With the support of the IHEID Department of International History and the Women's History Network conference committee, I was able to attend the 20th Women's History Network Conference in London from 9-11 September 2011. This conference was eye-opening - it was a very different network than the sorts I am used to - I should explain that I consider myself a historian of international organizations, and it is within this community I have predominantly resided - though my dissertation has a large gender component, I do not primarily identify as a women's historian.
The conference opened on the 9th after lunch. Multiple sessions ran concurrently, but the one that caught my eye at the time was the 'Politics' session. The subjects discussed were an individual (Sheena Evans on Janet Vaughan), a cohesive group (Marta del Moral Vargas on the Feminine Socialist Group of Madrid), and a constructed cohort (Helen McCarthy on women in the British Diplomatic Service). For the interests of my research, I was most interested in Dr. McCarthy's work, particularly the discussion regarding the concept of the "incorporated wife."
For the second session of the day, I stepped away from my own research and learned about something more contemporary in the 'Women's Movements' panel. Margaretta Jolly and her team, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, gave a check-in after two years of their three-year project entitled "Sisterhood and After: The [British] Women's Liberation Oral History Project" have been completed. There was a real effort to make this section pedagogic - the audience was first asked to, with a limited budget, create a hypothetical women's liberation archive - what types of sources and perspectives to include? The discussion, which included participants from the early years of their graduate studies to veterans of Second Wave women's lib, raised a variety of source possibilities (from minutes to websites) and the problems of capturing primary testimony while subjects were still alive. Given my prior professional experience in archives I was particularly taken with this panel. Jolly's project, comprised of 50 interviews representing a variety of viewpoints, will be available for consultation at the British Library (houses the largest oral history collection in the world) and at The Women's Library.
Friday night was capped with Kathryn Gleadle's keynote speech. As the conference was a 20th anniversary event, the main theme was, how far has women's history come since the beginnings of the network?
Day 2 began for me with a 'Marriage' panel, where we heard about desertion in marriage and its effect on women in Scotland (Andrea Thomson); the one instance in which a child protection entity in Ireland acted in support if mothers (Sarah-Anne Buckley); and about the brief period in which there was a marriage bar in the BBC (Kate Murphy). The chair of this session, Maggie Andrews, raised the salient commonality of all of these presentations - the divide between discourse and practice.
After the first panel was a plenary wherein several of the key figures in the field of British Women's History reminisced about how they came to see a need for such a field and went about creating it.
For the second panel of the day I chose a ‘Life Histories’ panel, which presented works based on a variety of sources. Lynn Abrams used oral histories to illuminate the ‘transition generation’ of British women (post-WWII, prior to women’s lib). Elizabeth DeWolfe presented an engaging story about Madeline Pollard, a spurned lover of prominent American Senator, through a variety of sources, including newspapers and diaries. And Charmain Cannon highlighted the role of British women in World War I through the lens of her grandmother’s personal letters. One of the more interesting points to come out of the discussion during this panel was the idea of a generation (eg. ‘transition generation’, Baby Boomers, etc.) as a construct.
Day three marked the highlight of the conference for me – I was fortunate enough to be on a ‘Life Histories’ panel with a brilliant group of young and energetic historians! First, Paul Merchant of the British Library presented his current project, a series of interviews with female scientists in Britain. I was sandwiched in the middle, presenting the prosopgraphical aspect of my doctoral dissertation. The panel rounded out with Anne Devenish, of the University of Oxford, presenting on Indian women in the United Nations. We all benefitted from the lively discussion sparked by our Chair, Anna Davin, one of the founders of the History Workshop Journal.
The main thing that surprised me about the conference was the different approach emphasized. At HEID we debate quite a bit at the moment about the value of the “transnational” as a category – this framework was almost entirely absent from the panels I attended. Additionally, on Saturday at lunch I heard a few people murmuring they were surprised that there was not much of a focus on Empire either. Nevertheless, as a historian of international organizations, I found it quite illuminating to delve into a different strain of history for the weekend.