Gender Inequality at the RSA?

Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, c. 1440. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, c. 1440. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

This year’s Renaissance Society of America (RSA) Conference was held at the Humboldt University in Berlin and had over three thousand attendees. The programme weighed just under a kilo and was also downloadable online and available as an app.

For someone used to conferences of about four parallel sessions, the seventy or so that RSA provided verged on the overwhelming. Tantalising panels about bodies of conversion clashed infuriatingly with sessions promising gossip and nonsense. But before I recount the wonderful panels that I did manage to get to, it is important to discuss an even more serious side of the conference.

This year’s RSA had four plenary speakers, all excellent and, rather disappointingly, all male. This imbalance was noted by a number of attendees and a group of early career scholars decided to voice their concerns in a statement to the RSA executive. In the past three years, as the statement pointed out, there have been thirteen plenaries delivered at the RSA – only one of these was given by a woman. As the statement correctly asserted, this is an unequal representation of the field of renaissance studies and does a great disservice to the contribution of women to the field. These scholars hoped that we were long past the point where women were spoken about rather than being allowed to speak for themselves. Other unfortunate events, such as the placement of a panel containing Lyndal Roper and Natalie Zemon Davis in a room with approximately forty chairs, did little to alleviate these concerns. The panel, an excellent one on early modern personhood with papers by Gadi Algazi and Oded Rabinovitch (both Tel Aviv University) as well as the above famed scholars, was so well-attended that guests sat on the ground, stood in corners and even outside in the hallway. Many were forced to leave for lack of space.

The statement to the RSA went viral on Twitter (as I write it has been shared over two hundred times) and after a few days the RSA responded. The executive board acknowledged that this year’s plenary speakers did not reflect the true nature of the field. It committed to reflecting gender parity and confirmed that Ann Blair had already been asked to be one of two plenary speakers at RSA’s 2016 meeting in Boston. The board explained that the University of Humboldt had chosen many of the plenary speakers and that in future, if the speakers were being selected by an outside organisation, the board would enter into conversation with them. It plans to do this next year when the Erasmus of Rotterdam Society has the choice of the second plenary. RSA’s response is encouraging. The statement by the early career scholars is a timely reminder that large organisations must lead the way in gender equality.

It is impossible to sum up a conference the size of RSA. For me, three or four sessions really stood out. The first day saw a series of panels on street singers with papers by our very own Una McIlvenna (now at Queen Mary) and Angela McShane. As usual, Una brought the ballads to life by singing them as they would have been sung four hundred years ago. Una’s and Angela’s research on the types of people who sang street ballads was fascinating.

Another session highlighted the role of men in pregnancy and miscarriage. In yet another debunking of Lawrence Stone, Jennifer Claire Evans described how parents named their children while still in the womb. Jennifer examined the overlooked role of men in miscarriage by highlighting letters written by fretful fathers to their friends sharing their concerns that their wives would miscarry. This panel also highlighted the interplay between the infant’s body and health and that of the new mother’s.

Finally, a panel made up of scholars from Monash provided an interesting insight into analysing emotions in letter writing. Jessica O’Leary explored how Ferrante (1458-94) developed an ‘emotional vocabulary’ to draw on his power as either ruler or father to pressure or persuade his daughters to do his bidding. When using his paternal voice, Ferrante attempted to invoke loyalty, whereas his royal voice was designed to invoke family feeling. The panel explored how letters could still express emotions even when being written by a third party (a clerk) and how letters are extremely useful documents for the study of early modern emotion. This panel was one of a number which focused on emotion, emphasising the growing trend for scholars to look at their sources with new eyes by using emotions methodologies.

RSA Berlin was an extremely rich conference, one that spanned hundreds of years and dozens of countries. I only wish I could have seen more.

Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar, The University of Melbourne

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