For the first time, an Eastern Mennonite University student has won the Francis J. Ryan Undergraduate American Studies Paper Award. Junior Elisabeth Wilder of Hesston, Kansas, earned the honor at the April 1-2 Eastern American Studies Association annual conference with her paper, “Caitlyn Jenner, Phyllis Schlafly, and Other Transgender Rights Crusaders.”
Francis J. Ryan himself, the director of the American Studies program at La Salle University and the one who first suggested the award to the association, was on hand to congratulate the surprised winner.
“(He) shook my hand, and I turned to him and said, ‘Is this real?’ ” Wilder says. “He said, ‘Yes, this is real!’ It was incredibly humbling and also a complete shock.”
Each institution in the region selects one undergraduate student to participate in the contest. Wilder was selected by EMU professor of history Mark Sawin after taking his modern American history course this past fall. Sawin gave students in the class the option to write a 15-page research paper in lieu of doing another project, and students who earned an A could work with him to edit and submit the paperas a presentation for the conference.
Wilder and Lorraine Armstrong, Derrick Turner and Christian Parks each accepted the challenge, and all four had their papers accepted—even though most of the other participants were graduate students and professors and came from larger schools such as La Salle University, Rutgers, Penn State, and host Franklin & Marshall College.
Wilder’s paper took an ironic tack, as Phyllis Schlafly made her mark as a conservative activist who campaigned against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Wilder argued, though, that Schlafly’s work pointed the way to “legally protected gender privilege” that is necessary for the advancement of transgender rights today.
“When we argue so rigidly for something, it tends to become what we fight against,” Wilder says. “It can lead to what we never wanted. Phyllis Schlafly would never in her wildest dreams be a transgender hero, but it ended up that it could be true.”
Wilder, a social work major, took Sawin’s class as an elective but loved its broad cultural focus. She also praised Sawin for investing time in working with her on turning the paper into a presentation. Actually presenting the paper at the conference was “nerve-wracking,” she says, as she wanted to be sure to be a helpful ally and “advocate for transgender rights in a way that is honorable to transgender people.”
Sawin says Wilder’s approach of turning Schlafly’s agenda on its head was “very compelling.”
“I thought Elisabeth had the best shot at winning,” Sawin says. “Her paper was well written and thematically related. She made a clever argument.”
And as she prepares for her senior year, Wilder has further plans for her award-winning presentation.
“I’m hoping it will look great on a law school application!” she says.