2018 Essay Award Submission Guidelines

The deadline for submissions is 12:00 p.m. on Friday, April 27, 2018. 

Awards carry a modest cash prize.

Students may submit their own work or a faculty member may submit outstanding student papers. A student need not be a Women, Gender & Sexuality major or minor to be eligible.

  • There is a minimum page requirement of 20 pages, double-spaced.
  • Please limit submissions to a full length seminar paper. In the case of a senior thesis or dissertation, only one chapter may be submitted.
  • Essays must have been written between Spring 2017 and Spring 2018.
  • Authors are limited to a single submission.
  • If substantial portions of the essay are in a language other than English, please provide an English translation for the reviewers.

Please submit the essay electronically to wgsuva@virginia.edu and include the essay contest cover sheet.
Essay Cover Sheet

Prior Years Essay Winners and Titles:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award (Undergraduate)
Zora Neale Hurston Award (Graduate)


for the best undergraduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality

Brandie Quarles - CO-WINNER

B.S. in Biology, 2017

"A Place in History - Finding and WRiting the Stories of Black Bondwomen in Virginia"


Many historians have begun to tell more of the history of black-working women, especially, black bondwomen. As a result, recent literature has highlighted the particularly harsh conditions that black bondwomen had to endure, such as risk of sexual assault, being forced into marriages with other slaves, losing their kids, and having to work in the field as well as at home in the cabin. A common theme throughout this new literature is a sense of perseverance and strength on the part of black bondwomen in the face of such oppression. However, the oppression of these black bondwomen did not just occur while they were alive, the oppression persists in the archives written by their white male or female slave owners. The Virginia archival record itself dehumanizes black workingwomen in bondage by either omitting their history completely or by only telling their stories through the voice of a male-centric society that depicted them as either subhuman or inhuman. Historians can work to humanize black bondwomen by using the archive in combination with oral history and literary imagination to tell the history, imperfections and strengths included, of these women.

Andrew Kiser - CO-WINNER

B.A. in English Literature and Culture, 2017

"Coming Out of the Brook Closet"


This thesis is the first work of scholarship to define a burgeoning new genre of fiction, supernatural teen novels with gay subjects, or STNGS. I use three such STNGS as examples: Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey (2011), The Boy who Couldn’t Fly Straight by Jeff Jacobson (2013), and Caleo (Leech Book 1) by James Crawford (2014). Evolving from a tradition of Bildungsroman and the LGBT coming-out narrative, I argue that the authors of these STNGS mobilize the supernatural element of the story to help reconcile contradictory goals in LGBT fiction in general and the coming-out narrative in particular. For example, the supernatural element bridges the contradictory goals of an accurate representation of LGBT life and a more hopeful representation of it. I analyze the ways in which a cast of characters that hold common throughout these novels help define the genre as something wholly new, while at the same time rooting them firmly in a long history of LGBT fiction.

In the second section, I take a more critical approach, interrogating these novels as vehicles for toxic ideology about gender and sexuality that is reminiscent of pre-queer theory gay movements, more concerned with achieving normalcy than celebrating LGBT diversity. Then I change tack, showing how the supernatural element helps flip these critiques on their head, and make possible a reading of these works as subversive. Finally, I take a third approach, testing to see whether a stance less reliant on traditional modes of critique can better account for the affective and inspirational aspect of these novels, and rounds out our definition of this exciting new genre.



for the best undergraduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality

Laura Widener

B.A. in Women, Gender & Sexuality, 2016

"Women Over Tradition": The Interaction Between Invented Pasts and Rape Culture at the University of Virginia


