WHS Conference 2012
Morag Campbell, Open University and University of Dundee.
This year’s annual Women’s History Scotland conference on Women and Wellbeing: Historical Perspectives, brought together a splendid variety of participants and a correspondingly interesting selection of papers. The subjects of the papers ranged from ‘baby farmers’ to missionaries, and from as far afield as Rhodesia, Spain, Canada and Nazi Germany; topics embraced birth control and eugenics, sexual wellbeing, mental health, pregnancy and childbirth; we heard women’s voices through letters and poetry, and just as poignantly through the letters of their husbands and families, hinting at women’s suffering, courage and determination.
The study of women’s history has necessarily encountered contradictory approaches as to how the subject of women could be written into a narrative dominated by the history of men. Many of the papers at this year’s conference examined women’s roles in relation to power structures and the society which constrained them, and their efforts to gain independence by the means available to them. Linda Mahood introduced us to Eglantyne Jebb and her family, whose philanthropic activities, like those of many Victorian women, allowed them access, as educated women, to adventurous and also politically controversial activities otherwise denied to them by legal and social conventions. Kirsten Elliott’s presentation on birth control clinics in early twentieth century Scotland gave an insight into women’s attempts to control their own fertility, and the opposition faced by the clinics themselves. Joanna Geyer-Kordesch offered some challenging ideas on the nature of illness itself, and how women perceived their own recovery, or otherwise.
Lisa Pine showed us a near utopian vision of pre and post natal care in Nazi Germany, where women in need of rest and recuperation had the chance to relax on deck chairs in mountain resorts, while family at home were taken care of. Women were seen as the nurturers of children, who were, after all, the bearers of the national future. Their husbands wrote of the wonderful benefits of the scheme, and the glory of the nation. The catch, of course, was that this idyllic opportunity was only available to those of ‘good hereditary stock.’ Not everyone eligible, however, was inclined to take up this offer. One suspects that many who did not, and who recoiled from the idea of handing their family over to another and leaving their new baby to a wet nurse, may perhaps have been more perceptive and less compliant, and not likely to be regarded by the authorities as quite such an asset to the nation.
I feel I’ve learned a thing or two about attending conferences now and about getting the most out of them. I’ve learned that the standard opening line for coffee time chat is, ‘Are you presenting a paper?’ and so no longer feel like a fraud when I have to say no. I think I’ve learned the difference between a good and a bad PowerPoint, and the importance of presenters sticking to their allotted time. And that the opportunity to mix with others interested in the same subject is just as valuable as the presentations themselves.
Coffee break discussions covered a wide number of topics – health care and midwives in early twentieth century Edinburgh, the medicalization of childbirth, the work of Orange women in maternal and child welfare, the role of Jacobite women, and female school teachers in Aberdeen. It was also an excellent opportunity to test out my ideas for my dissertation topic, noting some useful suggestions and also potential pitfalls.
It was a little disappointing that there were two no-shows among the presenters, although in at least one instance this allowed time for some animated debate among the presenters. On the whole, attending the conference was an extremely interesting and valuable experience, and definitely time well spent. And in addition, it was a lovely excuse to spend some time in Edinburgh on a slightly rainy but otherwise glorious autumn day.