A Look Back at our Spring Academic Conference “Identity*Memory*Testimony”

(posted on behalf of Catherine Fisher and Jennifer Tuttle)


On March 30-31, the Maine Women Writers Collection hosted its Spring Academic Conference entitled “Identity*Memory*Testimony,” in conjunction with the Maine Women’s Studies Consortium and the New England Women’s Studies Association.

The central goals of the Maine Women Writers Collection are to honor and celebrate the work of new, established, and historical women writers, as well as to foster archives-based scholarly work in women’s and gender studies.  We are committed to an inclusive definition of what it means to be a Maine woman and to a rich and diverse conception of writing as creative expression and cultural production.

The Conference theme of “Identity – Memory – Testimony” challenges us to rethink categories, evokes the many forms creative and self-expression may take, and explores the importance of our history to our present; it also honors the voices and testimony of those who have been silenced or misrepresented. We were impressed by and grateful for the wonderful work shared by everyone who participated in the conference.

Following a Women’s History Walking Tour on Friday afternoon, the conference’s opening celebration was held in the UNE Art Gallery, which is currently exhibiting the work of Maine book artist Rebecca Goodale in a retrospective show entitled “Lullaby for Maine.” We were proud to be able to showcase Rebecca’s work to conference participants, especially since we have such a large number of her books in the Collection.

The conference kick-off continued with a spectacular evening reading by three indigenous women writers, Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau from Massachusetts, Maliseet artist and author Mihku Paul from Maine, and Métis Blackfoot/Mohawk/Seneca poet and fiction writer Susan Deer Cloud from the Catskills in New York. The poets shared work with humor and story, but did not shy away from reading poems that illustrate the harsh realities of discrimination and cultural genocide.  As one audience member commented, it “gave needed exposure to indigenous poetry.”

Saturday’s day-long conference was rich and varied in addressing the theme with panel, workshop and roundtable presentations, as well as performances, displays, and a multi-faceted art exhibit. Twelve panels comprised of scholars from around the continent (and one from Israel, even!) explored topics such as “Portaging Maine’s Native History: Toward Truth and Reconciliation,” “Making Sense of the Personal: Auto/Biography,” “Retelling History, Rewriting Memory,” “Lenses on Invisibility: Feminist Political Methods of Memory, Haunting, Representation, and Deconstructing Narratives,” and “Representing the Body: Gender & Sexuality.” Add Verb Production’s Cathy Plourde’s workshop “Out & Allied: Mining Story, Performing Pedagogy, Creating Change” focused on what it means to be an ally for LGBTQ youth. The poetic performance piece “Endome” by Holly Bittner from Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia explored the cultural constructions related to women’s illness, and offered testimony of her own experience of living with endometriosis.

“Art That Heals,” an installation by Bessie Smith Moulton, combined artist’s books, images, objects and film to portray her relationship with her mother and her childhood growing up in Machias, Maine. Compelling displays found in the library (still on view now) included one by Maine book artist Robinson McCarthy, as well as three others grouped under the title “More Than Angels of Mercy: Women in Nursing” exploring various aspects of the profession over time by Roberta Gray of the Westbrook College History Collection.

One of the great highlights of the day was the keynote address given by Colby professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, entitled “Stuck in the Middle With You: a discussion of parenthood in three genders.” The author of 13 books, Boylan engaged the audience with candor, humor and thoughtful generosity. Before reading from her work, both previously published and forthcoming, she began her talk by saying, “Your conference topic today of Identity*Memory*Testimony is incredibly moving to me since it speaks to all of the things I care about. I think one of the things we ask in women’s studies, in some ways all of our work, connects to the question of, ‘Who are we? How did we get here?’…For me, as a trans woman, the question of ‘Who am I? How did I get here?’ is fundamental. And I don’t think you have to be trans to wrestle with the question of, ‘What’s the relationship between who I am and who I’ve been?’

