Berkshire Post-mortem

After I got transferred to a suite at the Holiday Inn, my conference experience got much better! I got to meet Historiann in person — very nice outfits, H! I would agree with her post that the sessions I attended emphasized a need to return to the archives to capture women’s lived experience, not just representations/discourse. Here are some summaries of the sessions I attended:

Session 23: Childhood as Useful Category of Historical Analysis

I led a session similar to this one at the 2002 Berks but this one was much better! Rebecca de Schweinitz argued that the movement for racial equality in the twentieth century was linked with changing ideals about childhood. She discussed the Children’s Charter passed in the 1930s, which extended the notion of a right to childhood beyond the white, middle-classes. This laid the groundwork for the legal arguments in the Brown V. Board of Education decision.

Leslie Paris discussed how the term “girl” became a pejorative term during Second Wave feminism, used by leftie men to trivialize women’s demands for equality. This in turn, she argues, led women historians who came of age during the Second Wave to ignore or underplay the role and place of girls — i.e. non-adult women — throughout history. For example, both Mary Beth Norton’s _Liberties Daughters_ and Kathy Peiss _Cheap Amusements_ prominently feature adolescent females (indeed, Peiss’ subjects are almost exclusively in their mid to late teens) yet their “girlness” and the ways in which their experience differs from that of adult women remains unanalyzed. She also mentioned that the role of girls in Second Wave feminism needs to be more fully explored. Finally, she gave a plug for an edited collection on girlhood that will be published by University of Illinois in Fall 2009.

Martha Saxton argued that the history of childhood has been a “silent partner” in historical scholarship, lurking beneath the surface but seldom analyzed as such. She also stated that historians could benefit from examining relationships between siblings, not just parent-child relationships.

Virginia Ott examined the lives of young women in the Confederate south, looking at the role they played in the construction of Confederate nationalism, as well as the impact of the war on their lives. Her key argument is that young women, like men, sought to preserve rather than challenge the Southern tradition of male chivalry and white ladyhood. At the same time, the war experiences did compel young women to expand the notion of what it meant to be female and Southern.

I found Tamara Myers’ paper on “Space, Place, and Bodies” to be the most useful for my work on the history of the body and sexuality. She looked at the ways in which the evolution of juvenile justice was embodied. What was surprising to me was that in the case of males, the focus was on preadolescent “waifs and strays,” young boys who were “stunted” by poverty and disease — images that inspired sympathy and compassion from the courts and the general public. During the discussion, I pointed out the connections between these images and disability history.

Session 63: Sexual Science Revisited: A Roundtable discussion with Cynthia Eagle Russett

This was the session I was most enthusiastic about attending, since my own work (like others who attended grad school in STS in the late 1980s and early 1990s) was strongly shaped by Russett’s book, which won the Berkshire book prize in 1989. All of the papers examined the ways in which feminists used evolutionary theory for their own purposes, to create what Carla Bittel called a “science” of women’s rights. They also acknowledged the dangers and pitfalls of this tactic — by and large, this was largely a white, middle-class phenomenon (with a few exceptions among the black middle-class), one that reinforced notions of white supremacy and fears of race suicide. Also, by rooting feminist principles in nature and the body, these ideas perpetuated an essentialist view of women with which we are still grappling in the 21st century.

Session 82: Transforming Health Care from Below

This was another fabulous session but by this point I was spending more time listening (and knitting) than taking notes! Jennifer Nelson had the awkward job of talking about leading feminist reproductive rights activist Loretta Ross while Ross herself was in the audience. All of the papers reminded us that theory and activism were connected, especially for women of color — i.e. that feminist perspectives emerged from lived organizing experiences.

Session 131 — Teaching about Health and Contraception outside the classroom

This was the only public history session I attended and I’m glad I did because it was extremely useful. Mary Melcher’s paper on using the Arizona women’s heritage trail to teach about birth control gave me some ideas about how to interpret and present birth control in the state — in fact, should tell the folks at Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame that birth control and reproductive rights needs to be included in the CT Women’s Heritage Trail. I found Sarah Payne’s paper on “contraceptives on display” most helpful for my (possible) online exhibit on emergency contraception which I hope to get going once I master Omeka.

Finally, there was my Sunday seminar on “What is the History of the Body.” I was pleased to see so many people in the audience — over a dozen, or twice the number on the panel. It was also great to reconnect with Patty Stokes, a former classmate from Cornell — who blogs as Kitty Wampus. The main theme of the session, which is really a microcosm of the conference, is the need to move beyond the “linguistic turn,” to look at the physical experience of living in the body, not just discourse and representations of women’s bodies.

That’s it for now — got to get unpacked, start doing laundry and get back on track with various projects.

7 thoughts on “Berkshire Post-mortem

  1. Hi KC–thanks SO much for that digest of the childhood panel! I had to chair another session at the same time, otherwise I would have been in the front row with you there. You know about the new journal from the faculty at U Mass Amerhert and Kriste Lindemeyer, the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth? It looks like it will be the place to continue the many conversations and ideas you saw on that roundtable.

  2. My pleasure. Yes, I know about the journal and have the latest issue on my desk. The next conference will be in summer 2009. Also, the theme of this year’s Women’s Studies conference at Southern CT State U is girls and girlhood.

  3. Hey, thanks for the link. I had to create a WordPress account to get in here, and so it took me a few minutes to jump through the hoops.

    It was wonderful hanging out with you and I’m really glad we reconnected.

    I said something similar at Historiann’s place, but I’m not at all sure there’s a dichotomy between doing archival work and dealing with representations. I’ve spent heaps of time in the archives but still take a partly cultural/anthropological perspective on the stuff. Conversely, while some of the more helpful sources on lived experience have indeed come from the archives (e.g., abortion trial records), I’ve also eked out equally useful stuff from published sources (e.g., medical articles read carefully and sometimes across the grain).

  4. Too bad I’m no longer on the advisory board of the CT Women’s Hall of Fame, though maybe you are (I don’t think I met you then, but that was a couple of years ago). Sounds like great ideas from a great conference.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Kittywampus. I agree that cultural and social history can be complimentary, but as we saw in our session, some folks take the easy way out and just look at published sources and representations. At the very least they should set these materials in context — for example, the fellow who analyzed the advertisements from the Duke digital scriptorium should at least have drawn on the house publications of advertising agencies, as well as secondary sources on the cultural history of advertising (e.g. Roland Marchand). As I pointed out in our session, he also needs to look at important work on the history of menstruation, e.g. Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s _The Body Project_, as well as Emily Martin’s _The Woman in the Body_, and Sharra Vostral’s more recent work on the technology of menstruation.

    I wonder if this lack of historiographic knowledge and sophistication is common among scholars from outside of history who venture into historical topics.

  6. Pingback: Berkshire roundup: rodeo girls won’t you come out tonight? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  7. Pingback: Reports from the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women | American Historical Association

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