Last week, I participated in the “Insecurity” conference at UW-Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies.
Besides learning so many things, I also presented a paper entitled “‘It’s Okay to Smile’: Nonheteronormative Security and the Work of the American Widow Project.” Here’s the abstract:
In 2007, when she was 22 years old, Taryn Davis became a military widow. Shortly thereafter, leveraging money from her husband’s life insurance, she became something of an entrepreneur when she founded the American Widow Project. A support and resource network, the AWP recognizes widows’ suffering but also embraces a vision of widowhood that is independent and pleasure-seeking. The AWP tacitly reframes widowhood as a deeply unfortunate opportunity for positive transformation. In addition to providing services like peer-to-peer counseling, the AWP offers “WidowU” courses that aimed at equipping widows for success in the marketplace and heavily subsidized spa weekends and adventure trips. In this way, it veers toward a neoliberal response to grief and the insecurity created by the loss of a spouse, which is especially acute for young widows who have not yet established themselves professionally or financially. Yet given the failure of the state to provide meaningfully for military personnel and their families, and the possibility that self-care can be a radical and necessary practice for marginalized people, I argue that the work of the AWP is worthy of further consideration in addition to critique. It might offer, howsoever ambivalently, one way of reclaiming a substantive futurity outside of the institutions, like marriage, that typically guarantee it. Indeed, with its photos of women grinning broadly and exuberant testimonies from members about healing and community, the AWP also provides a vision for life lived in the uncharted space beyond the heteronormative fantasy and all the securities it promises.