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Elizabeth Colwill

Elizabeth Colwill

PhD, SUNY-Binghamton

Gender, Slavery, and Revolution in the Atlantic World

Elizabeth Colwill is a historian of gender, slavery, and revolution in the Atlantic World, with a specialization in the Haitian Revolution. She has written and taught in a range of fields including the African diaspora; women, colonialism, and revolution; slavery and emancipation; cultures of violence and the politics of memory; biography and women’s literature; the history of sexuality and the body; and intersectional feminist theory and pedagogies. Her scholarship is situated within transnational fields of inquiry—comparative slavery and colonialism, the history of the Black Atlantic, feminist and postcolonial theory, and diaspora studies—that cross temporal and disciplinary boundaries. Although she teaches and writes from historical perspectives, her interests include gender and race in contemporary social movements, transnational approaches to cultural studies, and postcolonial and diasporic literature.

Trained as a cultural historian, Elizabeth Colwill holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Women’s History (SUNY-Binghamton, 1991) and a B.A. in interdisciplinary studies from Evergreen State College (1980). Prior to her position in American Studies at University of Hawai’i, Manoa, she was Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies at San Diego State University.

Her published work, while diverse, has focused on the intersecting histories of gender, sexuality, and race in revolutionary France and the Francophone Caribbean. She is at work on a book-length study of gender, ritual, and slave emancipation in Saint-Domingue: the site of the first successful slave revolution in the Americas which, by 1804, had abolished slavery, severed the colony from the French Empire, and established the independent nation of Haiti. The manuscript explores the racial and gender politics of the Haitian Revolution within a transnational, colonial framework. Organized around distinct cultural narratives, each chapter follows the ritual practices through which political identities were transformed in colony and metropole. Foregrounding the experiences of enslaved and freedwomen, it argues that gender ideologies and practices circulating within the Atlantic world influenced both the emancipatory process and the meanings of freedom in Saint-Domingue. The republican path to emancipation was conceived in different terms and carried different consequences for enslaved men and women. Seeing the narrative of colonial revolution, race, and emancipation in terms of gender not only addresses silences in the historical record, it also transforms the political narrative.

Professor Colwill’s earlier work engaged problems of cultural representation, female authorship, and political pornography [i.e. “Pass as a Woman, Act like a Man: Marie-Antoinette as Tribade in the Pornography of the French Revolution,” repr.  in Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen, ed. Dena Goodman (London: Routledge, 2003)].  Her recent publications include “Freedwomen’s Familial Politics: Marriage, War and Rites of Registry in Post-Emancipation Saint-Domingue,” in Gender, War, and Politics: The Wars of Revolution and Liberation – Transatlantic Comparisons, 1775 – 1820, ed. Karen Hagemann, et al (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), pp. 71-89; “Gendering the June Days: Race, Masculinity, and Slave Emancipation in Saint Domingue,” Journal of Haitian Studies 15 (Spring/Fall 2009): 103-124; and “Fêtes de l’hymen, fêtes de la liberté: Matrimony and Emancipation in Saint-Domingue, 1793,” in The World of the Haitian Revolution, ed. David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering (University of Indiana Press, 2009), pp. 125-155. Since the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, Professor Colwill has also written about contemporary issues in an essay that draws upon Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s rendering of violence under the Duvalier regime to analyze contemporary sexual violence in the displacement camps.

Professor Colwill has a longstanding commitment to engaged and feminist pedagogies, social activism, and interdisciplinary education, and has won awards for her teaching and interdisciplinary initiatives. She has taught a broad range of courses, including graduate seminars such as Gender and the African Diaspora; The Making of the Modern Body; Gender, Culture, and Representation; and Foundations of Feminist Thought. At the undergraduate level, she has taught courses on Feminist Theory; the French and Haitian Revolutions; the History of Sexuality; U.S. Women’s Literature and Cultures; and Gender, Race, and Class, explored through the lens of Caribbean history, film, and literature.

Her undergraduate training at an innovative, interdisciplinary public undergraduate institution provided a model of education that has inspired many pedagogical and programmatic experiments over the years. She helped to found, then co-directed from 1999-2005, an interdisciplinary, team-taught general education program that aimed to increase retention of first-year students through intensive, seminar-based, interdisciplinary education. She has spoken, written, and organized conferences in the fields of feminist pedagogies and interdisciplinary education, and developed community partnerships with organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and local, urban high schools. Her interest in exploring intersections between the arts and history is evident in community projects such as the San Diego Women’s History Arts Initiative and a collaboration with Eveoke Dance Theatre Company’s production of Las Mariposas, based upon Julia Alvarez’s novel about women’s resistance to the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.