Friday Highlights at OAH 2023
Friday’s meeting began with a morning mixer, where scholars connected and prepared for the full slate of panels. Many attendees arrived Thursday or early Friday morning, so panels were well attended as historians took full advantage of the wide variety of panel topics and a workshop on community college instruction. Editorial Assistants from the Journal of American History attended several panels between their other conference duties and offered their synopses of what occurred.
On Friday morning, a brilliant roundtable of scholars illustrated the power of analyzing individual lives in “Black Women and the Power of Biography.” Biography, where it once may have only served the purpose of further magnifying already visible figures, has the potential to reframe our conception of who mattered in the American past (and therefore who matters today). Reclaiming the lives of Black women, for instance, has revitalized a very traditional genre of historical writing and become an important organizational tool for scholarly narratives. Good biography, however, not only excavates a life in time but also the time itself. Panelists Ashley D. Farmer, Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Sheena Yaa Harris, Kate Clifford Larson, Ashley Robertson Preston, and the chair, Alison M. Parker, demonstrated a concern for both, at times lyrically. Ashley Farmer likened her work studying Queen Mother Moore to a spider’s web, or a black hole, both of which can only be seen with the light reflecting around them. This light is what illuminates lives and gives them their power, from a college education at Fisk or Howard, to family and community, to social networks and political organizations. With equal attention to social structures and their individual lives, the panel made the lives of these Black women shine. Mary Church Terrell, Margaret Murray Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, Madame C. J. Walker, and Moore—clubwomen, race women, activists, philanthropists, and intellectuals—emerged in the shadow of slavery and eased many paths to liberations so long (and in some ways still) denied.
Elsewhere during the morning session, the panel “Seeking Abortions: Ads, Guides, and Community Networks,” centered on issues of abortion care. The session included papers from Lina-María Murillo, Madeleine Ware, Cara Delay, and Katherine Parkin, covering topics from the history of self-managed abortion to abortion advertising in college newspapers pre-Roe. The panelists’ methodological approaches to studying abortion care were fruitfully diverse, drawing on oral histories, court cases, comparative international analysis, and mapping, among others. The panel posed important questions about the “predicament of studying agency” when it comes to abortion access, as Ware put it, and investigated how the language of choice can imply responsibility while obscuring the community, social, and legal realities shaping those choices. As commentator Johanna Schoen pointed out, last summer’s Dobbs decision has “reinvigorated our attention to abortion care,” and has made it particularly urgent to excavate both the challenges and successes in the history of abortion access in the United States. Taken together, these histories signal that the struggle to maintain pregnant people’s access to healthcare is a battle for their lives.
Panelists at the session “Policymakers: Veterans, the U.S. Military, Congress, and the Creation of Transformative Policies.” From left to right: Amber Batura, Jorden Pitt, David Kieran, and Jennifer Keene.
On Friday afternoon, “Policymakers: Veterans, the U.S. Military, Congress, and the Creation of Transformative Policies” explored the interplay between the armed forces and Congress over the last seventy years. Jorden David Pitt, Amber Batura, David Kieran’s papers explored a series of attempts to transform the culture and institutional environment of the military, analyzing veterans’ lobbying for the National Mental Health Act of 1946, the influence of culture wars on efforts to legislate morality in the military, and the role of civilians in the military. Together, as commentator Jennifer Keene put it, the papers “force us to reconsider what we understand [military history] to be.” Such an approach reveals the interconnections between politicians, public opinion, and the military at every stage of attempted institutional change. They demonstrate the complex role the military has in driving or resisting policy changes that are shaped by the executive and legislative branches, such as the veterans who argued to destigmatize mental illness for soldiers and civilians, officers’ efforts to shield their civilian workforce from federal budget cuts, or define what counted as salacious material. The panelists’ approaches demand scholars center, as Kieran put it, the office “cubicle as much as the battlefield” if they seek to understand the relationship between the military and the society it reflects.
Beyond the panels, many attendees took advantage of their time in LA to learn more about the city’s rich history. Sold-out excursions went on a historical walking tour of Boyle Heights, while others explored the Japanese American National Museum and the Autrey Museum of the American West’s Resource Center. Others wandered the streets to consider the vibrant murals documenting local communities’ past, present, and future images of the world.
The day closed with a series of receptions and the OAH Awards ceremony. Erika Lee, the OAH President for 2022–2023, conferred awards, as did then President-Elect Anthea M. Hartig.
Many committees chose to have their receptions on site. The LGBTQ Committee, however, hosted their reception at Redline, a local queer-owned bar. The committee has been focused on historians responding and leading challenges to “don’t say gay” bills and anti-trans legislation. They are also the sponsors of many panels at the OAH Annual Meeting.
For more about the OAH 2023 Annual Meeting, see our Thursday Highlights