- Reading Women’s History: Roundtable Discussion About Scholarship on Women’s History in the Americas
Fifteen of us gathered at the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA) for this roundtable discussion. We came from universities across the country, including Birmingham, Brunel, Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham and a whole host of London institutions. Participants represented every stage of academic life from postgraduate onwards. The geographical focus of our research interests ranged widely, from Russian America and Canada in the north to the Caribbean and Latin America further south. This broad coverage of the various regions that comprise ‘the Americas’ is central to the vision of both of the event’s organizers, the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW) and ISA. The roundtable was the first time that the two have worked together and we hope that it marks the start of a long and fruitful relationship.
The Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW – formerly known as British Historians of Women in the Americas) is a scholarly organization with two key aims. The first is to provide an arena in which scholars interested in women’s and gender history in the Americas can come together. Secondly, we hope to encourage interdisciplinary and transnational approaches in research on women and gender in North America, South America and the Caribbean. The roundtable was the third SHAW event of the year. It provided an opportunity to reflect on existing scholarship related to the field of women’s and gender history in the Americas, broadly defined. The emphasis on historiography enabled [End Page 359] us to think about what we’ve read, why it’s important and where we can go from here.
The discussion centred around short presentations on work that had influenced participants. They cited a diverse range of literature, published from the 1950s to the present day, with most clustered between the 1970s and 1990s. The topics chosen stretched from slavery and empire to crime and romantic fiction. These particular subjects featured in presentations on Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, Catherine Hall and Keith McClelland’s edited collection Race, Nation and Empire – Making Histories, 1750 to the Present, Mary Elizabeth Strunk’s Wanted Women: an American Obsession in the Reign of J. Edgar Hoover, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature and Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs: the Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860s. Other topics also figured in the presentations, but what many of the works cited had in common was their effort to develop a more inclusive account of the Americas. These attempts to add breadth and complexity to scholarship took various forms, for example integrating gender into raced analyses of slavery, or providing a more transnational perspective that unites North and Latin America, or trying to incorporate conservative women into narratives of women’s political involvement.
Such moves to greater inclusiveness were undoubtedly among the reasons why attendees regarded their chosen work as of importance. Much of the scholarship discussed, such as Sara Evans’s Personal Politics: the Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, is widely regarded as seminal, but the roundtable by no means simply repeated old arguments and debates. In addition to returning to classic texts and reconsidering their importance and relevance, participants introduced us to new literature such as Michelle Nickerson’s forthcoming Mothers of Conservatism. Exploration of this intersection between old and new scholarship generated a wealth of ideas and connections, particularly concerning the place of right-wing women in social movements (especially feminism) and the need to revisit romantic fiction to see what we as scholars can learn from it.
Palpable scholarly excitement and insight developed over the course of the afternoon. By the end, contributors agreed that the event had been a very useful tool for expanding and challenging their thinking, while also providing a sociable forum in which to meet with others...