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Monday, 20 June 2011

Looking back at the Berks, before it all fades entirely

Panels I attended:

'The True Sex? cases of gender ambivalence and their impact in Europe'; four papers, one on the various later  redeployments of the tale of Phaethousa the bearded lady in the Hippocratic corpus; two on cases of 'hermaphroditism' in late C19th Denmark (covering some of the same material but with a different slant); the case of Lili Elbe and her (posthumously created) autobiography Man into Woman. This was a tightly run panel that worked well. Papers very much about how society uses stories of gender ambivalence for various purposes.

'Healthy babies, healthy families: generations of health care in South Asia': this also had four papers, but could have done with rather stricter moderation as the session ran out of time - it was already at time when the discussant started to comment. This was a pity, because they were all very interesting pieces in themselves: the politics of milk and infant welfare in early C20th Madras; reconstructing ideas of masculinity and fatherhood in late C19th Bengal; the role of A Pillay and the Bombay-published International Journal of Sexology within mid-C20th sexology; the time and place-specific nature of a post-Partition translation/version of the Kama Sutra


'Love, Desire, Community and Friendship: reconsidering female same-sex relationships in the early to mid C20th': this was the panel I organised and spoke on. I think it went well - the room was encouragingly full, we all kept to time, and there was good discussion. But what would I know.

'Leatherwomen's histories: international perspectives from academic and public historians': 'international' in this context actually meant the USA and Canada (and I think one of the participants had worked on curating materials in Mexico) - however, it was clear that there were distinctive differences in history and that the crisis points were not the same in these two close and fairly culturally similar milieux. Panel also shed some light on the development of communities which seemed of much wider application (from a small group looking outward, or defining itself against that larger world, to a larger but less cohesive, even riven, group). Also, issues of marginalisation of certain categories within already marginalised groups.

'Contesting the boundaries of Christian sexuality': unfortunately one panelist had dropped out (English Catholics, contraception and the response to Humanae Vitae), but the two that were left worked very well together - one on Mary Scharlieb and her emphasis on the importance of sex education in the context of social purity, and  the other on D Sherwin Bailey's elaborate theology of marriage produced at more or less precisely the mid-point of the C20th. V useful.


The Sunday morning sessions were all round-tables with precirculated papers. I hadn't actually managed to read any of the papers, but I went to the excellent and wide-ranging 'Motherhood and the State in the waning age of Empire', which covered a broad geographical range and raised a lot of exciting questions about mothering, invisible labour, the role of the state, NGOs, race, class, colonialism, ambivalence responses to apparently coercive and colonialising practices, the impact of wider global phenomena on policy, etc etc etc.

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