Summary of the 2021 conference

In October 2021 OWHN held its first ‘Zoom’ conference. Despite the limitations of online
communication, the conference was both inspiring and educational. On Friday night we watched
the new video celebrating OWHN’s 30th anniversary, and spoke with its talented
producer, Donna Gall. As well, our keynote speaker, historian Afua Cooper, speak on Canadian
Black Women’s History. On Saturday, there were three sessions, the first reflecting the early
history of OWHN, the second, a roundtable with long-term members, and finally, finally, a
fascinating session on New Directions in women’s history. We decided to share these insights
with our online community, via the Blog. The first segment, “New Directions” featuring Dolana
Mogadime and Monda Halpern will follow. Over the next several months, we will add two more
segments, one with reflections from OWHN founders Elizabeth Smyth and Gail Cuthbert Brandt,
and another on the thoughts of long-term members Sharon Cook, Linda Ambrose, Dianne Dodd
and Alyson King. We hope this blog entry will help long-time friends of OWHN relive a great
conference, and introduce newcomers the past, present and future, of OWHN.

3 CHANGES OVER 3 DECADES:

REFLECTIONS ON THE EVOLUTION OF WOMEN’S HISTORY

Monda Halpern

Department of History, The University of Western Ontario

In the 1990s, I wrote a brief opinion piece entitled “Sorting Through the Male: From Women’s
History to Gender History, and the Place of Women.” Reviewing the paper now highlights for
me the glaring changes that have emerged in both these fields, particularly in the university
classroom — at least in my university classroom — over the last thirty years.

First, there has been a shift in gender and sexuality from primarily a social
construction to a biological imperative

In the 1990s, I asserted that historians of women’s and gender history saw gender “as largely a
social construction that changes over time, place, and space….” At that time, the biology
argument was deemed essentialist and outmoded. Alternatively, the social construction argument
suggested that gender traits and identity were literally man-made and thus more malleable. This
made patriarchy a tenuous system that could be more readily dismantled. Today, in part due to
our discussions around transgender politics, gender and sexuality are being framed again in more
biological terms. Now they are seen as identities innate to who we are and which are not
hospitable to change. As well, students today seem to be less concerned with how gender gets
formed and more interested in how its inherent borders can potentially be expanded,
transgressed, and transcended.

Secondly, there has been a shift in women’s history from a feminist practise to a
humanist one

This second shift has occurred in part due to an augmented definition of woman. In the 1990s,
my fear was that a feminist women’s history would be neutralized in favour of a generic,
apolitical gender history, which might consider women in history, but not practise women’s
history. Certainly, gender history led to a broader understanding of the oppression experienced
by men and by various racialized and minority groups. Today, this more inclusive consideration
of diverse and intersectional experiences, groups, and identities challenges the definition of
woman itself. Students today understand woman as a contested term, one that is fluid and
mutable. This reconceptualization of woman necessarily condemns gender binaries and
heteronormativity, as well as the cis-centred orientation of feminism itself. As a result, many
students who do women’s history tend to resist the feminist label for themselves, preferring to
look at their work as sensitive to the shared oppression of all disadvantaged and silenced groups.
They see their approach as humanist rather than specifically feminist.

Thirdly, there has been a shift in the predominant historical oppressor from patriarchy
to colonialism

This third change in women’s history situates colonialism as the predominant historical
oppressor. Today, students rarely consider patriarchy as a distinct power structure; instead, it gets
subsumed as a trait of a colonialism – no longer understood as solely the political and economic
domination of a territory or group. Rather the term colonialism is used far more broadly to mean
the wholesale appropriation, exploitation, or extermination of a culture. Patriarchy has certainly
been integral to this process, but students are now more attentive to colonialism’s related
expressions of racism and classism.

The impact of these changes, either positive or negative, is not yet known. My hope for women’s
history moving into the future, however, is that it retains its feminist character and that both
women’s history and gender history be inspired by their feminist roots.

Online Oral Histories: Looking Back to Understand Racial Justice Today

Dolana Mogadime
Dolana Mogadime

by Dolana Mogadime

Today, the world-wide Black Lives Matter Movement marches, the #say her name campaign,
and the #me too movement, has catapulted North America and the world into rethinking racial
justice and gender rights. In such a context, the history of resistance becomes increasingly
important for students to examine. A critical analysis of oral histories provides possibilities for
students to understand the continuities across time and space. Additionally, using online oral
histories has the added feature of allowing educators to pivot into new teaching and learning
approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Using ‘a self-reflection cycle’ for teacher inquiry that I designed, I created an oral history
assignment based on ‘The Civil Rights History Project.’ The series of online interviews came
about through a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National
Museum of African American History and Culture. Students can access online interviews,
including both video recordings and transcripts, to learn about the histories of women and their
contributions to the civil rights movement. For example, in one online interview, Gwendolyn
Patton (2011) discusses the struggles for Black education at the time of Jim Crow, a policy
designed to undermine an equal education for African Americans to that of white Americans.
The oral history approach holds possibilities to support students toward understanding the
meaning of familial, social and political context in relation to life stories. For Gwendolyn Patton,
her early life and adolescence left an imprint and helped create a civil rights activist. Students
can examine what it meant to grow up in a family with awareness of Black history for the
activist, by using life cycles concentric circles that include: Early childhood; gender (little
girlhood); stories of coming of age; and the meaning of identity or beliefs and values. Such an
approach may help students understand why and how a historical figure made the decision to
stand up for racial justice. These same approaches can be applied to an analysis of change agents
and their contributions today (Mogadime, 2012, 2020).

Selected References

  • Goodson, I., & Sikes, P. (2001). Life History Research in Educational Setting: Learning from
  • Lives. Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  • Mogadime, D., (2012). Using interdisciplinary feminist theory to arrive at an understanding of
  • critical educators who put human rights at the centre of school curriculum, In Cornelia Roux
  • (Ed.), Safe Spaces: Human Rights Education in Diverse Contexts (193-206). Rottendam, The
  • Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
  • Mogadime, D., (2020). Revisiting Research: The Personal, Historical and Lived Experiences
  • Shaping Women’s Teachers’ Identities (170-182). In Ali A. Abdi (Ed.). Critical Theorization of
  • Education. Brill Sense Publishers.