Highlights from the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Houston, Texas
David Austin Walsh is the associate editor of HNN.
- Emilio Zamora: History Wars: The Texas Textbook Controversy
- Rebecca Goetz: History Wars: The Texas Textbook Controversy
- David Kennedy: History Wars: The Texas Textbook Controversy
- Lisa Norling: History Wars: The Texas Textbook Controversy
- Mark A. Chancey: History Wars: The Texas Textbook Controversy
- David Hollinger: After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity [Complete, 1 hour 7 minutes]
- John Marquez: The Browning and Reblackening of the Black Belt: Blackness and New Latino Subjectivites in the Gulf South
2011 has been an eventful year so far. Protests, riots, revolutions, and revolts in the Middle East and North Africa; union unrest in the United States; a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, followed by the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Just today, the UN Security Council authorized the use of airstrikes to protect Libyan civilians.
Historians have not been immune to the swells of unfolding history. Conversations in the hallways today at the 2011 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians were not over dismal job numbers or slashed funding for higher education, unlike last year in Washington. They were about bombs and bullets in the Mideast and radiation in Japan. One man, Joseph Eaton, who teaches at National Chengchi University in Taipei, had just flown in from Taiwan via Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. His flight was only ten percent full, but he said inside the airport, the mood was calm. Still, he was glad to get out of Tokyo. “It’s really good to be here,” he said.
This will come as welcome news to the OAH, for there had been some concerns that the location of this year’s conference would drive down attendance. Indeed, this year’s program guide contained a special article on the greater Houston area entitled, in a backhanded compliment, “Houston—It’s Not What You Think.”
John Boles, professor at nearby Rice University and the author of the piece, said that Houston seems to be poorly understood by the rest of the country. “We wanted to provided a more accurate portrait of the city [than the] stereotypes and caricatures.”
“People across the nation—and not just historians—don’t know that Houston is a diverse and cosmopolitan city [that] is historically more Southern than Western [and] has strong artistic and cultural institutions.”
“Houston is now the nation’s fourth-largest city,” Boles wrote in the article,” with “Hispanics… Anglos… and African Americans… [but also] large populations of people of Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Nigerian origins.”
The city is also far from the dusty, brown, tumbleweed-infested desert it is often made out to be. “The area’s long growing season and frequent rain produce lush trees, shrubs, flowers, and grassy yards.” Indeed, across the street from the convention hotel is Discovery Green, an urban park somewhat similar in conception to Chicago’s Millennium Park, which is both lush and, even on Thursday afternoon, surprisingly vibrant.
There is, to be certain, plenty of local color to those who are interested—the rodeo is in town, and the hotel is within walking distance of easily half a dozen Tex-Mex and barbecue restaurants. The hotel even provided Lone Star brand beer at Thursday’s evening reception (though ironically the beverage is owned by Pabst, which is headquartered in suburban Chicago). There are also a number of excursions planned to a handful local museums and historical sites, including the Johnson Space Center on Friday and historic Galveston and the U.S.S. Texas, the oldest battleship still afloat, on Saturday.
Though it is still too early to gauge whether the organizers’ fears of reduced attendance will be realized, many historians on Thursday expressed enthusiasm for the venue. One adjunct professor from a community college in the Midwest just received funding for his visit a few weeks ago.
“I’ve been looking forward to this,” he said, “and I’m not even presenting.”
Others, of course, were presenting today. Indiana University’s David Nord, also head of the History News Service, kicked off what was, thanks to an early start, quite possibly the very first session of the OAH, entitled “When Newspapers Were Social Media: Print Connections and Communities, 1890-1940,” with an ode to onetime Houston resident Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.
“If you’re ever in Houston,” he said, “you better not stagger, you better not fight. Or Sherriff Benson, he’ll get you, he’ll carry you down, and if the jury finds you guilty, you’re penitentiary bound.”
