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What To Do When Surrounded By the Patriarchy? Or, Rethinking Conference Hell

June 7, 2008, 11:50 am

A reader who I will descriptively dub “Feminist Guy” (as sie has not given permission to use hir name) writes:

Dear TR:

Thanks for the post on AHA tips and tricks— the AHA has been one of the major Old Boys’ Clubs, but feminists (female and otherwise) have found their own ways to network there, and this is a great development. But there are still plenty of smaller subfield conferences where this isn’t the case — with attendance being dramatically tilted towards Old White Straight Guys. (In fact, I’m attending one as we speak— let’s call it Little Patriarchy Conference.) If you’ve never been to a particular conference before, you might not even realize this imbalance until you’re already checked
into the hotel.

What’s a junior, feminist-trained scholar to do when blindsided by a conference like this? How can/should women who find themselves at LPC react, and how do they/we build connections or scholarly community in an alienating environment? How can/should feminist guys work to undermine or counteract the patriarchal social dynamics of LPC? When at LPC, surrounded by senior scholars who don’t use gender, race, and class as basic analytical methods, how do you know when to yank their testicles and when to save your breath? Most importantly, how does one find the pre/post-conference-day feminist network-and-critique sessions that must be going on somewhere?

Sadly, I’m sure that LPC 2008 won’t be the last example of this sort of event. Thanks for any suggestions you can provide about how to handle the next one.

Dear Feminist Guy,

Well — my first response is utterly churlish, which I acknowledge because you are a delightful person and limited contact suggests we will be friends despite my age and your youth: if you were where I think you were when you sent this question, what conference did you think you were signing on to when you decided to attend a meeting sponsored by a history association formed by a pair of notorious lapsed Marxist neo-cons, one of whom became explicitly anti-feminist in her old age? A couple who formed said association because they thought the American Historical Association had pandered to liberals long enough? I’m not saying this prominent power couple weren’t smart and important, but progressive they had ceased to be, and the association has become, for the time being at least, a refuge for others in despair that political history will every recover from the discovery of race, gender and sexuality as categories of analysis.

Now this is not to say that one should only go to the places where like-minded people can be found; quite the opposite in fact. I would argue, for example, that a variety of politicized conflicts I have gotten into in the blogosphere have put me in dialogue (however difficult dialogue sometimes is to achieve with people who are trying to toss you under the nearest bus) with conservative academics and conservative non-academics, dialogue that has opened new paths for thought as I continue work on a project about late twentieth century politics. Dialogue with the patriarchy forces you to explain yourself. It can be fun, productive and sometimes produce moments of recognition with a person unlike yourself that can be thought provoking. This doesn’t address the complexity of what you are describing, or the complexity of the intellectual interventions you are committed to, but consider it a bracketed plea for the benefits of intellectual difference, even when the people you are dealing with seem to be noxiously unreconstructed. I wouldn’t recommend an unrelieved diet of it by any means, but two or three days a year is something to really take advantage of in my book. And really — consider it training for engaging with your conservative students, many of whom will not be persuaded by your intellectual commitments but might be persuaded to engage constructuvely with you.

I would also say that one can often be surprised in a good way as organizations change over time and as your self-confidence grows: several years ago I gave a paper at the Southern Historical Association annual meeting, and found it to be a very different environment than the one I had experienced a decade earlier. There were more African-American scholars than at any other history conference I had been to; there were three queer panels; there was a fair amount of interdisciplinary work; and there was a lot of mingling between constituencies. At one queer panel I realized beatedly that I had sat down next to Eminent Elderly White Patriarchal Political History Man (with whom I had interviewed a great many years before when on the job market.) After reintroducing myself, I said, “EWPPHM, what are you doing here?” and he said brightly, “Well, I don’t know anything about this field and I thought I should attend the panel.”

In retrospect, I would say two things: the Southern has always had a progressive element that was somewhat obscure to me at an earlier stage of my career, so I think part of feeling less out of place was that I was older, more established and felt more secure in my capacity to recognize allies and engage differences on an equal basis. But I also think the Southern changed: as an organization, it made a huge effort to recruit more diverse scholars over time, and that was a process that was at least begun by people who were very much in the minority when they began that project. And they found each other by challenging themselves to go to the conference in the first place.

Finally, although I empathize with your sense of alienation, I think it is important to be where you are in any academic environment, even one that collides with things you believe very deeply as a feminist. It isn’t always your responsibility to make interventions, and it isn’t always necessary. If it is an environment that you are wedded to — a department, for example — you will need to decide what you are willing to invest in change, when that enhances your work, and when (as it unfortunately can) such efforts sap your energy and hinder your work. But I think listening to others rather than forcing them to listen to you is a good start for finding allies at a conference; I also think that making an intervention in a way that represents what you are opposing accurately and non-judgementally both notifies others that you are listening (and should be listened to) and allows potential allies who are impressed by you to want to be associated with you. But let me underline the following: allies can be found among the patriarchy too, even if those alliances are limited by inevitable disagreements. I have found over the past year that some people with whom I have had bitter political disagreements are extraordinarily likeable, often generous, people; and I have found over the course of a career that many scholars who don’t privilege the intellectual categories I think are crucial can be good readers and interesting colleagues.

For the post to which this reader is referring, “The AHA for Dummies,” click here.

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