History Professor Receives Mednick Award

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VFIC fellowship supports Kathleen Casey's social and cultural biography of the purse, "The Things She Carried"


Mednick Fellowship supports The Things She Carried, Dr. Kathleen CaseyÃÃâ,ÃâNews Release | June 2, 2016

Kathleen Casey, Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Wesleyan College, has been awarded the Maurice L. Mednick Memorial Fellowship by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. The award will support her project, The Things She Carried: Women and the Power of the Purse.

While conducting research for her book, The Prettiest Girl on Stage is a Man: Race and Gender Benders in American Vaudville (University of Tennessee Press, 2015), Casey says she was struck by the critical role that costuming played in the development of each performer’s persona—in particular, one performer’s matching dress and purse made out of 4,000 pennies.

"I became intrigued by the performative role the purse played in shaping the identities of its holder," Casey explains in her project narrative. "This realization prompted me to consider how purses serve both ornamental and functional purposes, facilitating women’s desires to spend, work, travel, fit in, and stand out. I wondered, then, how purses helped generations of American women negotiate the changing conditions of their lives."

The Things She Carried will be a book-length social and cultural biography of the purse. The Mednick Fellowship will support Casey’s research, which will include travel to the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture at the New-York Historical Society and the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.

Casey will examine both the literary life of purses, considering how they functioned in texts and as everyday expressions, and the purses themselves, including their material, size, embellishments, and brands.

Assistant Professor of History Kathleen Casey “Purses have stories to tell about women’s desires and ambitions,” she says. “They were a critical way in which women fashioned, expressed and, indeed, created themselves. They offer us a paradox—revealing women’s identities and simultaneously concealing their most private possessions.”

According to the narrative, the book will cover over a century, beginning with the “carpetbags” of the post-Civil War era, through second wave feminism, when activists protesting the 1968 Miss America Pageant captured the nation’s attention by throwing symbols of their oppression—bras, girdles, and purses—into “freedom trash cans.” It will also explore the extent to which purses became disruptive objects that threatened socio-economic hierarchies by facilitating women’s departure from the domestic sphere.

Casey presented her early findings at the Popular Culture Association Conference in Seattle in March, and she is currently assembling a panel on women and visual culture for the next Berkshire Conference on the History of Women.

She joined the faculty at Virginia Wesleyan in fall 2012. Her areas of expertise include late 19th- and early 20th-century American cultural and social history, and her research focuses on modern American popular and material culture, gender and sexuality, and African-American history. Among the VWC courses she teaches are "Apparel in American History," "The Pursuit of Pleasure: A History of Fun in America," "History of the United States," and "Museums, Monuments, and Memorials."

The Maurice L. Mednick Memorial was created in 1967 in honor of a young Norfolk industrialist who died from accidental causes and whose family and business associates wished to perpetuate his name by establishing a memorial that would emphasize his and the donors’ strong interest in higher education. Administration of the Mednick Memorial Fund is vested in the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges to encourage the professional development of college professors and improve their academic competence through fellowships for research and advanced study.