With that, focus shifted from Houston to New York City, as Rutgers’s Pamela Epstein presented a paper, based on the last chapter of her PhD dissertation, that traced the rise and fall of the Craigslist of its day, the personals column of the New YorkHerald. The ads were in fact so popular that the Herald published them on the front page. The purpose of many, if not most, of the ads was more or less the same as that of their modern counterparts: a little “fun.” The fun became even more salacious when William Randolph Hearst’s rival paper, the New York American launched a comprehensive investigation of the ads, leading one reporter to a massage parlor “where a man could get many things, but not a massage.”
Montese Feu, an instructor at the University of Houston’s downtown campus, followed with an examination of Spanish Republican exiles and their community newspaper in New York.
Yale PhD candidate Julia Guarneri tied the implicit threads of the first two papers together by looking at how New York newspapers fostered a sense of imagined community in a city that was becoming both rapidly larger and more stratified. Newspapers both reinforced social and dimensional lines by, for example, printing the addresses of most persons mentioned in news stories, but they also provided a glance into the world of high society salons for the lower classes, as well as the illusion, through vivid articles, of experience. This did not just apply to high society, of course—the experience of seeing a fire burn down a building, which could not in any sense be seen by the entire city, could at least be simulated through the newspaper. And, since most people experienced the city via the newspaper, a sense of community was fostered.
The afternoon’s Texas seminar ran the chronological gamut of Texas history (or rather Texas’s history after European colonization), beginning with Comanche economics and ending with Latino/black interactions in modern Houston. Mark Allan Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin presented the first paper on Comanche horse trade and raiding for slaves.
John Marquez of Northwestern University gave his paper on the uniquely Texan interplay between black and Latino cultures, especially in Houston. He noted that Hispanics in California, due in part to Chicano nationalism and the popularity of racial prison gangs, looked down on Texan Latinos for being “nigger-lovers.”
The late afternoon plenary session, one of two plenaries (the other, on the tenth anniversary of September 11, will meet tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 pm), considered the root cause of the Civil War. The panel, consisting of Elizabeth R. Varon, Bruce Levine, Marc Egnal, and chaired by Michael Holt, emphasized that while slavery and its various and multifaceted discontents were the primary cause of disunion, it was disunion itself that sparked the war.
Then, as always, ties were loosened for an evening reception in the exhibitor hall. But the world kept spinning, and the UN’s authorization of airstrikes in Libya was on the lips of many in the hall tonight.
Check back tomorrow for more updates from Houston!
Historical conventions always get into full swing on the second day, and this year’s OAH was no exception—though, as yesterday, many lingered by the plasma TVs tuned to CNN to watch the latest updates from Japan and Libya. Indeed, events in the Middle East provided an ominous subtext to this afternoon’s plenary session, “September 11: Ten Years Later.” This morning, however, your humble correspondent attended a panel chaired by Jonathan Zimmerman entitled “Pluralism and Education: Testing the Limits of Liberal Democracy,” which raised similar questions about religious tolerance and a pluralistic society.
Remalian Cocar, a PhD student at Emory University, presented a paper on “released time,” the first paper of its kind since Jonathan Zimmerman wrote a chapter on the subject (“I think maybe five people read it,” he joked). Released time refers to a once-common practice of releasing students from school into the care of local religious organizations. It was voluntary but there was a hidden element of coercion in the practice, especially in smaller and more homogenous communities. Released time started as a Protestant program at the beginning of the twentieth century, but Catholics and to a much lesser extent Jews participated. In fact, Catholics outnumbered Protestants in release time programs in public schools in Chicago by the 1920s and in New York by the 1940s.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled released time a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments in McCollum v. Board of Education, but the Court partially reversed itself in 1952 in Zorach v. Clauson, which held that schools could release students for religious instruction provided that the sessions took place off of school property.
