Arielle Zibrak: On American Women Writers, Gender & Sexuality


Arielle Zibrak is a scholar of 19th and 20th century American fiction and a writer, interested in the relationship between art and politics.

She has been happily living in Wyoming for the past six years, working at the University of Wyoming as an Assistant Professor of English and affiliated Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies.

In this episode, Arielle talks about her journey to Wyoming, how she became interested in women's studies, and how homosexuality became an identity.

"Since I've been here I've had bigger ideas." - Arielle Zibrak

Emy diGrappa: Welcome First but Last. Brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening.

Emy diGrappa: Today we're talking to Arielle Zibrak. She is a scholar of 19 and 20th century American fiction and a writer. Welcome Arielle.

Arielle Zibrak: Thank you so much for having me.

Emy diGrappa: Absolutely. And, tell me the origin of your name because it's so unusual.

Arielle Zibrak: So, my last name is actually a village that is about 45 minutes outside of Prague in the Czech Republic. So, we believe that my family originally came from that village.

Emy diGrappa: And, and, Arielle, is it a family name?

Arielle Zibrak: No. I don't even know where my parents got Arielle from. My mother studied abroad in France when she was in college and I think it came from that. So it is, it is a French name. It's also a Hebrew name. In Hebrew, it means Lion of God.

Emy diGrappa: Oh. That's beautiful.

Arielle Zibrak: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Well, I really want to talk about, first of all, your journey to Wyoming and your work as a UW professor. How do you become a resident of the great State of Wyoming?

Arielle Zibrak: So, I got my PhD in 2013 from Boston University. And, after that, I sort of started gradually migrating west. I had a post-doc where I was studying and teaching a little bit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. And then, I saw the job posted for a generalist in Casper. So, originally, although now I teach on the Laramie campus of UW, originally, I taught at UW Casper, and it just seemed like a really fascinating job because the professor at UW Casper basically is responsible for all of the on ground education in their given discipline that happens at UW Casper. So I had this really small, tight-knit group of students who were English majors in Casper and they took their in-person classes with me and the rest of their courses, they would take online through the university. So, I was their adviser, I'd have some of them like eight, twelve different classes and I was responsible for teaching classes in a really broad range of subjects in the discipline of English because I'd have so many repeat students.

Arielle Zibrak: So it was just a really interesting and unique opportunity for me and I had never thought about or been to Wyoming, to be perfectly honest with you before I accepted this job. And within the first year of living in Casper, I just sort of fell in love with the state.

Arielle Zibrak: And then, because of, just sort of a changing nature of the institution and things that happened in the English department here in Laramie, it was decided that it would be best for me to move to Laramie and so I've just this wonderful opportunity of, in the six years that I lived in Wyoming, being able to live both in Casper and in Laramie, and get to know people around the state and get to know the two different student populations that attend those different aspects of our institution.

Emy diGrappa: Well, when you say you fell in love with Wyoming, what do you find most intriguing about this State?

Arielle Zibrak: I mean, the obvious answer is the landscape, but that is a really huge thing. So, you know, I grew up in Boston and when you live in a place like Boston, which is so old and is a city that's primally surrounded by water, between the ocean and the river, all of these buildings already existed, you can't, there's no like, empty lot in Boston. There's no like, vista, everything is already built. So you get this kind of like, it's, I mean it's a wonderful place to live too and I, I loved Boston and I'm always happy to go back there, but you get this kind of like, claustrophobic sense of navigating the city when you're there and that kind of translates into a way of thinking where it's like, everything's a;ready built, everything's already done, the only contribution I can make is to sort of adjust what's already there. Kind of analogous to, there's already a building, you can renovate it but you can't like, you don't have an open space in which to build a new building.

Arielle Zibrak: And when I came here and I was able to, you know, climb mountains and go on drives where you see nothing for miles and miles and see all of this open space, huge sky, and it's kind of like a theater that changes with the weather, you really start to think differently and it feels like more things are possible. And I feel like since I've been here, I've had bigger ideas. I have met so many interesting people who I would have met, you know, if I hadn't come here.