…For a lot of people there’s a before and after in your life…For someone like me there’s an obvious difference between before and after…an early life as a man and a later life as a woman. But all of us struggle with that to a certain extent…We go through all of these journeys that change us and we wind up at a certain point trying to figure out, ‘What’s the relationship between who we are now and all of the selves we have experienced over the years?…For a lot of trans people that I know there can be a real struggle, too, to see one’s life as a series of connected moments, to see it as a whole, rather than as a before and an after. There are some people that I know like me who lie about the first half of their life…that never refer to their experiences in the first half of their life, so in a way they’ve traded one secret for another…A lot of my fellow travelers wind up without a past or without a real good connection between who they’ve been and who they are. It can be odd to be a middle-aged woman who had a boyhood. Can you be a woman without having had a girlhood?”

Comments about the keynote included “Spectacular. It was incredibly inspirational!” and “Jenny was hysterical, insightful and a great writer!” and “Jennifer Boylan is a brave soul! And a darn good writer and person!!! Awesome.”  If you missed the conference, you can see the keynote on our website.

Conference attendees also especially enjoyed the presentations given in a panel comprised of three UNE undergraduate students, Caitlin Tetreau, Amber Reitan, and Megan Bagdon. Moderated by UNE Department of History professor Elizabeth DeWolfe, the presentations in one way or another spoke to the panel’s theme of Transgression, Conformity, and Gender Identity. “Helping students stretch their intellectual limits is a great joy of being a professor,” DeWolfe reflects. “For this panel, each student took a previous completed piece of original research — two term papers and one original essay — and revised it to meet the conference theme and time limits. This forced the student authors to get to the heart of their argument concisely and precisely, no easy task when most assignments have them extending arguments to fill 15, 20, 25 pages. Novice conference goers, each learned to face a crowd of academics and share their research with confidence and enthusiasm. Intellectual boundary broken! They handled questions with professionalism, humor and grace — old pros after just an hour, as their proud professor watched.”

Caitlin Tetreau, whose paper was entitled, “’Pecan Pies and Passion’: 1940s Sexuality through the World War II Letters of Ruth Banfield Lowderback,” offers this testimony about her conference experience:

“The thought of presenting at the conference was both daunting and exhilarating to me. I knew that the other people in attendance would be highly intelligent scholars, and the thought of answering their questions in a satisfactory way was scary to me as a first time presenter. I thought doing my presentation would be easy, as I had practiced it many times and was comfortable with my research. When it got to the actual moment, however, I became nervous during my presentation, but the discussion part was very relaxed and I felt confident in answering the questions asked of me. I thought my co-panelists did an excellent job and that our discussions played off of each other very well. Overall, the conference was a great experience and I am honored to have participated in it.”

And Amber Reitan says of giving her paper, “Etiquette and a Nineteenth-Century Woman’s Identity: Passivity, Submissiveness and Conformity”:

“It was a phenomenal experience to present at an academic conference. During the question and answer session, it was a great feeling to see that others cared about your work and were genuinely interested in what you had been talking about.  I thought presenting would be very much out of my comfort zone, especially since I was the very first to speak at the conference, first thing in the morning.  It was a bit unnerving to see so many people in the room.  I expected to see 7 or 8 but we had a turnout of over 20.  Once I got into my paper, it was actually fun.  …  [Professor DeWolfe] was a wonderful support with excellent advice, critique and support.  …  Being part of an academic conference was a wonderful, exciting experience.  I am really glad I not only had the opportunity but also the support and great reception.  Everyone I met was very welcoming and had nothing but great things to say about our panel.  It was an experience I will not forget, take great pride in and it boosted my confidence.”

These offers of testimony both speak to ways in which these young women’s identities were transformed by the experience, from the “before” of being first-time academic conference panelists to the “after” of being confident, skillful presenters. Reitan’s comments add that the memory of this milestone will stay with her and inform her future as a source of pride and inspiration.

On the whole, the conference offered a unique opportunity for artists, performers, and scholars from many different disciplines to weave the threads of this broad theme into a cohesive web and exchange of ideas.  It was great fun to see it all come together after spending the better part of a year planning and coordinating all of the elements of the conference.

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