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Bonnie Morris

Preserving the history of women’s studies

Bonnie Morris discusses Harpur’s prominence
in the field during the 1980s.

by Leah Ferentinos

Thirty years after setting foot onto the Binghamton University campus as a graduate student, Bonnie Morris returned — this time, as a distinguished speaker.

“I can’t turn around without knocking over a hundred intense memories,” says Morris, who received her master’s degree and doctorate in women’s history from Harpur College in 1985 and 1988, respectively.

Morris has since published 10 books, become an exam leader for the AP U.S. History program, a board member for the proposed National Women’s History Museum and an archivist for the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. She’s also a top-rated women’s studies professor at both George Washington and Georgetown universities.

“I can’t say enough good things about my experience at Binghamton,” Morris says. “[Harpur College] was at the forefront of higher education in women’s history. The opportunities here [in the 1980s] were available nowhere else.”

In May, Morris shared her memories with the Spring 2013 History Department Speaker Series audience.

“During my graduate work at Binghamton, I was learning a very important concept called ‘agency,’” she says. “We are each the authorities of our own lives. We’re all walking narrative text.”

This led her to begin treating everyday events as history in the making.

“At Binghamton, I learned to preserve the very cultural moment that we were producing,” she says. “Not just to study the past, but to also archive the dynamic women’s movement that was uniquely thriving here.”

The various activist, feminist and social organizations she participated in became material for personal study; she made an effort to save newsletters, photos and handouts, and to tape-record everything. Much of what Morris documented throughout her time in the area is currently housed in archives by the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Harpur College.

“Binghamton was an unusual center of people who cared about women’s lives: a complete immersion in studying women’s history and being with people who really wanted to be here,” she says. “At a time when there was no visibility of this [LGBTQ] culture in the mainstream media, it was around me every day. I was becoming an authority on what I was looking at.”

Morris also recounted her time as a local activist. When tales of vandalizing sexist billboards and protests that involved jumping a military base fence arise, she proudly displays photographic evidence.

“One of the greatest things I learned here is that you must believe your life is worth cataloging for future generations,” she says. “Fleeting appearances in the mainstream will grow more common, radicalism will become ordinary.

“The greatest tool is to live beyond your means culturally.”

Morris believes the advice stuck, giving her the confidence to meet with world leaders, including having coffee with Fidel Castro and challenging President Bill Clinton on his support for Title IX at a basketball game.

“I’m issue-driven, not money-driven,” Morris says. “In our era now, there’s a desperately, everescalating introduction to more stuff, but I’ve never sought possessions or fast cars. All I want is to gain equality.”

She’s never stopped actively working toward making that dream a reality.

“For my entire adult life, every day I’ve picked up the paper and read some hateful diatribe against me,” she says with a sigh. “That hostility is presented in the mainstream news. Not once has a non-gay friend or ally ever asked what it’s like for me to watch everyone else debate whether I deserve equal rights. I’m a strong character. But for a less confident person, it’s simply crushing.”

Morris credits her opportunity to obtain a doctorate in women’s history at Harpur College as the catalyst that enabled her to accomplish everything she’s ever wanted.

“There was a time in my life when I was the only one of everything I was. The only Jew, the only feminist, the only lesbian: I was a walking multicultural experience,” she says with a laugh. “And with every incremental inch forward, I cobbled together a really great life.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17