Laura Ornée recently joined our Encyclopedia Virginia editorial team as a PhD+ intern. A sixth-year PhD student in UVA’s history department, Laura’s research investigates transnational feminist organizing in the late 20th century. We recently caught up with her to learn more about her time at UVA, her reading recommendations, and how life in Virginia compares (or contrasts) to life in her home country, the Netherlands.
Let’s start with what you’re studying at UVA. You are pursuing your PhD in History, and your work focuses on transnational feminist organizing. How did you decide to focus on this topic?
In one of my courses during my master’s program in Amsterdam we discussed the history of human rights discourse, and human rights organizing, in the 1970s. The topic really gripped me, especially because I came into the class with only a sort of vague understanding of human rights as this non-political, universal call for ‘good.’ Understanding it as a product of contingency and politics was fascinating to me. After that course I started thinking, what about women’s human rights? I wondered what the history was behind the transnational campaign for women’s human rights that took place in the early ’90s. What were the politics there, the contingency? Those are some of the questions my dissertation hopes to answer.
As a student from the Netherlands, what drew you to studying history in the United States?
I looked for PhD spots by searching for scholars working on the topics I was interested in, viewing them as potential advisors. That turned out to be mostly people in the US. I also already knew that a lot of the archives I wanted to visit were in the US. I’ve briefly lived in both Memphis and New York City, so I was familiar with life in the US, but I’d never visited Virginia before I moved here. When riding in the cab from the train station in Charlottesville to the house that I had found on Facebook, I definitely panicked for a second — the town looked so small and different from what I was used to. But it all worked out and I feel right at home in Virginia now.
If someone was interested in learning about the history of transnational feminist organizing for the first time, what resources would you recommend they get into?
That’s a tough one! There are so many amazing scholars doing work on this. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past few years is Emily Hobson’s Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. Part of the book discusses solidarity between queers and women of color in the Bay Area with Nicaragua in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration was funding and arming right wing rebels there. Hobson does such a beautiful job of showing the complicated dynamics between these organizers that are trying to support each other. A sillier but very fun source I use in class sometimes is the Instagram account @BarbieSavior, which makes fun of white people engaging in ‘voluntourism’ and other white savior behavior.
While studying at UVA, you have spent time living in Richmond. What’s your favorite way to spend a free afternoon in Virginia’s capital city?
I love going to different queer community events around town, such as the safe space market or one of the many drag shows. I also love swimming in the James River, especially on one of those unexpectedly warm fall days. Richmond Folk Fest is a favorite, too — I’ve gone every year I’ve been in Richmond so far and I always discover a new artist I like.
As Encyclopedia Virginia’s intern, you’ve spent some time going through their archive of entries. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve run across so far?
That there’s no queer history section yet! Part of my job here will be working on adding that, and I’m very excited about it. One of the surprising facts I discovered in the entries is that the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, was the one who had the notorious pirate Blackbeard (Edward Teach) killed in 1718. I very much associated pirates with the Caribbean, so it was fun to find out there was a Virginia connection there. I have been watching the tv show Our Flag Means Death, in which Blackbeard is one of the main characters, so I hope I didn’t discover a spoiler!