Why We're Giving Up Conferences in 2019
Lady Science won’t be going to any more academic conferences. I’m writing this at the airport, just hours after we did a roundtable at the American Historical Association Conference with Nursing Clio and Dig: A History Podcast about feminist history projects. It went well, the crowd was small but engaged, and it was wonderful to meet people doing similar work in person at last. But halfway through my layover, I saw that people had been tweeting about another session, about academic blogging where Nursing Clio’s executive editor Jacqueline Antonovich was called a “little redhead girl” by a member of the audience, a colleague, at the biggest and most prestigious history conference in the country. Just a few hours before, we had sat in the same room with her and talked at length about the challenges of feminist scholarship in public, trolls and death threats, and the belittling treatment many of us have received from other historians. In an important sense, that doesn’t seem to be changing fast enough or perhaps at all, the call is coming from inside the house. So we’re bailing on the house, breaking through the slasher flick script and bugging out.
We organized this session last year, on the ridiculously elongated lead time of a big conference, so we’ve had nearly a calendar year to reckon with our mistake, and to dread the consequences. For Leila, my co-editor in chief and I, who have traveled together to talk about Lady Science at a number of conferences over the last few years, the process is always excruciating. We share certain anxiety issues that make travel difficult, and neither of us is able to cover conference costs with ease. But we would happily endure this and probably more if we felt that we were accomplishing anything at these meetings, if we felt welcome at these meetings.
One of the important moments of our panel was listening to Jacki talk about how essential it is to remember that even if tenure committees and conservative faculty members are beginning to come around on public projects like those we have all created, there is still significant resistance to feminist projects. Elizabeth Masarik read out some quotes from reviews of the Dig podcast that spoke to this, and let me say that it really is something to hear the words fucking bitches ring out in a nearly empty meeting room at a professional event. But this is not news to us, and in fact, it concerns us less than the slightly more civil, but often more cutting, dismissal we have faced from people in our own fields.
In presenting on Lady Science or tangential projects about feminist history, Leila and I have faced bewildered audiences, nervous chairs, insulting not-a-question-more-of-a-comments, accusations of hagiography, or the more quietly devastating stony silence and cold shoulders after the end of the session. We’ve had our subjects and approaches publicly, specifically dismissed in front of peers, and faced down genuine humiliation and hostility. And we’ve paid, all told now thousands of dollars, to present ourselves for such treatment. We are tired. And we’re tired of watching the same things happen to our friends.
We don’t hate academics. Some of our best friends are academics! I’m still an academic! Many of our team are professors and graduate students and adjuncts. We all have friends and mentors and role models in academia who we respect and cherish. And most importantly, many of our contributors are academics. We value them for their willingness to step outside of academia to reach a wider audience and we hope that they, and our readers, value us in part because we are not affiliated with an academic institution and because we refuse to reify and uphold the unequal class, race, and gender constructions of those spaces.
And on an even more fundamental level, we all believe in the project of knowledge making and learning that we first fell in love with when we came to this work. But we do hate what academia still seems to be despite all the rumblings of reform. We hate the misogynist, gendered hostility of long winded commentators, who scold us for being interested in anything but the men they themselves study and deem worthy. We hate watching women being erased from history before our eyes, slipping through the careless fingers of scholars. We hate the way we are sorted according to the arbitrary hierarchy of affiliation, watching respect and interest slide off of faces when they see our badges. We hate supporting a conference that facilitates universities effectively charging graduate students and contingent faculty for the privilege of an interview.
But most of all we hate grovelling, begging for recognition from an indifferent and apparently immovable institution. For a long time, we assumed we were just not working hard enough to explain ourselves, the value of our project, our rigor and process, our passion for the material. That maybe if we did the right conferences, spoke to the right people at mixers, we wouldn’t be treated like unreasonable harpies, demanding outsiders, or, worst, like we were invisible. But this is literally the kind of thinking the abuser cultivates in the victim, the doubt that makes you pick up the ominously ringing phone every time.
So we won’t be seeing you at any conferences. At least not until something major changes, some fiery and final grad student revolt that sees all conferences gloriously reforged as big group camping trips and long afternoons on patios and the conduct guidelines no longer need to specify that you’re not allowed to sexually harass people at the event. With any luck though, you might see us at events that are already like that, places where people have broken the script permanently and made a place for all the feminist harpies and fucking bitches to be free and to talk shop and to be welcome.