WHAT THEY LEARNED: Emily Mayer ’14

WHAT THEY LEARNED: Emily Mayer ’14

San Francisco native Emily Mayer traveled across the country to come to college at Haverford, but when it came time for the history major to write her thesis she looked no further than her own Bay Area backyard. Mayer, who also graduated with a concentration in Gender and Sexuality Studies, wanted to write about second-wave feminism and race, and realized that the Women’s Building, a women-owned community center and landmark in the Mission District, provided the perfect context for such work.

Her resulting thesis, “Bridging the Movement: A Geography of the San Francisco Women’s Building,” owes a debt not just to her hometown, but also to her advisor, Assistant Professor of History Andrew Friedman. “He is all about thinking imaginatively and paying attention to the craft of narrative-making,” says Mayer, whose post-graduation plans include working in community organizing in Philadelphia. “He pushed me to respect my characters and the story I was telling by reading more, writing more specifically, and thinking more exactly and intricately.”

What did you learn working on your thesis?

I learned a ton through this process. In terms of content, I chose a topic that centered on questions I wanted to grapple with in my personal life—questions like: What is the role/place of identity politics in feminism? How can people who don’t share identities form coalitions? What difficulties and joys do forming alliances across difference bring? And while writing my thesis didn’t at all answer those questions for me, it did give me an example of how people have struggled with these questions in the past, and inspiration to draw from in thinking through these things in my own life. I think history—and here’s a general plug—has an enormous amount of power to help us think about and better understand the problems of our present, but you have to choose to excavate those parallels.

What are the implications for your research?

There isn’t much academic work written about the Women’s Building, so I think that this work contributes to localized studies of second-wave feminism and queer histories of San Francisco. But I actually think its biggest potential is in contributing to a more grassroots understanding of the Mission District. I’m actually more interested in translating my thesis into popular history than I am in bringing it to academic sources. I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of turning my thesis into a walking tour of the Mission and the Women’s Building, especially as the neighborhood gentrifies and so much of its previous, more gritty, history is lost to the sterile cafes and storefronts popping up to serve a tech elite moving into the neighborhood. Preserving and teaching the recent history of the neighborhood, in which people of all kinds came together against police brutality, displacement of the poor, and indigenous rights, might help current residents imagine a set of possibilities and solidarities that they might not otherwise.

 

Photo courtesy of the Women’s Building.

“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014. 

 

 

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