Arielle Zibrak: And I love, you know, above all, teaching our students. The students that we get, a lot of them are first generation college students. Really, really respectful, inquisitive, smart and really want to be here. And you know, and in my past teaching experiences, I've oftentimes have had a different kind of student who, you know, has just gone to college because that's what their parents expect them to do. And it takes some figuring out, how do I motivate this student. How do I get them interested in what we do here? And I never have that problem in Wyoming. I mean, the Wyoming students, and especially our English majors are just ready to learn and really grateful to have the opportunity to learn and are able to produce really amazing work, really great ideas, awesome conversations.

Arielle Zibrak: So I think it's a combination of like, the nature and the people. And the really interesting history.

Emy diGrappa: And, and I think that when you come in from and, and have that fresh look, and just that appreciation, especially when you leave and you go back to Boston to see family and friends and you come back and you go, "Wow. I can breathe again." It's just such a different feeling.

Arielle Zibrak: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: I feel that same way.

Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. That's really true.

Emy diGrappa: So, as I've been reading about your biography, and your work, how did you become really interested and a scholar on gender and women's studies, especially?

Arielle Zibrak: Well, you know, I started off basically as someone who was interested in 19th century fiction, and the reason I became interested in 19th century fiction is because I love to read when I was a little girl and I would read as much I possibly could. And we actually had this bookstore where I grew up that was like, remainder books. And my mom used to take me there, say "You could buy five books." And I would try to find the longest books I possibly could because I didn't know when we would be coming back. And I needed as much material as I could get my hands on.

Arielle Zibrak: And so I would just scan the shelves looking for really, really long books and they ended up mostly being 19th century novels because that, those are the books that really long. And the reason for that is actually because, for the most part, in the 19th century when you published a novel, you published it serially, in a magazine, it's almost like a TV show, like different episodes of the novel would appear each month. Families would gather round and read the, as a episodes, the installments of the novel in the same way that we watch TV in the evenings now.

Arielle Zibrak: So anyway, that's how the 19th century produces really long novels, and that's why I started reading 19th century novels. So, you know by the time I was a teenager, I had read most of Charles Dickens, I read a ton of Ellen Montgomery novels, Louisa May Alcott novels, lot of different writers from the 19th century, early 20th century. Edith Wharton, who is one of the figures that I work on the most now.

Arielle Zibrak: And as I was reading these novels, I became aware that, you know, the people that we know from the 19th century are usually white men. So if, if I say to somebody "I study 19th century American literature." They're usually going to say "Oh, you know Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson." And these are indeed really important figures in the 19th century, but they were not the best known figures in 19th century American literature at the time. That would be people who are writing for popular audiences. People who the public were reading the way I described. And those are women like E.D.E.N Southworth, Fanny Fern, Maria Susanna Cummins, Kate Chopin.

Arielle Zibrak: And so, as I became aware of the fact that there were these women writers who were so popular in their own time and whose work is really, really great, but who are lesser known to us now, I kinda started to wonder why. And so I found myself focusing on American women writers of that period. And then that sort of naturally led its way to a deeper theoretical consideration of gender in American culture. And so I really, I kind of look at those two aspects of my academic interests as inseparable.

Emy diGrappa: And, and, in looking at 19th century and 20th century and, you know, making that a part of your scholarly work, what have you most discovered between then and now that, you know, like we're talking a lot in, in this program about women in politics.

Arielle Zibrak: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: And wo- women in the home and the fact that women make less money than a man and just the challenges that women have faced throughout history because we are, and have been celebrating Wyoming being the first State to give women the right to vote. And so what are some of the really key things that you could point to that have become of great interest in your work?

Arielle Zibrak: Yeah. Sure, I mean I, so I'm very interested in the relationship between literature and politics. And part of that is because I think that literature has, for a long time, been a place where women can exert an influence on society where they haven't always been able to do so through explicitly political channels.

Arielle Zibrak: And, what I mean by that is that I think that cultural change is just as significant as social change as, you know, legislative politics. So we often focus on the victories that are really tangible that happen through, you know, political action and through lobbying and through changes in legislation, which of course are super important.

Arielle Zibrak: So an example, obviously very important in the 19th century leading into the 20th century, that we had been talking about a ton this year because it's 2020, is suffrage, right? And so we think about the right to vote, enormous, you know, benefit to women, a huge step in the progress of equality in the country, and yet, at the same time, didn't really do a huge amount for women's lives at the time because there was not female candidates for those women voters to vote for, nor were there male candidates who were specifically or significantly representing women's interests.

