When I started working as a public services assistant at the Schlesinger Library, during my sophomore year, I had no idea how vast the library’s collections were. I soon got a sense as I shuttled carts and carts of manuscript boxes and folders from vaults to patrons—centuries of history were at my fingertips. That is what prompted me to apply for a Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowship during the spring of my junior year, as I planned for my thesis.
My ethnographic thesis research focused on organizational structures for activism and organizing under neoliberalism. Nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations are known colloquially as “charitable” organizations, yet the work that many of them engage in is less charitable than political. Using an ethnographic study of a nonprofit organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people between the ages of 13 and 24, I sought to illuminate the reasons why individuals are loyal to the nonprofit structure, despite its shortcomings or political limitations.
While I was trying to understand employees’ relationship to their organization, its structure, and the state as a regulating force, I realized that comparison with a similar organization might be useful.
As a student in anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality, I wanted to incorporate a historical component in my thesis research. I planned to research organizations involved in abortion rights activism. During my time in public services, I had familiarized myself with the NARAL records and Planned Parenthood materials. I met with the Schlesinger librarian Amanda Strauss to narrow my research focus and examine possibilities for research in multiple Schlesinger collections. After a summer of ethnographic research in Washington, DC, I turned to the NARAL papers to begin a comparative study of organizational structures.
NARAL still interacts with the state in tenuous ways, but its structure is more diversified than the structure of the organization that I researched. As an organization with a 501(c)(4) arm, a PAC arm, and a nonprofit arm, NARAL continues to function with more flexibility than the organization I researched ethnographically. By examining NARAL’s founding documents and board correspondence and then comparing them with its current structure, I was able to construct a genealogy of sexual and reproductive health and rights organizing under a neoliberal government with tax restrictions on organizations that it deems either political or charitable.
The NARAL collection at the Schlesinger Library allowed me to make a meaningful historicized contribution to my thesis on nonprofit advocacy on behalf of sexual and reproductive agency and freedom. I am confident that the collection will continue to illuminate academic discussions of activism, reproductive freedom, and organizational relationships with the state for future researchers.
Brianna J. Suslovic is studying social anthropology and women, gender, and sexuality. She is an intern at the Harvard College Women’s Center.