U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Presidential Address and Southern Intellectual History

A few weeks ago I read Catherine Clinton’s presidential address, “The Southern Social Network,”   in the February 2017 Journal of Southern History. I had heard about it immediately after the Southern: people on twitter were talking about it and my advisor filled me in on the details. Clinton started her address as if it was a meandering walk through the history of the Southern Historical Association, the unprecedented and heralded feelings of camaraderie and friendship that go along with it. She discussed landmark moments in the history of the organization (a panel that included William Faulker, a divisive panel that included Eugene Genovese, and the creation of SAWH). Clinton then discussed her history of rape and sexual harassment, particularly in the context of what she experienced at the southern. The other side of this social network. The address, and Clinton’s experience, was something almost every women in the room could understand. However, the openness Clinton displayed, in a formal academic setting, is almost unheard of.

But I got to thinking: Clinton’s list of encounters with sexual assault at the SHA are now part of the intellectual lineage of the Southern and for future presidents her address will be what Faulker and Genovese were to her: the stuff of lore, the stuff that makes the Southern meaningful.

In this vein, I went digging through back Southern Addresses: I read some of the early addresses, when the SHA (and the field of history) were essentially white supremacist organizations. I read John Hope Franklin’s and Anne Firor Scott’s, and understood a little bit more about how the Southern Historical Association survived and eventually thrived in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the inclusion of women into the discipline. Scott’s address was particularly powerful as she addressed the erasure of African American women by white female historians. And the history of “important” male scholars and writers seemed small in comparison to the accomplishments and women and people of color who have asserted themselves in a field that was, in many ways, designed to keep them out.

The addresses of John Hope Franklin and Anne Firor Scott did not end issues of representation and oppression  n for people of color and women in the Southern history and Catherine Clinton’s address will not end sexual assault in the field either. But by addressing such an insidious and unspoken problem in academia in her address, Clinton made speaking out against sexual assault part of the intellectual and institutional legacy of the Southern Historical Association.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Life imitates art. The Journal of Southern History, February 2017: “In the spring of 1975, while waiting for news from my graduate school applications, I took night classes back at Harvard, while living and working in Cambridge. During that period I was propositioned very directly by a faculty member….I had no idea that he simply picked his potential targets from his classroom….”

    John Updike, writing of 1975: “In that far-off Ford era…the college had, believe it or not, no announced policy on fornication between the faculty and the students. In the Sixties, indeed, gentle and knowing defloration had been understood by some of the younger, less married faculty gallants as an extracurricular service they were being salaried to perform….[F]emales of of eighteen had reached consensual age, and good luck to them….Puritanism had overstated the gravity of the matter. The United States of the Ford era had absorbed the punch of widespread fornication and found itself still walking and talking, disappointingly enough.”

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