Corcar made emphasized that, at least initially, released time was a mainline Protestant practice, but one which was adopted by Catholics and later by evangelicals. For the former, it allowed an inroad into an overwhelmingly Protestant public school system (it was for this reason, Corcar reminded his audience, that Catholics wanted their own parochial schools). But both Catholic and mainline Protestant organizations mainly stuck to either religious or progressive social lesions, whereas by the 1980s evangelical groups were teaching biblical creationism, a matter foreseen by Felix Frankfurter, the author of the McCollum decision, when he predicted evangelicals would roast him over the fire.
But how will evangelicals react, Corcar wondered, if and when other religions, specifically Muslims, requested their released time?
Kevin Schultz, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, then discussed the critique of secularism expounded by William F. Buckley, deeply rooted in Catholic critiques of Protestant domination of education but utilized by both Catholics and Protestants. Both groups argued (and continue to argue) that a secular education provides an incomplete education, as it omits the importance of God, religion, and tradition in a child’s upbringing.
Earlier remarks had been made by Claremont McKenna’s Diana Selig, who analyzed the successes and failures of the Springfield model of liberal education. Springfield, MA, hosted a comprehensive liberal education program, sparked by national interest in intercultural education and implemented by progressive Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders, along with faculty from Columbia’s Teachers College
It was not a unique program in its broad contours, but differed from others in its systemic, as opposed to superficial, prescriptions. Curriculum committees were set up with input from teachers, principals, the community, and students. This entailed interaction between entire black and white families, and, less remarkably, similar religious exchanges.
The program, however, was not a panacea—it was implemented in a city with a very small black population, and a few black teachers and students were unthreatening to white residents and the white power structure. As the town became increasingly diverse, the Springfield model began to fracture.
Jonathan Zimmerman made a few broad remarks at the end, raising questions about how much critical thinking, centered around the notion of critique, took place as a result of the Springfield project (were there some claims, like the inherent equality of the races, that progressive educators left uncontested?) and wondered if released time was at heart a pluralist impulse rooted in the needs of the various Protestant and Catholic religious communities. On the other hand, John Dewey was a fierce critic of released time because he felt it undermined democracy. One wonders, said Zimmerman, what he’d say about the heavy evangelical presence in released time today.
The themes raised by Zimmerman and Corcar about the position of Muslim students in pluralistic, liberal education, were more thoroughly examined in a plenary session chaired by Iowa’s Linda Kerber. “The legacy of 9/11 is, needless to say, immense,” she said. It has sparked two wars and undermined America’s tradition of liberal religious tolerance, evidenced by both the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and the recent hearings by New York congressman Peter King. Kerber also drew explicit connections between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and the events of 9/11 ninety years later. In both instances, she noted, people jumped to their deaths rather than burn alive.
Melyvn Leffler, Edward Stettinius Professor of History at the University of Virginia and former president of the University of Virginia, cited Zhou Enlai when explaining the impact of 9/11 on American foreign policy. “It’s too soon to tell.” Nevertheless, it did dramatically change and reshape the initiatives of the Bush administration. It is time, he said, to move beyond praising or criticizing Bush-era polices and instead seek to understand and explain. Fear, guilt, and a sense of responsibility played at least as big a role as hubris.
Prior to 9/11, the Bush administration placed foreign affairs on the backburner to domestic issues, and in any event first focused on Russia and China, second on rogue states like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya, and only third considered terrorism. After 9/11, the administration developed a global strategic framework completed with new terms and concepts (“global war on terror,” “rendition”), often of dubious legality (torture). This went hand in hand with rhetoric of democratization and preemption, but preemption in Iraq actually encouraged nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran (and it is significant that the administration’s success story on proliferation, Libya, may now be the target of French, British, and American airstrikes). Democracy also suffered; Freedom House reported in 2009 that for four straight years, more countries became less democratic than more democratic.
It would be wrong, though, said Leffler, to ascribe these policies as somehow unique to George W. Bush. Preventative war has a history in the United States—FDR ordered U.S. warships to sink German U-boats on sight in the fall of 1941 in the absence of a formal declaration of hostilities. President Kennedy’s quarantine of Cuba in 1962 is another example. The right to act unilaterally, if national interest is at stake, also stems back all the way to Washington and Jefferson.
