AHA Report Part 2: Women’s History edition

I’m finally getting around to writing part 2 of my AHA report.  The first women’s history session I attended was

Popular and Profane: Race, Gender, and Regionalism in Peyton Place

Now, I’ve never read this novel but I have read Jennifer Scanlon’s biography of Helen Gurley Brown, Bad Girls Go Everywhere,  so was especially interested in hearing her paper.  So, I’m going to limit my comments to her paper because I don’t feel qualified to comment on the others.  Scanlon’s main point is that both Peyton Place and Sex and the Single Girl show how women were able to move outside the 1950s feminine ideal (and by 1950s, she means “long 1950s” — i.e. including the early 1960s depicted in Mad Men).  She uses both books in a course on bad girls in the 1950s.  She and other panelists found that many women from the 1950s identified with the central characters of these books because they didn’t feel they fit the mold of 1950s femininity.  These books were also popular because they show female sexual agency and women entering the world of men.  Scanlon concluded that we need to rethink where feminism came from, include the voices of working, non-college educated women like Gurley Brown in challenging the feminine mystique.  Scanlon is looking for examples of films that “tamed” the bad girls of the 1950s.  I throw this out there for film historians/studies folks to give her some ideas.

Another session I found extremely useful was

The Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching Women’s History

I offered to blog about this to keep the dialogue going (and of course gave everyone the wrong URL).  Here are some major talking points:

Ana Rosas discussed how she incorporates her activism into the classrooom.  She also warned of the dangers of universalizing women’s experiences.

Sara Scalenghe described the challenges of teaching about women in the Middle East and how she has to overcome her students’ Islamaphobia and the assumption that things are wonderful for women in the modern U.S.

Mary Kelley says she begins her classes by throwing out statistics that indicate in a concrete way the progress that has been made for women since the 1960s (she uses Gail Collins’ book When Everything Changed as a point of departure), and also describes what remains to be done.  She hopes to motivate students to be activists to continue work on behalf of women’s rights.

Katherine Hijar described the challenges of teaching her conservative, evangelical students and how she attempts to correct the misappropriation of history by Sarah Palin and other far right political figures.  She identified three discursive trends:

1. a belligerent model of civic engagement (NB: this was the same day as the Arizona shootings/assassination attempt on Rep. Gabriel Giffords — I didn’t find this out until later in the day).

2. history means histories of great men, usually political and military leaders

3. the ongoing political instability may make extreme points of view appealing to Americans looking for certainty — and feeds much of the racist, sexist, and classist ideology circulating in contemporary American society.

She argued that Palin’s rise represents these trends as well as the “political mobilization of ignorance.”  She presents a model of conservative Christian feminism that is appealing to women and non-threatening to men.  Her book, America by Heart, employs a selective and often inaccurate history of frontier women to support her “Momma grizzly” trope.   Nevertheless, Hijar tries to recognize that her students are find their way in the world. She attempts to find ways to enlighten them in ways that are non-confrontational, something she finds especially important given that there are few media models for engaging in civil debate.

The comments also reiterated the need to confront the “easy” narratives of women’s history, that basically say that things used to “suck” for women and now things are “great.”

That’s my take on the panel.  I’ll invite others to comment and/or revise.

2 thoughts on “AHA Report Part 2: Women’s History edition

  1. As usual, I’m late to the party, but did you know that _Sex and the Single Girl_ was made into a movie? Starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis. It was released in 1964, and has that long fifties feel. Unfortunately ( guess) I only watched the first 15 minutes of it on streaming Netflix; now it’s available on DVD only). I just couldn’t handle the misogyny. One day I imagine I’ll end up writing a paper about it.

  2. Not that late! Yes, I did know of the movie and have watched some of it, but aside from the title it has very little in common with the book. Anyway, thanks for the reminder.

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