Above the table in MIT professor Lerna Ekmekcioglu’s office is a black-and-white photograph from the 20th century in a gilded frame. 20s beauty pageants. The Jazz Age image features white girls in white dresses. There is an unsettling commonality between the women in the photo.
“I found it at a garage sale,” Ekmekcioglu recalls, “and I thought it neatly encapsulated my evolving approach to feminist thought, at least for me.
Across the side of the office, at the entrance to the wall, is a piece of white backing board with a series of images pasted on it. A highly influential feminist publication and women’s magazine, Hay Gin and its founder and editor Hayganush Markis the base of a collage surrounded by images of socially marginalized women.
The social and political distance between those photos is part of Ekmekcioglu’s fascinating journey and exploration of her feminism, which focuses on both Turkish and Armenian heritage and underrepresented women around the world.
On the study of identity in the socio-political margins
Today, Ekmekcioglu, MIT’s McMillan-Stewart Associate Professor of History, is the director of MIT Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and professor since 2011, focuses on the work of leading feminists such as bell hooksher research on the foundation of Turkish-Armenian feminism, connections between those feminists, and scholarship among other underserved populations for her continuing education.
“Groups of people with dark pasts share experiences,” she asserts. “What happens to marginalized groups in segregated groups?”
Ekmekcioglu says that what happens is that these people live with many dilemmas: resisting patriarchy and inequality, while also committing to their “group”, a shared experience. “The group is based on tradition, and many traditions are patriarchal and give women only certain limited rights and responsibilities,” she continues.
On barriers to inclusion
Ekmekcioglu’s work stems in part from a desire to understand the sociopolitical underpinnings of the marginalization of some cultures and, more broadly, to understand the world around her.
“I wanted to understand the story of people like me,” she says.
These people, she notes, are indigenous feminists and others whose identities are rooted in systems that favor patriarchy. She notes that these identities are historically difficult for women to occupy. In the age of Me Too, her work weaves these strands of research together into a vast and colorful tapestry that spans many years. She observes that individual communities such as feminists are rooted in nationalism.
“Feminism is a product of nationalism,” Ekmekcioglu continues.
Ekmekcioglu’s tracks range from the intersection of women’s multiple identities to the calls for restorative justice troubling some of the world’s underserved communities.
On building alliances and exploring solutions
When asked about how to overcome the challenges faced by feminists, Ekmekcioglu recommends continuing education.
“The barriers remain,” she says, “but I think it’s helping to advance the science, raise awareness, and build alliances among the people doing this work.”
Ekmekcioglu also notes that people clinging to power is historically part of the human condition. A community of scholars emerging from marginalized communities continues to bridge the gap between the 20th century. of 1920s girl beauty pageants and her inclusive brand of Turkish-Armenian feminism.
“Bacon fanatic. Social media enthusiast. Music practitioner. Internet scholar. Incurable travel advocate. Wannabe web junkie. Coffeeaholic. Alcohol fanatic.”