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Conference Caps Agents of Social Change Project (December 2000)

On a crisp September weekend, more than 200 academics and activists from around the U.S. converged on the Smith campus. The occasion for this concentration of intellectual and political energy was the conference "Agents of Social Change: Celebrating Women's Progressive Activism Across the 20th Century," which marked the completion of the SSC's NEH-funded project to process the collections of eight important activists and organizations. Despite the difficulties of planning an event based on archival collections that researchers have not yet explored, everyone agreed that this conference, organized by women's historian and SSC staff member Joyce Clark Follet, was an enormous success. Over the course of the weekend participants attended plenary sessions and workshops that focused on the eight collections as well as on larger questions about the future of women's activism and women's history.

New York University history professor Linda Gordon kicked off the conference on Friday afternoon with her keynote address "Insider/Outsider: An Historian Looks at Social Movements." Gordon, a feminist and eminent women's historian, articulated many historians' fundamentally activist assumption that "failing to understand how we got to the present" prevents us from "understanding the present fully enough to change it." She underscored the importance of the SSC's mission by confirming that "preserving, interpreting and communicating our legacy of movements for social change is vital to us all." The bulk of Gordon's talk analyzed the organizing strategies developed by civil rights and feminist activists during the 1960s and 70s, and explored the challenges faced by scholars who research and write about movements in which they have participated. Gordon's forthright and articulate address set the tone for the weekend by demonstrating that one can be both an ardent activist and a serious scholar.

Saturday's events matched the excitement and momentum achieved the day before. The morning began with Linda Kerber's address "I was Appalled: The Invisible Antecedents of Second Wave Feminism." In this very engaging talk, Kerber, Professor of the Liberal Arts and history at the University of Iowa, refuted the widely held "two waves" view of feminist activism in the U.S. by citing new historical evidence--some of it gleaned from the eight new collections--of American women's unremitting resistance to subjugation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Later that day Barbara Epstein, University of California-Santa Cruz professor, spoke about "Successes and Failures of Feminism." Based on the combination of her own political experience and scholarly research over the last 30 years Epstein argued persuasively that, for various reasons, "the wind has gone out of the sails of modern feminism," and concluded that feminist activists and academics need to work to place feminism within a larger progressive movement that "calls for total equality" for every person.

In between addresses, small groups of conference participants attended workshop sessions devoted specifically to exploring the research potential of the newly opened collections. Three concurrent workshops took place on Saturday morning. Northwestern University historian Nancy McLean led a session on the papers of civil rights lawyer, New York State Senator, and federal judge Constance Baker Motley during which she tantalized participants with numerous important and unexplored historical questions Motley's papers will help to answer. Historians Kathleen Nutter of the SSC (Smith 1990), and Maurice Isserman, of Hamilton College, analyzed the lives and papers of labor journalist and progressive activist Jessie Lloyd O'Connor and labor attorney and peace activist Mary Kaufman. And historians Kate Weigand of the SSC and Daniel Horowitz of Smith College reported on the life and work of feminist lawyer and activist Dorothy Kenyon, suggesting how her papers might challenge scholars' and activists' current thinking about privileged women and their contributions to social movements.

Two panels followed on Saturday afternoon. The first, "Grassroots Organizing," featured Smith government professor Martha Ackelsburg and University of Virginia history professor Eileen Boris who led a discussion between political scientist and social critic Frances Fox Piven, and activist social worker Jan Peterson, founder the grassroots women's organization the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. Here scholars, activists, and audience members hashed out questions about feminism, community organizing, and the relationship between grassroots activism, the state, and large-scale social change. Smith sociologist Nancy Whittier, UMass historian Marla Miller, and SSC manuscripts processor Amanda Izzo (Smith 1999), led a session that focused on Gloria Steinem's papers and those of the anti-sexism advocacy group the Women's Action Alliance, cofounded by Steinem and Brenda Feigen. In this popular session, which was covered extensively by local newspapers and the Associated Press, Steinem and Feigen talked about their work, about the changes they have seen, and about their visions for the future of feminism. Steinem aptly noted that "Part of what's changed is that you have your archives here [at Smith]," adding that archives make it possible for people to examine women's history and learn from it.

Saturday afternoon concluded with "The Permanent Wave," a panel discussion on current feminist activism featuring Third Wave Foundation cofounders Amy Richards and Rebecca Walker, student activist Erin Howe (Smith 2002), and Boston community activist Crystal Daugherty (Smith 1998). Capping off the conference Daniel Horowitz moderated the roundtable discussion "Another Century of Struggle" during which Peterson, Piven, Richards, Steinem, and Walker spoke to a packed audience of 600 about their hopes and concerns for the future of feminism and social activism. All the panelists agreed that feminist organizing needs to include everyone and to identify and resist all the political, racial and socio-economic factors that inhibit social progress. During the last 30 minutes audience members, including students and local residents, joined the discussion, thereby implementing one of the themes of the weekend--the need to narrow the divides between academics and activists, and between elite theoretical discourse and daily life.

SSC staff finished the weekend exhausted from the long days of preparation, but exhilarated by the event itself. The high quality of the conference program, the outstanding turn out, and the extensive media coverage reminded everyone of the importance of our work and the potential our collections have to advance historical knowledge and to change society.

- Kate Weigand

For more on Agents of Social Change, see the Online exhibit.


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