Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Guest Post: Let’s talk about women and public discourse

I’m thrilled to be involved with the Speaking Her Mind conference, running October 20-22, 2016 at the University of Calgary, and that’s because of the experience I had at the conference’s precursor last fall.

When my supervisor, Aritha van Herk, asked me to help out with the Discourse & Dynamics conference last year, I figured it would be an interesting experience on an intellectual level. The conference, after all, was about women as public intellectuals. But I found myself drawn into discussions that resonated with me in deeply personal and practical ways – discussions about issues I think about every day, issues I’ve struggled with ever since I entered the work force and became a mother.

I should have recognized the signs that this would be no ordinary conference. After a warm greeting from co-organizer Christl Verduyn of Mount Allison U, I found myself drinking Scotch with Margaret Atwood and her lovely husband. At that point I should have known that it would be a weekend of unexpected – and often profound – moments. I was trying to find the right moment to corner Atwood, who had just traveled to Sackville from Europe via New York, to go over the complicated logistics of her schedule, when she sat me down, handed me a glass and told me it was time to get the housekeeping business out of the way.

Problem solved.

I didn’t make it to all of the research panels, not because I’d had too much Scotch, but because I was busy chauffeuring, gofering or wrangling the amazing keynote women of D&D. Meanwhile, scholars gathered across the Mount A campus and dug into the gendering of public discourse, unpacking issues related to technology, feminist poetics, globalization and academics, to name just a few.

I did attend all of the discussion sessions, which featured women like Margaret Atwood, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek, activist Judy Rebick, writer Nicole Brossard and historian Charlotte Gray. The discussion sessions ranged organically through myriad topics, from how academics should speak to the public, to why professional women cook more often than their male partners.

Political scientist Janet Stein, who is one of the most articulate and accessible speakers I’ve ever heard, described a paradox about academic discourse, saying that “we have in our department some of the most brilliant theorists who are concerned with democratic theory, but they write for 500 others. And the public is excluded from the conversation even though it’s about how do we make our democracy more vibrant.” Later, I found myself nodding when I heard journalist Shari Graydon say, “the trouble is that women much more often decline opportunities to speak publicly than their male counterparts … [who are] willing to pontificate almost regardless of the topic.”

Backstage at Convocation Hall, I found myself thinking about conversations I’ve had with female friends and colleagues about the struggle to balance work, learning, family and friendships. I revisited fundamental questions like: 

Why is it important for women to work? Will women ever stop running their households? Why does our political system discourage women from participating? How can we change that?

These are big questions, too big for a single conference. And that’s why I’m excited about Speaking Her Mind. Like this wonderful Hook & Eye blog, Speaking Her Mind will keep us talking about the challenges that shape our lives as academics, feminists, mothers, partners, writers, students and workers. We’re often impossibly busy just getting from day to day, and we need opportunities to step back and look at life through a wider lens.

So I encourage you to attend Speaking Her Mind next fall, and I hope you’ll propose a paper for the conference. If you’re looking for inspiring ideas, check out the Discourse& Dynamics YouTube channel, where you can view the discussion sessions I’ve mentioned above. Hope to see you in Calgary next fall!

Jane Chamberlin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. She is vastly over-qualified to write about the confusion between public and private life, having worked for two large corporations, raised two sons, freelanced from home and returned to school.

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