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By Jeremy Schwab
Like many of the activists who jumped headfirst into the women’s movement in the 1970s, Deborah Belle found her conception of the world expanded as she learned about other women’s lives. She became engrossed in studying the lives of low-income women coping with the stresses of poverty, raising children and, in some cases, mental health problems.
The movement changed her life and the lives of women around the country. “I don’t think my career, the topics I teach and the style I teach them in, or my experience of marriage and motherhood would have been possible without the changes of that era,” says Belle, now a CAS professor of psychology; director of the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program; and leading expert in the impact of poverty on mental health and family functioning.
But in recent years she began to feel that the public recollection of the women’s movement no longer matched reality. “I began hearing narratives about the movement that didn’t match my memories and didn’t capture its depth, breadth, and variety,” she recalls. And so Belle decided to host a conference to bring together many of the key figures from the women’s movement to discuss lessons learned and also look to the future and the issues facing women today.
From Thursday through Saturday, March 27-29, the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at BU hosted “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s.” The event included over 50 panel discussions and three evenings of films as well as a staged play. Upwards of 500 attended, including a large number of young people.
“When we sent it out, we were hoping for maybe twenty people to propose topics for panels, but we have had well over 150 proposals on every aspect of the women’s movement,” she says. “In the emails people sent me about the conference, they were so grateful and so excited. I heard from older activists struggling with money issues but eager to attend. I heard from people who told me that after the eleventh email they received from friends telling them about the conference, they decided they needed to attend.”
Clearly, the timing was right for an event of this magnitude. But it was not just a retrospective. “We will emerge with an understanding of what happened during those revolutionary years, and it will help us going forward because the issues that defined that movement have not gone away,” says Belle.
Activists of the period (including Ti-Grace Atkinson, Demita Frazier, and Kathie Sarachild), historians and other scholars (including Linda Gordon and Sara Evans), and writers (including Marge Piercy and Susan Faludi) were among the speakers. Each day concluded with a reception followed by films of and about the era, including the work of filmmakers Joan Braderman and Liane Brandon. Ntozake Shange’s play For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was performed.
Speakers came from all over the country and beyond to discuss the ways in which women’s liberation took shape in different places. The conference engaged with political, intellectual, literary, legal, and personal elements of the movement, and especially with the ways in which these elements intertwined and often reinforced each other.
Sasha Goodfriend is one of the young activists who attended the conference. The BU student is heavily involved with the Center for Gender, Sexuality & Activism, a student-run advocacy group; she is also pursuing a minor in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at CAS. She is also part of the conference planning committee. “I am excited to learn from feminist activists who have in large part laid the groundwork for the work I am a part of now,” she said before the conference. “There are a lot of people who feel like we are still fighting the same fight our mothers were a generation ago, and yet the world we live in today is changing rapidly.”
For more information and a detailed schedule of events, please visit the conference website at www.bu.edu/wgs/conference2014. Please contact Jaho King (email@example.com) with any questions. Read the BU Today article about the conference here.