Personal Reflections on Building a Women's Center in a Women's College, 1975, page 7

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          The way in which these conferences have. from the be-
ginning. been conceptualized and planned has been a key
factor in their success. For each of the ten conferences held
so far. the Women's Center staff worked over a period of
months. with an academic coordinator and a planning com-
mittee. Initially. the academic coordinator and planning com-
mittee were Barnard people, but it became evident early on
that we needed a much broader base to ensure a rich, multi-
dimensioned conference. As a result. most of the confer-
ences have been the product of a planning committee which
has included members from outside Barnard. and the aca-
demic coordinator has also sometimes come from the larger
feminist community. From time to time. we have actually
sought the participation of specific segments of the commu-
nity to achieve the broad representation we felt we needed.
More recently. we have sought out scholars and activists
working in one particular area to contribute their expertise
in developing the theme of a conference.

The first nine conferences were funded by the Helena
Rubinstein Foundation; they were initially limited to 250
people. but as interest in the conference grew, the plenary
sessions were transferred to larger quarters to accommodate
as many as 700. The format of the morning plenary session
and the large number (up to eighteen) of concurrent after-
noon sessions made it possible for many of the leading fem-
inist scholars and activists on the east coast and, on occa-
sion. from other parts of the country to participate as
speakers and workshop leaders. In general, we followed a
policy of having different speakers and workshop leaders
each year. In this way we avoided the “star” system, while
also providing as many scholars and activists as possible an
opportunity to present their work and ideas—often for the
first time—in a supportive atmosphere. The conferences
have stimulated a large number of publications. Women's
Center pamphlets and books. and a stream of books and ar-
ticles stemming from presentations prepared particularly for
one of the conferences.

The conference themes have paralleled, with such a logi-
cal progression. the growth, development and tensions in-
herent in the new scholarship on women that. looking back.
one can see a continuum which mirrors the issues that domi-
nated feminist scholarship and the women’s movement over
the past ten years.

The first five conferences reflected the explosive expres-
sion of the women's movement in its universal reaction
against patriarchal traditions, and stressed the connections
and ties among all women. The search for commonalities of
women's experience provided a unity of purpose and con-
tributed to the emergence of women's studies as a new and
important interdisciplinary field of scholarship. The first con-
ference (1974) focused on the impact of feminism on the in-
tellectual, professional, and personal lives of individual scho-
lars. The second (“Toward New Criteria of Relevance."
1975) moved from the personal to a broader theoretical per-
spective, examining the impact of feminism on the research
process in general. A high point of this conference was the
late Joan Kelly's classic paper, “History and the Social Re-
lations of the Sexes," which introduced the notion of “perio-
dization." Kelly postulated that the nodal periods in history,
such as the Renaissance. had been so defined because they
were moments of flowering for men, not for women, and
she suggested a radically different kind of historical scholar-

 

ship based on the social relations of the sexes. Conference
lll (“The Search For Origins," 1976) went a step further and
focused on the search for the historical. cultural. and psycho-
logical origins of women's oppression. Drawing on the per-
spective of anthropology and history of religion. Rayna Rapp
gave a broad historical overview and Elaine Pagels presented
a brilliant case study of early gnosticism, which showed the
ideological and political exclusion of women in the establish-
ment of the early church. Conference lV (“Connecting The-
ory. Practice and Values." 1977) explored the major con-
tradictions between those conceptions of reality developed
by feminist scholars and those accepted in traditional scholar-
ship. Conference V (“Creating Feminist Works." 1978)
looked at how individual feminists can break away from in-
ternalized sexism in their work. In a morning panel. an art-
ist, a writer, and a scholar—Harmony Hammond. Eve Mer-
riam, and Nancy Miller—talked together about how they
attempt to free themselves from biased scholarship and
values and create a new vision. theory or concept: how they
do their work.

As the women's movement matured and became more di-
verse, and as feminist scholarship became more sophisti-
cated, some basic concepts changed. Women's differences
from men. originally seen as a source of oppression. were
beginning to be viewed as a source of strength. Scholars and
artists were moving away from the notion of “sameness" and
toward an acknowledgment of “differences" among women.
primarily differences of class, race, and sexual preference.
The next five conferences reflected these developments. as
well as the fundamental changes in the larger political scene.
most notably the emergence of the New Right and the back-
lash against women.

Conference VI (“The Future of Difference," 1979). draw-
ing heavily on contemporary French feminist theories. ex-
plored those structures which organize and determine our
concepts of sexual identity and difference among women
and between women and men. Conference Vll (“Class
Race and Sex: Exploring Contradictions. Affirming Connec-
tions." 1980) examined the way in which the primary insti-
tutions of power divide women along the lines of class. race.
and sexual preference. The success of this conference was
in part due to the fact that the academic coordinator. Amy
Swerdlow, actively recruited planning committee members
from the larger community to insure solid representation
from racial minorities and lesbian activists, Conference Vlll
(“The Dynamics of Control.” 1981) continued this dialogue
in the context of the current political climate, and looked at
the institutions and ideologies which control women's lives.
Conference lX (“Towards a Politics of Sexuality," 1982) was
undoubtedly and even unwittingly the most controversial
conference of all. It addressed women's right to sexual pleas-
ure and women's sexual autonomy, acknowledging that
sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restrictions. repres-
sion. and danger. as well as of exploration, pleasure, and
agency. Academic coordinator Carole Vance started out with
this theme and attracted a planning committee of twenty-four
scholars and activists, from within and outside Barnard.
whose work was primarily on issues of sexuality. Conference
X (“The Question of Technology,” 1983) focused on the
way technological change affects women's lives and expec-
tations as a beginning in the development of a feminist analy-
sis. A chilling picture of the way in which the new technol-

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Women's Studies Quarterly Xll.l (Spring 1984)