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Female Violence as Self-Defense in 1970s and 1980s America

The project „Female Violence as Self-Defense in 1970s and 1980s America“ will explore the history of women, transgender people and armed self-defense in 1970s and 1980s in America in a transnational perspective. While most research on armed self-defense deals with men resorting to guns and other arms in the context of lynchings, the civil rights or Black Power movement and other pivotal moments in American history, historical scholarship has failed to address why, how and with what impact women and transgender people have taken up arms in self-defense. In order to bridge this research gap, the project analyzes armed self-defense by women and transgender people of different ethnicities in urban and rural America by exploring the racial and gendered dimensions of varied cases and how they related to the newly evolving feminist and other social movement activism in the US. In particular, the subproject focuses on the significance of racial, sexual and domestic violence in these cases and movements, and in what ways they challenged the understanding of the spatial public-private divide.

This project will delineate the acts of self-defense by women and transgender people in the context of two broader historical frames of 1970s and 1980s America that illustrate how violence and self-defense is constituted within specific settings and operations of power. The first analytical frame sets out to analyze violence and self-defense in the context of sweepingly changing race, gender and sexual relations during that time period. It aims to employ the intersectional approach in order to explore the changing cultural landscape and political economy of America in that time period. How and through what means have African-Americans, women of color, white women, and transgender people agents challenged such frames? We examine under what historical figurations and with what effects different actors can claim different access to the right to self-defense, which is tied to their different positions within U.S. society. A second, related analytical frame is informed by studies from the social sciences and more specifically from feminist human geography in the wake of the spatial turn. One of the important contributions of gender research in rethinking space is the attempt to disrupt the idea of the private-public dichotomy in spatial and – related to this – political understanding. Whereas many of the violent acts of self-defense of women and transgender people against men took place in closed or isolated places (e.g. prisons, homes), the court cases and reactions were often highly public events, accompanied by national and international media attention. At the same time, these cases were politicized and discussed in public by feminist (and other) movements, the courts and the media. Many cases were thematized and politicized internationally. The circulation and transfer of acts of solidarity, knowledge and strategies of civil resistance between the USA and other regions of the world are also a central part of the project. Therefore space and place are important in the construction of gender and race relations and in struggles to change them.

The project is part of a larger DFG-project on “Armed Self-Defense in Recent America: Intersectional Perspectives” in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Jürgen Martschukat (University Erfurt) and Prof. Dr. Simon Wendt (University Frankfurt), October 2018 – September 2021