Last week I attended the 19th annual British Women Writer’s Conference in Columbus Ohio, and I’m still on a kind of academic natural high. In the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that I went partly to present a paper and partly because I’m co-chairing the conference in Boulder next year, and thus needed to observe its workings. It was quite a large conference: 250 people, as many as 6 concurrent panels, and fantastic keynote speakers. I was impressed by the smooth operation of it all, but more than that I found myself impressed by the conference’s ethos. It was genuinely inspiring. I’m going to struggle not to gush in this post, but seriously—what a wonderful experience.
One of the most important things I realized over the three days I spent there was just how indebted I am to the scholars who have gone before me, a fact made all the more clear since many of them were in attendance! I had not realized how recently the canon of 18th and 19th century British Literature has opened to include many of the women writers now considered some of its pillars—but only 19 years ago did a group of graduate students recognize the dearth and decide to do something about it by organizing the BWWA. One speaker pointed out the importance of the tenure system, since many of those who have published books on what were obscure women writers, did not venture to do so until after they had tenure; this seemed incredible to me, but in later conversations several people I spoke to confirmed the statement. Somehow I had imagined that the women’s movements of the 1970s had accomplished all this work; realizing that it has happened in my young-adult lifetime, and that many of the scholars who brought it about are still in the midst of their careers, really humbled and inspired me. The very people I was mingling and chatting with were some of those who had made it possible for me to work on the things I’m working on. Even more incredible is that so many of them were graduate students when they began to make a difference!
This brings me to the second reason my respect for the BWWA has increased: they really, truly believe in the power of graduate students and this belief is built into both the structure and spirit of the organization and conference. Though many of the students who began the BWWA are now full professors who serve on the executive board, they entrust the planning and running of each year’s conference to grad students at the host university. Responsibilities include all the logistical things (location, lodging, food), but also the academic things like choosing and inviting keynote speakers, choosing a theme and writing the call for papers, and reading submissions and organizing panels. I was so impressed with the group who ran this year’s conference, and likewise impressed by the many expressions of trust, confidence, and appreciation the BWWA board and many of the higher-ranking conference attendees expressed to them. (And it really was a beautifully-run event; completely well-organized, and in a gorgeous location). The BWWA also strives to sponsor a few travel grants especially for graduate students, and this year they added a grant for “contingent faculty,” to reach out and include those in the tough space between graduating and finding a tenure-track position. In short, the whole feeling of the conference seemed to be one of graciousness, inclusion, and enthusiasm for everyone’s work—a real collegiality that reached across rank and age and letterhead. I chaired a panel that featured two imposing professors (one the editor of an academic journal and the other from Yale), and I was a little nervous…but then I found myself taking notes as much on their manners as on their papers, because they were so impressively gracious! Each time she was asked a question, the Yale professor would share her thoughts and then say, “Thank you so much for bringing that up! What do you think about it?” Great conversations and intellectual exchanges took place in that panel.
I do wonder what some of the male attendees thought of their BWWC experience, because the conference population is overwhelmingly female. I’m not sure whether this happens because women scholars tend to be more interested in women writers, or because the conference itself mirrors its project of creating space for the women of history to speak by creating space for today’s women scholars to speak, but it’s certainly noticeable, and in a really cool way. I find myself often thinking about how I navigate my professional life as a woman—the personae I adopt when I teach, when I write, when I present. A recent study found that when letters of recommendation portrayed a candidate (regardless of that candidate’s gender) as “nurturing” or “warm,” they were less likely to be hired than a candidate recommended as “assertive” or “independent.” The point is, gender stereotypes still materially affect our professional lives, and I know many women scholars feel a bit more conscious of playing the professional part than men do. There were more men at this year’s conference than in some years, I’m told; the BWWA board is not exclusively female, and men make valuable contributions to the organization and conference—but still, one of the really wonderful things about the BWWC was a sort of communal letting down of the hair. It didn’t necessarily feel any less professional, just a little more…down to earth, maybe? It’s difficult to describe. Conversations might as likely turn to the challenges of breastfeeding in a suit or helping a 12-year-old with his homework, as they would to Mary Wollstonecraft or Elizabeth Gaskell (and I can just imagine Wollstonecraft and Gaskell discussing the same types of things!). On a bus trip a big group of us got laughing about what “type” of academics we were—the scarf academic, the chunky-jewelry Chico’s academic, the Birkenstocks academic, the e-bay Anthropologie academic, or (in my case) the Target sale-rack academic (they have great cardigans!). Nobody felt self-conscious about ordering a chocolate martini, or savoring a crème brulée, or complimenting someone on their shoes, or gushing about one of the Regency Reenactment dancers’ crocheted gloves (yes, we enjoyed a performance of Regency dancers). It was sort of like a super-smarty-pants girls’ weekend out. One professor who has attended the conference for years called it her “Old Girls’ Club.” While I generally feel pretty good about the respect shown to women in academia, there is still something to be said for female friendship, and I would say I really did make friends at the BWWC.
In all, I came back from Ohio with newfound respect for what the BWWA does and how they do it, as well as perspective on how the work we do as graduate students can palpably, materially affect the profession for good. Building the Association has clearly been a labor of love for those who have participated in it, and I’m excited for the opportunity to make my own contribution throughout this next year. Our committee here in Boulder will be pouring our hearts into planning the 2012 conference, to make it just as great of an experience for future attendees as I had last weekend—and even when our turn is over, I look forward to participating with the BWWA for many years to come.