The long, long trail

Hello everybody

I spent the past weekend at the 18th Annual Women’s History Network conference, which this year was held in the rather lovely surroundings of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. It was one of the original Oxford women’s colleges (and the last to admit men, within the past 2 years), but with the passage of time it is no longer of the austerity that Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own might lead one to anticipate. The food was certainly not as dire as that she recorded, though not quite of the standard I enjoyed at a conference in Lady Margaret Hall some years ago. The rooms were very comfortable, and being a women’s college (and a women-run conference) there was an adequate supply of loos (a topic which is much on my mind because of a book on the topic I was recently sent — I think there will be blogging about this later on).

Apart from these matters of physical comfort, it was an intellectually stimulating few days. The theme this year was ‘Women, Gender & Political Spaces:  Historical Perspectives’ and there was a good deal of resonance between the issues discussed in historical context and present-day concerns. There were over a hundred papers, in 6 sessions of 6 strands each, as well as 5 plenary lectures, which meant that perforce I missed a lot of fascinating things.

My own paper was on the emergence of an abortion law reform movement in the UK in the 1930s, bringing the subject out from being either something doctors talked of as a strictly professional matter, or something that women exchanged information about in whispers, into a topic for public discussion and the advocacy of legislation to make safe abortion legal and accessible. The role of women activists was central to this development.

There was an excellent panel on women and learned societies, which was perhaps a little depressing in demonstrating how long a tradition there has been of men not wanting women impinging upon their serious manly spaces where they do serious manly learned things.  However, the papers did show that there was some degree of ambivalence and some possibilities of flexibility: Claire Jones’ paper on the Royal Society indicated that the Society, although it did not admit women to the prestige of Fellowship until after the Second World War*, did publish their articles in its journals, and gave them grants in support of their research, and even occasionally awarded them medals for work of outstanding importance.  A good point was raised in discussion that this desire of men to keep their homosocial spaces unsullied (and to position themselves as part of a completely male genealogy of Great Minds) does suggest that we need a lot more critical and analytical work directly on masculinity (or various versions of masculinity in particular contexts).

This question of men resisting the influx of women into previously male spaces also arose in a paper on women on juries — even after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 gave women the right to sit on juries, the qualifications still privileged men, while both judges and barristers took various measures to exclude women through the process of challenge. The ambiguous potential of legal systems for women was explored in other panels: for example,  Kimberley Welch presented on her research on women’s successful use of courts in antebellum Mississippi and Lousiana in cases of matrimonial dispute.

Some of the themes that recurred across various panels and plenaries: women’s capacity to negotiate some degree of advantage for themselves within apparently profoundly patriarchal systems; that changes do not just happen but have to be campaigned for; the ways that women’s stories get left out of the accepted narratives (this is something else that might get blogged in more detail). There is an exciting diversity of  historical research going on about women and gender. It was also lovely just to reconnect with other scholars and friends in the field.

* Well, they did make the astronomer Caroline Herschel and the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville honorary Fellows, but they could trust them to know their place as ladies and not to try and actually attend meetings of the Society.