New faculty spotlight: Jess Marie Newman

What is your academic focus?

I am a feminist medical anthropologist, which is to say that I use anthropological tools (fieldwork, ethnography, discourse analysis) to ask questions that are interesting to me as a feminist scholar who works on the body, sexuality, and care seeking.

What is your current research project?

I am deep in the throes of revising my first book manuscript, which I’m tentatively calling Unsafe: Deserving Abortion in Morocco. The book is a multi-scalar study based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in urban centers in Morocco, and it argues that “unsafe abortion” operates as both a category for public health intervention and a disciplinary political narrative. I trace how global health programs focusing on unsafe abortion—saving lives by standardizing emergency postabortion care, for example—have unintended consequences at the local level. 

For example, focusing on unsafe abortion allows institutions and governments to performatively care without actually doing anything to facilitate safe abortion access. This redirection and reframing obscures responsibility for making abortion unsafe in the first place. Focusing on safety as a mutable quality of abortion care also triggers other gatekeeping strategies. If abortion’s illegality and unsafety go unquestioned, then it becomes even easier to create hierarchies of deservingness to police access to safe, legal abortions. So, one thing that I’m doing in the book is looking at how abortion gets stuck to other stigmatizing subjects in Morocco like rape, incest, disability, poverty, extramarital sex. I track who counts as victims deserving care, and who gets treated as a perpetrator requiring punishment. I ask who deserves a safe abortion, when, and what happens to everyone else.

What have been some of your previous positions?

Prior to joining Cornell, I was an Assistant Professor at Temple University, and a Lecturer at Yale University. At both institutions I was based in anthropology departments with secondary appointments in gender studies programs.

What is your academic background?

I was lucky enough to find feminist and gender studies when I was an undergraduate, so I double majored in Women’s Studies and English. After I graduated I got a Fulbright to study reproductive politics in Morocco—something I got interested in after taking a class on Francophonie (literature/art from the French-speaking world outside of France) and reading literature and poetry by North African feminists during colonization and independence struggles throughout the region. When doing this first, fledgling fieldwork I realized that I needed a method. Was I a historian or a critical theory junkie or what? The same fabulous mentor (Dr. Inderpal Grewal) who had refused to let me drop her women’s studies class as an undergrad put me in touch with some medical anthropologists, who went on to form my dissertation committee.

What is your last book read?

OMG. I will not be restricting myself to one book. I’m sorry. I’m a new mom so I am absolutely inhaling audiobooks while on stroller walks and otherwise having my arms full. I just read a beautiful, devastating book by Jessamine Chan called The School for Good Mothers. It’s just stunning. I also really loved Body of Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, which is funny and probing rejection of the white cis-heteropatriarchal power structures and biases that seek to discount (supposedly feminine) genres based in lived experiences…and one last recommendation is Madeline Miller’s sweeping, epic reimaginings of classic Greek mythology to privilege the perspectives of femmes and queers instead of all those dudes rolling through and conquering. It’s fabulous stuff.

What do you like to do in your own time/when you’re not working?

Well as you can tell I’m a pretty voracious pleasure-reader, something I reconnected with after grad school. I love gardening (playing in the dirt) and going on long walks. I am also a pretty promiscuous crafter (I dabble with pottery and macramé and sewing). I am also a devoted cat mom—my black cat Winnie is turning 15 this year!

What courses are you most looking forward to teaching?

I’m so excited to teach FGSS 2010. I’m hoping that it gives me the opportunity to meet a broad cross-section of the student body, and get a sense of what Cornell students are most interested in. It was a big intro course like that which changed my own academic trajectory, so I’m happy to have the opportunity to provide that feminist-lightbulb-moment to a student who might not think they “need” FGSS. I’m also looking forward to teaching my Reproductive Justice class, which is just my favorite class I’ve taught because the students bring such amazing passion and insights to it.

What excited you most about Cornell?

All the nature! I can be a city slicker like the best of them, and have loved living in Philly, but I’m so ready for all the hiking and birding and, of course, gorges!

What’s your Twitter/Instagram handle/blog url?

You can find Winnie on IG and I’m @professormommypants; I’m a very inconsistent twitter lurker at @coolprofjess.

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Jess Newman