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The Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar is hosting a blog on its website in the weeks leading up to its 25th anniversary conference.  Members will be posting their thoughts on feminist biography and memoir and how they have changed in the past 25 years.  The first posts are by Diane Jacobs, author of Dear Abigail, and Carla Peterson, author of Black Gotham. Check back each weekday for new posts.

The Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar is having a conference celebrating its 25th anniversary conference on October 2 at the CUNY Graduate Center.

This seminar, of which I’m lucky to be a member, has been instrumental in promoting feminist biography.  The conference description explains, “Biography and memoir writing have been transformed by feminist understandings of women in society. Members of the  New York-based Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar (WWWL) have contributed to these changes, through their many books, for 25 years. Meeting monthly, these writers, scholars, academics, journalists, novelists, and filmmakers discuss their work and explore new ways of telling women’s stories.”

I’m looking forward to it.

Sedgwick Symposium

I spent several days last week at the Sedgwick Symposium in St. Louis, devoted to the study of the 19th-century author Catharine Sedgwick and her contemporaries. The location was selected to honor Sedgwick’s sketch “The Great Excursion,” which appeared in Putnam’s Monthly in 1854. I was honored to be asked to give a plenary talk, titled “‘It is More My Home:’ Harriet Hosmer’s Journey from the Sedgwick School to St. Louis to Rome.” A bonus for me was that several of Hosmer’s works are in St. Louis, giving me a chance to visit them. All in all, a wonderful few days filled with lively, inspiring conversation (and a few local mircobrews)

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I need to get back in the habit of googling Harriet Hosmer more often.  I have come across two  older but interesting links in recent days.

Hosmer and an illustration of her bust Daphne is featured on the “That’s So Gay” blog, which is dedicated to gay history in the Library Company of Philadelphia collections.  The Library Company also holds the papers of the author Anne Hampton Brewster, a friend of Hosmer’s.  I loved reading through the Brewster’s letters, which contained a description of a dramatic fight Hosmer witnessed between Charlotte Cushman and her girlfriend Matilda Hayes when all three women were living together in Rome.  It was an unique insight into the life of this household.  The last post on the blog promotes the upcoming exhibit “That’s So Gay: Outing Early America,” which will run from Feb. 10-Oct.17, 2014.

Philip Kennicott’s 2011 article in the Washington Post, Art Has Yet to Face Up to Homosexuality raises important issues about the role of gay artists in our artist heritage and how that is represented or, often, hidden, in art history and museums.  I was both happy and distressed to read this sentence though: “Artists who hid their “gay” work (Charles Demuth), or stood to the side of the mainstream art world (Marsden Hartley), or are simply forgotten (a circle of artists in Italy that included Emma Stebbins, Edmonia Lewis and Harriet Hosmer) may deserve new attention and status.”  I guess I hoped my book would mean Hosmer was not-so-forgotten? 

The Atlantic Monthly has an interview with the historian Eric Foner, titled “You Have to Know History to Teach It.” It is a sad state of affairs that we need a prominent historian to announce that fact, but it does seem to be where we are at. He also suggests you need a passion for the subject to be a good teacher, a sentiment with which I also agree.

This is my favorite part of the interview:

Do you have other specific advice for what teachers can do to more effectively instruct history students?

The first thing I would say is that we have to get away from the idea that any old person can teach history. A lot of the history teachers in this country are actually athletic coaches. I mention this in class, and students always say, “Oh yeah, Coach Smith, he taught my history course.” Why? Well, Coach Smith is the football coach, and in the spring he’s not doing much, and they say, “Well, put him in the history course, he can do that.”

They wouldn’t put him in a French course, or a physics course. The number-one thing is, you have to know history to actually teach it. That seems like an obvious point, but sometimes it’s ignored in schools. Even more than that, I think it’s important that people who are teaching history do have training in history. A lot of times people have education degrees, which have not actually provided them with a lot of training in the subject. They know a lot about methodology. [That’s] important, but as I say, the key thing is really to love the subject, to be able to convey that to your students, and if you can do that, I think you’ll be a great teacher.

Or no, maybe this is:
“I think there’s a general tendency in education nowadays toward what you might call the pragmatic side of education, which is fine. The students need to have jobs eventually, no question about it. But education is not just a vocational enterprise—teaching people the skills that will enable them to get jobs–although that’s obviously part of it. [We]’re also teaching citizens. We try to teach people the skills that come along with studying history. The skills of evaluating evidence, of posing questions and answering them, of writing, of mobilizing information in order to make an argument. I think all of that is important in a democratic society if people are actually going to be active citizens. Teaching to the test does not really encourage emphasis on those aspects of the study of history.”

Patrick Mulcahey has published a passionate, insightful corrective to the movie Dallas Buyers Club on the Huffington Post. Drawing on the larger history of AIDS activism and his own experience working with Project Inform, he writes the work of gay men back into the story. (The fact that a movie about the AIDS crisis needs to have this type of corrective is pretty shocking). I think this is my favorite part: “I’m a writer myself. I get the attraction to the unlikely hero, the conversion story — St. Paul struck by lightning on the road to Damascus. But nobody goes on to claim that St. Paul invented Jesus. Dallas Buyers Club steals our story and tells it like we weren’t even there.”

By the way, Patrick is not only the winner of 6 daytime Emmys, he is also my cousin.

The recent NY Times article “Welcoming Art Lovers with Disabilities” was illustrated by a picture of a woman who is blind touching Hosmer’s Sleeping Faun. The article is interesting, but I wish it had more information from the perspective of people who participate in the programs. What is like to experience art if you can’t see it? I would have loved know what Mercedes Austin, the 17 year old in the picture, thought as she touched the cold marble of Hosmer’s elaborate, and really quite odd, statue. (I love the little newt in this piece.)

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