impressions from the feminist history conference

Reflections on the event

This is not intended to be a review of the Conference, and it does not function as a minutes document either. It consists more of a personal reflection and always within the framework (which is still shaping) of my research. In this light, I will refer to the various talks and presentations but it will be my interpretation of the arguments presented, in the sense that there may be a point more pertinent to the presenter’s discussion which I may have overlooked here.

My general feeling of the conference is really positive since, even though this was a conference around feminist history, it accommodated not only historians researching feminism as movements but also reflected on the very project of doing feminist historiography and the challenges it poses. It was for me an excellent opportunity to meet Red and Debbie from the Feminist Activist Forum (FAF), have a chat with Gail Chester and other very interesting people. There was also a stand of the Feminist Fightback there and I had a short conversation about the use of digital media such as email and the Net in their current campaigning regarding the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I have to note that the food was excellent, it was a plainly vegetarian menu with gluten-free option which was great. The venue was also impressive, I hadn’t been to the Bishopsgate Institute before and the event took part in the Great Hall and the Library, which reminded me that even in such a central space as London Liverpool Street, not everything is wired- and felt lost for a bit as I had left my mobile at home- eventually I walked out of the building and used a coin payphone.

In her introductory welcome speech, Barbara Taylor (UEL) gave an overview of the idea of women and how its meaning has changed since the 18th century. She addressed feminist historians John Scott idea that feminist history is an alternative to feminist essentialism. First she noted the emergence of discourses that interpret woman as a sign, signposting Gail Rubins talk about women and men as essentially in 1975 as the starting, revolutionary point. From then on women became a sign and finally the idea of woman is nowadays abolished. The linguistic turn of the 1960s, the raise of social history and social determinism. She then moved on the investigate the myth of woman as inherently kind, empathic, altruistic and kind(er). She traced the emergence of this rhetoric in the philanthrophic and self-sacrificing practices of the 18th century. Women in this period play a vital role in the production of the idea of civilization, they serve as facilitators of human progress, they are the ones who transform men into social animals and their actions are corrective. The idea of women as guardians of altruism is equally disseminated by women and men of the era, especially by women poets and novelists or bluestocking upper class intellectual women. These ideas were however highly opposed by feminists such Wollstonecraft who advocated for reasonable parents and dedicated citizens. She famously quoted that women who love their children simply because they are their children are contemptable. Finally, these myths of female kindness were responses to public fears of isolation and anomy of the emergent individual of industrialization. However it was suggested that constructivism is problematic when trying to explain feelings, attachements and sensibilities, feelings for and with others and between women. The example of Greenham Common was given to illustrate how traditional feminism could transform ideas about essential kindness and maternal values when it becomes militant.

In the discussion that followed Margaretta Jolly drew a link with contemporary primatology feminist study and the attempts to historicize the biological.

I then attended the panel The Historian as Feminist which was predominately a reflection of working as a historian/researcher/activist within and outside institutions. The FAF stressed the importance of documenting resistance and how the process of digitally archiving is an activist intervention in the making of history. What I found particularly central as an approach to my project is the sense of continuity in cultural feminist activism they want to communicate through the archive. Then, Sarah Browne presented a paper on interviewing processes and the ethical issues they raise, the power imbalances of interviews. She has researched second wave Scottish feminists and in her interviews, she avoided formal, structured questions except for a question like ‘what put you through to feminism’. She also mentioned that transcribing the interviews took her five times the time of the actual sound files. An interesting point she mentioned was that it was difficult for her to track down participants because second wave events did not keep minutes or participant lists. Also, she talked about how the people she interviewed seemed to have an idea about the researcher’s identity from the context of the interview, from her age, and from the topic of the research. Especially the researcher’s age and the fact that she came from the academia placed her at a certain distance to the participants. Next, Dr. Leslie Orr from Edinburgh talked about her study on the Women’s Aid in Scotland. She talked of the 1970s often appearing with nostalgia as the years of ‘real’ feminism in contrast to institutionalized feminism. She did an oral history pilot study of around 30 women that were active between 1973-1980 and created a digital archive (also in the form of a DVD featuring mainly sound clip and photographic material without any additional commentary). She gave a list of questions regarding the meaning of history and its relation to memory- like, is the meaning of history just commemorative? Does it link us to our heroes? And what do we do with the narratives that shake the idea of a collective experience and identity? For her the study of history is a study of shifting dynamics rather than the study of the past and the struggles of the present are also recorded along with the struggles of the past. An example of this was the observation that there are strong senses of ‘us’ and ‘them’ within and outside the movement, namely in the case of attitudes towards lesbianism and lesbians. She came upon no possitive attitudes but repeated language like ‘raging lesbian man-haters’.

There was also a paper given about ‘Sisterhood’ in the 1970s as it was expressed through US periodicals. She used B. Anderson’s idea of ‘imagined communities’ and also J. Butler’s use ‘interpelation’ in ‘Excitable speech’ to explain how important the notion of sisterhood was for small, geographically isolated communities at the time. She asked, what is the effect of a speech act calling someone ‘sister’? For her, the imagined communities of universal sisterhood that were generated by this interpelation can be understood as a pleasurable and positive experience.

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