Prague trip puts war in perspective for students

Members of the College’s women’s and gender studies program and visiting scholars spoke to a crowd of students at “Gender, Nation, Democracy: A Symposium” in the Business Building Lounge Thursday. The symposium was composed of two sessions and a keynote address.

“Gender, Nation and Democracy” is a certificate program of study taking place throughout the Spring 2003 semester at the College. One component of the program gave students the opportunity to take a study tour to Prague, Czech Republic over Spring Break. Twenty students attended the trip.

The first session of the symposium, entitled “Gender, Nation, Democracy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” was led by Ellen G. Friedman, director of the women’s and gender studies program at the College. Friedman, a holocaust survivor, addressed the significance of war in society and referred to the ongoing war against Iraq.

“We should recognize the relationship between war and the critical issues of gender, nation and democracy,” Friedman said.

She said that the family, women, children and life have become unimportant in the face of the “more noble national project of war.” Friedman is against war because of the irreparable losses that it causes.

“War is expensive – it costs almost everything,” she said.

Lisa Kirschenbaum, associate professor of Russian history at West Chester University, also spoke about efforts to memorialize the three-year siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Screenshots of Soviet political art and war memorials were portrayed as part of the presentation.

Kirschenbaum explained that political posters from the war-era stressed the female icon by displaying images of mothers holding children.

These representations were coupled with imperialistic images of men in order to combine the suffering mother and triumphant hero images.

The intention regarding the war memorials was to commemorate the Soviet victory while honoring the local tragedy felt by families. The idea of inclusiveness was significant in the construction of the sculptures.

“(It was important to) show the mothers, show the grandmothers, show the kids, show everyone,” Kirschenbaum said.

A keynote address entitled “Gender, Nation, Class and Post Communism” was delivered by Elena Gapova, sociologist and founder of the Gender Studies Program at European Humanities University in Minsk, Belarus.

Her address focused on the economic and political transformation from communism to capitalism in Eastern Europe.

Gapova said that many Eastern Europeans are now voting pro-communist and pro-socialist because they are nostalgic of the system that was in place before 1991.

The opposition to capitalism stems from the disintegration of Social Security and former living standards that included free education and free childcare.

“In this situation, dem-ocracy is under threat, definitely,” Gapova said.

“People expected a brave new world of freedom of speech and political freedom, not realizing that it would bring more opportunities to some and less to others,” she added. Gapova said that the objective is to “find a world that is friendly to those doing best in the market and still have political freedoms and democracy.”

The final session of the symposium, “Gender, Nation, Democracy in Practice,” was directed by Cynthia Paces, assistant professor of History at the College. It featured three panelists who are activists of gender, nation or democracy.

Paces stressed the importance of activism in our society.

“To me, activism is engagement in the world,” she said.

The first panelist was Alexsandra Vladisavljevic, member of the Network of East-West Women. Vladisavljevic spent four months demonstrating in 1997 throughout Serbia.

She explained that the democratic changes that have taken place in Serbia since October of 2000 have resulted in poverty and unemployment. She explained that 700,000 refugees have migrated to Western European countries or the United States. Vladisavljevic said that the situation is especially poor for women, who are not elected to high political positions because they lack political education.

“Sectors with a high concentration of women generally have lower wages,” she said.

“The problem is that democracy is coming without gender sensitivity,” she added.

The second panelist was Ashlee Stetser, junior international studies major at the College, who is involved in the Gender, Nation and Democracy program. She told a personal story of a four-week trip to Africa in which she taught children to read.

Stetser said that the drastic difference in culture she observed in Africa allowed her to appreciate the quality of life in the United States.

“Traveling abroad teaches you patience and compassion,” she said.

Janet Gray, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the College, was the final panelist in the session.

Video footage of Kunsan, Korea from the 1950s played in the background as Gray spoke of the American attacks on Kunsan.

She described the sexual exploitation of Korean women by the American military and expressed her frustration with the American system.

“I think what we’re all about now is bringing democracy to our country, reconstructing our country,” she said.