March 4, 2022

Faculty Spotlight: Karen Garner and Women’s History Month

Interview conducted by Carl Burkart

For Women’s History Month, we spoke with Karen Garner, who has been teaching various history, women's studies, and global studies courses at SUNY Empire State College since 2005. Garner studied U.S. foreign relations and modern China and conducts research and writing on women's and international history topics. She is the author of five books that focus on these wide-ranging historical topics. Most recently, Bloomsbury Academic Press published her textbook titled, Women and Gender in International History: Theory and Practice in June 2018 and Manchester University Press published her monograph titled Friends and Enemies: The Allies and Neutral Ireland in the Second World War in June 2021.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

(1.) March is Women's History Month. How did you become interested in gender and women's history?

Karen Garner:  Well, it really started with the dissertation I wrote when I was working on my Ph D. I had been studying US diplomatic history, traditionally a very male-dominated, male-oriented subject of history. Because I had been studying U.S.-China relations,  I started a dissertation project about a woman who went to China with the YWCA in the early 1900s and became very involved in Chinese politics. But when I worked on this project about this woman, I really had to learn a lot about women's history to be able to complete that project. When I was in school, we rarely talked about women in history classes.  Even as an undergraduate student, I never took a specific dedicated women's history course. And so this interest really came sort of late in my academic career. Then the light bulb went off, and I really got very fascinated by studying about women who had been involved in international history and international politics and that steered my scholarship from that point forward. And because of my dissertation topic, I got asked to teach women's history when I got my first teaching job.

(2.) How does your scholarly work and your background inform your work with your primary mentees?

Karen Garner: Well, at SUNY Empire State College, the number of students who complete a history degree is a small number compared to our overall student body, but almost every student takes a history class at some point in their undergraduate career. I'm definitely a generalist mentor. I work with students who design their degrees in all fields. But one of the things I try to do when I teach history classes is to get students more interested in developing their historical perspectives. History is not always their favorite subject, but we talk a lot about what's going on in the world today, the contemporary political problems or cultural events and then we focus on identifying some of the historical origins of those problems and events. Where did these current issues come from? In terms of gender studies courses, why do we have these particular social relations between men and women today? Why do we continue to hold onto these gender stereotypes about people's behavior, and where do they come from? Those are the kinds of things I usually try to bring in when I'm working with students whether they're my mentees or students in the academic classes that I teach.

(3.)  What kind of courses or studies do you teach?

Karen Garner: Well, I teach a range of American history courses. In recent years when I've been teaching online courses, I've really focused on American Women's History. I also teach Women and Work in American History, which is a more specialized course focusing on women's labor history. And I've taught some courses for the graduate students at SUNY Empire, too, such as Global Feminist Movements and topics like that that are very related to a lot of the academic research that I do. I also teach about social welfare in America, and women have always been very much involved in social welfare activities, so that has a strong women's history focus to it. Also, I just developed a new course on American Immigration History, and so we recognize gender differences in terms of who emigrates, what kind of experiences men versus women immigrants have, as well as gender differences between different ethnic groups. So in every course that I teach, even if it's not specifically a women's history course, I usually try to at least think about gender and power relationships and bring that out as one other way to think about the behavior of men and women and how different events transpired and how they played out in history.

(4.) What is the most interesting guided independent study that you've worked on with the student?

Karen Garner:  History students have the option to write a senior thesis, and quite a few of them take it up because they know they're going to go on to graduate school. They come up with what they want to focus on and a lot of times it's something I don't know about. I learn with them. I know how to help them craft a research question and look for sources. I can point them in that direction and get them to refine and organize their ideas. When they come to me with a completely new idea about something I haven't studied before, that's always very exciting to me. I have a student this semester, for example, who's working on his senior thesis on the history of the NASA space program and how that program got going at the beginning of the Cold War. His thesis argument, and I think it's a good one, is that the space program was driven by the need to develop new kinds of weapons technology. That was the main reason why the government was funding it and why it got a lot of attention even though from the general public’s perspective the space program was all about exploration and expanding our knowledge of the universe. From the government's perspective, it was more about discovering new technologies as part of the geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union. So, while he's researching that topic. I'm learning a lot about a historical subject that I really didn't know about other than in a very surface way.

(5.) What kind of what projects are you currently working on?

Karen Garner: I’ve been involved in writing a series of books over the course of my academic career. I'm not specifically working on a book project right now, although I'm thinking about what my next project will be. My last project focused on the diplomatic history of the World War II era and the relationships between Britain and the United States and Ireland. Ireland was a neutral power in World War II, and so I looked at the masculine relationships and fraternal friendships between the leaders and the diplomats in those three countries and how the Americans and the British were really trying to figure out a way to get Ireland to join the Allied cause. So that project and my interest in immigration history has started me to think about the topic of my next book.

At this point it's in the development stages, but it might be a history of two different groups that immigrated to Britain during World War II. Irish workers came to Britain to work in the war production industries and Jewish refugees were fleeing from the Nazis. Both of those groups of immigrants were not enemies of Britain, but they also had very troubled histories in Britain during the war. There was a lot of prejudice against the Irish for many, many reasons, neutrality being one of them, but other reasons as well, based on the history of conflict between the two countries. And then there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Britain just like there was in the United States during the 1930s and 40s. So, I'm looking at how Britain, a liberal democratic state, started to craft its immigration policy for these two groups, one forced immigrant refugee group and one voluntary migrant labor group, and how those policies evolved in the post war period. How did different international protocols and ideas emerge and develop about how migrant laborers and refugees should be treated in a democracy? What kind of international treaties should be in place?  Because of the racist treatment of immigrants and refugee groups by all the belligerent and neutral nations that World War II exposed, treatment of immigrants and refugees became a major issue for the Allied Powers that won the war and the United Nations Organization that they formed in the post war period. So that's what I'm kind of thinking about.


(6.) If students are interested in learning more about women's history, where should they start?

Karen Garner: Well, I think they should take my class. In some cases, the students who take the women's history class have come into it because they've researched one of their relatives and they’re really interested in some particular aspect of women's history because it's more personal to them. Lately, I have a lot of students who have done some genealogical research and are investigating the history of their family and what women in their family have done. One of the assignments in the immigration history class that I've just developed is having the students research their families’ immigration stories. I'm sure that for some of the women in that class, and some of the men too, knowing more about their relatives and personalizing the study of history will make it something that they really want to pursue. I can enthusiastically recommend our women's history classes, not just because I teach a couple of them, but because I know my colleagues in the history department who teach women’s and gender history, too. I think we offer some really interesting courses. Kate Dermody teaches Mad Men, Mad Women: History of Women in the Twentieth Century. Anna Bates teaches History of American Medicine and Public Health and American Colonial History that incorporate gendered themes. Ann Becker teaches History of American Families and Children, and Kim Hewitt teaches Fashion in U.S. History. This is just to name a few! I highly recommend any of the classes that that the history department offers.

Join SUNY Empire’s International Women’s Day Celebration on March 8.   You can find more sources on Gender and Women’s studies at the SUNY Empire Library.


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