Arielle Zibrak: And so, while symbolically, huge victory, it's a little bit more complicated than that, but at the same time, there was fiction being produced that was arguing for social change in both more specific and more general ways. So like, one of the texts that I'm going to be [inaudible 00:11:53] at the humanities festival, and actually there's going to be a dance performance of it at the humanities festival as well, is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's, The Yellow Wallpaper. And this is, you know, a very famous text, and part of the reason why it's so famous is that it had a really significant social consequence. And that is that Gilman wrote it as a response to her own diagnosis of neurasthenia, which is sort of like a catch-all term for any problems with the nerves. So like, headaches, exhaustion, anxiety, all of the things all of us feel all the time. In the 19th century "It's like you're a neurasthenic." And the treatment for women was total bedrest.

Arielle Zibrak: And so, Gilman who was this brilliant creative woman, was told "You can't write. You can't draw. You can't have stimulating conversation." And was basically confined to her bed and it drove her crazy. And so she wrote a story about this experience as a way of protesting the fact that so many women were being treated this way. And the guy who invested the rest cure, as it was called, a doctor named Silas Weir Mitchell, read the story. And he retracted his medical opinion and said "You know, we shouldn't be treating women this way anymore."

Arielle Zibrak: So that's something that happens totally through culture, through literature, through the production of popular media as opposed to through, you know, social protest in the streets and legislation. I'm not saying that I think one is more significant than the other, I'm just saying that I think a lot of the time when we think about the history of women's rights, and of the progress towards equality in this country, we tend to think bout, you know, major tangible, political acts and legislative change and I really do think that that's only one piece of the puzzle.

Arielle Zibrak: And a lot of scholars have argued that once we have significant cultural change, the legislation will follow. And so you see that with something like the issue of gay marriage where, I would argue, that a huge reason why the public as a whole became more accepting of the idea of gay marriage was because of increasingly prevalent portrayals of gay couples in popular fiction, television, movies. And once that visibility starts to happen, then people become more comfortable with major legislative change and indeed that legislative change has more of an impact on the, people's actual lives.

Arielle Zibrak: So I think that you just can't separate those two things from each other and that both are really, really important as we think about how we can move towards more equitable forms of society.

Emy diGrappa: And, as part of that, I'm wondering what was written about heterosexuals and homosexuals in the 19th and 20th century when you were studying about those gender roles? Was there anything written, where there women who were lesbian writers that were writing about that?

Arielle Zibrak: Absolutely. Havelock Ellis, wrote what [inaudible 00:15:02] most people considered to be the first sociological study of forms of sexuality beyond heterosexuality. And at this time, the term that people used, you know, coined by Ellis for gay men and lesbian women was a sexual inversion. So, the idea of homosexuality as kind of an identity and an orientation didn't really happen till the end of the 19th century, though of course, there are always people who were what we would think of as homosexuals today, but there were different ways of thinking about it. So, it was more in different cultural circumstances thought of as like, something you did, rather than someone you are.

Arielle Zibrak: So really the idea of homosexuality as an identity or as way of classifying a person, didn't emerge until the end of [inaudible 00:15:54] century. And this observation was really made famous by one of the founding theorists of queer theory, which is what we call the study of, the theoretical study of sexuality right now, Michael Foucault, who was a French intellectual writing at the end of the 20th century, or the middle to the end of the 20th century. And he wrote a history of sexuality as well, wherein he makes this argument that it's only in the end of the 19th century that we really start to think of homosexuality as an identity.

Arielle Zibrak: That being said, one of the things that I am working now that I'm really interested in is a community of women in the late 19th century and early 20th century who, many of them were queer, and they started arts and crafts communities together throughout the United States, but primarily in the Midwest and on the east coast. And these women saw craft work, so basket weaving, sculpture, metal work, as a kind of lifestyle and lived together in communal communities, doing crafts, teaching crafts to other women who came to live there and selling them and trying to sort of self-support as a mode of these collective communes that were actually just a very popular social movement during this time period as well.So it was not just women's movements or queer women's movements, but there were a lot of people at the end of the 19th century living in like, alternative communal circumstances.

