Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Revolutionary Moment Conference Postmortem

This past weekend I went to Boston to present a paper A Revolutionary Moment: Women's Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s conference.  Unfortunately, I do not have too much to say.  The conference began on a Thursday and ended on a Saturday.  Due to my teaching obligations, I only participated in the final day. 

Nonetheless, I came away impressed by the job done by the numerous organizers and volunteers.  Even on the final day, hundreds of people were going from panel to panel and filled a rather spacious hall at Boston University for end keynote address.  That's very difficult to co-ordinate, but as far as I could tell, everything went smoothly.  

I think this was the most unique conference I ever attended.  Every other one more or less has been tailored to an exclusively academic audience, but A Revolutionary Moment made a point to also invite artists, professionals, and activists outside of the academy to the proceedings.  It is very easy to get myopia, especially in the dissertation phase, so the multitude of viewpoints expressed at the conference provided a nice jolt to the senses.

Given that most of us presenting at "Challenges Across Boundaries of Race, Sexuality, and Class" were graduate students, in addition to the fact we presented first thing in the morning on a Saturday, we did not expect a large audience.  This prediction seemed on the nose about ten minutes before we started, but then the floodgates opened.  I'd estimate we had about 40-50 people listen to us, by far the most I've ever seen at a panel I presented at.  As I mentioned on twitter, I was flattered and awed by that.  

I experimented a bit with this presentation, too.  I normally try and take advantage of full allotted time given to me at these sort of things, but as i was presenting with 3 other people, I deliberately limited myself to ten minutes.  I always was told that less people complain if you go short as opposed to going long, and it seemed to pay off in this case.  The audience looked engaged and and I got a lot of constructive feedback in the Q&A and through a few conversations in the hallway afterwards.  My presentation also benefited from the halo effect given by my co-panelists.  Andrew Pope, Dr. Patricia Ulbrich, and Chelsea Del Rio all gave dynamite papers, and Dr. Robyn Spencer (called into chair last minute) kept us on task.  It was an honor to meet and work with all of these scholars.

The only drawback of the discussions I had after the panel was that it kept me from going to the next session, and since I was only there for the last day, I only got to go to one more ("Hope, Change, and Feminism in the American South" and the keynote given by Linda Gordon.   Gordon's keynote in particular was thought provoking.  I am not sure if I can do it justice from memory alone (I believe there will be a transcript of it soon).  In general, she argued the biggest challenge for the movement moving forward came not from far right populists (such as Tea Party members) or ignorant politicians such as Todd Akin , but the emerging corporate order's that influences the social ideologies of both.  

The Q&A that followed Gordon's keynote was controversial and memorable.  At one point, a young woman in a black shirt and neon lettering, and instead of asking a question, begin calling for revolution.  When it became clear she would not yield the mic, it was cut off.  Quite a few people then cheered.  This is where my absence the previous two days puts me at a disadvantage.  One of the organizers explained this woman and her group (there were several other similar dressed men and women throughout the crowd) had been saying the same thing over and over at numerous panels throughout the weekend.  A few other attendees indicated this was the case afterwards.  Nonetheless, several other speakers in the Q&A protested the censure.

Another Q&A speaker then stated that all men present should "wear a sign explaining what they were doing there."  I have to admit, that did make me feel a bit uncomfortable, although very few other people in the audience seemed to share this sentiment.  I do not think it was unfair for her to say this.  There are numerous cases from the 1960s and 1970s of men in the SDS or academia denigrating, disrespecting, and trying to silence women who wanted to make their views's one of the many reasons women's liberation was needed and important.  

And it did make me look inward and try to think what I would write on such a sign, if I had to wear one.  It would be something along the lines of "Wanting to know more."  Lame, I know.  But that is the case.  Some of the historical actors in my dissertation were women who identified with the women's liberation movement. That is not in my wheelhouse, which leaves me with two options: I can ignore them, or I can try and reconcile with their existence in one of the most socially conservative neighborhoods in Chicago.  Too many urban historians, I feel, have taken the former path.  I do not feel I know the movement well, and I went to the conference to try and rectify some of my personal intellectual shortcomings.  


I stayed at a Holiday Inn near Boston University.  It had a giant chessboard (with 2 foot tall pieces).  This made me giggle  every time I walked by it.  Unfortunately, my room was also next to the indoor pool and it was noisy.  Hard to concentrate!

My hotel had HBO!  There was nothing good on, but I felt special.  

A suggestion for Logan International Airport: Holy shit play something other than smooth jazz.  Anything.  Please.

Boston University has some weird quirks.   A lot of bike locks were attached to the wire cage of a pedestrian overpass.  Multiple buildings had hallway a high school...I don't know why.  What's up with that BU?

I really wish fewer conferences were in the academic year.  They can be fairly inconvenient if you are teaching.  My MWF schedule caused me to miss most of this one, and I spent 2/3 days in an airport or a plane.  I'd love to be able to fully attend one of these things for once!

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