A woman siting in an office filled with books and stuffed toys.
Kay Coghill’s Ph.D. dissertation explores digital violence and misogynoir, the unique discrimination that Black women experience. (Contributed photo)

Through research and activism, VCU doctoral student explores gender, race, violence and culture – and wins American Society of Criminology award

In their studies, in front of a classroom and in digital work, Kay Coghill sheds light on misogynoir and helps survivors of sexual violence.

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The spirit of community – actually, communities – is at the heart of Kay Coghill’s scholarship and activism. Their pursuits are varied, from doctoral studies and instructor duties at Virginia Commonwealth University to digital work for me too. International. And there’s a Beyonce angle, too.

Coghill’s current priority in academia is completing their dissertation for VCU’s Media, Art and Text Ph.D. program – “You Can’t Kill Me; I’m a Bad Bitch” explores digital violence and misogynoir, the unique discrimination that Black women experience. Since 2021, Coghill also has taught courses as an adjunct instructor in the English Department and the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences

But their work has been noted off campus as well. In November, Coghill was honored by the American Society of Criminology with its Division of Victimology Practitioner/Activist of the Year award. The nomination cited their long-term research on gender-based violence and their work as digital director for me too. International, which support survivors of sexual violence.

“It was really, really affirming that I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing,” said Coghill, who was honored at the ASC’s annual convention in Philadelphia. “You can get awards for anything, but getting an award because you’re actually doing something that helps your community – especially when that community is extremely important to you – it just feels like a blessing.”

In addition to their research and their work at me too – Coghill manages the organization’s communications department, with a focus on digital offerings and promotional efforts – the award cited their service as an abortion doula, a person who provides support to a person who is seeking or having an abortion.

Exploring and fighting misogynoir

Coghill’s dissertation research has focused on how misogynoir manifests on social media platforms like Twitter (now X) and how victims combat it.

“I’m interested in how Black women and nonbinary femmes create harm reduction online,” Coghill said. “So, what are the creative and innovative ways that we are protecting ourselves from digital misogynoir? What are the long-lasting effects and impacts of digital misogynoir? And how are we able to exist in these digital spaces witnessing and experiencing misogynoir?”

The dissertation focuses on one-on-one interviews Coghill conducted with Twitter users about experiences with digital violence and misogynoir, and it draws on almost a decade of research. Coghill began studying gender-based online violence while in their master’s program at Bowie State University.

A photo of a woman holding an award certificate
Kay Coghill was honored by the American Society of Criminology with its Division of Victimology Practitioner/Activist of the Year award. (Contributed photo)

"Kay's research addresses the urgent topic of digital violence against Black women," said Jennifer Rhee, Ph.D., associate professor of English and Coghill's dissertation chair. "Their groundbreaking scholarship offers both an important diagnosis of how social media platforms fail Black women as well as a map of existing practices of online care enacted by Black women, from digital self-defense and harm reduction tactics, to strategies of critical consciousness and empowerment."

At VCU, Coghill’s research, teaching and activism exemplify the goals of the MATX doctoral program,  according to its director, Mary Caton Lingold, Ph.D.

“Their work transcends disciplinary borders and digital and social realms,” Lingold said. “Most wonderfully of all, as this [Practitioner/Activist of the Year] award recognizes, Kay’s work makes an impact on the lives of real people affected by digital misogynoir and other forms of gender and racial violence.”

Teaching and inspiring students

Pivoting from student to instructor, Coghill said their highlights include a course they created for the English and gender studies departments. Hip-Hop Feminism and Poetry explores the foundations of this branch of Black feminism, including how race, gender and culture intersect.

“We talk a lot about women and gender-expansive folks’ contributions to hip-hop and the culture, and then we also discuss how poetry ties into hip-hop and how that also is a form of expression,” Coghill said. “I try to pick specific topics that are relevant to pop culture or things that students can tie into their everyday life, and I try to do that from a hip-hop feminist lens.”

Coghill also tries to use Black feminism as a blueprint for how they interact with and inspire students.

“Bringing social justice into the classroom is really important to me as well – and letting my students know that this is a classroom where you will experience grace,” Coghill said. “I really want my class to feel like a safe space for students to be able to express themselves, but also a place where they can learn and contribute to the learning process.”

After their anticipated graduation in May, and in addition to ongoing work at me too. International, Coghill plans to expand a business they started recently to share expertise and scholarship through speaking engagements, curriculum development, and training and workshops.

“I’m hoping to take what I’ve learned in my Ph.D. program and the industry to help other organizations and groups,” they said.

There’s another notable post-graduation task: Coghill recently was contracted to contribute to a book of essays about the cultural impact of pop singer Beyoncé. “Hail to the Queen Bey” is slated to release in July 2025 through Fayetteville Mafia Press. Their chapter focuses on Beyoncé’s impact on Black women and their work ethic.

“I love Beyoncé’s work ethic,” Coghill said. “I use the way she stays low, builds and remains quiet until she’s ready to release as a blueprint for how I handle the work that I do.”