University of Oregon

Department of the History of Art and Architecture

‘Art and Politics’ speaker highlights intersections of gender, politics, history

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Jane Swift knows a thing or two about female politicians. When she became governor of Massachusetts in 2001, she was the first female governor of that state and, at age 37, the youngest sitting governor in the nation. Months after taking office she also became the first governor ever to give birth while in office. She became a lightning rod in local and national discussions of the challenges faced by women in the workplace.

Professor James Harper and former MA Governor Jane Swift
Above: Associate Professor James Harper brought former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift to UO to talk about “the image of the female politician.” Photo courtesy Susan Soonkeum Cox.

The week before the 2016 presidential election—as Hillary Clinton crisscrossed the country negotiating the tricky intersections of gender and politics—Swift was in Eugene to speak to UO students on the timely topic of “Hair, Hemlines and Husbands: The Image of the Female Politician.” An audience of more than a hundred students, faculty, and local political figures gathered to hear the talk, which was part memoir, part analysis, and part call-to-action. 

The invitation to speak at UO originated in the context of Associate Professor James Harper’s art history class, “Art and Politics from Michelangelo to YouTube.”  The course, which Harper offers every election year, considers historical examples of visual imagery ranging from Medici Florence to Louis XIV’s Versailles to American Civil War memorials to modern television ads. 

From these specimen-objects, students extract themes and strategies and consider how those play out in the political imagery of the current election. Harper, who has known Swift since they were classmates at Trinity College in the 1980s, knew that she would have a lot to say to the students in the class as well as to the campus more broadly.

Swift presented her material with a mix of humor, seriousness, and candor.  Drawing on personal experience, she discussed the challenges of crafting a political image as a female. She also offered reflections on the 2016 presidential race, which offered much gendered imagery and rhetoric.

Since leaving office, Swift has been working in education, one of her signature areas of concern as governor. She is now CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages, an education technology company, and a lecturer on the faculty of Leadership Studies at Williams College.

The lecture was cosponsored by the UO Department of the History of Art and Architecture, the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Political Science, the Provost’s Office, and the Center for the Study of Women in Society.

Story by A&AA Communications