Prior to attending the engaging event hosted by the University of Connecticut’s Women and Philanthropy Network, I had the opportunity to interview Manisha Sinha. As Draper Chair in American history at UConn, Sinha moderated yesterday’s discussion featuring five other panelists who shared stories of their diverse backgrounds and how their experiences have shaped their views on women’s empowerment. My conversation with Sinha offered much insight into her own thoughts on the matter.
Esther Ju (DC): Would you be able to explain the topics to be discussed during tomorrow’s [Wednesday’s] event?
Manisha Sinha: What [the UConn Foundation wants] to have is a conversation with UConn alums, especially women of color, about their particular backgrounds and the kinds of values that they have had to overcome or address in their particular fields. [When] they asked me to moderate that discussion … You know, being an Indian American woman myself, teaching at UConn … I told them I’d be happy to do that.
EJ: Is that the particular reason why you chose to speak at this event, due to being a woman of color yourself?
MS: I feel I owe a lot to UConn and the foundation so when they asked me to do it, I agreed. It’s also a topic that I feel somewhat invested in given my own identity and experiences. I wrote a recent op-ed in The New York Times about Kamala Harris, which may have caught people’s attention, so that’s why I’m doing it.
EJ: Are there any specific cultural barriers that you came across during your career?
MS: I guess the point I was trying to make [in the article] is that usually, especially in my field, Civil War history, it was a very white male-dominated field. As an Indian American immigrant, people always wondered, “How was it that I was doing this particular topic?;” “How is it that I’m a historian of slavery and the Civil War and abolition?” and I had to always explain it to them. So, in terms of the kinds of barriers I have faced, a lot of women [in] academic spaces are usually not regarded as seriously as some of the male academics, and this happened more earlier in my career than now, I think I’m somewhat more established, but the tendency is to sort of discount women and women’s expertise. This has always been a problem. In fact, amongst historians now, we have a group called “Women Also Know History” because we notice that women’s colors are less cited, they’re less acknowledged, they’re less respected. So … you can’t let these kinds of things deter you. You need to just go ahead and do your work, even though recognizing that, as women, we jump through more hurdles than men.
EJ: Is that why you think this issue is important to discuss, especially in today’s political climate?
MS: People don’t seem to realize that we don’t live in a society that is completely colorblind or that is completely free from sexism. It’s important to sort of recognize that we develop a culture that would appreciate everyone, including women of color. That representation matters and it especially matters in a democratic society. As a historian of abolition, I have studied the long history of the fights over Black rights and women’s rights, in other words human rights. I think it’s so important to be aware of those struggles and to at least create a society that would respect all people, especially in the political climate of today, where people have sought to demonize people. Things have been so dismissive, that it seems things that should be obvious to most people have to be reiterated again and again.
“People don’t seem to realize that we don’t live in a society that is completely colorblind or that is completely free from sexism.”
EJ: Lastly, do you have a specific message you would want to share with the UConn community regarding issues of intersectionality or women of color?
MS: I think it is so important, especially given what has happened this year in terms of the movement for Black lives, that we try to be respectful of each other and try to listen to each other. I have heard a lot of people not be able to imagine or put themselves in the shoes of let’s say, a young Black person, who may be at the receiving end of misconduct by the police or something even more awful. And it’s so important for us as human beings to emphasize our connections rather than our differences. Especially in this age of a global pandemic and in this age of political divisiveness, I think we need to emphasize that.