“[It] got me thinking … about how these big societal forces apply to my whole life,” said Strelevitz, who began to notice racial and class divides in her school. “I knew that was something that I wanted to keep learning how to do.”
With that awareness, Strelevitz came to Colby and pursued a double major in sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS). “I really love the way they work together,” said Strelevitz, a QuestBridge scholar from Hudson Valley, N.Y. She learned much more by combining the two, she said, because they approach the same topics in very different ways.
“She’s bringing together and looking at the gaps between all this literature, but then she’s bringing in her own methods with a qualitative analysis of the interviews that she did, which is truly interdisciplinary work.” —Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Sonja Thomas on Tara Strelevitz ’20
Four years later, she brought her studies from these disciplines together in a WGSS honors thesis, “The Intersections of Divorce, Poverty, and Domestic Abuse.” This, together with her overall work in WGSS, won her the department’s Founder’s Prize—an award given to a senior demonstrating academic excellence and a commitment to the activist roots of WGSS as a discipline.
“That’s exactly what she does,” said Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Sonja Thomas, Strelevitz’s honors thesis and academic advisor. “She was an exceptional student, always had her work done, and was always working really hard on the work, too.”
In her senior thesis, Strelevitz took an interdisciplinary look at divorce, poverty, and domestic abuse with a focus on Maine.
For Strelevitz, a child of divorce, this was a personal quest, too. “Part of it, I kind of joke, is like ‘research as therapy’ of learning about the social forces that shaped my childhood and my teenage years, and my family,” Strelevitz said, “[and] learning about how certain things are just [a] phenomenon.”
But studying these three issues—divorce, poverty, and abuse—wasn’t the plan all along. She refined her ideas as she engaged with her double major.
During a course with Associate Professor of Sociology Christel Kesler last fall, she began to see other sides of these issues. “I was still thinking about my thesis in terms of just divorce and poverty,” she said, “and that evolved while I was in Christel’s class to incorporate more of the domestic abuse side.”
“Divorce and poverty are already studied together pretty well … and domestic abuse tends to be studied a lot more on its own as a very different kind of issue … It’s kind of like that divide between sociology and WGSS.” —Tara Strelevitz ’20
Strelevitz used 2010 census data and compared it to trends from the literature on poverty and divorce in her project “Gendered Economic Effects of Divorce.” Her findings, which she presented at the Eastern Sociological Society Conference in February, revealed that women have a higher risk of poverty after divorce, especially if they didn’t work during their marriage; women are more economically impacted by having custody of children than men; and child support mitigates some of the poverty risks. “I have also been able to incorporate some of my quantitative research from this project into my senior thesis,” she said.
What’s more, she incorporated a recent Maine bill, the Act to Provide Relief to Survivors of Economic Abuse (APRSEA), which provides protection to economic abuse survivors and makes Maine one of the few states with a legal definition of “economic abuse.”
“Divorce and poverty are already studied together pretty well … and domestic abuse tends to be studied a lot more on its own as a very different kind of issue,” said Strelevitz. ”It’s kind of like that divide between sociology and WGSS.” Examining the three together “was very eye-opening because they do obviously correlate a lot, and there’s a lot of interplay between all of them.”
In showing this, she not only drew on sociology and women’s studies literature but also analyzed divorce law, looking at a Maine Supreme Court divorce case as a case study. She also brought in a survey by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence that showed the necessity of APRSEA, and she interviewed the organization’s Community Engagement Coordinator Samaa Abdurraqib along with Maine State Representative Jessica Fay to gain a deeper understanding of the act.
What did she find?
“Maine, with this act, is at the forefront of directly supporting survivors of domestic abuse,” she said, noting that the survey found 81 percent of survivors could not leave their relationship because of economic abuse. While this bill is a good starting point, more is needed in the court system to protect survivors, she argued. “There’s a lot of bias in the court system, whether it’s from the structure of the law itself or [it] comes from individual judges against survivors, especially against mothers who are survivors.”
Thomas was impressed with Strelevitz’s work linking sociology, WGSS, and feminist legal theory—a discipline in and of itself. “She’s bringing together and looking at the gaps between all this literature, but then she’s bringing in her own methods with a qualitative analysis of the interviews that she did, which is truly interdisciplinary work,” Thomas said. And being able to do that kind of work and then write about it, she said, “is extremely challenging.”
With this accomplishment under her belt, Strelevitz is now looking for employment opportunities, but her long-term goal is attending law school.
“I want to work possibly with survivors of domestic abuse,” she said. “I want to work with this issue of representation in civil legal aid—helping people get through the court process when they can’t necessarily afford counsel, or afford an attorney, or afford any kind of guidance through the system.”