A Feminist at Birth Finds Love in the Archives
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 11:06
Photo courtesy of Alisa Bajramovic '18
In her four years at Amherst, Bajramovic dedicated herself to issues of social justice, feminism and environmental sustainability.

When Alisa Bajramovic and I sat down in Frost Café, we went from talking about her time on the debate team in high school to her potentially unhealthy love of Amherst Coffee to her involvement with the Reproductive Justice Alliance (RJA) at Amherst and more.

Even though this interview was supposed to be all about her, I still found her listening and engaging with me, a quality that her thesis and major advisor Ellen Boucher, an assistant professor of history, has also noticed.

“Alisa already has interesting things to say and comments to make, but one thing that’s really wonderful about her is that she really listens to the other students in the class, and she tailors her comments in light of what other people have been voicing,” Boucher said. “She’s talkative, but she never dominates the discussion, and sometimes she really shapes the discussion with her comments and her insights.”

“Watch Out, Feminist”

Following the 2016 presidential election, Samantha O’Brien ’18, a close friend and frequent classmate of Bajramovic, founded RJA. When the idea first came to her, O’Brien sent an email to Bajramovic and several other people asking for suggestions. Bajramovic was abroad in Edinburgh at the time, but O’Brien said that she replied in less than five minutes with several paragraphs outlining what she hoped the organization might do.

“Immediately when she got back on campus, she hit the ground running and did so much for the Reproductive Justice Alliance and helped it grow to what it is today,” O’Brien said.

Bajramovic’s interest in feminism started fairly early on in her academic career.

“I found a kindergarten report card in which my teacher told me that I would always correct her when she talked about mankind, and I would say, ‘Um, it’s humankind,’” Bajramovic said. “In parentheses on the report card, she said ‘Watch out, feminist.’ I was six — that’s kind of insane.”

Since kindergarten, Bajramovic has dedicated plenty of time to social justice issues and activism. She says that her involvement with RJA is “one of the best uses of my time at this college.”

With the group, she has helped fundraise for local organizations that are typically underfunded, like the Pioneer Valley Workers Association, to bring attention to their causes, all of which fall under the umbrella of the reproductive justice framework.

Her friend Noor Qasim ’18 sees Bajramovic’s caring personality in her involvement on campus and in their own friendship.

“She really genuinely cares about other people and in her extracurricular life. She’s dedicated herself to doing stuff that actually helps other people in such different ways,” Qasim said. “But she can also have a good time and has wonderful friendships and really cares deeply about all her friends.”

The connections between her two majors, history and sexuality, women and gender studies (SWAGS), has been something that Boucher has noticed while working with Bajramovic both in class and on her thesis.

“She sees in the past, a way of understanding present-day problems,” Boucher said. “I see her pondering the various ways in which gender works as a social and cultural formation in our modern lives by looking into the past and trying to find either patterns and structures that have been historically created that continue to shape our present day, or to look for models of how we can understand the way in which gender works by taking a case study from the past and maybe applying insights that we can learn from in the present day.”

Journey to Amherst

Bajramovic grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago. At her high school, Amherst wasn’t a well-known or common school for students to apply to. According to Bajramovic, it was her older sister Hanna who suggested she look into it.

“Funnily enough, I didn’t know that Amherst existed until kind of late in the game,” she said. “My sister came home one day and she looked at the list of the schools I was applying to since I was about to send in all of my applications, and at the bottom she wrote, ‘You should look at Amherst.’”

It was the open curriculum and community that ended up convincing Bajramovic to choose Amherst after visiting in the spring of her senior year.

“Everyone here seemed really genuine,” she remembered. “I felt like at other schools people seemed to be putting on a show to make it seem like their school was the best and so wonderful, but I felt that all the students I met here, including my tour guide, was like, ‘Oh yeah, Amherst has problems, but we address them and we move on from them.’”

Outside the Classroom

Since arriving at Amherst, Bajramovic has managed to maintain an active presence in clubs and causes on campus, in addition to succeeding in the academic and social spheres of her life. Her first year at Amherst, she started playing on the women’s ultimate frisbee team mostly for the social aspects.

“I joined it not really thinking I would do it for athletic reasons because I’m not naturally an athlete, and my parents are still shocked that I play a sport, like shocked every time,” she said. “But I fell into it and really enjoyed the team sport. Of course there’s the social side. You have a network of 60 women who will do anything for you and have done so much for me.”
She also spent time working to make the college more eco-friendly by launching the Bike Share program in 2016 with Director of Sustainability Laura Draucker and other students.

“It took about a year, which in retrospect, I cannot believe I was motivated through that year,” she said. “We spoke with students at different colleges and at bike share networks across the country to figure out how to make the program free, student-run, easy to use and sustainable. Now I’m not part of Bike Share anymore, but other people are, which shows to me that it’s a sustainable program that will last beyond the founders graduating.”

Inside the Library

Bajramovic spent much of this school year working on her thesis in the history department. Her thesis looked at shell shock in British soldiers during World War I with a specific focus on the soldiers’ transitions back into civilian society and how various people in the war office, the ministry of pensions and charities and parliament talked about soldiers. She found that the language around soldiers varied depending upon the source.

“I argue that even though they were very different in the way that they talked about the men and they way that they thought the men should be behaving in civilian society, throughout these discussions, they kept on coming back to these notions on masculinity and class,” she said. “How should a man be behaving after he had fought in the war? What does it mean to be an upper-class man in Britain in the early 1920s? I said that they were all motivated to return back to pre-war notions of masculinity and class.”

Boucher found Bajramovic’s ability to shape her thesis based off on what she found in her archival research to be especially impressive.

“One time she came in so enthusiastic about this governmental report she had found on shell shock and after she left I thought, ‘Wow, not many students would come in and be so excited about a governmental report from 1921 or 1922,’” Boucher said. “She really got into the process of doing the archival research and let the archives lead her.”
Bajramovic traveled to London over interterm to continue doing primary source research for her thesis and found the experience especially helpful in figuring out what to write.

“Writing the first chapter was almost impossible because I didn’t know where to go from there,” she said. “The easiest was that once I got in a groove, you could just spit things out and it made sense. Once I went to London to do research for my thesis over interterm, I had so many more primary sources, and I had a much stronger grasp on what my argument was, writing that next chapter was a breeze.”

After graduation, Bajramovic will enroll in a gender history master’s program at the University of Glasgow, where she’ll spend half the year taking classes and the other half of the year working on a dissertation. She hopes to continue the work she’s done on her thesis by looking at women who came home from World War I with shell shock.

“I think spending a year in a place that I’m not used to will make me more confident no matter where I go after that, be it a big city or just anywhere really,” she said. “I’m just so excited to pursue what I’ve really enjoyed doing this past year in my thesis but even further and with different resources now that I’ll be in Scotland.”

While she’ll leave Amherst with a degree and a thesis that Boucher describes as “enormously impressive,” Bajramovic considers the relationships she’s made in college to be one of the most important parts she takes from her four years here.

“At the start of college, you feel like you have no one here because your family and the people you grew up with are 1,000, 2,000 miles away, and that you kind of have to start from scratch,” she said. “Out of all the amazing things I’ve learned in classes, which there have been many, I think the relationships and the experiences I’ve had outside of class has been the best part of Amherst. There are so many people here who care so deeply about so many important issues and care so deeply about me and other friends that I don’t think this community could be replicated anywhere else.”