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Dateline Columbus: Policy History Fun, Day 1

June 3, 2010, 2:14 pm

The Policy History Conference is in the Columbus Hyatt, which is also currently housing a bunch of men’s college rugby teams engaged in tournament play. For those of you who are at the conference but were unable to get a room at the Hyatt, this proliferation of apple-cheeked lads may explain the shortage of accommodations at a time of year when Columbus seems to be otherwise deserted. Because the rugby tournament headquarters are near the PHC book exhibit, this means that there are occasional moments when the public areas are full of (mostly male) academics in suits giving way to a flying wedge of sweaty, strapping and polite young men who have tiny shorts and legs of steel.

My first panel this afternoon was, as I promised, “Feminism: The Changing Status Of Women In The Age Of Eisenhower,” the Book Forum on Alan Petigny’s The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965 (Cambridge, 2008). Susan Hartmann of OSU was the chair and discussant; additional comments were offered by Beth Bailey (Temple) and Jennifer Burns (UVA), both of whom also have new books out. The Permissive Society argues that the 1950s are a time of transformation, rather than a time of complacency. Petigny proposes a re-periodization of the sexual revolution, re-centering the forces of change attributed to the 1960s around the earlier social and sexual upheavals of World War II and its aftermath. While the discussion focused on only two chapters that discuss feminism and sex, in his introduction, Petigny noted that religion and psychology are two critical fields where attitudes towards women and sexuality became dramatically more liberal in the 1950s, laying the groundwork for all of the transformations that feminism claims to have achieved in the 1960s. These intellectual corrections, he noted (mansplainin’ alert!), are something feminist historians are resisting strongly, despite the evidence he has mustered.

Petigny (who was just officially promoted to tenure at the University of Florida two days ago) then sketched out what we might call the Mad Men, orDon Draper” theory of history: that we can best understand the 1950s not as a time of discrimination and oppression, but one in which “norms” and “values” were in tension, particularly in the realm of sexual freedom and women’s status in society. These two categories got a little tangled from time to time, and it wasn’t clear to me whether Petigny himself believes that female sexual freedom = female power, or whether that was a misunderstanding. Norms, as he defines them, are the dominant social rules; values are what people actually act on but won’t cop to publicly. Cultural history has gotten it all wrong, Petigny proposes, and his correction to that draws on the “hard” data of polling, surveys and the census. By the 1960s, this tension between norms and values had become unbearably stretched, he concludes, and norms had to adjust: but how people behaved, and how history and historical subjectivity had changed because of it, was a done deal. The sexual and gender revolution was essentially over by 1961.

Forget the Pill, Title IX, the decades-long campaign to end gender segregation, and equal pay for equal work. Forget Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ACLU’s gender equality project: none of that mattered. Forget that women’s history is not only cultural history, but has embraced the practice of political history for decades. As I write this, what I suspect is that this book is yet another argument against affirmative action. Its rejection of structural discrimination as the cause of gender inequality in the twentieth century positions The Permissive Society as an explicit argument against the historical importance of political feminism (as Burns pointed out in her comments.) Because my skepticism about the book’s argument and methodology is running very high only on the basis of what its author said about it (and because he engaged critical questions by simply reiterating the arguments he had already made) I’m going to stop right here. But let me say, as far as I could tell, my reservations about The Permissive Society were shared by others on the panel. Or, at least they didn’t contradict me when I voiced those reservations in the session. Since I am so familiar with their work, Bailey and Hartmann are people I already admired, so I would say that the most unexpected pleasure of the afternoon was Burns, an assistant professor whose book on Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market is being reviewed everywhere. She has a very keen mind, and my guess is that there will be a lot of competition over her in the coming years.


The remaining work of the day was “State Abortion Politics And Policy,” which was interesting and followed by a great discussion; and a plenary session on “The Media and Politics,” in which the topic was the crisis in journalism and the threat to democracy it contains. While this kind of conference might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I am quite enjoying it, in part because the participants speak more spontaneously and forcefully than they do at your average conference. While there is a mix of reading prepared material and speaking from notes, it is the right mix; furthermore, in the Petigny
panel, there was an undercurrent of strong disagreement that didn’t seem to cause people anxiety or cause them to censor themselves in any unpleasant way. The plenary, which featured two academics and a senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch (who really hates the internet, and had a lot to say about the ways it has cheapened journalism and public culture) was an outstanding example of how academic historians can bring their expertise to a contemporary problem.

Tomorrow? I’m thinking “Examining The Alternatives: Reconsidering The Rise Of The Republican Right;” “Disaster Politics In Historical Perspective;” “The Republican Party In The Post-War South;” “Governing Out Of Sight: An Enduring Pattern of American Political Development;” and maybe, if I’m still standing, “American Economic Crises in Historical Perspective.”
Goring, Goring, Gone: OK, this has nothing to do with policy history, but doesn’t the end of Al and Tipper Gore’s 40-year marriage deserve a moment of silence from historians? That they announced it over e-mail deserves another moment of silence, since of all the ways to let people know you are splitting up this strikes me as both very efficient and mildly appalling. As usual, Michael Wolff at Newser has a few oddball insights, not the least of which is that Gore has always struck him as “emotionally fragile.” Another is that “nobody’s marriage survives middle age (even those that appear to survive, probably haven’t.)” Are there heterosexuals who find this as peculiar a thought as I do? The notion that marriages just don’t last is either cynical or liberating, I can’t decide which. Perhaps the tougher truth is that relationships often do not survive moments of change or transition, like retirement, where two people who have been intimate for years discover they want to count down the decades to the grave in very different ways.

That the Gores are in their early sixties and that Wolff is describing them as middle-aged is heartening for those of us in our early fifties.

My guess? They actually do love each other. However, Al has a whole second career in which he gets to be as wonky as he wants to be, and chunk up besides: it is a true fact that if he were having an affair he would have gotten a personal trainer and lost weight, ok? Tipper wants to stay home and have a private life and was kind of hoping that after all these years of being on the road that he did too. If this is true, then I feel bad for both of them. Tipper: I forgive you for the censorship stickers on the CDs. Al: I forgive you for Love Story.
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