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Humanist scholar gives students encouragement, expectation

March 04, 2011

This article is part of a series that looks at ASU's 2010 Regents' Professors and President's Professors.

Sally Kitch is a humanist who likes to tackle big ideas, such as what utopian communities meant for certain aspects of gender definition and relationships in comparison with definitions in mainstream society. Students and colleagues see her as someone with a theoretical turn of mind, someone who looks at the bigger questions embedded in the smaller more local situations.

“My focus has been on ideas about gender, including woman's alleged inferiority and the perceived necessity of male dominance. For example, my study of 19th-century American utopian communities uncovered a relationship between celibacy and progressive ideas about women’s equality, suggesting the negative role of women’s reproductive capacity in supporting ideas about gender hierarchy,” Kitch said.

Her field, women and gender studies, tends to be “present focused,” yet, because of Kitch’s interest in history, she has her students, from the beginning freshman level to doctoral candidates, include historical grounding in their studies. In fact, she once had her students build a timeline around the classroom, so that they could understand phases and what happened at different times in history – how things evolved and how things often cycled back.

“You can't solve a problem until you define it,” said Kitch. “I have spent most of my academic career trying to define problems in new ways and exploring new solutions to them. I am also interested in how ideas – which can be as powerful in human lives as the strongest earthquake – develop and grow.”

“Often students think that history started with them,” Kitch says. “I ask them to see what looking back can teach us about the present moment.”

It is that theoretical perspective and commitment to historical inquiry that shapes the foundation of Kitch’s scholarship and teaching and led to her recent appointment as a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University.

“My study of the concept of race revealed the centrality of ideas about gender difference and so-called normal sexual practices to ideas about racial superiority and inferiority, suggesting the gendered foundations of racial definitions and racial regulation, especially in the U.S.,” said Kitch. “My recent work on Afghan women reveals not only the foundations of male identities and ideas of family honor in definitions of gender difference and women’s roles but also gender differences in people’s perceptions of politics in Afghanistan, the role of international donors and military forces, and the importance of women’s education and labor to the country’s economic future. By excluding women from negotiations, the U.S. government may be mis-defining certain questions in its interactions with Afghan leaders.”

Kitch has written several books, including her latest, “The Specter of Sex: Gendered Foundations of Racial Formation in the United States.” Her book, “This Strange Society of Women: Reading the Letters and Lives of the Woman's Commonwealth,” was the winner of the Helen Hooven Santmyer Prize in 1991. And, her book, “Chaste Liberation: Celibacy and Female Cultural Status,” was the winner of National Women's Studies Association Book Award in 1987.


“Among the many wonderful things about Sally is how willing she is able to rethink big questions, how lively her mind is and how hopeful she is about life,” says Catharine R. Stimpson, the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

It was during the application process for a Woodrow Wilson dissertation fellowship in the early 1980s that Kitch received a call from Stimpson, telling the young graduate student how much she liked her dissertation topic and that she would like to publish it as part of a series of books for the University of Chicago Press.

“As I worked on the dissertation, Kate would check in periodically and talk to me," Kitch says of Stimpson, who is now University Professor and Dean Emerita at New York University. "I had that kind of encouragement from a real giant in my field very early in my career and she remained a mentor for many years.”

Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research at ASU, also is a mentor.

“Every conversation I've had with professor Kitch sent me back more inspired, more enthused about my research on transnational feminism,” says Debjani Chakravarty, ASU doctoral student in women and gender studies.

“She constantly challenges me and sets higher standards that I must push myself to reach; yet, she always gives me this sense of believing in my work, which is so very encouraging. From French Feminism to feminist epistemology, from professional conduct to the art of crystal clear writing (even when articulating complex ideas), I have learned a lot from professor Kitch. I feel very fortunate to be mentored by her, to be her Ph.D. advisee,” Chakravarty says.

“Professor Kitch is such a fabulous professor, scholar, mentor and role model,” says Dong Isbister. “She was my adviser when I worked on my M.A. and Ph.D. in women studies at Ohio State. She not only helped me grow as a researcher, but also showed me what true scholarship is.”

Kitch, who was at Ohio State from 1992-2006, helped Isbister participate on a panel at a graduate symposium. “This experience boosted my confidence and has led to a series of conference presentations since them. She guided and advised me patiently when I worked on my focus area and dissertation,” Isbister says. “She gave me a valuable present after I graduated: two books to teach me how to get books published. I treasure them very much, because they reflect Professor Kitch’s expectations of me in my future career.”

“Sally cares deeply about her students,” notes Stimpson. “She is not an isolated researcher. She is making sure her scholarship helps us imagine a better world.”