A November 23, 2014 protest led by University of Virginia faculty and staff challenged rape culture at the University. Some participants held signs that read “Women over tradition,” and “Honor and tradition are not my ideals!” The creators of the signs reproached the reverence of tradition at the University by including these words in the protest. The posters provide a visual commentary on the link between tradition and sexual violence. This paper explores the interaction between invented historical practices and rape culture at the University. I analyze how people have debated the link between tradition and sexual violence in three distinct arenas: survivor narratives, fight songs, and student government. In the first section, I confront Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reliance on past narrative structures of gang rape survivors in her article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” in order to point out her role in perpetuating a “perfect victim” scenario. The second section focuses on a debate surrounding the song “Rugby Road” and whether it's lyrics promote sexual violence. Finally, in a 1993 debate between Jefferson Literary and Debating Society members, opinion pieces published in the student newspaper The Cavalier Daily revealed some Society members implementations of the University principle of student self-governance in order to excuse accusations of violence within the Society. Each of these cases demonstrates how University students, alumni, and administrators, as well as a journalist, exploited tradition to forgive or contest instances of sexual violence. Through their invocation of tradition, many excused or promoted violence


for the best undergraduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality


Alexandra Shofe - WINNER

B.A. in South Asian Studies and English, 2015

“Jesmyn Ward’s Female Vision in Salvage the Bones”


In Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward moves her female protagonist, Esch, from a position of passivity to one of empowerment. She utilizes a rich tradition of Black women writers and classical mythology. This allows Esch to begin articulating her latent desires and life narrative. However, Esch does not truly lay claim to her internal power and creativity until she embraces the destructive female role models in her life. When Hurricane Katrina devastates Esch’s home, she is truly aware of her capacity for self-creation and empowerment. 

Sarah Hainbach - Honorable Mention

B.A. in History, 2015

“’The Women Are The Devils!’: Winchester, Virginia and Women’s Narrative Authority in the Civil War, April 1861-March 1862"


Under the guise of sectionalism, the Civil War gave women the opportunity to expand their public roles. They participated in the war itself and in telling the history of it after the fighting ended. Through fighting words exchanged aloud with their political enemies and reflective passages set down in the privacy of their journals, these women asserted their authority to express themselves in the present and to leave a record for the future. Winchester, Virginia provides a window into this phenomenon. Winchester’s proximity to surrounding agricultural sites in the Shenandoah Valley and connections to centers of commerce to the East made it a favored site during the Civil War. Both armies aimed to take advantage of the agricultural goods and transportation routes that passed through Winchester. Several significant battles occurred in and around Winchester, and the townspeople had to contend with the nearconstant presence and movement of troops. Although some sources estimate that Winchester “changed hands” as many as ninety-six times, the majority of military engagements that the high numbers are based on were only small skirmishes and raids. Still, these encounters created emotional anxiety and physical danger for the townspeople. Notably, measures of how many “occupations” occurred in Winchester are largely based on the records left behind by civilian diarists, many of whom were women. These sources’ descriptions of daily life, especially women’s roles, during the Civil War are invaluable. For this project, I have undertaken a close reading of the primary sources left behind by the women of Winchester. In order to better understand the Winchester women’s place in the fighting and in telling the history the war, I have tried to identified the passages in which they themselves speak to the questions historians pose today about women’s roles during the Civil War. First, the women comment on the extent of their own sectionalism. They discuss how their sectional loyalties overlapped and intertwined with those of the people around them, including the men. Second, the women’s words illustrate the fluctuating distance between the battlefront and the homefront in Winchester. Their stories present questions about this change: How did the war’s continuously closer approach to the feminine domain of home and family affect the women that oversaw those domains? How were Winchester women’s daily lives affected by the war? To what extent did they consider themselves “soldiers,” or at least advocates for their political causes? With an understanding of the active public role of Winchester women during the Civil War, I argue that their experiences during the war allowed them to take on a new public role after its conclusion: that of chronicling the war’s events and passing on its history for future generations.


for the best undergraduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality.

Shannon Long - WINNER

B.A. in History, 2014

“Breathing a Lie through Silver”: Fairy Tales and Consumer Culture in Victorian England


For countless generations, fairy tales have played an invaluable role in preparing young children for the roles that will be expected of them once they reach adulthood.  These stories are both moralizing and aspirational; they serve as uniquely powerful and enjoyable tools of acculturation. The rapidly industrializing world of Victorian England facilitated a mass visual culture of consumerism that was readily accessible to many, especially in growing urbanized areas.  Like Cinderella at the ball, “dressing the part” was often the surest possible way for a savvy and attractive young woman to attain some degree of social ascendency.  In this period, centuries old techniques of moral suasion and notions of female beauty combined with emerging technological innovations and sociocultural ideals in a way that would have long lasting implication in the world of gender and consumerism.


