Thoughts on a Conference

10 Dec

We three authors have been far too quiet for far too long.  Blame the joys of the third year – teaching and grading, language requirements, and of course, prelims/exams/quals reading.

A small part of that silence is due to the October weekend we spent together in Oakland, CA at the Western History Association Conference.  For the first time since we graduated from Sac State with our MAs over two years ago, we got to enjoy one another’s company and be supportive history nerd friends in person.  Jordan and I successfully presented papers together on a panel titled Negotiation of Identities in Alternative Communities: Hippies, Queers, and Lesbians in the U.S. West, 1950s-1970s.  Amidst all of the regular conference goings on we reconnected with old mentors, made new friends, talked each other through the most recent trials of Ph.D. school, toasted and cheered, and even speculated on the hair styles of certain well known historians.

Other than our post-presentation glow (thanks to suggestions of publication and comparisons to historian rock stars), what most preoccupied our late night chatting was the round table that examined women and the WHA at the 50 year mark.  The women of this round table engaged the audience in a conversation of women scholars and women’s scholarship throughout the organizations history.

The second generation of women historians critiqued WHAs record of including women, offending the first generation of the organizations’ female scholars who found home and acceptance there.  Eventually, both groups set about speculating how to encourage young scholars and graduate students to participate in WHA.  Not one person turned to those of us “youngsters” in the room to simply ask.  What could have been a fruitful and empowering dialogue devolved into far too much telling, accusing, and anger.  I have no way to speak to any experiences but my own at that moment, but I found in that room a lost opportunity.

This round table experience was reminiscent of so many feminist board meetings and gatherings.  I was struck once again of how divisive generational lines become among women (or even more broadly of diverse groups with shared concerns).  Why does the feminist ethic of common interest and cooperation so often falter with differences of age?  Perhaps part of this comes from the built-in professional dynamics of advisor/advisee relations that are commonly (though not always) distinguished by age.  Still, if we are to strengthen women’s role in the field of history and in professional associations, as well as furthering research about women, we must find ways to traverse generational gaps.

What we had hoped would be an empowering afternoon left us frustrated and disappointed.  I don’t have many answers other than encouraging genuine exchange and honest efforts to listen to each other; conversations that aren’t bound by traditional mentor/mentee power dynamics.

Fortunately, we history nerds were together to work out our thoughts on this and other ups and downs of the conference – a pretty great place for the conversation to begin.

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