Dr. Conor Reidy offers some insights into his tenure as Honorary Secretary of the Women’s History Association
In April 2013 the Annual Conference of the Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI) was held at the University of Limerick and the theme was Irish Women and Migration. For me there were two stand-out moments. Firstly, there was an extraordinary lecture by Professor Suellen Hoy on her research into the lives of Irish women in Chicago. Her keynote lives on for me as the best I have ever heard. She was charming, practical, eloquent, unpretentious, inspirational and devoid of high-brow academic rhetoric. For several years I had been prescribing one of her articles to my postgraduate students but never expected to take away such a wealth of new perspectives for myself. The second stand-out moment came unexpectedly in the middle of day two when I was elected Honorary Secretary of the WHAI. Along with one or two pre-existing friendships it was my own work on alcoholic men and women in early twentieth-century Ireland that first brought me into contact with the association. The rest is history.
In approaching the job of Secretary I decided that for me, two things were necessary. Play to your own strengths and talents, utilising both for the betterment of the role. And get to know your President. That is the person with whom you will be most closely aligned during your tenure and a good working relationship is essential. It took just a few chats over tea/coffee, phone calls and emails, to settle into an excellent and easy working relationship with the always-affable Dr. Mary McAuliffe.
In assessing the committee and the work of the association in those first days I decided to work on enhancing its profile. I felt a regular presence in the Inboxes of all our members would remind the world that this is a dynamic organisation with many active members, a busy committee and a wide reach into academic and public history. And so the Fortnightly Bulletin was born. I was kind of surprised by its impact because one worries that they may be clogging up the inboxes of people who are already busy enough with perhaps more important things. I eventually noticed that people actually do like to be kept informed. At times when there was a gap or a delay, the WHAI would receive the odd email wondering had it been sent. Eventually the bulletin became less frequent because the committee rightly focussed on getting the message out via social media. As I have been reminded though, not everybody is on social media and so perhaps there is still a space for the bulletin?
What message could we take from that? In compiling it each fortnight it never ceased to amaze me how much ‘stuff’ is going on. A world of women’s history. A world of public and academic history. So many inter-connected themes. So much of it relevant to the history of women even if it does not sit neatly within that field. At the risk of sounding all ‘up-with-people’, based on my experience I feel that the membership of the WHAI wanted and want to feel part of a movement. Whether it is to be part of a functioning academic network with specific output goals, to be kept informed of WHAI and related events, or simply to feel part of a movement in which we all share a common interest, the appetite is there and I hope it continues to be fed. In this regard, the WHAI plays a significant role in enhancing the emotional connectivity of those passionate, for whatever reason, about the ongoing evolution of women’s history.
As Secretary I was fortunate to play a part in some outstanding events. Sometimes my contribution was minimal. Being Secretary during the Cumann na mBan 100 celebrations was both life-affirming and career-defining. I think it is doubtful that anything will surpass that extraordinary week in April 2014 when the WHAI joined forces with such esteemed bodies as the Irish Army, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann. At an emotional commemoration ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery we witnessed the first ever all-female honour guard for an Irish President. The following evening at Wynn’s Hotel the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan unveiled a plaque in commemoration of the founding of Cumann na mBan inside those very walls. This was followed by a theatrical re-enactment of the first meeting and audience members were included in the action! The Friday and Saturday saw that year’s WHAI annual conference take place at Collins Barracks with a head-spinning array of speakers, legends of academia along with new and promising voices, all with wonderful analysis and perspectives on the impact of the Cumann na mBan organisation and its members. What a time to be WHAI Secretary!
The fact that this was the personal highlight should not take away from the many other wonderful WHAI events experienced over these three years. There have been smaller-scale but equally memorable seminars. In May 2013 the WHAI came together to share thoughts on one of the founders of the discipline in a seminar entitled ‘Clio’s contested terrain’: the life and times of Gerda Lerner, and I was honoured to share speaking-time with Dr. Mary McAuliffe and Professor Catherine Clinton. In the Spring Seminar 2015 we marked International Women’s Day with a series of papers on the history of women’s education. It was a thrill for some of us to witness some of the icons not only of women’s history but of the broader Irish historical scene – namely Dr. Mary Cullen and Dr. Rosemary Cullen Owens – at work. For the 2015 conference the WHAI and its members de-camped to Maynooth University for another outstanding half-weekend under the theme of ‘Irish Women in the First World War Era’. The WHAI has a strong tradition of publishing out of its conferences and it was during that same weekend that we launched Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland edited by Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy and Mary McAuliffe (Irish Academic Press) – yours truly was a contributor. The final event to which I should draw attention is the WHAI’s Autumn Seminar 2015. ’40 years after Women in Irish Society: The Historical Dimension: Creating a New Future for Irish Women’s History’ commemorated a landmark publication in Irish historiography and the fortieth birthday of the legendary Arlen House. As a male contributor at an event where there was at times a necessary focus on the exclusion or side-lining of women historians by our academic forefathers I will confess to feeling some uneasiness. I am not sure why. Perhaps it was tone. Perhaps it was some sort of weird misguided guilt. Perhaps it is that I too am aware of the experience of having one’s progress blocked, particularly in peer review processes, by senior scholars, both male and female. One important take-away for all who attended that event came from the wonderful Margaret MaCurtain who highlighted the responsibility of the reviewer; do we have a clue how soul-destroying a bad or nasty review can be? While we should always aspire to an honest and academically sound critique try to find something positive to say and let us not always leap to the negative just because the loudest voice is always the most heard.
With all of these words I intend not to be self-serving in any way but rather to demonstrate the vibrancy and momentum that exist within the WHAI from the viewpoint of one so fortunate to have been there. So on reading these words I hope the membership will continue to engage with greater enthusiasm than ever before.
And so as I make my way to the WHAI Former Secretaries Retirement Villa I thank my soon-to-be former colleagues on the committee for their friendship, collegiality, good humour and guidance. Thank you to all the WHAI members with whom I have dealt over the past three years – sometimes you received a quick response, sometimes a slow one and occasionally thanks to my oversight, none at all. Apologies if you fall into that latter category! I thank Dr. Elaine Farrell for her moment of madness in nominating me for this role. The WHAI remains thriving under the visionary leadership of the also always-affable Dr. Jennifer Redmond who has also been a joy to work with. Go raibh maith agat go léir agus beannacht!