Sunday Radical Roundup: Policy History Conference Summary

June 6, 2010, 2:08 pm

Because I can only be one place at a time, and because I left Columbus at noon yesterday, my view of the Policy History Conference has necessarily been partial. But one of the thing I learned Friday night at the reception sponsored by the Miller Center at UVA is that the sponsoring organization, The Institute for Political History, is relatively young. Founded in 2000, it “supports the training and research projects of graduate students interested in American political history.” As Matt Lassiter explained to me, the organization was responding to a sense that the field was losing ground, but an ironic outcome has been that many of those drawn to the organization are intellectually committed to bringing other fields associated with cultural and social history to bear on politics. As Lassiter put it, it’s “all good.” That would be my take too.

Closer investigation reveals a somewhat entrepreneurial intellectual venture. There may or may not be a connection between the fact that the founding gift was given by (or on behalf of) someone named Thomas Critchlow, and the journal (“committed to an interdisciplinary approach to policy history since 1989) it puts out is run by historian Don Critchlow — who is also Director of the Institute. As one editorial board member put it when I was praising the conference, “Don basically runs things. I mean, it’s a democratic organization, but he tells us what to do.”

Well, if so, he’s doing a good job. And although I have heard that Critchlow is a conservative scholar, the stimulating ideological diversity of the conference makes me wonder: what kind of mileage do we actually get from labeling ourselves or others? Is it just a symptom of our tendency, as academics, to distinguish ourselves from the herd or, more unfortunately, excuse what we are afraid others will perceive as our shortcomings? Interesting scholars are interesting scholars, and it dumbs everything down to put people in boxes – or worse, choose a box and proclaim loudly that it’s the best box there is.

Speaking of diversity, I did want to run the question of gender up the flagpole for a second. Women — and to some extent scholars of color — were well-represented at the conference, and that’ a heartening thing to see for a middle-aged scholar who has experienced the dismay that by gender alone she was often disqualified from being perceived as a political historian. It is also gratifying to see, as Lassiter observes, that the methods of cultural history are now an acknowledged tool for doing political history, because that simply wasn’t true when some of us began that project several decades ago. It is also true that panels with women and scholars of color were well-populated. That said — the panels that were actually about gender were placed at times where it was likely that they would have small audiences: in my case, this was at 8:30 Saturday morning. The Petigny panel was in the first slot Thursday when many people had not yet arrived, and the panel on ERA was Sunday morning. For the last, obviously it is going on as I speak, and I have no idea how many are there. This is particularly odd, since a significant amount of Critchlow’s work has been on the political history of gender, including a very well received book on Phyllis Schlafly and another on abortion.

One thing that has occurred to me is that political historians are delighted to hear from women — hearing about women, gender or sexuality and imagining them as vital political topics is still a hurdle to be crossed, as is hearing about those topics from women since the Petigny panel on Thursday was quite well-attended.

So that’s something to think about when planning for the 2012 conference begins: my guess is that this is a phenomenon I noticed because of the size of the conference, but for the same reason, it could be easily addressed.
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