Symposium Report: Missing Women Study Day
24th May 2017, University of Southampton
by Sarah Smyth
When two of my PhD colleagues, Mariana Thomas and Sophie Cavey, and I sent out our call for papers for a study day titled ‘Missing Women’, we had no idea of the overwhelming response we would receive. From a broad range of disciplines, from universities beyond the UK, and from academics either beginning their career or well-established, the idea of the “missing woman” resonated. We had over sixty abstracts for what was supposed to be a half-day conference, with people keen to tell us about the exciting, provocative, and diverse work they are doing to uncover, or recover, the missing women in their field. Our anger at women’s continued marginalisation was legitimised. With this number of academics raging with us, we knew our study day would prove a timely, important and necessary intervention into conventional discourses that continue to position women as “missing”.
The idea for our study day was to provide an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Southampton, which facilitated the discussion of women whose creative or historical contributions have been unjustly forgotten or overlooked. Exclusion, neglect, or omission from analysis has been the undue fate for many women throughout history. Their contributions and representations have all too often been dismissed or forgotten, resulting in the absence of female voices.
Our half-day conference grew to a full day. We successfully secured more money from funding bodies including the Graduate School for Humanities and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing both at the University of Southampton. We built a programme of nine speakers, ending with a special roundtable to celebrate the work of Professor Clare Hanson from the English department at the University of Southampton. Disciplinary diversity was immediately evident, with speakers from the departments of Philosophy, Film, History, Middle Eastern Studies, and English across a range of academic institutions. Thisensured a variety of methodologies – archival work, data collection, close-textual analysis, theory – and a wide time-period, from early writing on ʿĀ’isha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, to contemporary cinema. We had intended our programme also be inclusive and diverse in a much wider sense. In our call for papers, we explicitly encouraged contributions on women of colour, transwomen, queer women, and disabled women, and targeted specific institutions and groups where this research is being done. However, the abstracts we received were overwhelming about white, cis-gender, straight, able-bodied women. During our introduction to the day, then, we acknowledged the missing women from ‘Missing Women’: the women whose work is still marginalised or neglected, or whose work is more difficult to find in the academy.
The day proved to be a huge success. We had a large number of people attend the conference, and this generated an ongoing and dynamic conversation throughout the day. People particularly noted how warm and inclusive the atmosphere was, something we were heartened to hear since we wanted everyone to feel welcome and valued in the space. The first panel on the theme ‘performing women’ led to discussions over how womanhood is “performed” inside and outside texts. Sofia Rehman’s paper on ʿĀ’isha and Jennifer Scott’s paper on Victorian novelist Marie Corelli revealed contrasting ways in which women have control or autonomy over the performative aspects of their womanhood or femininity. While Sofia demonstrated how ʿĀ’isha’s voice becomes muted as she took positions in opposition to other, invariably male, companions of the Prophet, while Jennifer examined studio photographs of Corelli to argue that these formed spectral sequels to her own works, which countered the press’ tendency to control women’s bodies. Panel Two considered the different ways women can be subversive. Islam El-Naggar drew out how Radwa Ashour’s Granada contained a complicated and nuanced portrayal of the feminist traces in Andalusian Muslim culture. Jenni Råback considered the ways in which we “frame” Vanessa Bell who so often gets eclipsed by her more famous sister, Virginia Woolf. A clear pattern emerged, by which “subversive” elements were theorised through form and abstraction. Panel Three, titled ‘Excavating Women’, most explicitly engaged in the finding, recovery and repositioning of women in various institutional, cultural and historical contexts.
Hollie Price considered the position of women in the wartime propaganda work in the Ministry of Information Films Division. Shelley Cobb, meanwhile, discussed her project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK. Both papers led to a productive discussion about women’s complicated relationship with the institutions and material when engaged in archival research. Panel Four focused on the more broader term, ‘Representing Women’. Jade French considered the way in which the older woman was marginalised in the early twentieth century due to the emergence of the figures such as ‘The Flapper’. George Mind suggested that Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition signals a new dialectic between discourses of feminism, realism and subjectivity. Finally, Sarah Osmond Smith looked at research into time in the eighteenth century, arguing that a focus on technological, cultural, artistic, social and material advances fails to take account of gendered experiences of time. Throughout the day, the idea of how necessarily repetitive and slow, even tedious, this research can be, otherwise women will continue to be “missing” within many academic fields.
Our day finished with a roundtable dedicated to Clare Hanson and a wine reception. Here, Clare reflected on the day, noting the exciting and important work being done, and linked it to her own work, particularly her work to recover Katherine Mansfield as a key literary figure. Turning to the future of feminist academic work, perhaps most profoundly, Clare told us the key way to continue to produce feminist research and to ride the waves of feminism as it goes in and out of fashion in wider culture was through intergenerational connections. By explicitly connecting to our feminist foremothers and our feminist daughters, we can safeguard against women going “missing”, ensuring their/our contributions are fully recognised, guaranteeing their/our voices are always heard, and making certain that their/our work will have a lasting impact for many generations to come.
Sarah Smyth is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton. Her PhD is part of the project, Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK (funded by the AHRC), and examines the ways in which a number of women filmmakers in contemporary Britain conceptualise and represent space. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahsmyth91.