Emily Lloyd - Honorable Mention

B.A. in Women, Gender & Sexuality, 2014

“Sexual Harassment Policy in College Athletics"


I am interested in how different university policies affected the likelihood that athletes will report behaviors as sexual harassment. To do so, I analyzed student-athlete handbooks from major universities throughout the country and found that policies ranged from being totally nonexistent to those with detailed examples of what constitutes sexual harassment within an athletic setting. I also examined the history of sexual harassment policy at the University of Virginia overall and within Virginia athletics to determine how policies have changed over the years.   Most universities, including the University of Virginia, devote a section of their student-athlete handbook to sexual harassment policy. My main research focus is to examine different policies in student-athlete handbooks at various universities across the country. I analyzed these policies with the intent to determine what qualities make certain policies better than others.

Jennifer Mueller - Honorable Mention

B.A. in Anthropology & Biology, 2014

“The Improvement of Maternal Health Outcomes in Rural Morocco"


In the past 5-7 years, the maternal mortality ratio in Morocco has decreased by 60%. The presence of skilled birth attendants (most often midwives) greatly reduces the incidence of maternal or infant death during childbirth. Midwives also work to increase the uptake of maternal health services by implementing pre-natal health classes and post-natal checkups.  They serve as advocates for family planning and contraception. Additionally, basic infrastructure interventions, such as improvement of road quality and implementation of free ambulatory services, are vital to the mitigation of the “three delays” that account for the majority of maternal deaths. The elimination of user fees for delivery and the strengthening of women’s education and empowerment programs are effective methods to improve the health of women in Morocco. There still exists, however, a large disparity between accessing care in the rural and urban areas of the country, especially due to large nomadic populations occupying isolated regions that have a higher risk for complication and delay in childbirth. In these communities especially, cultural barriers relating to gender inequality and traditional health practices are also a major impediment. The focus of this research is on the attempts of the Moroccan government to address these issues and to implement the most successful methods needed to improve maternal healthcare access and quality.


for the best graduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality.

Elizabeth C. Cable

Ph.D. in Religious Studies expected 2020

"Stirring Being with Grace: A Queer Pneumatological Distruption of 20th and 21st Gender Essentialism, and Its Implications for 'God-talk' and Theological Anthropology"


In this study, I aim to elaborate a constructive pneumatology—seen as through a glass darkly, in contemporary progressive Catholic and queer theologies—that has the power to challenge, and transform, ways of thinking theologically that are profoundly informed by gender essentialism. This effort to disrupt gender essentialism may be framed as part of the ongoing liberationist task— to identify and disrupt human idols that, theologically, reign in the place of the transformative grace of God and that, ethically, hinder the flourishing of God’s creation.


for the best graduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality.

Abigail Post and Paromita Sen - co-authors

Ph.D. in Politics expected 2017

A Woman in a Man's World: A Gendered Understanding of Crisis Bargaining


How does gender influence democratic foreign policy? Although female leaders have become increasingly common as democratic heads of state, the literature on regime type and international conflict has not accounted for the unique set of challenges female democratic leaders face in crisis bargaining. We argue that, compared with their male counterparts, female leaders receive less support from the domestic opposition and are viewed as less competent by international audiences during coercive diplomacy. Using newly compiled data on the gender of leaders in militarized disputes, we find that females are more likely to have their threats reciprocated than male democratic leaders. Consequently, they are then more likely to forcefully escalate a dispute to demonstrate resolve --although these efforts do not improve dispute outcomes. The results reveal the need to combine the gendered leadership literature with the international security literature to understand how the increasing heterogeneity of world leaders impacts foreign


for the best graduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality.

