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The Western Association of Women Historians 2015 Conference, Sacramento

Ok, folks. Here is a brief run-down of the conference I attended May 15-16, 2015. Many bits of conversations from this trip will find their way to a future AD blog posts. I love that I was able to talk through ideas with other scholars and feel inspired to pursue both academic writing and “on the side” blog topics on various issues. Until then, here is the Western Association of Women Historians 2015 conference, in brief.

Historian Jane DeHart (emerita, UC Santa Barbara) declared, “Research and writing is a collaborative effort.” This contradicts much of what the public perceives of as the historian’s burden. In fact, it challenges the typical working experience of many intellectuals! But I trust the words of an incredibly successful academic when she proclaims that relationships are of utmost importance to the researcher-writer.
(Additionally, one might notice a grammatical error in the statement. Are “research” and “writing” two separate actions? Deeply and somewhat obviously, no. If one writes, one researches, and vice versa.)

So, here I am at the Western Association of Women Historian’s annual conference, this year in Sacramento, schmoozing and chitchatting with my fellow women historians and historians of women (because not all are female here, it should be known.)
There is much to say about this intimate meeting. It is small enough that one continues to see the same people through the day, which enhances and enables the connection-making experience, but the scholarship is rich enough to realize some of the best women’s historical work is happening here. It is also very graduate student friendly.

About five sessions happen at a time, so it is difficult to take in all the work presented at this conference, but it is clear that even though this is a western association, the scope and participants reach out broadly – beyond the political borders of the United States.

The first session I attended on Friday was on the topic of women’s reproductive rights. Too often the national conversation gets funneled into an extremely limited sound byte-worthy “dialogue” (notice the quotations.) These historical approaches offered by Alicia M. Gutierrez-Romine (University of Southern California), Lisa Stern (UC San Francisco), Rebecca M. Kluchin (California State University, Sacramento), and Christi Anderson (California State University, Sacramento, commentary) illustrated the ways historical perspective can enrich the dialogue. In particular, Anderson noted all panelists expressed the need to recognize women as independent beings within the medical and legal system in America. Their work deepened the conversation about reproductive rights to critique the ways women are perceived, question the historical dialogue surrounding family planning, and the ways a woman and her fetus are defined as individuals and/or physically connected.

That afternoon there were several stellar roundtables – and you know how much I love a good roundtable. I think they reflect the best characteristics of an academic conference. Sometimes structured, mostly spontaneous, roundtables illustrate the scholarly dialogue that arises when academics meet. First, the Presidential Panel this year honored the late Stephanie Camp, feminist historian and author of the influential book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004, University of North Carolina Press). Rachel Jean-Baptiste (UC Davis), Marne Campbell (Loyola), and Stephanie Jones-Rogers (UC Berkeley) elaborated on the impact of Camp’s work on their own research and the discussion was seamless. One of my favorite statements of the conference was an audience member’s comment that the dialogue was “beautiful.” First of all, it is incredibly encouraging that language like this is used in this environment to describe scholarship. Second, it was amazingly on-point. Personally, I left the session inspired and excited. Clearly, Camp was a remarkable intellectual, but the women presenting are building strongly upon her work. This panel was particularly relevant as our national discussion focuses race and class in light of Ferguson and Baltimore. It was rich with information, so almost impossible to convey the fullness of it here. Key points and questions raised include:
– The body as a site, a counterspace/alternative space in the margins that allows those oppressed to engage in their humanity and actively resist oppressors.
– Geography is a place of history and as such, scholarship recreating “3-D” histories enhance the knowledge of black women’s lives. (Jean-Baptiste)
– How do women become free? Slave women in antebellum south experienced commodification and the slave trade in very particular ways. They used knowledge to calculate their own value and negotiate – to reclaim their own bodies (Jones-Rogers)
– How do we define resistance? How do we define the body? Space? How do we use sources in creative ways? Who owns the discourse? Who gets to define what constitutes resistance?

After this I attended a roundtable that peaked my interest as soon as I read it in the program: “Jane DeHart on Ruth Bader Ginsberg: The Challenges of Writing on a Sitting Supreme Court Justice.” I have a few confessions before I elaborate: 1., I am not very familiar with DeHarts work, 2. I love Ginsberg, 3. But know nothing, really, about the S.C. I attended the panel because Ginsberg and the compelling focus on writing about a living figure actively engaged in their work. Somehow, DeHart’s insights may help guide my research on living musicians. This second need was quickly relegated to the back-burner as I was absorbed by DeHart’s storytelling (though, as I reflect, I see relevant details to build upon.) Her experience with pre-Friedan higher education, feminism, and working with the Supreme Court justice was sensational.

This morning I presented my work along with two excellent scholars during a session titled, “Democracy as Myth: Color as a Category of Difference.” Courtney L. Thompson (Hamilton College) and Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight (Penn State University, State College) both offered thorough analysis on their subjects: contemporary women’s activism and African American women during the 1876 centennial World’s Fair, respectively. From my perspective, the session was well-rounded and considered the issue of difference from multiple, and important, angles. My work retold the stories of two women in the 1920s with ties to Wilson college: an international student whose Japanese heritage granted her access to the institution due to her exoticism and an African American who was denied enrollment because of racist bias in Pennsylvania. I will write more on my research at a later date.

Overall, this conference has been a great experience. It is a very open group of people and a welcoming atmosphere to graduate students. At the same time, a high level of scholarship is made available to participants and one can see key developments occurring within conversations. (The academic trifecta: publications, the classroom, and conferences.)

Again, this is a reminder to how important academic conferences are for graduate students. It is not about the “learning,” as a colleague of mine likes to quip, but about the professional connections. I met several folks that I intend to continue communicating with in the future, and I foresee their input being incredibly valuable.

Yes, sometimes it is all about “me.” But, simultaneously it is all about “them.”

As DeHart said, it is a “collaborative effort.”


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