Arielle Zibrak: There's also a phenomenon that happens in the 19th century called the Boston Marriage. Which is, a lot of women who, you know, we don't know, nor do I necessarily think should we care, whether they were engaging is sexual relationships with each other, but a lot of women chose to live in partnerships with each other as an alternative to what they understood to be the oppressive conditions of heterosexual marriage. So, you see a lot of women who are writers, activists, thinkers, artists who leave heterosexual marriages to live with another woman, share a household, oftentimes raise children together. And sometimes we do know that these women were in a romantic relationship with each other there, but sometimes it's not clear. And I think indeed it's possible that these were just practical [inaudible 00:18:18]ships, you know, deep, loving friendships, that we all know women are capable of having with each other that they saw as being a much more liberating way of organizing their lives then living in a marriage with a man who, at the time, have total control over their property, their body, their autonomy.

Arielle Zibrak: So another thing that I think about, you know, we talked before about suffrage as being a kind of mixed victory because it has this, you know, symbolic importance, women are considered equals under the eyes of the law because they're able to vote, but at the same time, doesn't really offer huge amount of benefit unless you have progressive candidates. Candidates who are concerned with women's rights, women are able to vote for, there were other issues that suffrage, of the early women's movement, that suffrage kind of pushed out.

Arielle Zibrak: And one of the biggest things was martial rape. And the reason why that was so central is because in the 19th century, it was very difficult to get a divorce. Divorce was only legal in a few states, and you had to have a case for divorce. And it was not a case for divorce if a women's husband raped her or if he beat her, or if he beat her children. There was nothing she could do about that legally. And so a lot of women in the women's movement felt this was the most leading issue because there was women whose lives are under a threat, whose bodies are under threat, and the current structure of the marriage laws doesn't allow for any acknowledgement of bodily autotomy, or a right to your down physical safety.

Arielle Zibrak: So, this issue of marital rape became really controversial and a lot of women felt that you couldn't really change the marriage laws, but you could get the right to vote, so they focused on that more. But I think it's a really interesting time period to look at because prior to getting the vote, there were all these other kinds of issues that are circulating. There's a more fluid way of looking at where we might go with the women's movement, that kind of coheres and consolidates around the vote, and then makes this shift towards electoral politics that, you know, for the reasons I said before, wasn't as productive as we might like it to be just simply because of the paucity of, of candidates who were, who were really and legitimately advocating for legislation that would benefit women.

Emy diGrappa: You've made so many interesting points and your study is, is incredible and, and the knowledge that you bring to it. And, and it made me think about what you were saying about women's right to vote and the, and the issues that they chose because they couldn't deal with it one way but they could deal with it a different way and it would be more successful, what's your perspective or thoughts about the #metoo movement?

Arielle Zibrak: I mean, #metoo is so interesting and I'm really glad that it happened. I think, you know, like anything, there are a lot of problems with it, and a lot of virtues of it. I think the most positive thing that it's done, of course, is raise people's awareness as to the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment and also the impossibility in many cases of reporting these things, because women are so often in a circumstance of structural disempowerment where, you know, you might not want to report a boss who's sexually harassed you because you're worried about losing your job. Um, you don't want to report a public figure, who sexually harassed you, or sexually assaulted you because you, you think you're not going to be believed. And we see this happening all over the country.

Arielle Zibrak: Obviously as a result of the hashtag movement, we see so many women who are able to come forward and share their personal stories, and I think it's just devastating when you consider the scope of the epidemic and the fact that the majority of cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment that occur in the world will never be reported. And that women are just living with these secrets um, and going through their daily lives and feeling as though if they speak out, they won't be believed or, they will be vilified. And that has historically happened so many times.

Arielle Zibrak: So one of the things that I will be talking about at the humanities festival is a case of a woman called Victoria Woodhull, who was actually the first female candidate for president in this country. She ran for president on a shared ticket with Frederick Douglass in the 1890's and she was an advocate for the free love movement. Which, the free love movement was basically the most coherent advocate for female bodily autotomy, like I was talking about in relation to martial rape. So, they protested the marriage laws because they felt they were disadvantageous to women and the solution that they saw was to abolish marriage and make marriage a private contract, rather than a contract between individuals and the state, so that women would be able to flee violent husbands. So that women would be able to won their own property. So that women would be able to engage in consensual sexual relationships with men without having to sign their lives away under the auspices of this institution that was so disadvantageous to them.

