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Reliving a Pivotal Decade in Women’s Liberation

BU Revolutionary Moment conference probes movement’s start


Deborah Belle suspected that the time was right to take a scholarly look at the US women’s liberation movement from the 1960s to the 1970s and weigh the  legacy of those times, but last year when she began organizing a BU conference on those pivotal years, the passionate response to the idea floored her.

“We touched a nerve,” says Belle, a College of Arts and Sciences psychology professor, who will be joined at the conference A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s today through Saturday, March 29, by hundreds of historians and other North American and European scholars who will consider, critique, and celebrate the period through panel discussions, films, poetry, music and a stage play. Among those presenting are writer Susan Faludi, novelist and poet Marge Piercy, and feminist historian and Dorothea Lange biographer Linda Gordon. Academy Award winning actress and gender equality advocate Geena Davis (CFA’79, Hon.’99) will also be on campus to accept an award through the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

According to the conference website, the three-day event will engage with “political, intellectual, artistic, literary, legal, and personal elements of the movement, and especially with the ways in which these elements intertwined and often reinforced each other.” The conference is free to BU students.

With more than 500 registered participants, it will also be a reunion, perhaps the last, of old friends, leaders, and foot soldiers in a time of profound change, says Belle, who was a Harvard Graduate School of Education student at the time and will be reuniting with her former women’s studies research group. She says that many of the speakers, who are mostly taking part at their own expense, are elderly and made a special effort to get here.

“I think this was an incredible period that impacted the lives of people then and today, and yet that change is extremely poorly understood,” says Belle. “It was a huge moment of tremendous breadth, and it looked different in Atlanta than it did in Chicago or Boston, it looked different for working class white women, black women, and lesbian women.” When Belle and her colleagues issued a call for papers last spring, she hoped the conference would offer “a better understanding of what went on—what worked, what didn’t work, and what remains to be done.”

The proceedings will begin with a tour and reception at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which signed on in fitting solidarity and provided additional funding for the BU conference. There will be an evening of films, including Jennifer Lee’s 2013 Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation and a College of Fine Arts School of Theatre staging of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf at the TheatreLab@855. On Friday, a day of addresses and panels, including a keynote by University of Minnesota historian Sara Evans, will culminate in a reception and the opening of the exhibition Geena Davis: Actor and Advocate, Davis’ personal archive at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. An awards ceremony at the GSU’s Metcalf Ballroom will honor alumna Davis with the Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is presented by the Bette Davis Foundation, which raises funds for scholarships for aspiring actors and actresses in memory of the legendary Hollywood actress and Massachusetts native, whose archive is also in the Gotlieb’s collection. Past winners of foundation awards are Meryl Streep, Lauren Bacall, and Susan Sarandon.

The conference will focus on a feminist movement that gained momentum more than three decades before Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, with its message of personal achievement that young women find empowering and inspirational. Belle says the conference will explicitly address issues of the women of that era versus someone like Sandberg. “I think a lot of recent efforts around women moving forward today focus on the solitary woman, how she can improve her career, gain advantages, and that’s an interesting issue,” she says. “But it’s not the issue of banding together to examine and to wherever possible overthrow the patriarchy and revolutionize power relationships in society. Not that that I object to Sandberg’s efforts, but I think there’s something very sad about the focus on one individual’s career.”

From the impact of the women’s liberation movement on popular culture to the cultural, legal, and historical scholarship it generated, conference panels will provide new perspective on a tumultuous decade. Faludi will lead a discussion of the Long Dance of Feminism and Capitalism, from the Lowell Mill Girls to Lean In. Other panel discussions will examine a wide range of issues, from Sex, Marriage, and Motherhood to nonsexist child-rearing to feminist filmmaking to international influences on the movement. Among the participating BU faculty are Diane Balser, Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies program codirector of undergraduate studies, Shahla Haeri, a CAS associate professor of anthropology, Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the School of Theology, Khiara Bridges, a School of Law associate professor of law and CAS associate professor of anthropology, and Pnina Lahav (GRS’83) and Linda McClain, both LAW professors.

Belle, who will deliver opening remarks at the conference, says students who attend will hear from people who worked on protecting women from sexual abuse, activists who worked in the legal and political arenas, and those who wrote poetry and fiction and created television shows to promote change in the culture. They will hear, for instance, how one woman worked around the country to get marital rape declared a criminal offense and not a joke.

“There was so much going on,” Belle says. “It was quite an amazing time.”

A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s runs through Saturday, March 29. A schedule of events is available here. BU student registration is free; the recommended fee for others is $65, but attendees can pay less (or contribute more), based on what they can afford. Register here.

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