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Mná na hÉireann at Big Berks

By Dr Ciara Breathnach, Department of History.

I was delighted when our Lightning Session on Irish women social justice, migration and the city, 1850-1980 was accepted at the 17th The Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities. It was hosted by Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY on June 1-4, 2017. Big Berkshire is also affectionately known as Big Berks or Berks, it runs triennially and has become somewhat of a rite of passage for scholars of women’s history. Its role in maintaining a vibrant scholarly debate on feminist history and as a platform for keeping a feminist agenda to the fore in modern America cannot be understated. Berks is also where seminal works in gender and LGBTQ studies were first articulated by eminent scholars such as Professors Gerda Lerner, Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler, to mention but a few.

It was my great pleasure to co-convene with Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, NUIG a panel of seven speakers, all of whom are actively engaged in exciting new work on aspects of Irish women’s history both in Ireland and in the migratory context. Dr Deirdre Cooper-Owens, CUNY, chaired the session and moderated the post-paper discussion.

The theme of the conference was Difficult Conversations: Thinking and Talking About Women, Genders, and Sexualities Inside and Outside the Academy. Our panel was in the Social Justice, Migration and the City track.

Most post-Famine Irish immigrants emanated from rural areas so the city posed many spatial, socio-economic and cultural challenges. In this panel, we used the experiences of Irish women in a variety of cityscapes – from London, to Liverpool, New York, Boston, New Orleans and Dublin – to question the ways in which urban spaces affected identity, behaviour and cultural values. To begin, Dr Laura D. Kelley, Tulane University, Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, Dr Leanne McCormick, Dr Elaine Farrell and I all discussed case studies of Irish immigrant survival or failure in the urban environment through an exploration of household survival strategies, deviancy, medical engagement and institutional reliance. The final two papers problematized how the city came to signify two elements of sexual liberation. Dr Laura Kelly, University of Strathclyde, outlined an element of her research on how external influences and migration affected attitudes towards reproductive knowledge in Dublin in the 1970s; while Dr Jennifer Redmond, Maynooth University, examined the dynamics of migration through the lens of crisis pregnancy.

It was a real privilege to attend Big Berks, we met and engaged with a range of scholars involved in cutting-edge feminist history and activism.  The conference concludes with a Prom-style dance, which was also tremendous fun. Here’s to 2020.

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