On March 1st, the Women’s History Graduate Program held its 16th annual conference, The Newer Normal: Global Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality featuring award-winning performer and transgender activist, Scott Turner Schofield, as the keynote speaker. The conference was co-sponsored by The All Out Art’s Fresh Fruit Festival and the Diversity and Action Programming Sub Committee.
The objective of this conference, as stated in the program, was to explore multiple aspects of gender identity and gender expression globally. The conference organizers assembled workshops, scholarships, and artistic expressions that examined the many ways perceptions of gender and sexuality have shifted throughout history, as well as how this is reflected in media, language, and state law. About half of the conference presenters were Sarah Lawrence students, including two Women’s History students who presented their thesis work: Emilie Egger and Toni-Anne Stewart.
A feeling shared by many conference attendees was that The Newer Normal opened up a different kind of dialogue than the typical conference. Some students from other Universities commented on its openness and flexibility. One individual admitted that their institution would not have willingly facilitated the discussions that they participated in. It was this open dialogue, coupled with the high-level of intellectual scholarship presented, which were able to meet the goals of this conference.
In many ways The Newer Normal conference was a live example of how challenging combining activism and academia can be. Schofield began his keynote by addressing a statement made online by trans*action, which called for the Women’s History program to have trans* women represented at the conference. He was able to give space to the conference organizers, students, and audience members, by facilitating a conversation on the responsibility of conference organizing as well as intentional activism.
During this important and tense discussion, one student’s moment of clarity was expressed with this comment: “This is not an either/or situation, this is a both/and situation.” This thoughtful and important addition to the conversation made it clear to all that a more inclusive approach would be necessary to properly examine the issues at hand .
After the conference, one of my fellow women’s history students shared a blog post by Ngọc Loan Trần that advocates for “calling each other in” as a way to simultaneously express our frustrations while confirming our positions as activists. This concept does not exist in opposition to calling each other out (which is sometimes very necessary), and is not meant to discount the deep anger and hurt that many activists feel when let down by other members of that activist community. Instead, it helps guard us against adopting a politic of disposability. It is our job to educate each other and hold each other accountable, but in a way that is grounded in patience and compassion. The reason for this being (and I say this with complete confidence) that we will all, at some point in our activism, fail spectacularly. I for one have done so many times.
At the same time, thoughtful critiques of the Women’s History Program are always welcome. Everyone involved in the program at SLC has the desire to continue to be better activists and scholars. Although there was an effort made at the conference, there can always be more done to address the underrepresentation of trans* women both in academia and as presenters at our conference.
For myself and many others at Sarah Lawrence, the challenge to unite our activism and academic endeavors will be a lifelong process. Having tough conversations in which we call on each other to do more than just claim activist roles and be more than just our academic inquiries is just as important as presenting our well-researched, well-prepared work.
The participatory nature of Schofield’s presentation carried throughout the day, and seemed to affect the liveliness of the panel discussions. While moderating the Gender Identity and the State Panel, I found that, not only were the presenters articulate and well-prepared, but their projects were deeply personal. The packed room held onto every word, was very vocal during the Q and A where they could ask panelists questions. Many attendees commented that other panels and roundtable discussions at the conference had similar energy.
My hope is that we all remember this experience and maintain this energy as we continue to have more open discussions and look forward to The Women’s History Conference next Spring.
by Erin Hagen
Erin Hagen is a first-year graduate student in the Women's History program. If you have any questions or want to get involved with next year's conference, you can learn more here.