Charlotte Macdonald: A report from the International Federation for Research on Women’s History Conference (Vancouver)

Historians of women in, founding father out

Historians of women meeting for the five-yearly conference of the International Federation in Vancouver found themselves in the midst of a local controversy about what to do with a man. The man in question was John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and one of the Fathers of Confederation. Once a national hero, Macdonald’s record with First Nations people, and in particular his support for the residential school system which separated children from their families, has made Macdonald (no relation of mine) a focus for pain and anger.

As the conference began, Macdonald’s statue was removed by crane from its prominent position in front of City Hall in British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria. He is to stay out of the limelight until the Council decides how to address what the Vancouver Sun described as ‘our flawed, all-too-human history’.

For conference delegates, the reminder that we were meeting on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples could not have been more timely.

‘Transnationalisms, Transgressions, Translations’ was the theme for the 2018 Conference. The theme also spoke to the current condition for international gatherings. Meeting at the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University in central Vancouver, the conference had originally been scheduled to take place at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Facing the dire politics of current border crossing the Federation moved the conference to Canada to ensure all delegates would be able to attend.

Historians from 22 different countries took part in a wide ranging set of presentations over three days. An opening panel on Indigenous Feminisms in Settler Colonial Societies was chaired by Federation President Eileen Boris. Sarah Nickel (Saskatchewan) spoke about Indian Homemakers’ Clubs in Canada’s West; Lynette Russell (Monash) addressed indigenous cultures and feminisms, and Maylei Blackwell (UCLA) discussed the extensive movements of women’s activism in Mexico and Latin America over the twentieth century. The closing panel, ‘Gender Revisited’ brought together historians of Russia, Poland, Britain and Argentina. Paula Aguilar (University of Buenos Aires) gave a spirited account of the ‘green scarf’ movement in contemporary Argentina which has been running massive street demonstrations in support of abortion law liberalisation. The most recent protests took place on 8 August, on the eve of the conference.

Panels of papers ranged over a wide variety of subjects, often offering richly comparative discussions of similar phenomenon in contrasting national or regional settings. The ‘Travelling to Work: Women Working in Transnational Spaces’ panel featured the work of Sarah Christie (PhD student, Otago), Barbara Brookes (Otago), Frances Steel (Wollongong) and Babs Boter (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) with Charlotte Macdonald as chair/commentator.

The Federation was founded 31 years ago. It exists to foster women’s history in local and international settings. A regular conference is held in a changing host city (Montreal 1995; Melbourne 1998; Sofia 2007; Amsterdam 2010; Sheffield 2013; Jinan 2016). The Federation also has a smaller meeting in conjunction with the International Committe of Historical Sciences (CISH). National groups belong as affiliates. In 2018 new affiliates from Argentina and Morocco were welcomed to the Federation.

The Federation announced a book prize in the name of one of its founders, Norwegian historian Ida Blom (1931-2016). The next conference will be held in Posnan, Poland, in 2020.

Aotearoa New Zealand is an affiliate of the Federation. We have been part of the Federation from the 1990s through the informal network of women historians that meets as a caucus at NZHA Conferences, and operates in association with the NZHA.

More information about the Federation and a full programme for the 2018 Confernece can be found at:

Charlotte Macdonald 2007