her to serve. She also had been involved with the Ford Foundation’s two-year, $350,000 grant to NWSA, which was designed to continue building organizational capacity, implement an ambitious strategic plan, and strengthen its Women of Color Leadership project through collaboration with Spelman. Says Guy-Sheftall of her decision to run, “What did I have in my favor? For one, I was not new to grappling with issues of difference in feminist spaces. I also was able to build on some obvious histories that we all could remember.” The membership saw the logic of her presidency, and she ran unopposed.

What were Guy-Sheftall’s goals for NWSA? She vowed to work really hard to craft what she characterized as a “vision for many feminist organizations: to become multiracial, multicultural, and multigenerational—and not just on paper.” More than that, she hoped to regain lost ground and once again become the voice of the field of women’s studies. And in the process, she hoped, the national conference would become more intellectually rigorous.

In the latter wish, she more than succeeded with the 2009 Difficult Dialogues conference in Atlanta. It brought down the house to have Angela Davis deliver the keynote address. (See video below of Davis commenting on Guy-Sheftall at the conference.) Says Guy-Sheftall, “We were gratified by the quality and range of the papers at that conference. But more than that, what people found remarkable was the conference’s spirit and the sense in which there had been a profound shift. Angela Davis’s presence made a huge difference. I am talking about her own history, the care of her keynote address, and just her charismatic presence. Maybe stunned is not too strong a term for what people felt seeing her there.”

It took a President Guy-Sheftall to get her there. And that is the point. Beyond the coup that getting Davis represented, Guy-Sheftall was able to bring back many senior women of color who had abandoned NWSA in previous years. It was done, she says, by recognizing that “women of color” is not a monolithic category. When one considers the presence of Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and so on, “all the ethnicities and the national context from which they spring make ‘women of color’ a very complex category.”

Beyond schisms about race, the organization also has suffered splits along theory/praxis lines. Guy-Sheftall was the perfect candidate, as she laughingly says, “to interrupt that.” After all, few women are either academics or activists; most are a mixture of both—including, you guessed it, Angela Davis and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.

Guy-Sheftall feels that the NWSA will be well served by new president Bonnie Thornton Dill. And for the women’s centers in the city of Atlanta—including the Center for Women at Emory—it is certainly good news that the conference feels comfortable here, planning to return in November 2011 with the conference “Feminist Transformations.” The “biggest challenge” to the well-being of NWSA, Guy-Sheftall notes, “is not the ideological complexities but rather ensuring that NWSA remains fiscally strong. That is a good place to be in.”

Is the person who could land Angela Davis herself a giant? Guy-Sheftall refuses the compliment, saying, “Say that maybe it was important that I, as a particular woman of color, decided to hang with the NSWA, despite its tangled and complex history around race.” Asked if she had parting words for her successor, Guy-Sheftall says, “Those of us who see ourselves as left, progressive—even revolutionary, if I can use that word—need to commit ourselves to big fights, but not fights among ourselves.”

The future of the NWSA assured, there is the equally important question of how the past president will fill her time now that she is no longer at the helm. “Simple,” she adds without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m going to go to the movies, spend more time with friends, and read all the books I’ve ordered that have piled up on my floor. I also will get to that memoir I’ve been threatening to write.” Oh, and presumably she will continue attending annual conferences every year without fail for the organization she just finished revitalizing.

Susan M. Carini 04G is a member of the CWE Editorial Board and Advisory Council, and is a member of the IPVWG Working Group at Emory, which is dedicated to supporting faculty and staff who experience intimate partner violence.


The Center for Women's Emerging Leader, Sasha Smith

Emerging Leader Award winner Sasha Smith from the CWEThose who have watched her on the job—prosecuting her duties with equal parts intelligence, compassion, and zeal—saw this one coming all the way. In November 2010, Assistant Director for Programs Sasha Smith won the Emerging Leader Award from the NWSA Women's Center Committee. Designed for those who are new to the field, the award—bestowed for the first time last fall—honors those who have "proven their potential to initiate change and contributed to the evolution of their centers by promoting social justice and/or equity in their community."

For someone so young, Smith brought a striking, multipage resume with her from the University of Connecticut, where she received an MSW in community organizing in 2003, focusing on urban issues and social justice. While a graduate student, she worked at the University of Connecticut Women's Center and became a program educator for the Violence against Women Prevention Program. Through it, she co-taught a rape seminar in the women's studies department and planned events such as Take Back the Night for the university's Violence Awareness and Sexual Assault Awareness months.

When she touched down here in Georgia, she didn't miss a beat. In 2009 she won the Campus Life Adviser of the Year at Emory for guiding the Feminists in Action and V-Day student groups. Smith is a former board president for SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW!, one of the major forces in the reproductive justice movement in Georgia. She worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 and is a DeKalb Democratic post seat holder for District 81.

Here at Emory, she can be as hard to spot as the wings of a hummingbird. In spring 2010, Smith deepened her engagement with students, faculty, and staff by doing extensive research, course design, and then co-facilitating the University's first Transforming Community Project Gender Dialogue group, an initiative that explores past, present, and future gender issues at Emory. In the words of center director Dona Yarbrough, "I have no doubt that the Gender Dialogue will become a model program for universities across the country."

With head and heart so thoroughly given to her job and community, it is hard to reckon how there is time for the other avenues she pursues, one of which is the advancement of the NWSA Women's Center Committee. In that regard, Smith helped organize last year's preconference and co-led the antiracism panel at the preconference.

In the end, says Yarbrough, "Sasha's character can perhaps best be seen in her response to her sister's murder at the hands of an ex-boyfriend in 2009. Sasha and her family were crushed by this tragedy, but she and her father chose to channel their anger and grief into creating the Tiana Angelique Notice Memorial Foundation, which provides education on domestic violence issues and gives legal and financial assistance to victims. Sasha also redoubled her work on intimate partner violence issues at Emory and in Atlanta by telling her sister's story at state rallies, to student organizations, and in newspaper accounts. In the face of such sorrow, her enormous strength and commitment to other women in need is inspiring to me and everyone else at Emory. Although she is still in her twenties, she is an amazing role model to us all."

And on that note, perhaps the rest of us should take a deserved breath for the NWSA's Emerging Leader, while she dashes to where her considerable talents are needed next.