Tonight was the first session of a new course at Macalester College: The Political Economy of Gender and Sexuality. Taught by visiting Professor Ryan Murphy, this Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies course (which the Economics Department refused to cross-list) is seeking to delve into the relationship between the market and the state, through a less traditional economic lens of feminist scholarship. Let me start by saying that this class is already blowing my mind after a single, three-hour session.
As an introduction to some subjects we will be covering through the semester, we watched a fascinating documentary about the failures of public housing in America. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) reveals the history of the infamous housing project in St. Louis, that opened in 1952 and was completely and dramatically demolished in 1972. The film attempts to humanize the experience of the tenants who lived in the housing project, by sharing their stories of hope, desire, intimacy, loss, and fear via interviews. I think that it was successful in highlighting the humanity that is often overlooked in discussions of poverty, and the government's role in finding solutions to social problems. It also draws attention to how state power is used as a technology of race, class, and gender to oppress people, especially during the mid-twentieth century with such projects. The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project is often used as a moralistic lesson to criminalize the tenants themselves, the welfare state, big government, poor communities, and Black communities. However, this film begins to shed light on the reality of the situation; the failure of the project had to do with poor city-planning and a lack of anticipation of "white flight" to the suburbs, lack of funding from the government to keep up maintenance of the project, the changing landscape of St. Louis as more poor migrants from the rural south flocked to the city center, and ultimately the government's intentional use of public housing as a segregation tool.
The documentary touched on issues of gender and sexuality briefly, though our class agreed that these conversations could have been saturated with more factual information about welfare processes. One of the most relevant things I learned from the film was that the welfare department did not allow "able-bodied" men to live in public housing projects with their families if a woman in the household was receiving welfare support for children. This is part of a long history of the state's policing of Black single women, and it was depressing to learn that welfare department representatives encouraged women to only report their income (AKA kick out their husbands) to strategically move their family into a safer enviroment because women's wages are lower than men's. Though it is arguable that this removal of an entire community of Black men and fathers from the projects affected the politics of the project itself; there is mention of how mothers taught their boys to fight, and how the phrase "act like a man" became the mentality for young boys to fill their absent fathers' shoes.
Though the film does engage with the depressing realities of public housing solutions that fail, it also makes a space for hope - many of the interviewees talk about their personal memories, and how these were some of the best of their lives. I appreciate the critique of public housing projects like this, and think that they are critical and necessary; too often, these stories of failure become part of a hegemonic dailogue about poverty that is racist and sexist. I look forward to digging into these issues more this year in class, and hope that I can continue the work of better-articulating the intersections of racism and sexism. Please, feel encouraged and welcome to watch this film and comment below!