Different Meanings in Different Times

Faculty profile photograph from the Providence website.
Faculty profile photograph from the Providence website.

By Kavin Carter

Recently, some in the Providence community came together to celebrate Professor Juliette De Soto’s most recent accomplishment: receiving her doctorate. In an interview, she discussed what inspired her to write her dissertation. She wrote it about feminism and her interest in successful female writers and poets, who have turned to suicide and ended their lives.

“Specifically the cultural impact they had on the 20th century,” said De Soto.

When asked about what inspired her to write on about female suicidal authors specifically, she remarked,

“My coming-to-consciousness as a feminist started when I was young, I had noticed things throughout my life that made me question why things were the way they are.”

“I thought about what it felt like to be in the body of a girl, and there is so much that has come up in the past few years with cat calling and such, the feeling like you can’t walk down the street without being picked apart or violated in some way,” she added.

She noticed the difference between how a man would command the room versus how a woman would. An example of this, according to De Soto, was when her family would gather for a meal,

“Both my mom and dad had jobs but my mom had double the reasonability because of cooking, cleaning (etc.) because it just kind of felt to her,” said De Soto.

She wondered why after the meal her father (or other men) would go off and relax and her mother would be stuck wishing the dishes.

When she went off to college, she attended a few critical theory classes and literature classes where her and her classmates were introduced to feminism. Living in a Christian context, feminism was always discouraged,

“Feminism was a bad word that meant those crazy liberals that burned their bras, I was told to stay clear of that” she said.

“I was never told that, without feminism, I would have been more than likely still looking at females waited ads in the paper, and other effects that would have made my life much more difficult”.

Feminism has facilitated women’s ability to achieve equality in the workplace as well as easier access to higher education but these accomplishments, which are accredited to feminism, were never talked about as De Soto was growing up.

“We grappled with that in a Christian context while in college” she said.

From a literary context she thought about why, when looking at the literary canon, the majority of famous writer were mostly comprised mostly of men,

“We have Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf in there but, for the most part, there are very few women” she said.

Looking at some of her favorite writers she was curious as to why they killed themselves.

“That’s the question that got me started, I was interested in looking at their deaths and their oppression from a historical context”, said Dr. De Soto. Virginia Woolf’s oppression looked different from Silvia Plath’s, for example, when looking at their suicides and how that affected the time that they were alive in. This was her goal. She went back and looked at historical archives where she found newspaper obituaries,

“Female suicide was considered very scandalous in the early 20th century when Virginia Woolf took her life, her death was handled very quietly, in the papers so much of her story was conveyed in a passive tone, removing her sense of agency,” continued De Soto, “While Silvia Plath was seen as a marauder for feminism, her suicide became symbolic of female oppression. It’s interesting to see how one act of suicide can switch forms and meaning depending on what is historically going on”.

At the moment, Dr. De Soto is taking a break from working on her dissertation saying, “After I had completed my work, my adviser suggested the best thing I could do is step back for a moment.”

Dr. De Soto plans to continue speaking about the topic of feminism in and out of the classroom, stating “As long as students continue to tell me that they are interested and want to hear more about this issue, I will continue to teach about these topics.”  De Soto is also thinking about the possibility of publishing her work as a book, which would make for a compelling, milestone addition to the reputable faculty that exists here at Providence.