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Monday, 2 September 2013

Women's Histories: the Local and the Global IFRWH/WHN conference 2013

This international conference held jointly under the auspices of the International Federation for Research in Women's History and the (UK) Women's History Network took place at Sheffield Hallam University, last Thursday to last Sunday, and what a very good, if sometimes overwhelming, conference it was.

There was a plethora of panels in a wide range of parallel strands, three excellent plenary lectures from Catherine Hall, Jacqueline van Gent, and Mrinalini Sinha providing much food for thought, and a concluding roundtable discussion: 'After the transnational turn: what future for nation-based histories of women?' There were also good informal discussions over coffee, tea, and lunch (and I really must praise the catering, even if there weren't any peppermint tea bags). A very rich experience altogether.

The big take-home thoughts were the complex 'entangled histories' that bring together the local and the global, that very specifically located micro-histories can illuminate transnational issues, and that bringing new actors into the narrative produces, or should produce, a new history with an altered perspective.

With 9 strands over 9 sessions there were surely many wonderful papers and discussions that I missed. However, I did get to a very exciting panel on 'Disentangling evangelical missionaries: gender, sexual and domesticity in globalised localities', the one on 'Prostitution in comparative perspective' (despite the loss of one speaker, this worked very well), and the extremely stimulating one on 'Art and the Making of Cosmopolitan Identities' which provided me with a lot of things I need to follow up. I had hoped to attend the 'Gendered professions, gendered challenges' panel but two speakers had had to cancel, so went to 'Imperial webs and the influence of women', in which I was particularly interested in the paper on female missionary doctors.

My paper on Stella Browne as an internationalist featured in the panel on 'British women internationalists at home', and I found Ruth Davidson's paper on the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Croydon raised some issues particularly pertinent to my own current interests. I was, however, feeling rather thwarted at being scheduled at the same time as the panel on 'Mixed-race children and their mothers' including Lucy Bland talking on GI babies after World War II, not to mention that there was also a panel I should have liked to have heard on feminist campaigns against licensed prostitution in the same slot. Always a problem with stranded conferences.

The panel 'Cultural exchange and imperial power'  continued the theme of complicating the missionary narrative. 'International political and cultural exchange among women: Australia and beyond' demonstrated yet again what very exciting work in this area is being done by Australian historians and what large questions it raises. Australia also featured in the very well-attended panel on Sunday morning that I chaired, 'Between Britain and Australia: transnational women's lives': with a very nice paper from Emma Robertson on British skilled women workers from Cadburys going out to Tasmania in the 1920s when the British chocolate firms set up a factory there, and one from Rebecca Jennings on the quite complex cultural exchanges involving Australian lesbians coming to London in the 1970s - this perhaps counter-intuitively revealed that the British women's and gay and lesbian liberation movements of the period were less important than encounters with other Australians passing through London, and with newly available publications from the US movement.

The social side of the conference included two receptions, and a conference dinner at the very impressive Cutlers' Hall.

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