“Genius Grant” winner helps celebrate February Sisters anniversary

Posted on Feb 13, 2015 in Alumni News, Campus News, and News

Sarah Deer, KU alumna and MacArthur Foundation fellowSarah Deer, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law and the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her work on sexual violence against native women, visited campus Thursday to help celebrate the 43rd anniversary of the February Sisters movement at KU.

Deer, c’96, l’99, was the featured speaker at an event sponsored by the women, gender and sexuality studies department, the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the School of Law and the Institute for Policy and Social Research to commemorate the group of 30 women known as the February Sisters. On Feb. 4, 1972, they occupied the East Asian Studies building until KU administrators agreed to hear their demands.

A list of six demands included a call for free day care for students with children, the hiring of more women for faculty and administrative jobs, stronger recruitment of female high school graduates and the creation of a women’s studies department “controlled and chiefly taught by women.” KU’s women’s studies program, launched in 1973, and Hilltop Child Development Center, started in 1972, grew out of the group’s protest and subsequent work to see the changes through.

Deer—a Wichita native who earned her bachelor’s and law degrees from KU—welcomed the chance to return home and acknowledged feeling a personal connection with the group.

“In particular, 1972 is the year of my birth,” she said. “I will be turning 43 this year, and it’s special to have that connection with the February Sisters … to know that that generation of women, my mother’s generation of women, stood up for so much and took so many risks to make change. That’s so inspiring to me, and I think you’ll see how some of that plays out in the work that I do today.”

In her presentation, “Sovereignty of the Soul: Native Feminism and Violent Crime,” Deer spoke of her work on behalf of native women, who experience rates of sexual violence 2.5 times higher than the national average. Federal data shows that 34 percent of Native American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped at some point in their lives. Having traveled extensively to tribal lands, Deer said, “My experience is that this data is an understatement; that in fact, the rate is much, much higher.”

After outlining the jurisdictional restrictions that limit tribal nations from prosecuting crimes on their lands, the MacArthur winner noted the passage of two laws that have strengthened the rights of native women: The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

“I was privileged to be in the room for both signings,” Deer said, before sharing with her KU audience video clips of the moving stories told at each signing ceremony by women who had been victims of sexual assault. “Both were special moments.”

In response to a question about her plans to more broadly share her views on the issues touched on in her talk, Deer noted that she has a book coming out in October called The Beginning and End of Rape In America: Confronting Sexual Violence In Native America.

“I wanted to call it Sovereignty of the Soul, because that’s my thing,” Deer said, but she agreed to her publisher’s wishes for a stronger, more provocative title. “It’s nerve-wracking to have a book coming out with that title. Like I think I have all the answers. I’m more about posing questions.”

For more on Sarah Deer, see the current issue of Kansas Alumni.

—Steven Hill

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