Student Spotlight: Hannah Ryan

Hannah Ryan

What is your area of research? 

I am a doctoral candidate in art history and visual studies, and my area of specialty is the visual culture of the Americas, and particularly histories of women and children in the Transatlantic space. I am interested in how pairings of women and young children emerge in visual materials that might be considered marginalia, or outside of what is traditionally reified as “fine art.” Most specifically, my dissertation is a visual, social history of the Americas, told through imagery of infant feeding. This inherently interdisciplinary research intersects with medical history, economics and mercantilism, feminism and gender studies, and has brought me to the most unexpected spaces: hospital archives, protected government documents on the agricultural economy, and to meetings of the Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club, who partner with the New York Milk Bank to deliver breast milk to infants throughout New York City. 

What inspired you to choose this field of study? 

To be quite honest, I entered graduate study at Cornell with an entirely different project in mind, but was lucky to have an advisor, Cheryl Finley, who encouraged me to follow my interests. It just so happened that I had my first baby, my daughter, shortly before I began coursework, and defended my A exams quite pregnant with my second; my son coincided with dissertation research and writing. So, to be quite blunt, I have been gestating or lactating throughout my doctoral experience, and that absolutely inspired me to consider how breastfeeding is represented visually, and what it could reveal about women and children’s lived experiences that so often go untold and unappreciated. One of my committee members, the wonderful Dagmawi Woubshet, has a particular approach to scholarship that I have happily emulated, one that allows your personal life to interact with your scholarship, removing the rigid line between the two. As I worked away, I was surprised by a true lack of attention to breastfeeding in the field of art history (especially given the great abundance of breastfeeding imagery), inspired by the academic work I did find, and energized by the possibilities of taking a bodily function that I feel is both the most ordinary and extraordinary thing in the world, and positioning it as extremely valuable (and exploited) commodity in American history and contemporary culture. My third committee member, Ananda Cohen-Aponte, along with the others, has continually ensured that I approach the material armed with a progressive, rigorous approach to the material.

Why is this research important? 

Human milk is a substance of irrefutable value in the history of the Americas, and like other such materials, it has been commoditized, exploited, replicated, stolen, sold, fetishized, controlled, abhorred, stored, shipped, racialized, suppressed, and corrupted. This has been, of course, at the expense of women and children, and usually the most vulnerable among them. Yet, in each of my case studies, I also find networks of women who, together, resist these systems of oppression and exploitation. It is important that these histories are increasingly acknowledged. For example, in a class I taught this semester on Dangerous Women, few of my students had prior knowledge of wet nursing, and the troubling, pervasive role it played in Transatlantic slavery, that women had particular monetary value for their ability to lactate. That is important knowledge. To that end, one chapter of my dissertation addresses nineteenth century cased daguerreotypes of enslaved wet nurses with their charges. It is absolutely the most painful part of my research, but I believe it to be a critical component of American history, that enslaved women and their infants were separated from one another to provide milk for white children. 

I also feel this research is important because it allows women to connect with the act of breastfeeding, which can be isolating particularly in how it is framed today as inherently private—or, to be more direct, shameful in public. The overarching goal of my project is to normalize the sight of breastfeeding in the humanities; I believe that this process of normalization is in fact radical and I hope that radicalizing perception will be my contribution to the field. 

Like many people, I hadn’t given infant feeding much thought until it was part of my life. I certainly hadn’t considered it from the perspective of politics, until I dealt with the politics of my own experience. I think this is part of why the general population is unconcerned with legislation and policies regarding breastfeeding: it is an activity it goes mostly unseen, and it is difficult to understand until you participate or support it. As soon as I started breastfeeding, I became acutely aware of the myriad ways in which the activity was controlled, evaluated, and even monetized. That this most essential and altruistic act is subject to such external influence is notable, and worthy of further academic inquiry. 

In terms of public policy, it is clearly demonstrated that policies and legislation support breastfeeding mothers contribute to the advancement of women in the workplace, and barriers to breastfeeding (and other issues like affordable health care) are tangible systems of suppressing women. Until “reasonable break time” was included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, there was no federal law protecting working mothers who breastfed or expressed milk for their children. These issues are very real in the lives of working women and deserve further attention—from everyone concerned with equity.

How has your background influenced your scholarship? 

Clearly, my experience of mothering and feeding young children while also working on my Ph.D. has influenced my scholarship, and in fact, my two children have taught me very much, to the degree that I (cheekily) thank them as my “research assistants.” But I am not new to feminism or scholarship on women, and have held a commitment to feminism and feminist scholarship since I knew what that meant; much of my undergraduate work in art and humanities had to do with gender and colonialism, I have a master’s degree in feminist art and literature, and in the museum world I have worked in community outreach and curated exhibitions of women artists. 

