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History professor awarded fellowship at the Max Planck Institute

Yucatec Maya women in the 20th century were a crucial element at the center of the traditional Maya culture, both inside and outside the domestic sphere. 

Michele Stephens

And while scholarship has been devoted to the political prowess of the population, a Latin American Studies professor at West Virginia University is exploring the experiences of Yucatec Maya women when dealing with the legal system. 

“When we think about Latin American women, we tend to see them as women who are oppressed and devoid of rights,” said Michele Stephens, assistant professor of history and director of Latin American Studies. “In fact, what I found was that different members of the criminal justice system actually sought out women as witnesses to crimes and valued their testimony just as much as they valued men’s testimony.”

Stephens is currently working on a book exploring the ways Yucatec Maya women developed an understanding of themselves as legal actors and how male legal practitioners viewed women who undertook legal actions against others.

To further her research, Stephens has been awarded a three-month residence at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt, Germany. While at the institute, Stephens will collaborate with some of the world’s leading legal historians.

The institute’s library houses more than 450,000 media items and it is one of the central research hubs for the worldwide scientific community concerned with investigating the past and present national and transnational legal orders.

Stephens was originally researching how Yucatec Mayan women survived criminal encounters and how they asserted their rights.

“I anticipated finding women who were passive participants in the law, meaning women who were victimized in various ways,” Stephens said. “I wanted to explore how women who survived criminal encounters then asserted their rights.” However, that isn’t what she found while doing preliminary research in Mèrida.

“I never anticipated finding women as murder suspects or women as violent criminals,” she said. “What that’s leading me to ask is, ‘What is going on in this society that is causing women to react in such violent ways?’”

Stephens joined the WVU history department in the fall of 2013, as an assistant professor of Latin American history. She has been interested in history since high school, however she didn’t follow her passion for Latin American history until she was in a doctoral program at the University of Oklahoma.

She recently finished revising her doctoral dissertation into a book manuscript. “In the Lands of Fire and Sun: Cultural Resistance and Accommodation in the Huichol Sierra, 1723-1930,” examines the Huichols’ reactions to the colonization and imposition of Spanish and Mexican cultural, social, and political power. Stephens first book is currently in the final editing stages and will be published in 2017.