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Sun, Jan 05


Bowery (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)

Panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting

Round table discussion: “Narrating the History of Sex and Reproduction in a Time of Conservative Backlash,” with historians Lara Freidenfelds, Elizabeth Reis, Sandra Eder, and Gillian Frank, and documentary filmmaker Civia Tamarkin.

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Panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting
Panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting

Time & Location

Jan 05, 2020, 1:30 PM – 3:00 PM

Bowery (Sheraton New York, Lower Level), 370 Canal St, New York, NY 10013


About the Event

     Two flashpoints in the current conservative cultural backlash in the United States are transgender rights and abortion, and the politics of sex and reproduction have been in the news on an ongoing basis. History provides a reference point on both ends of the political spectrum in debates on these topics: liberals declare, “we won’t go back!” and conservatives want to “make American great again.” The politicized historical narratives, by turn romantic and tragic, are compelling and politically useful, but they miss some crucial insights from history. First, historical actors grappled with problems of sex and reproduction in complex and nuanced ways that tend to be ignored in politicized narratives of the past. Second, the visions of what it would mean to “go back” do not recognize that, in fact, there is no going back: social, cultural, and technological conditions have shifted, and the very self-awareness of past and present possibilities shapes the construction of a mutually negotiated future.

     Chair and panelists include four historians of science and medicine and a documentary filmmaker who focuses on women’s rights and health. In brief, 5-7 minute presentations, panelists will introduce two contemporary case studies: the current status of miscarriage management in Catholic health care facilities, and the creation of new midwifery guidelines for treating transgender patients. Panelists will illuminate these contemporary cases with historical case studies: 1950s treatment of intersex, nineteenth-century physicians’ treatment of life-threatening complications during birth, and the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion’s development of an abortion-rights-oriented theology in the 1960s. During the discussion we will invite the audience to consider with us the ways in which we, as historians and documentarians, intend to narrate the past during a time of progressive change and conservative backlash, in which the past is a constant political point of reference.

     Discussion will follow the interests of the audience, which we anticipate will include historians and teachers from a range of fields, interested in considering together how we do good history during a politically volatile era. Panelists will be ready to reflect upon questions such as: how have current social and political issues shaped our choice of research questions and the way we narrate our discoveries? How has the pronounced backlash of the Trump years affected our work, and how much do we see continuity with the previous decades in which we have been pursuing research on sex and reproduction? When are voluble politics a stimulus to good historical research, and when are they a distraction or hindrance? When do/should we speak directly to popular narratives (whether conservative or liberal), and when do we find it to be better to present our narratives without popular history as foil or frame? What challenges are specific to the topics of sex and reproduction?

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