Jean Franzino - WINNER

Ph.D. in English, 2015

“Harriet Wilson’s Prosthetic Authorship and the Abolitionist Stage”


This paper brings a disability studies focus to bear on the first known novel by an African American woman to be published in the U.S., Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig. The thematics of Wilson’s text raise the question of how, in 1859, to narrate an experience of disablement without either invoking stereotypes of black and disabled parasitism or offering up one’s disability for enfreakment on the abolitionist circuit. While Wilson’s novel critiques the indentured servitude of her protagonist and altar ego as a physically disabling captivity, it also offers Wilson’s disability as the very impetus for her narrative and its critique of Northern racism. Wilson writes in the preface to her account that “disabled by failing health, I am forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life,” thus representing disability as generative of intellectual and remunerative labor. Our Nig, I contend, inventively deploys tactics to short-circuit the power dynamics discussed by Saidiya Hartman and others, in which the “spectacular character of black suffering” provides readers of abolitionist literature with either voyeuristic pleasure or a chance to exercise self-serving empathy. Instead, the novel draws on the logic of the mass cultural form known as the “freak show” to write back to dominant ideas about embodiment and subjectivity. While white newspaper reviewers marveled over what they saw as the remarkable curiosity of black antebellum authorship, Wilson repurposed elements of freakery to break down the distinction between “actual” and “feigned” embodied identity, subtly attacking abolitionist modes of displaying the black, female body.                                                   

Isaac Benjamin May - Honorable Mention

Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies

“The Blessed Channel of Work: Gender, Power and the Union of the Women’s Foreign Mission Societies in the Religious Society of Friends


Historians have portrayed American Quakers as one of the most progressive groups on the issue of women’s rights, citing their commitment to women’s ministry and their extensive involvement at Seneca Falls. Yet there is a paucity of research into gender roles in the denomination during the nineteenth century, which were decidedly less ideal than historians have imagined. This paper examines the internal denominational battle among Gurneyite Quakers over the consolidation of local women’s foreign mission societies into a single unified women’s foreign mission organization, and argues that women endeavored to construct this organization as an counterbalance to increasingly powerful male assertions of authority within the denomination. The women who created the Women’s Foreign Missionary Union (WFMU) perceived Quakerism making a turn toward evangelicalism, and saw its increasing acceptance of mainstream Protestant practices, like having only male clergy, as eroding women’s authority. Holding leadership posts in the WFMU served as an outlet for a generation of women who in early periods would have been able to enter the ministry. These leaders conceived of the organization not as simply a missionary enterprise, but as a training ground for developing the talents of Quaker women before they could eventually achieve full equality with their male counterparts. At the same time this paper also is an intervention into historical scholarship on missions. Almost all of the scholarship on women’s involvement in foreign missions focuses on their impact on the lives women who were sent as missionaries or examines the imperialistic implications of such efforts, which neglects the fact that less than one percent of the members of women’s foreign missions societies went abroad. The use of Quaker efforts to create a Women’s Missionary Union as case study serves to illustrate the immense domestic impact of foreign missionary societies, which were powerful players in shaping denominational affairs. That these organizations provided institutional backing for a well-funded and networked group of female leaders and their followers is perhaps even more important than the work they did abroad.



for the best graduate essay focused on women, gender, and/or sexuality.

Jennie Doberne - Co-Winner

Ph.D. in Anthropology, 2014

“Let Israel Remember”: National Sacrifice and the Logic of Male Continuity”


In Chapter 5, “‘Let Israel Remember’: National Sacrifice and the Logic of Male Continuity,” I consider how posthumous sperm donation makes visible a gendered logic of continuity through which Israelis make meaning of tragic deaths of soldier-sons and their disrupted futures as husbands and fathers. I show how understandings of male generative power naturalize and nationalize differences between male and female contributions to the making of family and Jewish nation. By analyzing policy discussions, legal cases, and media representations of posthumous conception, this chapter attends to the ways the ideology of national sacrifice and the logic of male continuity intersect as Israelis conceive of procreative unions between young deceased men and older single women, who have never met. I argue that in these discourses, the transmission of continuity entails the exclusive procreative power of (deceased) known men (“the living-dead”) and the encompassing of (single) mothers within conjugal and generational relations. Men are constructed as procreative agents, whose “sperm/seed” (zera) conceives a child through the mother’s body; encompasses the mother-child dyad within his family; and engenders familial and national continuity.                                                   

