REPORT ON ‘WOMEN’S HISTORIES: THE LOCAL AND THE GLOBAL’: international conference of the
International Federation for Research in Women’s History and the Women’s History Network (UK),
Thursday, 29th August to 1st September, 2013, Sheffield Hallam University, UK
June Purvis, Professor of Women’s and Gender History, University of Portsmouth, UK
It was with great excitement that I arrived at Sheffield Hallam University on 29th August to
participate in the above Conference, where over 250 delegates had gathered. There was a chance to
meet up with old friends I had not seen for some time, renew acquaintances and meet people I had
never spoken to before. The buzz of activity and engagement, evident on that very first day, stayed
throughout. The delegates, overwhelmingly women, came from all corners of the world – including
Bangladesh, Australia, Belgium, India, Finland, Norway, Canada, Japan, Hungary, the USA, Iceland,
the UK, Italy, Nigeria and Cyprus.
The three plenary speakers, all well-known figures in international history, gave stimulating
addresses – Catherine Hall, University College, London, spoke on ‘Gendering the legacies of slaveownership’,
Mrinalini Sinha, University of Michigan on ‘Kunti’s protest: the paradox of gender
in anti-colonialism’ and Jacqueline van Gent, University of Western Australia on ‘Rebecca and
her sisters: indigenous women, gendered authority and global mission networks’. The opening
Reception on Thursday evening, 29th August, sponsored by Sheffield Hallam University and Women’s
History Review included also the Routledge book launch of Women’s Activism: Global Perspectives
from the 1890s to the Present, edited by Francisca de Haan, Margaret Allen, Krassimira Daskalova
and myself. The 12 essays in the book, written by feminist historians from around the world,
developed from papers given at the International Federation’s 2010 Amsterdam conference. They
all explore how women have always found ways to challenge or fight inequalities and hierarchies.
The Reception the following evening was sponsored by Gender and History to celebrate their 25th
anniversary. It also included the Manchester University Press book launch of Modern Women on
Trial: Sexual Trangression in the Age of the Flapper by Lucy Bland as well as the awarding of the
Women’s History Network (UK) Book Prize for an author’s first book. The lucky recipient was Angela
Davis for Modern Motherhood: women and family in England, 1945-2000 (2012). Based on an
impressive 160 oral history interviews, Davis skilfully draws a compelling picture of the ambivalence
and contractions of motherhood in the post-war world.
Such celebratory events came at the end of enjoyable days, popping in and out of panels, listening
to fascinating papers that linked the ‘local’ and the ‘global’, chairing sessions – and enjoying the
delicious chocolate fudge cake served with afternoon tea! (I returned home 2 lbs heavier ….) So I
will just mention a few of the excellent papers I listened to, to give a flavour of what the conference
In one panel, on ‘Beyond national biographies: transnational perspectives on women’s lives and
activism’, Tamiko Miyatsu, from Japan, spoke about two daughters of transnational women’s
activism in the Progressive Era, Mary Church Terrell in the USA and Raicho Hiratsuka in Japan. Both
were college-educated women from wealthy families. One of the women’s colleges, with which
Raicho was involved, had a school song ‘O, Alma Mater, Mother dear/With songs they name we
greet/Who dost the Gate of Knowledge here/Set open for our feet.’ At the end of her paper, the
presenter began to sing this song, as did other women in the room who had attended that school –
and the rest of us joined in! That poignant moment underlined a key point about transnationalism –
many of us in the UK knew the tune since it was an old English one titled ‘Drink to me only with thine
eyes’. The other paper presenter in this session, Erla Hulda Halldorsdottir from Iceland, discussed
the life and correspondence of one of her fellow countrywomen of the past, Sigridur Palsdottir
(1809-1871). How can we represent this woman’s life beyond its national context? What are the
discrepancies between the grand narratives of European women’s history (mainly British, German or
French) and the local histories and experiences of women in ‘marginal’ areas such as Iceland? Is the
life story of a woman who cannot be counted as a pioneer or having changed the course of history of
any value for European women’s history?
In another panel, on ‘Feminist struggle in the contemporary academy’, Phillidia Bunkle, from New
Zealand, told a distressing story about the ways in which some New Zealand feminists, active in
the international Women’s Health Movement, had been misrepresented as hostile, unreliable
controversialists in some academic studies and inquiries. What should be the relationship between
feminist activists and academic historians? Whose story has greater legitimacy? This latter theme
was particularly evident too in the other paper in this session, that by Gail Chester from the UK,
about the fate of The Women’s Library, formerly housed at London Metropolitan University in a
purpose-built building and now – minus its building – at the London School of Economics. With the
title ‘LSE plays the long game, or how a global institution snatched women’s history’, Gail described
the battle fought in 2012 about the future of The Women’s Library. In particular, she highlighted
the question of why the LSE, with its demonstrable wealth, would only take the contents of the
library, claiming that it was unable to sustain the cost of maintaining its purpose-built building.
Lively debate followed. Some contributors pointed out that the key fact was preserving the
contents of The Women’s Library which, many felt, would be better looked after at the LSE, the only
university left in the bidding process for this irreplaceable and unique archive. Why do so many of
the purpose-built buildings specifically for women face such a fate? And why are governments so
reluctant to support them? Very sad indeed.
Buildings featured in another absorbing session I attended, on ‘Women’s Heritage and Public
History’, a field of growing interest. All the speakers were from the UK. Rosie Sherington, from
English Heritage spoke about the problems in presenting a history of women through buildings –
how do they relate to women’s social status and employment opportunities? Kate Hill focused
on souvenirs, gender and museums from 1850-1914, discussing how women often donated to
museums ‘souvenirs’ which were of their menfolk’s travel abroad, perhaps as acts of mourning or
commemoration. Alison Oram took a different line, discussing gender, intimacy and queer space
in the historic house whose inhabitants have been claimed for LGBTQ history. To what extent is
gender and sexuality inherent in room layouts, gardens and material objects? Of course, it was
not just in the formal panel sessions that discussion took place. Lunchtime chats often lead to an
exchange of email addresses while the lunchtime demonstration by Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish
Sklar of the transnational digital resource Women and Social Movements, International, 1840-2010,
attracted an appreciative audience. ‘Did women in the past really do as much as this?’ one delegate,
new to the field, whispered to me.
The range of the papers presented at this conference were far ranging and informative, making us
all think about the ‘local’ and ‘global’ in new ways, from transnational childhoods to stay-at-home
internationalists. Emily Sloan, from the USA, raised important questions about the experiences of
the American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in the Philippines when on her 1911-12 suffrage tour.
Catt, as President of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and a prominent American political
figure, wrestled with the reality of imperialism, concluding that no nation ought to own another. A
loud Amen to that, over and over again.
Many of us came away from this conference feeling energised. And that is how it should be.
In these times of economic recessions it is important that we support, nurture and cherish our
international and national women’s history networks. We cannot afford to do otherwise.