"The Personal Is Still Political": A Report on the Eighth Biennial ACS Gender Studies Conference


On March 6 and 7, Rhodes hosted the eighth biennial Associated Colleges of the South Gender Studies Conference. English professors Leslie Petty and Judith Haas were instrumental in the planning and execution of this event, the bulk of which featured presentations from about 120 students and faculty members from liberal arts schools across the South. Presenters spoke on topics spanning the fields of economics, literature, history, law, art, medicine, politics, theater, and religion, as well as cultures around the globe. Performances and exhibits occurred throughout the conference, including a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues featuring participants from Rhodes, and a searing blues set by the "Memphis Soul Survivors".

For Professor Haas, the intellectual exchange this program fostered was its most rewarding aspect. A goal for the conference, she says, was “to have students from Rhodes in conversation with students from other places and faculty from Rhodes in conversation with faculty from other places”.  “To actually see that happening,” Haas continued, “makes you realize how important that is, just to have that kind of interaction.” The chance to compare notes with students from across the South was certainly valuable, not to mention the opportunity to see what other members of the Rhodes community have been researching. With its wide range of participants and issues, the conference really “celebrated the new incarnation of Women’s Studies as Gender and Sexuality Studies,” says Professor Haas. “It was a nice event to anchor that change.”

Dr. Angela Davis, who delivered the keynote address, also embodied the goals of the conference. As both a theorist and an activist, Davis has illustrated in her career the importance of conversation and interaction with others as well as a strong emphasis on studying important issues. “In her talk she advocated the kind of complex, sometimes paradoxical thinking that she says is the hallmark of the very best feminist approaches,” says Professor Petty. “Her argument is that in the twenty-first century American society increasingly believes that we’ve eradicated oppression except for a few unenlightened individuals, but really, our focus on those few individuals belies the truth about the fundamental inequalities that still exist.”

Dr. Davis balanced the theoretical side of her talk with an avid interest in her listeners. “She engaged the room by asking people to identify themselves, so she began her talk by creating a sense of community,” says Professor Petty. Besides members of the Rhodes community and other ACS schools, the almost 400 attendants included many Memphis residents. Several proved to have old connections with Dr. Davis, marching with or studying under her in years past. “It brought out what’s great about Memphis,” says Professor Haas, “there are so many people who have worked their whole lives in the Civil Rights Movement, and they’re just walking around.” The Gender Studies Conference certainly succeeded in making connections – between scholars of many disciplines, between theory and practice, and between the Rhodes community and Memphis as a whole.

Halley Johnson ′09