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Conference Take Two

23 Dec

I’d like to add my own thoughts on the WHA conference Chelsea, Jordan, and I attended in October and in particular the Roundtable “Women and the WHA at Fifty Years.”

But, before I get to that, you must know how fantastic were the presentations Jordan and Chelsea delivered. Sure, I’m biased, but only towards exciting and challenging scholarship. Jordan traced the travels and activism of Navajo artist R.C. Gorman and although you’ll not find one word about his sexual orientation in the avalanche of studies about his art, for much of his career he was openly gay and lived with his partner in San Francisco before they moved back to New Mexico and eventually split. And as I’m sure many of you know already, Chelsea raised important questions centered on the Daughters of Bilitis, a very early gay rights organization on the west coast and uncovers “gendered understandings of identity and rights that suggest feminist-like discourse and action well before the take-off of the second wave feminism.”†

It may seem like I am piling on the criticism Chelsea has already put forth, but my experience of this panel was equally disconcerting. In addition to many of the absurdities already mentioned, the “discussion” began with several of the panelists making it a point to mention that one of the truly important ways in which WHA conferences touched their lives was the fact that they met their husbands at the conference. Now, I’m all for romance and love. However, to illustrate the importance of the conference for women’s history, let’s just say it ranks pretty low from my perspective.

The discussion about engaging grad students was equally absurd. One audience member, in her attempt to illustrate the distance she would go to show support for our increased participation told the audience she actually sat in on a panel featuring graduate students. “It didn’t suck” was the gist of her assessment and why “it wouldn’t be a total waste of time” for more senior historians to show their support.

And what was to come of this collective brainstorm? Nothing really. Sure, not all ideas or questions need to turn into actionable items. But much like the rest of the discussion, there appeared to be no real intent to do anything with any of the ideas that were raised. Not even a subcommittee to look into the matter further was proposed, no “blueprint for the next fifty years.” And what many of the problems raised such as grad student involvement had to do with women and the WHA was also a bit of a mystery.

The questions this spectacle left in my mind relate to bigger questions I’ve been struggling with recently about whether women and gender and sexuality studies are best left as separate fields of inquiry or whether historians are conscious enough of their importance to incorporate them appropriately. Let’s just say I’m more firmly in the camp of segregation following this roundtable. But more on this in the near future.

Overall, I was left with the impression that while historically the conference has not been openly hostile to women and provides opportunities to present women and gender research, much work remains to be done before it can be said that we have achieved “gender”* equality. And it seems to me that several of the barriers to achieving that equality could have been found in that same hotel ballroom. As Chelsea also concludes, it was a wasted opportunity.

† Chelsea Del Rio, “A Freer Human Being: Finding Feminism in Lesbian’s Pursuit of Identity, Partnership, and Community” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Historical Association, Oakland, CA, October 15, 2011).

* Thank you, Joan Scott, for completely confusing me on whether I should be talking about biological or cultural differences or whether the critical use of “gender” and “sex” has become so conflated that they are interchangeable.  (Scott, Joan. “Some More Reflections on Gender and Politics.” In Gender and the Politics of History, 199-218. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.)