Experts at Northeastern Women’s History Month Symposium event weigh in on the growing censorship movement in America 

Martha Hickson and Karsonya Wise Whitehead on stage at Feminists on the Politics of Crisis symposium
Martha Hickson, North Hunterdon High School Library, Paisley Currah, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Loyola University Maryland and National Women’s Studies Association speak on “Don’t Say…: On Censorship and Organizing for Progressive/Feminist Speech”, as part of the Feminists on the Politics of Crisis symposium held Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant Center. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“Don’t say,” said Carla Kaplan, a Northeastern professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “Don’t say gay. Don’t say trans. Don’t say racism.”

“Don’t say anything that could possibly cause the least discomfort to straight white men,” Kaplan continued. “Don’t make them in any way uncomfortable with their massive unearned privileges. Indeed carry those privileged backpacks for them. Well, we say no way. We are through that.” 

The event, “Don’t Say…: On Censorship and Organizing for Progressive/Feminist Speech,” took place during the ninth annual Women’s History Month Symposium at the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute Cabral Center on Friday.

The three panelists examined the implications of right-wing attacks on trans, gay, feminist, and racial justice initiatives and identities while outlining how feminists can push back. 

The panelists, Paisley Currah, Martha Hickson and Karsonya Whitehead, have long histories of being on the front lines of exposing those privileges and analyzing attempts to silence minorities, Kaplan said. They are pushing back and refuse to be silenced, she said. 

Kaplan quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Hickson, the North Hunterdon High School librarian in New Jersey, noted the recent rise in book bans across the country. 

Attempted book bans in 2022 nearly doubled from 2021 nationally, hitting an unprecedented 20-year record, according to the American Library Association. There was also a major increase in Massachusetts, with 45% reporting challenges at schools and public libraries last year, targeting 57 titles. In 2021, the association reported nine cases with 10 titles targeted. 

Books aren’t only being targeted in red states, Hickson said. In New Jersey, parents attended a Board of Education meeting to complain about two books: “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. 

The parents called Hickson a pedophile, pornographer and groomer of children for allowing these books in the library. But after rallying the community and students, the school board voted to keep the books.

“They operate under the banner of what they call parental rights, which is an effort to restrict students’ exposure to only topics, authors and content that match their narrow worldview,” Hickson said. “But in the process, they are trampling on the First Amendment rights of children, parents and families who experience the world differently.”

Hickson pointed to an old newspaper clipping of Robert Dalton, who was the paid censor in the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. It was his job to remove magazines, paperbacks and comic books from newsstands if he thought they’d lead to “juvenile delinquency.”

Hickson and Dalton are related.

“He’s not just the city censor,” Hickson said. “He’s my great-grandfather.”

“We must not stop trying,” she continued. “I invite everyone listening to me today to please become an angelic troublemaker and join me in trying to end book banning.” 

Even though censorship has happened throughout history, for many it feels completely new, as if the country is in an unprecedented bad moment, Kaplan said. 

Why is that, she asked?

Highly organized issues that weren’t discussed before are now being brought to the forefront of national discussion, the panelists agreed. 

People feel like they need to take a stand, said Whitehead, a professor at Loyola University in Maryland and part of the National Women’s Studies Association. 

“But, it is an anti-Black, racist, and sexist, transphobic and homophobic stance that this country has been since its very foundation, is where we are,” Whitehead said. “It is not new.” 

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.