Harvard’s Lisa McGirr followed, reaffirming that the long-term legacies of 9/11 will be difficult to determine, particularly as Representative King’s hearings are ongoing. Still, she noted that historians have a special role to play as citizens and professionals, as they are partially responsible for determining how historians fifty or a hundred years on understand and interpret 9/11 and its legacy.
Kevin Gaines, professor at the University of Michigan, reminded the audience what most Americans seemed to forget, he said: that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were Nixon administration holdovers that had the same view of the powerful, perhaps authoritarian, presidency that characterized that administration. And, unlike Nixon, the Bush administration was able to wiretap legally.
But the importance of 9/11, he said, was rivaled both by Bush v. Gore and the 2008 election. The former actually put George W. Bush in office and established a dangerous political precedent; the latter, with the “politics of hope,” indicated that the populace is not as paralyzed by fear as much anymore.
Yeshiva’s Ellen Schrenker closed the panel, noting that Muslims fill the same role that that immigrants, Communists, and Japanese Americans played in the Palmer raids and the interment camps. “The cultures of war,” she said, “inevitably leads to political repression.”
The late afternoon saw yet another well-attended panel on a local topic, specifically on the controversial Texas social studies standards. Rebecca Goetz, professor at Rice University and involved with local opposition to the new standards, said that the debate revealed that the public just doesn’t really know what the discipline of history is all about. She recalled that one proponent of the new standards said to her that “I learned American history in high school in 1956. How much can history change from 1956?”
The anecdote sparked a smattering of derisive laughter from the audience, but Stanford’s David Kennedy wondered if the way “we do history as professional historians matters as much as we may like.” Historians have fundamentally deconstructed the American “story” that the gentleman from Goetz’s anecdote learned and evidently cherishes. Emilio Zamora, who teaches at UT Austin, seemed to disagree, saying that these disagreements were fundamentally “political, not personal,” and he worried that the other panelists were missing the real danger—that the test-based performance culture, with all of the problems which that entails, will soon become as fashionable at the university level as it is in elementary and secondary schools.
Southern Methodist University’s Mark Chauncey identified the primary movers behind the standards as an ideology/theology that views the process of American history as God’s unfolding plan and evidence of the United States as God’s chosen country. Don McLeroy, the dentist-cum-education specialist, was quite candid about this at a Tea Party rally in St. Louis last year. “Somebody’s values are going to get taught,” he said, “and I want them to be my values.” Chauncey was clear, however, that not all conservatives or Christians shared these views, but were articulated by a very specific group.
Indeed, this zero-sum, black-and-white view of social studies standards had antecedents in Minnesota several years ago, as related by University of Minnesota history professor Lisa Norling. In May 2003, the Minnesota legislature instructed the state Department of Education to revise the existing standards. The governor at the time, Republican Tim Pawlenty, brought in a conservative commissioner from Virginia to set up a citizens’ committee to draw up a new curriculum. The committee consisted of parents who home-schooled their children, teachers from private and parochial schools, Republican politicians, etc., but not a single historian.
The committee created standards that were inaccurate, overly detailed, and burdensome. They also evinced, as would Texas’s future standards seven years later, a very specific fundamentalist Christian view of the past as the unfolding of God’s plan.
By the spring of 2004, the GOP House had passed a bill adopting the Department of Education standards, but the Democratic Senate adopted an alternative set of standards. They were merged together in an act of political expediency to produce legally binding standards that were, in the words of Norling, bizarre.
Norling is now on a state committee established by Minnesota’s new Democratic governor that is reexamining the standards, and based on the response to their suggestions she suspects that the 2003 revision, and the Texas controversy, was a top-down, as opposed to a grassroots, measure. Still, she quoted a letter she received from a Minnesota parent. Why, the writer wondered, was the new panel made up only of education experts? Shouldn’t non-experts, which is to say parents, determine what’s best for their children?
And with that, the day turned full circle. Check back tomorrow for more updates!
