Elevate Difference

Southeastern Women’s Studies Association Conference 2008: Frontiers of Feminism at Home and Abroad (4/3-4/5/08)

Since its first meeting in Atlanta in 1977, the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association (SEWSA) has consistently been the most active of the regional organizations of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) and has served academics, activists, community leaders, and students as a source of professional inspiration, mutual support, a network of shared information and experience, and a connection to the emergence of global feminism. This year’s conference, held this past weekend in Charlotte, NC, may have been its most successful event yet, with more than 300 people registered and brilliant keynote addresses by bell hooks, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Cynthia Enloe, and Rosie Tong.

Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology at Brown University, gave the first keynote entitled “Not Your Grandmother’s Biology: Towards a New Science of Sex, Desire and Race.” Even as someone who never managed to look through a microscope successfully, and a bit baffled by her flow-charts and scientific lingo, I was nonetheless excited by her presentation on epigenetics, which I believe concerns how genes are expressed—that is, how the environment interacts with genes to make us who we are.

Her work reframes the old nature/nature duality with a much more complex picture of gendered identity. Perhaps most exciting of all was the sense she conveyed that a great number of profoundly important scientific discoveries are being made that will continue to enrich our understanding of ourselves.

The many panel presentations were consistently excellent. The papers revealed an intensely diverse and transnational scope, with relatively few of us still rooted in the Eurocentric tradition. The other development that struck me was a sort of “back to the future”—the re-energized emergence of a vocal LGBTQ Caucus; lesbian scholars and activists had been at the intellectual and organizational heart of SEWSA at its founding and had been less active in recent years, so the full and enthusiastic participation of the Caucus was exciting, indeed.

Enloe’s talk was brilliant, but agonizing: she personalized the suffering that the Iraqi War has perpetrated, both in Iraq and in the United States, and the extent to which almost all of us are forced to be complicit in its violence. She wove threads of connection between a mother in Wisconsin whose son was mutilated in Iraq and a hair stylist in Iraq who serves as a conduit for stories of kidnapping, rape, and unimaginable trauma.

The highlight of the convention for many of us was the presentation of bell hooks. In advance of her talk, the conference honored its revitalized Women of Color Caucus with a reception. Both the reception and her talk drew a tremendous gathering, rather remarkable, as Hooks noted, for a late Friday afternoon—and with Bill Clinton holding a rally in the building next door! Her message was one of love and reconciliation. Perhaps our most eminent African American feminist theorist, she is also—quite obviously—a warm and powerful teacher, and we were all eager students. Her talk theorized the importance of place, as signified by her own longing for her Kentucky roots in spite of its virulent racism and sexism, as well as the importance of place throughout the many travels that led her to New York.

For those who have felt despair at the current state of the world and frustrated by what seems sometimes the futility of our efforts to protest or advocate change, the conference was a reminder that there are many forms of activism and that our solidarity—in and because of our diversity—can offer us a sense of renewal and hope.

Written by: Rick Taylor, April 9th 2008