Anne Gray Fisher
Assistant Professor of U.S. Gender History
University of Texas – Dallas
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
The Streets Belong to Us traces the history of sexual policing—the ways people’s bodies and their presumed sexual practices are surveilled and targeted by law enforcement—on city streets in the modern United States. With a national and local focus, including case studies in Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta, I argue that sexual policing was crucial to establishing and enforcing gender, racial, and urban spatial formations. Ultimately, sexual policing was a key technique for law enforcement to broaden the scope of their authority and consolidate their power across the twentieth century.
This book started fifteen years ago, when I was working at the Service Employees International Union Local 615. My boss had a poster in his office advertising an eighth annual “Hooker’s Ball” fundraiser for PUMA, the Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts, in 1982. I didn’t know at the time that PUMA was part of a national (and international) movement for sex workers’ rights. In a magical twist of fate, many of the PUMA leaders were my neighbors in Boston, and they opened up their filing cabinets and garages to me, granting me access to an extraordinary archive of creative struggle and resilience.
To start my dissertation research, I centered the experiences of sex workers, and I saw that the main thing they shared in common, and protested, was profound vulnerability to police violence. During those same years, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner were murdered; the #BlackLivesMatter movement took off; and the Black feminist-led African American Policy Forum issued calls to #SayHerName to highlight the invisibility of Black women in the mobilizations against police violence. Within that context, I became committed to understanding why law enforcement continued to engage in prostitution-related policing, asking who benefits from sexual policing and what political work sexual policing accomplishes, and to writing sexual policing into the long historical record of police violence.
What are you are currently teaching? How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I am extremely fortunate to teach classes that are directly relevant to my scholarly passions and areas of expertise. The U.S. women’s history survey is enormously rewarding to teach—students are so eager for histories of people who have been neglected in U.S. history textbooks. I also get to teach a dream class, “Gender, Sex, and the State,” where students directly engage with the ways in which people’s lives and bodies have been historically policed, regulated, and criminalized by overlapping and interconnected state institutions. Students in this class conduct original research connecting the past to the present for their final projects, and I have learned so much about (to name just a few examples of students’ work) the relationship between eugenic histories of coerced sterilization and trans peoples’ struggles for reproductive freedom today; the history and contemporary policies of sex education in our home state of Texas; and trans migrants’ historic and ongoing experiences of violence within the context of crimmigration.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
There is so much good feminist work recently published and on the horizon. I am just astonished by the excellence and abundance of this scholarship, especially given the devastating precarity in academics’ lives and the systematic defunding of the humanities in higher education in this country. For folks who want to learn more about sex worker labor politics from a feminist and antiwork perspective, Heather Berg’s Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism is a must-read.
At the intersection of gender, race, and state violence, I am so excited for Treva Lindsey’s America Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice, Donna Murch’s Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Racial Capitalism, and the Movement for Black Lives, and Hugh Ryan’s The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison.
What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies/urban history and just starting out their careers?
I would encourage undergraduate and graduate students to start researching and thinking historically exactly where you are. Our research is very often determined by our own context, circumstances, and material capacity. And that’s okay—in fact, research constraints can lead to fascinating new directions in historical scholarship.
I started my research in Boston (where I lived at the time) and in Los Angeles (my hometown, where I had family I could stay with for free while I was researching). This made the research financially possible. But researching where I lived also made it possible to build on my existing relationships to pursue the questions I was interested in, and it also made the research much more powerful to study the past of the city that I knew. Historical work is necessarily social; we develop relationships, forge connections, and build communities through the process of researching and writing about the living histories that surround us. Talk to your neighbors, local librarian, or archivist; attend local meetings for organizations mobilizing around issues that are important to you; stay curious about the problems of the present and the possibilities of the past, and stay connected to your community, and this will lead you to fascinating archives.
When I urge students to start where they are, this also means starting where you are online! Since the pandemic, there have been major research constraints for historians. I’m in contact with students today who are doing extraordinary work primarily through digital archives. I think we are going to see a generation of pandemic scholarship emerging rooted in digital archives, and we are going to learn so much. Indeed, by putting Newspapers.com to work and by requesting new digital scans from libraries, archives, historical societies, and courthouses that historians never thought to visit in person, these emerging scholars are creating a new archive. We will be indebted to their work for generations to come.
Unlike other works on the carceral state and mass incarceration that focus on the 1970s, The Streets Belong to Us takes a longer view that starts with Prohibition. Why were you drawn to the era of Prohibition? How does this approach to studying the carceral state and mass incarceration help us rethink their legacies in urban spaces?
My research started earlier because I was rooted in gender history. I started before World War II because I was interested in a historiographical silence: we knew from the voluminous women’s history of the Progressive Era that women moral reformers were crucial to building up carceral institutions of probation, parole, policing, and reformatory prisons in the early twentieth century (Mary Odem’s Delinquent Daughters and Cheryl Hicks’s Talk With You Like a Woman are two of my favorites from this literature). And, from histories like Kevin Mumford’s Interzones and Chad Heap’s Slumming, we knew that red-light districts were relocated to Black neighborhoods during Prohibition. So what happened to sexually profiled women on city streets in the interwar decades? Originally, my plan was to start with the Depression, during the twilight of women-led moral reformism, and I didn’t expect Prohibition to be as important to the book’s argument as it became.
After an excruciating but necessary workshop of my Depression-era chapter, I realized I had to revise my starting point and, as a result, my overall argument, for the book. Without the time or funding to go back into the archives (here is where research constraints plus panic can really be generative!), I did a systematic study of digitized Black newspapers to figure out how Black people were experiencing and narrating sexual policing in their neighborhoods during the 1920s. What I found was that Black journalists nationwide knew that they were witnessing the consolidation of Jim Crow boundaries of segregation in real time; and, importantly, they recognized that Black and white women’s bodies and presumed sexual practices were being policed in service to this larger political project of racial-spatial subjugation.
I learned three valuable lessons from moving back in time: the first, which I credit to Simon Balto’s Occupied Territory, is that moving back in time helps us to understand how the systematic regime of mass incarceration was built. How do we define “mass incarceration”? How do we distinguish the long history of violent policing on this land with the historically specific development of mass incarceration? How do we attend to change in the otherwise grim and relentless sameness of carceral violence? Taking a longer view helps us to answer these questions.
Second, I recognized that in the earlier period especially, attending to the sexual policing of white women was just as important as attending to the sexual policing of Black women for showcasing the construction of the apparatus that would eventually become the overlapping institutions powering mass incarceration. For this insight, I credit the Black press, which regularly analyzed the political uses of policing white women in Black neighborhoods, as well as Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s article, “Where Did All the White Criminals Go?”
Third and finally, I learned that sexual policing has been a crucial mechanism to control urban space across the twentieth century. The right to public space for all urban residents—including those most vulnerable to violent policing in our contemporary cities, especially trans women, and people experiencing mental health crises or homelessness—is a fundamental right. Blocking people’s right to the city is one of the key sites of police authority and power. We must, in turn, deny police their authority over all women’s (and indeed, all people’s) bodies in urban space; this is a crucial next step in unmaking police power.