What’s Today got to do with History?

In expressing alarm at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights’ decision to pull Veronica Strong-Boag’s invited IWD blog on grounds of a one-line comment about the Conservatives’ anti-women record, I was also saying what many of our Berkshire Conference presenters, who are actively engaged scholars and public intellectuals as well as academics, have said. Historians who study injustices in the past believe they have a responsibility to use their historical knowledge to intervene in contemporary debates, to bring documentation and informed argument to ill-informed and naïve debate, lest current governments or powerful groups, whether by design or ignorance, whitewash or forget the past in order to serve their own interests.

Historians and museums have a lot in common: both face the challenge of conveying a complex past that we can know only partially to present audiences. While certainly an intellectual endeavor, and one that requires training, the work is also fundamentally political, from deciding what to select in and out of our story to how we portray and interpret the winners and losers in the past – to present audiences. Many of you who responded to my first post also made another fundamental point: human rights are, by definition, political. Governments or ruling groups do not simply give “human rights” to a given group, whether women, peasants, workers, disabled, LGBTQ people or the colonized, like gifts but, instead, are compelled to concede them, though usually in diluted form, as a result of political struggles that have gained significant traction. We know this as historians because we can document it; the phrase, hard-fought gains, is not a cliché. And without due vigilance rights can also be taken away.

All this means that potentially everything that historians do is relevant. It is what the 2014 Berkshire Conference is all about. Our Berks presenters, like the artists and activists involved, are talking about issues that, while examined historically, are absolutely relevant to today.

My support of Strong-Boag’s right to have her IWD history posted on the blog of a public museum was neither planned nor disingenuous, but nor was it naïve. Of course, her blog was political. It would be pretty impossible to talk about anything involving women’s, lgbtq and human rights without being political. The museum’s subsequent explanation for pulling the piece – that they wanted an anecdotal feel-good personal piece – is dangerously naïve. But in saying this, I’m not suggesting we boycott the museum even before it’s had a chance to open its doors. From the start, the project has been besieged with problems. But, like Strong-Boag, I believe in human rights museums, just like I believe in informed debate about human rights, as I’ve shown most recently in the making of the documentary, The Italian Question: The Internment of Italian Canadians During the Second World War http://italianquestion.com/main.html (I criticize the Canadian government for its internment policy and the Italian Canadian redress campaign for whitewashing the pro-fascist elements in the Italian immigrant communities and dismissing or ignoring the liberal and radical anti-fascist groups.)  Go to the CMHR. Take it seriously. Discuss what you see and how it is presented. Ask difficult questions. And debate.

As historians of women, gender and sexuality, our Berks scholars and their research connect very much to issues that matter to people today. To explore the links, come and attend the sessions below and the screening of Christine Welsh’s powerful and disturbing film, Finding Dawn, on the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.


Intimate Histories of Genocide and Extreme Violence Sat, May 24, 1-2:30:

Co-sponsored by Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies, U of Toronto

Chair: Hilary Earl, Nipissing University.

“Fragments and Traces: Unearthing Fractured Memories in the Aftermath of the Armenian Genocide.”
Hourig Attarian, Concordia University.

“Family, Community and Grief in Letter and Memoir Narratives from North American Finnish Women in Soviet Karelia.”
Samira Saramo, York University.

“The Holocaust Through Documents and Oral Tradition: A Family History.”
Elizabeth Heineman, University of Iowa.

Commentator: Doris Bergen, University of Toronto.

Gendering Justice in the Era of Human Rights Sun, May 25, 8:45-10:45

Chair: Dorothy L. Hodgson, Rutgers University.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a Visual Challenge, 1948-1949.”
Suzanne Langlois, York University, Glendon College.

“‘Equal but Different’: Political Debates on ‘Gender Equality’ in West Germany, 1949-1958.”
Alexandria Ruble, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

A Postcolonial ‘Transnational Sisterhood?’: Social aid and Gender Justice in France, 1962-1975.”
Elise Franklin, Boston College.

“Developing Girls, Developing Nations: A Transnational History of the Girls’ Rights Movement in Kenya, 1945- the Present.”
Sarah Bellows-Blakely, Washington University, St. Louis.

Commentator: Pamela Scully, Emory University.

Violence, Memory, and Silence Sun, May 25,  11-1
Chair: Pamela Sugiman, Ryerson University.

“Gender and Minority at the Cusp of Empire and the Nation: Muslim Women and Police Action in 1948 Hyderabad.”
Suneetha SRV Achyuta, Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies.

“‘Human Rights Are Us’: Gendering the Post-Revolutionary Subject in the Aftermath of Guatemala’s Genocide.”
Carlota McAllister, York University.

“Oral Histories of Women and Narratives of Justice.”
Priya Thangarajah, Women’s Action Network, South Africa

“When They Beat the Men but Raped the Women: Constructing Political Victims of the Former Yugoslavia in the American Public and Political Eye.”
Zain Lakhani, University of Pennsylvania.

Commentator: Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, School of Oriental and African Studies.

Individual PAPERS

Look, Listen and Dream: Politics and Culture in African American Women’s History Friday AGO 10:45-12:30

“Noiring Civil Rights: Almena Davis W Lomax, Film Critique, and the Postwar Reinvention of the Black Female Self.”
Ellen Christine Scott, Queens College of the City, University of New York.