Perhaps the best adjective to describe the OAH this year is “sleepy.” Attendance is low—only 1,317 people—and compared to last year’s frantic Washington D.C. conference, the pace is practically lackadaisical. There’s no job center or press room this year, nor are there obvious examples of job candidates nervously prepping for their interviews. Except for the plenaries, even the major sessions located in the Hilton’s grand ballroom have been sparsely attended, especially during the a.m. sessions.
This morning’s first session in the grand ballroom was no different, with perhaps ten people in the audience at this morning’s first session at the OAH, despite the presence of both HNN and C-SPAN. The reason may have been the relatively early hour (8:30 a.m.), but it also may paradoxically have been the topic of the session: “Ten Years after the Enron Scandal.” As one of the members of the audience noted, economic history has become something of an invisible discipline within the profession. The inner workings of a natural gas company, she said, are not as “sexy” as race, culture, and gender.
Ironically, the downfall of natural gas giant Enron included all of the elements of great drama: power, sex, and hubris, but Alan D. Anderson, whose paper “Uneven Playing Fields: Enron and the Transformation of the U.S. Natural Gas Industry, 1968-1993” formed the centerpiece of the discussion, said that the emphasis on the double-dealing, deception, hubris, and especially lurid sexual escapades is misleading. Power, greed, and sex are common in many large organizations, including the government—especially regulatory agencies—churches, and even the university, he said.
Anderson, an economic historian who now runs an energy consulting firm (and who counted Enron as one of his largest customers until its demise in 2001), postulated that Enron collapsed because of the end of the gas boom in the early 1990s.
Natural gas prices remained flat and very cheap until the late 1960s (gas was considered to be an unwelcome byproduct of oil exploration—“and once you found it, you had to deal with it!” said Anderson), but fewer fields coupled with the OPEC embargo caused prices to skyrocket. In 1978, the Carter administration shepherded the Natural Gas Policy Act through Congress, regulating the intrastate gas trade and setting controls on gas prices. Ceiling prices, though, were set very high—regulators did not believe prices would reach their limits until well into the 1980s.
Then the Iranian Revolution happened.
Natural gas prices again skyrocketed, with many natural gas producers demanding (and getting) the ceiling imposed by Carter as the minimum acceptable price for their products. As a result, a gas bubble formed and U.S. electric plants and industrial utilities could no longer afford to buy American natural gas.
This was the environment in which Ken Lay, already an experienced businessman and a PhD in economics, came up.
Regulatory prices had to be restructured to revitalize the industry, so in 1989 Congress passed the Natural Gas Wellhead Decontrol Act, which dismantled the old natural gas system. A tremendous number of people then came into the natural gas business due to the huge amounts of money to be made. The industry also underwent commercial restructuring—accounting and operations became much more complex.
The natural gas market soon “rationalized,” however, and the ability of companies to make huge amounts of money through rationalizing (meaning the reevaluation of a corporation’s business practices in order to maximize workflow), but this was a problem for Enron, which envisioned itself as a “growth” company like the tech firms out in California. Enron, guided by Lay, decided that its core competency was not natural gas but “managing deregulating industries and rationalizing the market,” according to University of Houston economic historian Joseph Pratt. As a result, Enron “went wild,” said Anderson, expanding into electricity, water, paper, broadband, and scrap metal, and expanded overseas to the UK, India, Turkey, and Brazil, among other places.
Enron was a successful gas company until 1993, Anderson said, until it began to experience setbacks as a result of its diversification. The company then embarked on a strategy of mark-to-marketing by overstating its income to attract investors.
Pratt noted that Anderson’s title, “Uneven playing field,” was a term used within Enron to describe a corporate strategy designed to take advantage of deregulatory chaos.
Pratt, too, had personal experience with Enron, as Ken Lay was an important city leader, received his PhD from the University of Houston, sat on the board of regents, and even has a chair named after him at the school. Pratt emphasized the chaotic, self-destructive nature of Enron’s corporate culture.
