Report on the First Conference on Women's History and Public Policy

Alice Kessler-Harris and Amy Swerdlow, May 1990

The first Conference on Women's History and Public Policy, June 1989, was an energizing exchange between women of diverse interests, occupations, and backgrounds. Concerns addressed were the problems and possibilities for effective interaction for the advocacy of public policies on behalf of women in the areas of work, family life, and reproductive rights. The conference was sponsored by the AHA and Sarah Lawrence College and funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

The impulse to organize a Conference on Women's History and Public Policy came from a perceived need on the part of historians of women to open a dialogue with policy makers, lawyers, and political activists about the direct and indirect uses and misuses of history in the formulation and achievement of public policy affecting women and the family. Its goal was to explore mechanisms for enhancing communication between historians of women and those in the political arena and in the courts. A specific goal of the Committee on Women Historians of the American Historical Association, which originated the project, was to encourage historians of women to reflect on some of the potential implications of their work, and to pinpoint areas of research that can contribute to public policy debates.

The organizers of the conference defined three precise goals:

  1. to create an atmosphere in which scholars and activists could examine whether, and in what respects, changing understandings of women's roles have influenced the shape of public policy;
  2. to increase the role of historical scholarship in the discussion, formulation, enactment, and enforcement of public policy concerning women;
  3. to expand the research horizons of historians by exploring the complexities of some current policy issues.

To focus the discussion, planning-committee members decided to address these goals through four concrete policy issues currently on the national agenda: "Women's Bodies: Sexuality and Reproduction"; "Integrating Wage-Work and Family Life"; "Women and Domestic Violence"; "Sex, Race, and Welfare/Workfare Policy."

The keynote address of the opening session was given by accomplished historian Mary Berry, an activist admired for her positions on civil rights and other issues, to set the tone of the conference by addressing the question of why it was important for the two groups to speak to each other. Three participants in the conference—Rhonda Copelon, activist-lawyer, City University of New York Law School; Suzanne Lynn, Civil Rights Bureau chief, New York State Attorney General's Office; and Joan Scott, historian at the School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study—were asked to conclude the conference by analyzing its problems and strengths and delineating its significance from their own perspectives.

The conference surpassed the expectations of its organizers, especially in creating channels of communication between activists concerned with policy issues regarding women and historians of women. Sybil Lipshutz, University of Miami, commented: "I was especially impressed by the way feminist lawyers and historians could talk across disciplines, and I know it is our shared feminism that makes this possible. What a difference from the traditional animosity between historians and lawyers in (men's) legal history." Indeed, it became clear that the distinction between the two groups was more a structural device than a reality. Many historians have been lifelong activists for economic and social justice, and many activists have been avid students of women's history.

The conference also succeeded in stimulating awareness among historians of the importance of their work for contemporary political dictates. At the closing session, Joan Scott encouraged them to think about rewriting American history in order to challenge the notion that there were no alternatives to the public policy decisions Americans have made. Scott urged that we rewrite American history so that arguments concerning economic justice and movements to attain it become more visible. "It would help us make them part of what we think of as the American traditions and also give some fuel and empowerment to the movements that in the 1990s are going to have economic justice at the top of their agenda," she said.

For the public policy activists, the conference alerted participants to the dangers and ambiguities of using historical insights to support their work. Historians encouraged activists to think of the broader context in which political struggles take place and urged them to take the time to look at the wider goals and implications of particular policies. The conference stimulated interest in what women's history has to say about a series of concrete issues such as the nature of mainstream feminism, the connection between feminism as an idea and a politics of change, the consequences of public protest, and the roles of different kinds of women as catalysts to change. An unanticipated but fruitful result was the interaction between lawyers and grassroots activists.

For both groups, perhaps the most important outcome was the recognition of the importance of the politics of difference and the tension it created. In this conference, race emerged as an exciting and significant issue in the public policy arena. Many of the presenters, as well as the participants in the discussions, placed race as the most salient issue in the creation of public policies affecting reproductive rights, the quality of family life, parental leave, and welfare/workfare. The presence of a critical mass of African-American women at the conference kept the issue on the table at all times and encouraged conference participants to think about race and gender as a single dynamic unit. Participants were repeatedly urged to think about race not as a subset of anything, including gender, but as the central governing conception for the way scholars view the world and as a motivating factor in the way policy is conceived and practiced. The point was reiterated that difference doesn't mean simple diversity, but hierarchies and inequalities of power.

Moreover, the conference made clear to all present that we need to go beyond the recognition of difference among women to working within its complexity and contradictions. African-American historians urged white historians and activists and to integrate emphasis on women of color more fully into our conceptions of womanhood and of public policy. It was clear that more interaction and discussion is necessary to develop deeper understanding and trust. As African-American activists called for a reevaluation of the consequences of existing and future policies in terms of their particular impact on African-American women and families, many of those present felt that we can no longer remain at this first step of rhetoric and consciousness raising. The conference organizers suggested a follow-up conference, similarly modeled, but of a smaller scale, and possibly conceived and organized by women of color, that would sharpen issues of race/gender difference, and be focused on a single policy topic.

Similarly, conference participants gained a clearer understanding of the salience of class difference. Noted African-American activist Ethel Long-Scott, who works with welfare recipients and the homeless, repeatedly called for an economic history that would throw light on the relationships between labor market practices and women's impoverishment. Long-Scott and other activists were not just asking for an economic history but, as Joan Scott put it, for a theory of economic transformation. This challenges historians of women to focus their attention on the relationship between occupational segregation, wages, and family values and the creation and persistence of poverty among women.

There was disagreement and confusion about what the white feminist movement has or has not advocated and represented. This conference revealed the need for a political and social history of United States feminism that includes issues of race, class, and ethnicity. Such a history would ideally explore the invisibility of working class and minority women in the rhetoric and programs of the women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

To clarify the relationship between historical development and contemporary politics, scholars and activists who are sensitive to issues of racial and gender difference might explore more fully the emergence and nature of the American version of the welfare state and to develop feminist positions on such issues as national health care, the right to housing and subsistence, and the meaning of economic justice. The final recommendation is for a dramatic expansion of foundation support for research along the lines of the highly successful gender roles program recently terminated by the Rockefeller Foundation. The experience of this conference strongly suggests that such research, informed by a continuing dialogue between scholars and activists, can and will lead to a clearer understanding of how to formulate a just policy toward women in the modern world.

We are pleased to report that the benefits will not be confined to participants in the conference. A piece in The Nation has already made mention of our meeting, a resource bibliography created by conference participants will soon be available for circulation, and there has been discussion regarding publication of part of the conference discussion.

Alice Kessler-Harris
Temple University

Amy Swerdlow
Sarah Lawrence College

Conference Project Directors
History and Public Policy