Liminal Performances: Transnational Histories of Flappers, Dancing Girls, and Leisure Culture in the Interwar Period Friday Friday AGO

“Icons of Interwar Modernity: The League of Nations ‘Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children’ and the Case of Russian Women in China.”
Philippa Hetherington, Harvard!University.


Colonialism and Indigenous Mothers: Comparative Studies in Child Removals in the 16th -20th Centuries Thursday, May 22, 1:30 PM – 4:30

Chair: Victoria Lorraine Grieves, University of Sydney.

“Realities of Separation within a Discourse of Rescue: Native Andean Mothers and their Mestizo Children in Sixteenth-Century Peru.”|
Jane Mangan, Davidson College.

“Child Removals and the Formation of the Irish Free State.”
Moira Maguire, University of Arkansas.

“Child Removal under the British Raj: The ‘Eurasian Question’ in India and St. Andrew’s Colonial Homes.”
Satoshi Mizutani, Doshisha University.

“Practices of Displacement: Forced Migration of Mixed-Race Children from Colonial Ruanda-Urundi to Belgium.”
Sarah Heynssens, Antwerp University.

“Enshrined in Law: Legislative Justifications for the Removal of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Children in Colonial and Post-Colonial Australia.”
Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University.

“From ‘Other’ to ‘Us’: A Comparative Perspective on Indigenous Mothers, Child Removals, and Cultural Re-education in North America, Asia, and Australia.”
Christina Firpo, California Polytechnic State University and Margaret Jacobs, California Polytechnic State University.

“Indigenous Cultural Brokers in Postrevolutionary Mexico.”
Stephen Lewis, California State University,Chico.

LGBT Mexico City from Dictatorship to Democracy, 1876-2009 Thurs May 22, 3:4:30

Chair: Gabriela Cano, Colegio de Mexico.

“Desiring the Possible: Queer Cabaret Culture in Mexico City.”
Laura Gutiérrez, University of Texas at Austin.

“Homosexuality in the Chancellery: Gender and the Mexican Foreign Service.”
Amelia M. Kiddle, University of Calgary.

“Marriage, Matrimonio, or What?:  LBGT Responses to Same-Sex Marriage Legalization in New York and Mexico City.”
Heather Levi, Temple University.

“The Transnational Homophile Movement and Homosexual Domesticity in Mexico City, 1930-1970.”
Victor Manuel Macías-González, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“Mexican Medical and Literary Discourse on Lesbianism, 1876-1921.”
Carmen Fernanda Núñez Becerra, National Institute of History and Anthropology.

“‘As the Family Goes, So Goes the Nation’: Transfamilies and Nationalism in Contemporary Mexico City.”
Dawn Pankonien, Northwestern University and Raúl Arriaga, Northwestern University.

“Now Playing at the Cine Teresa: Gay Male Sexuality and Community in Mexico City Movie Theaters after 1970.”
Anne G. Rubenstein, York University.

“The Lavender Revolution will be Televised (and Staged):  Nancy Cárdenas, the Staging of ‘The Boys in the Band’ and the Interview on ’24 Horas’, Mexico City,1972-1973.”
Patricia Vega, Independent Scholar.


Indigenous Women & Mobilization: Idle No More, Before & Beyond Sat 8-10

Winona Wheeler, University of Saskatchewan.

Christi Belcourt, Artist.

Hazel Hill, Haudenosaunee Development Institute.

Tanya Kappo, Laywer and Activist.


Anishinaabeg Kwewag: Conversation with Wanda Nanibush & Rebecca Belmore Sat 10:30-12

Wanda Nanibush, Artist, Curator, and Idle No More Organizer.

Rebecca Belmore, Renowned Multidisciplinary Anishinaabe Artist.

They will examine continuing colonial practices that marginalize and perpetuate a system of violence against Indigenous women and discuss artistic and political strategies of resistance and resurgence and how these expand/explode notions of feminist praxis.

Film Screenings: Friday 4:15-5  

Christine Welsh, Filmmaker, University of Victoria, “Finding Dawn,” National Film Board of Canada, 2006

Friday Night @ the Berks: All Through the House: An Evening of Art and Culture

Exhibition Opening and Performance KWE! Rebecca Belmore

KWE! is a solo exhibition of Rebecca Belmore’s work, inaugurated by a new performance. Curated by Wanda Nanibush, the exhibition delves into the complicated and fertile relationship between Indigeneity, art and feminism. Kwe, the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) word for woman, is a term of great respect. Belmore’s artistic practice has always engaged the question of what it is to be an Anishinaabe-kwe artist and the contradictions that arise between the different identities: Woman, Anishinaabe, Artist, Indigenous. Patriarchy, and its embeddedness in both Indigenous and Canadian communities through colonialism, (especially in terms of the violence against women), is the subject of much of Belmore’s work. As Anishinaabe-kwe artist, she engages on multiple levels with her culture’s practices and stories on the role of women while keeping Indigenous self-determination central. Belmore’s work underscores the need for an understanding of colonialism within feminisms today.

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