Interview with Sallie Marston
As we prepare for the Feminist Geography Conference we feature interviews with feminist geographers who have inspired our work over the years. In our first interview, we spoke with Sallie Marston. Sallie is a Professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. In this interview Sallie explains the origins of her work on scale and how feminist thought influenced her undergraduate and graduate studies. She also provides us with a list of inspirational texts from both inside and outside the discipline and introduces us to her work with the UA Community and School Garden Program.
Can you talk a bit about how feminist thought influenced your work on scale and geography? At their most basic level, those articles on scale force me to rethink what counts as and constitutes the political in really productive ways. Can you briefly discuss how those articles came to be and what you were thinking about or struggling with at the time you wrote them?
“The Social Construction of Scale” article was written as a foundation for a project I was undertaking on social reproduction and politics in the 19th century among middle class women during the Progressive era in the US. I had spent time in archives at Radcliffe College exploring several collections including ones on cooking and cleaning and household management as the new domestic technologies were changing women’s roles. In concert, I also looked at scecondary literature on the discourses and practices around “municipal housekeeping” which was a Progressive trope meant to address and remediate the unsanitary conditions of the burgeoning cities, including water delivery and waste removal systems, that were unable to keep pace with the growing populations.
While reading this literature, it became obvious that women were configuring their roles in the household as directly connecting to the local state due to their expertise over the household and the applicability of that expertise to the “urban household”. It struck me that scale was one way to think about the connections between the household and the city but the household was never mentioned in the scale literature. I read that literature comprehensively and it seemed strange and unfortunate to me that conceptually, the model was truncated at the urban (it included the urban-nation-globe in concentric circles). As a result, I began to think about what it would mean to include the household in that model and the paper was a result of that effort. I should say that, at the time, I felt the existing model of scale, though a helpful place to start, had many other limitations beside the absence of the household including that the “levels” related to mostly masculine activities. I felt as well too that it was highly structured and deterministic, and limited what counted as political.
What feminist geography books do you find yourself regularly coming back to?
I wouldn’t say that there is any one text or even several texts that I come back to regularly. I consult texts as they relate to whatever it is that I am writing or teaching or thinking and seek inspiration without regularity. I do, however, have texts that I treasure and recommend to others because of they way they’re written or because they made me think differently than I did before encountering them. Cindi Katz’s “Playing the Field”, Gerry Pratt’s “Spatial Metaphors and Speaking Positions”, Anna Secor’s “There is an Istanbul that Belongs to Me”, Katharyne Mitchell’s “Different Diasporas and the Hype of Hybridity”, Judy Carney’s “Struggles over Crop Rights and Labor within Contract Farming Households”, J.K. Gibson-Graham’s “The End of Capitalism as We Knew it.”
Was feminism an important part of your graduate studies or dissertation? How so?
Feminism was more important in my undergraduate studies than in my graduate studies and I think I carried what I learned as an undergrad at Clark into my graduate program at Colorado. I was at Clark in the early 1970s, in the early days of radical feminist texts such as “Women’s Work”, “Sexual Politics”, “Equal Rights for Women”. And at Clark, we read those texts but also, because Clark was then as now, an activist campus, we were encouraged as students to enact the feminist principles derived from them. Because of that, my undergraduate experience with feminism was strong in a particular way that it wasn’t just book-based. In graduate school, I don’t think there was a course offering on feminist geography at Colordao and I don’t think there was even a department or a program in women’s studies on campus. I think, as a result, I focused more on class and ethnicity in my work than on gender and its intersection with the former. In fact, as I was drafting my dissertation research proposal, which was historical, I discovered Tom Dublin’s book on factory women in Lowell (“Women and the Early Industrial Revolution in Lowell”) and I proposed to look at Irish immigrant women who did not work in the mills. I soon realized when I got to Lowell that there weren’t any kind of archival materials on Irish immigrant women in Lowell and in the materials I did use, they were largely invisible in anything but the census and an occasion news paper account of a death or disorderly public behavior.
I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1980s during the flourishing of the then new field of social history, an approach to the past that upended more traditional histories of great men and events by arguing for history from the bottom. Focusing on immigrants and combing the archives for bits and pieces on their experience sufficient to build an argument about what their lives were like and how they were shaped by the context in which they found themselves was a challenge in and of itself. Finding material about women and girls in Lowell’s Irish immigrant community during that period was not something I was able to do.
What recent trends or work in feminist geography do you find exciting?
I find J.K. Gibson-Graham’s work inspiring and so helpful in its opening up of a different way of thinking about how non-capitalist or peri-capitalist practices operate in the midst of the more explotative and voracious processes of twenty-first century capitalism. I also appreciate all the work by feminist geographers more generally, especially the work that looks to expose the masculinist tendencies in our discipline that dismiss or trivialize “minor theory”or research and writing that focuses on “the everyday” “the site” and other manifestations of prosaic practice. Kendra Strauss’s and Katie Meehan’s edited collection, Precarious Worlds: Contested Geographies of Social Reproduction, is the first example that comes to mind.
What was your favorite class during your undergraduate studies or graduate school?
A course taught by Cynthia Enloe in Political Science on gender and ethnicity. As well, I really loved a course taught by Martin Bowden in Geography called “The Culture of Cities”.
What are you excited to be working on now?
I am very excited to be developing a new research project on the effect of school gardens and garden-based learning on children in the low-income neighborhoods in which a program I direct, the UA Community and School Garden Program, operates. At the center of the program is a course that is offered each semester and links UA students to those neighborhoods through their support of the school and community gardens. The program creates and opportunity for university students, school children and community members to learn from each other at the same time that it connects the university to the community in important political ways. In the research project I am developing on the school gardens I hope to understand how learning in and through school gardens shapes subjectivity—the “who” behind the “I”—and the solidarities that might be forged between that self and surrounding communities of others. I believe the work is interesting and important because, it seems to me, that these solidarities are critical to the realization of a capacity to act ethically toward institutions and environments as well as technologies and organic and inorganic life.
Are there any other activities or conversations outside of research and teaching that you are a part of on campus or in the community? Can you tell us a bit about that?
My role as director of the UA Community and School Garden Program engages me on a regular basis with the local school system, the Tucson Unified School District, including teachers, administrators and the school board, as well as local food activists, city government, and philanthropists. The conversation we have is about the failure of state government to commit adequate resources to our schools and the effects of this deliberate disinvestment on children, especially poor children in underresourced schools. That conversation also enables an opportunity for the university to become more directly involved in social justice activism around educational opportunity.
Are there any books (academic or not) that you have read recently that you would like to recommend to us?
Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts
Julie Schumake’s Dear Committee Members: a Novel
Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning
Zachary Lazar’s Sway: a Novel