I have also long been interested in absence—continually questioning what goes absent in written and visual history and who benefits from that silence. 

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar? 

Cornell’s foundational tenet of “any person, any study” has encouraged and allowed my research to be extremely interdisciplinary, and the community of diverse, rigorous scholarship has been so very fulfilling and compelling. On this campus I have had conversations about breast milk with biologists, business librarians, generous archivists, the curator of the witchcraft archive, the maternal and child nutrition research group, and many, many art historians who never imagined they would, for years, be bombarded with the topic. I have had the opportunity to become part of a global network of milk scholars, who met last year in Paris and are publishing an edited volume on milk this year. And due to the generosity of Cornell, I have attended and presented at conferences around the country. Having a small writing group has made writing enjoyable and my work much stronger. All of these opportunities have influenced my project.

I understand you received an AAUW American Dissertation Fellowship this year. Congratulations! How did you learn about this fellowship and what was the application process like? 

Thank you very much! Receiving the AAUW Dissertation Fellowship is absolutely thanks to my advisor, Cheryl Finley, who encouraged me to apply years ago, thinking the organization would be a good fit for me. It is so true, as AAUW has been supporting academic women since 1881, with an unwavering commitment to “advanc[ing] equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.” The application process was lengthy, like any other, but I was thrilled to see nontraditional, insightful questions about engagement with women and girls, to which I was able to talk about not just my research but also extramural activities like volunteering to coach my daughter’s soccer team, and the opportunity to include child care in my budget proposal. 

What opportunities will this fellowship provide for you that you perhaps wouldn’t have had access to otherwise?  

Receiving this generous fellowship, along with supplemental funds from Cornell, will allow me to focus on my dissertation for the next 12 months, freed from teaching responsibilities, and to become a proud fellow of the AAUW. It is fairly rare, as fellowships go, in allowing me to stay in Ithaca with my family, as many other fellowships require residence or field work. It is such a relief that I can stay here and focus on writing. Being both a mother and a grad student has been quite challenging in terms of accessing affordable child care I need to work, so this fellowship is extremely impactful for me, in increasing my work time, and relieving some of that pressure. As I wrote in my application, “Being awarded this fellowship would mean writing during the daylight, rather than at night after everyone has gone to sleep.”

What are you hoping to accomplish with the assistance of this fellowship? 

I plan to write the two remaining chapters of my dissertation, which will likely take me to archives in Louisiana and Missouri, and to visit artists in New York and Los Angeles. Additionally, a few of my articles will be published this year. I hope to graduate in 2018, that my children will watch me become a doctor, a Cornell graduate (which is something I never would have imagined for myself), and be proud. 

Any advice for other graduate students interested in applying for fellowships or grants? 

The fellowship application process is arduous and inevitable rejection so disenchanting. Yet the process itself is worthwhile, as writing narratives, plans for completion, and budgets can be very clarifying. Seek the counsel of trusted mentors and colleagues. Truly know that rejections are not reflections of everything you care about. Be bold in revealing your vulnerability as well as your pride, and celebrate your accomplishments. Thank everyone who helps you. Remember that learning how to apply for grants and fellowships is itself a unique skill that will surely benefit you in the future. Take advantage of opportunities to improve applications that are provided by the graduate school; last October I participated in the Fellowship Draft Review and Consultation Sessions, and found it very helpful to have graduate students across the disciplines provide feedback on my application drafts. It is such a long process, but as I have recently learned, one that can be very fruitful, not just financially, but in terms of connecting with like-minded organizations. I am thrilled and quite humbled to now be part of AAUW, particularly as I have learned about other fellows, such as Rachel Carson who spent her fellowship writing Silent Spring

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

I came to Cornell 10 years ago as an employee of the Johnson Museum of Art, and at the recommendation of friends, pursued the wonderful Employee Degree Program, through which staff can take one class per semester for free. How I pored over the course catalog! It was all too exciting. I loved my courses, professors, classmates, and the intellectual rigor, the engagement with the world, the progressive approach, the endless possibilities for scholarship. I’d like to thank Cornell for providing staff with that excellent opportunity; I have now seen several friends earn degrees through the program. The excellent professor of Art History, Cheryl Finley, encouraged me to apply for the Ph.D. program, and I was astounded to be accepted, and moreover, with full funding, so that I could pursue my degree full-time without working. It has been an incredible experience; I have learned so much and seen this time as an absolute gift. 

What’s next for you? 

I don’t know, but am excited to find out. I love research, writing, and teaching, so I do hope for a professor position. We shall see. 

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School