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Monday 16 April 2012

European Social Science History Conference 2012, Glasgow

As always, this was an intense four days of conference activity: 2-hour sessions, four a day, starting at 8.30 am and finishing at 6.30 pm. It's a huge conference, but the breakdown into thematic strands makes it relatively manageable, and the two hour panels do allow for (preferably) 3-4 presentations and adequate discussion time (though some sessions had more than that, which either cuts down on the time allotted to present, or for discussion, neither of which seems ideal).

At least this year I didn't feel obliged to go to every session, which I did a couple of years, when I was History of Sexuality strand chair and we had panels in all available slots. (Don't know how I'd have managed if there had been parallel sessions in the strand.)

My own paper went well, and the panel I chaired was particularly good in terms of the papers all having a good deal of resonance: 'Sexual transgression, transnational travel, and abortion'. This raised a number of intriguing and in the present situation highly relevant issues: that technical legality of abortion doesn't necessarily mean that it's easy to access; that the role of often quite local sexual/social cultures can be quite critical; that it's noticeable the way that certain nations or regions or authorities keep their hands clean by not doing or allowing abortions themselves but with the knowledge that the women they turn down will seek facilities elsewhere beyond their boundaries.

The 'Bodies and Biology' panel (on historical intersex/trans* cases) raised a thought in my mind about the criteria medics were using to establish 'real' sex (preference for sports or needlework, as it might be) - not only deeply gender essentialist but also anachronistic - failing to register temporal changes in ideas of the gender appropriate, e.g. the rise of female athletics - and I wondered if this fits in to a wider generational phenomenon of the older generation thinking that the younger are not doing gender properly, i.e. as they used to.

Papers I was particularly engaged by included Gayle Davies's look at medical attitudes to women seeking conception via artificial insemination in Scotland in the 1950s - they were pathologised as being overly yearning for motherhood and seeking this icky mode of achieving - this seemed to me to fit with the 1950s pathologisation of unmarried mothers and a wider sense of the need for control and to avoid excessiveness at the period (needs more thinking out). 

I really enjoyed Julie Gammon's very lively paper on the prosecution and conviction (and rapid subsequent pardoning) of Colonel Charteris for raping his maidservant (at a time when upper class men could usually get away with this with impunity) and the highly specific reasons why this could even happen when it did.

David Johnson's fascinating piece on gay book clubs in the 1950s and 60s made me think that there is still a lot of work to be done on pre-internet 'virtual communities' around magazines, mailing lists, etc.

Glasgow - at least the area around the University, where the conference was taking place, was far more beautiful than I had expected (the very fine clear weather probably helped) and there were several excellent fish restaurants in Argyle Street.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Transforming Pregnancy since 1900, Cambridge 29-30 Mar 2012

I posted about this conference when it was still forthcoming and attended it last week. It was an excellent event, if rather intense - I think by the end everyone just wanted to go away and reflect on all the issues that had come up over the course of the two days. As with the Communicating Reproduction conference at the same venue that I attended in December, it was based on precirculated papers, but this time, each session was introduced by a discussant speaking for 5-10 minutes, with a brief response by the author of the paper in question, and then open discussion for around 45 minutes. This worked very well, though it probably only works with numbers below a certain level and attendees with the commitment to read the papers.

There are apparently plans on hand to publish the papers, possibly as a journal special edition. They were all very good and quite diverse in their approach and methodology, but a significant number of common themes appeared:
  • The medicalisation of pregnancy and its move into hospitals
  • The increasing separation of concern over the foetus from concern with the mother
  • The amount of medical technology that was originally devised for fairly extreme cases but has become much more widely used
  • The role of commercial interests 
  • The notion of the perfect baby as achievable
  • The notion that pregnancy and childbirth are now entirely safe
  • The ambiguity of the rise of all the various high-tech developments
  • The impact of the 'pro-life' movement (I should like to see, some time, a discussion of the way in which this and its rhetorics arose as a response to legalisation of abortion, rather than being timeless concerns)
  • Conceptualisation of the mother as feeling rather than thinking or doing rational decision-making
  • The idea that it is possible to make a definite binary yes/no to 'is she pregnant?' (E.g. early positive pregnancy test may in fact turn into an early miscarriage)
Lots of exciting and productive questions and matters for further thought.