Emy diGrappa: Hmm.

Arielle Zibrak: Of course, she advocates for this thing called the free love movement. And the way that people take that is she wants to sleep with a lot of men [inaudible 00:23:46] one man and be faithful. And so, I think that what happened to Victoria Woodhull is an early example of what we now call slut-shaming where she tried to speak out, to advocate for women's rights, and the response she got was, you know, everybody painted her as a promiscuous woman, this unreliable woman, this woman who was so morally debased that how could we believe anything that she said.

Arielle Zibrak: So she was really sick of being treated this way. Especially by men who, you know, often hypocritically had multiple partners themselves, and the way that she dealt with that was by outing a pastor at a very, very popular and famous church in New York and demonstrating that he had been having a relationship with his friend's wife for many years and that this was commonly known by a lot of people in the congregation. And so, you would think that the response to that would be wow, you know maybe they should stop criticizing free love and painting her as a slut in the news, but instead, everybody sort of stood behind them and it was she who continued to be vilified. So much so that in fact, she eventually left and moved to England, kind of never to be heard of again.

Arielle Zibrak: So I connect this to, you know, other incidents that are closer in our, you know, cultural memory, like at the Anita Hill trial, Monica Lewinsky, and of course, Dr. Blasey Ford, who came forward to make accusations against Brett Kavanaugh when he was being considered for his Supreme Court seat.

Arielle Zibrak: And it's just incredible to me how even though, you know, you have more than a century elapsing between these different incidents the rhetoric remains the same, which is that when a woman tries to call out the misbehavior of a man, it often comes back at her. It reflects negatively upon her and the response that she gets in public opinion is one ran as those she did something wrong. And this is why we have this epidemic of women remaining silent when they are, you know, harassed or attacked because, very understandably, they now that when they come forward, their reputation is going to be at stake. And women are judged on so many axis, how the look, how they act, how the dress, how they speak. They can't be too smart but they can't be too stupid. They can't be too promiscuous, but they can't be too prude.

Arielle Zibrak: And women are so conscious. Even, even if it's not at the forefront of their mind, I think that women, even today, are so calculating in how they present themselves because they know that any slipup is this major reputational problem and that can have a major impact on their personal lives, their professional lives. And I think that in some ways, that is the biggest limitation on the freedom of women in the country is again cultural, not necessarily legislative. Where, we have all of these cultural mores and expectations for women that, not only, you know, in the ways that we're all familiar with, that cause them to have issues with their body image, cause them to apologize for behaviors they have no business apologizing for, shouldn't need to apologize for, but also prevent them from being able to speak up when they've been, when they've suffered bodily harm.

Arielle Zibrak: And to me, that's really just a terrifying state of affairs. And the fact that we're still here after so many, so many years of women fighting, you know, in very elemental way in the beginning of the 19th century saying it's not okay that if a woman is living with her rapist, he can continue to rape her and there's nothing she can do about it. She can't even leave. He could sue her for desertion. She can't even leave.

Emy diGrappa: Well, this is your passion. I love, I love hearing your voice just changed right there. That is amazing. It's been such a pleasure talking to you Arielle. And tell me how people can find you and read some of your work.

Arielle Zibrak: Sure. So, I write for a channel in the LA review of books called Avidly.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Arielle Zibrak: I have a book of critical essays on Edith Wharton's, The Age of Innocence. It's just been published by Bloomsbury Press called, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, New Centenary Essays. And I will have a couple of books coming out in the next couple of years that are in the works right now, but I hope that people will come to the humanities festival as well, and we'll talk more about these issues and I'll be answering questions.

Emy diGrappa: Okay, so besides being a UW professor and writer, do you have your own website?

Arielle Zibrak: I don't.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. Okay.

Arielle Zibrak: I probably should.

Emy diGrappa: You should. 'Cause you have such a strong voice and I hear your passion and your knowledge about the subjects that you've been researching and working on and it's just very impressive.

Arielle Zibrak: Well, thank you. And it's really been a pleasure speaking with you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you so much.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for listening to First But Last, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the State. You can also find us at where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.