Corporate culture in the ‘80s and to a lesser extent the ‘90s (and, indeed, right up to the present) is often characterized as self-aggrandizing, go-go, and with an emphasis on accumulating personal wealth. This was taken to an extreme at Enron, Pratt said, noting that whenever he walked into Enron’s offices, he was struck by the sense of chaos and crisis. It was a company that thrived on turbulence and evidently thought it could manage it, he said. Anderson agreed, comparing Enron executives to combat veterans in terms of how they managed stress and reacted to new situations (Anderson himself used military terms like AWOL when describing an incident that happened to him in the gas industry).
Pratt contrasted Enron’s diversification strategies to oil giant Exxon Mobil. Pratt once led a seminar for Exxon executives, and one of them exclaimed the biggest difference between Enron and Exxon was that “we [Exxon] know where our goddamn money is!” Enron had a bad strategy, bad management, and no financial controls. They simply did not know where all of their money was.
This means, Pratt said, that although Lay helmed a company that was engaged in fraud and other illegal activities, he could conceivably have destroyed the company without engaging in illegal acts per se. He was just a very bad CEO. Anderson thought that Ken Lay had a tragic flaw in the Greek sense: he was a PhD economist. He enjoyed ideas (like rationalizing as a corporate specialty) but ideas have to be actualized in business, which takes time and resources.
Margaret Graham and Mary Yeager took different approaches to the Enron collapse, with the latter giving surprisingly pointed criticism of Anderson and to a lesser extent Pratt. Graham, a management professor at McGill University in Montreal, argued that an organizational synthesis context, often used to interpret bureaucratic history, was equally applicable to Enron’s relationship with professionals.
High standards of public service, or at least service to their clients, was a common trait of professionals—doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.—before the 1970s, Graham said, but during and after the Me Decade professionals enabled Enron’s business practices. The company used aggressive, unethical, and illegal policies, she said, and there were many professionals, including the dean of the Stanford business school, who sat on the board of directors of Enron; the accounting firm Arthur Anderson; multiple investment banks, law, and consulting firms; and financial journalists, who were deeply complicit in corporate corruption and profited from it.
What happened to these professionals? Arthur Anderson folded, but it was largely absorbed into the other big four international accounting firms. The lawyers milked huge fees from bankruptcy hearings. The professional role in the organizational synthesis remained intact. Graham predicted we can therefore “look forward to many new Enrons,” though she addressed the collapse of the financial sector in 2008 only obliquely despite its seeming confirmation of her analysis.
Mary Yeager, who teaches at UCLA, used a completely different cultural frame of analysis in her remarks, criticizing Anderson and Pratt for omitting this component in their remarks. If you dismiss the musclemen, the sex, the motorcycle tournaments, she said, you’re missing a big part of culture, and that culture matters. There was something particular about Enron’s business culture, specifically the hypercompetitiveness stemming from arbitraging new opportunities, that merits further attention, she said, and “it was that culture to which the public reacted so negatively.”
C-SPAN will host the full video of the session on its website early next week.
Check back tomorrow for more updates from the OAH!
The last morning is always a sedate affair at conventions, and this year’s OAH was no exception. HNN sat down with OAH Executive Director Katherine Finney for reflections on the 2011 meeting, the organization’s plans for the next year, and the preparations for the 2012 meeting in Milwaukee (including a potential appearance by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker). Read the full details here.