Anna Ioanes - Co-Winner

Ph.D. Candidate in English Language & Literature

Disgustingly Beautiful: Affect and Aesthetics in Sula and the Art of Kara Walker


“Disgustingly Beautiful” examines the interplay between visceral sensations of disgust and aesthetic experiences of beauty in two works by African American women: Toni Morrison’s novel Sula and Kara Walker’s large-scale silhouette series My Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Both pieces draw out the ways that violence inflicted on black bodies has come to carry a unique burden of signification. Hortense Spillers, Claudia Tate, and Morrison herself have made the argument that readers of African American fiction have come to mine those texts for one of three rigid types of meaning: a sociological diagnosis of African Americans’ real lives, a reinforcement of white supremacy and racist stereotypes, or a political critique of structural racism. Moreover, these kinds of meaning are often signified through violence inflicted on black bodies. Yet such a reading overlooks the psychological complexity of African American fiction as well as the particular way such meaning is made through the affective exchange between texts and readers.

“Disgustingly Beautiful” argues that Walker’s silhouettes are primarily about this particular hermeneutic impasse. Her depictions of ambiguous violence—which often obscure victim and perpetrator through the silhouette form—invite, and then ultimately foreclose, an interpretation that can pin her work down as either racist or anti-racist. The ambiguity of her silhouettes has made her a controversial figure among critics, but I suggest that this controversy is precisely what her work is about. By refocusing our attention on the affective register of this controversy, that is, on the way the silhouettes provoke feelings such as disgust, I point toward richer interpretive possibilities as well as a better understanding of the interplay between the often-surprising physiological experience of affect and the social world in which it circulates. I argue that Morrison’s protagonist Sula shares an aesthetic approach to disgusting violence that mimics viewers’ stance on Walker’s silhouettes. When she has inappropriate affective responses to violence, Sula becomes ostracized from her community. She responds to horrific violence not with the disgust demonstrated by other characters, but with aesthetic interest. In this way, Sula has the “wrong” affective response to black suffering, but her emotional misstep enables readers to better understand the interplay between disgust and beauty, and between the social world and our phenomenological experience of it.

Jennifer Barlow - Honorable Mention

Ph.D. Candidate in Early Modern Spanish Literature

“Embodying Laura: The Poetics of Friendship and the Female Body in Sor Violante del Cielo y Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz”


Male poets of the Renaissance in Spain, such as Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-1536) and Juan Boscán (c. 1490-1542), often bonded with one another through shared literary activity while portraying women as intruders if they dared to cross boundaries drawn by a patriarchal pen. Whereas male writers developed a poetics of friendship based on the precepts of classical and Renaissance philosophies, particularly those of Michel de Montaigne, female poets explored their own models of same-sex bonds. Sor Violante del Cielo (1601-1693), a Lisbon-born Dominican nun, imitates and subverts masculine poetic discourse to unveil turbulent eroticism between women in her ballads. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), a Hieronymite nun of New Spain, also deliberately parodies masculine love discourse to address her friends and patronesses, Elvira de Toledo (Countess of Galve) and María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (vicereine and Countess of Paredes).

This study will thus explore Sor Violante’s and Sor Juana’s ideal paradigms of friendship between women and how they conform to—or deviate from—the belief that female affection should be spiritual. I will argue that despite both women’s hypothetical views that female bonds should conform to the classical notions of decorum and strength in absence as proposed by male thinkers, these poets’ actual expression of homosocial love is codified in intensely corporeal, rather than spiritual terms. Sor Violante and Sor Juana thus navigate the traditional course of Petrarchan convention while also exploring the uncharted territory of feminine poetic discourse. In doing so, they demonstrate mastery of masculine language while at the same time revealing its inadequacy for expressing female friendship, especially when it crosses class boundaries.