Saturday was the truly busy day at the OAH. HNN reported extensively on Saturday morning’s Enron session in a previous post, but in one of the program’s unintended ironies the session immediately following Enron—in the same room, no less—was entitled “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911: A Centennial Remembrance.” Indeed, the legacy of the fire had already been intertwined in the remarks of presenters on Thursday and Friday, most explicitly by University of Iowa law professor Linda Kerber, who said at a session on the anniversary of 9/11 that the specter of New Yorkers jumping out of a burning skyscraper in full view of the public intrinsically connected the two events, though ninety-odd years separated them. Unlike September 11, however, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the edge of Washington Square Park was, as Kessler-Harris put it, “quotidian.” “Such fires were, and remained, a daily, weekly, and monthly occurrence in American workplaces.” It is because the fire was so typical, she argued, that it deserves remembrance and commemoration. She then read a Yiddish wail, what the Irish refer to as a lament, that was written on the first anniversary of the fire, translating it into English as she went along. Even those who could not speak Yiddish were struck by the song’s primal expression of loss and pain. “Muter, muter,” she said, “ou bist du? Ou bist du?”*
The Triangle fire was a transformative event for the American labor movement and especially for women labor activists. Rutgers University’s Dorothy Sue Cobble noted that Frances Perkins, “the woman behind the New Deal,” lived only a few blocks away from the building, and she arrived at the fire just in time to see the first flaming women jump (and they continued to burn when they hit the ground). Indeed, the girls—most were in their teens—of the Triangle factory were already well-known in New York as “feisty labor activists” thanks to their earlier strikes. Indeed, Dartmouth’s Annelise Orleck noted that it was rumored that some of the police who responded to the fire recognized some of the less-charred corpses from the picket lines. Sorrow, outrage, and steely resolve became the watchwords for organized labor, and—importantly—working class women demanded not just better working conditions, shorter hours, or higher wages, but the right to form a union. This put them at odds with most middle class sympathizers (and the leaders of trade groups like the AFL) but in the 1930s they found their champion in New York senator Robert Wagner, the author of the Wagner Act of 1935 which legalized collective bargaining privileges in the private sector. The rest, as they say, is history.
But is it? Clearly, the events of the past few months in the formerly pro-labor Midwest struck a nerve with Cobble and the other panelists. Collective bargaining was not an abstract matter for garment workers in New York, Cobble concluded. It was a matter of life and death. The Triangle fire occurred at a non-unionized factory at 4:40 pm. The closing bell for union workers in garment factories was 4:00 pm.
George Mason University’s Ellen Wiley Todd is, unlike the other members of the panel, not a labor, social, or gender historian, but an art historian. The Triangle fire left a deep impact on radical artists in New York, and Todd chose artist and activist John Sloan to examine more thoroughly, specifically his powerful drawing in the socialist newspaper The Call that ran a few days after the fire.
Sloan also painted a series of portraits of the lives of working girls in the year after the fire, which Todd suggested provided an alternate history of what would have happened in these young women’s lives if the fire had not occurred.
Professor Orleck ended on a note that mixed a realistic appraisal of labor protections both in the United States and around the world with a note of optimism. There was, she said, a Triangle-like fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh recently. In its aftermath, 15,000 Bangladeshi garment workers, nearly all of them women, took to the streets to protest their working conditions, much as garment workers in New York had done a hundred years earlier. The protestors in Bangladesh even expressed solidarity with union workers in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, government troops opened fire on their rallies, killing several protestors.
The full video of the Triangle Fire session will be available later this week through a partnership between C-SPAN3 and HNN.
OAH president David A. Hollinger, whose work had been the subject of a session on Saturday afternoon, “Public Intellectuals on Democracy, Religion, and Identity: Themes from the Work of David A. Hollinger,” gave the hourlong keynote address Saturday night, explicitly framing the decline of ecumenical Protestant churches within the context of the fracture of the 1960s. Below is video of Hollinger’s full remarks:
With that, the meeting convened for the evening, though the presidential reception, with the twin lures of free food and alcohol, drew many at least temporarily away from Houston’s nightlife.
Thus ended another OAH convention! HNN will continue to publish videos from the convention thoughout the next week.
*This translates to “Mother, mother, where are you?”
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Caroline Hill - 3/21/2011
Frances Perkins!! was the woman behind the New Deal. See the wonderful film about her produced by Vineyard Video productions
Susan M Reverby - 3/21/2011
One minor correction. The first woman secretary of labor was Frances Perkins. Frances Piven (Frances Fox Piven perhaps) is the social analyst/activist most recently under attack by the right.
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