Barbara Welke (image credit)At a morning talk for the Committee on Women Historians titled "Telling Stories: A Meditation on Love, Loss, History, and Who We Are," legal historian Barbara Young Welke issued a profound challenge to scholars. As I heard it, the talk, which was structured around a series of letters Welke wrote from the depths of her grief to her 18-year-old daughter, Frances, who died a year and a half ago, called on us to stop pretending that our lives don't matter in our work. Welke wants us to be less objective in this sense, more normatively engaged. When we write about horrible things that happened to people in the past (as in the case of Welke's own work on the disabling and other effects of flammable fabrics, or mine on poor people facing benefit denials and cuts), we need to keep the rich, even tear-jerking details in view, rather than draining them out (as I've certainly tried to do) to get at legal principle, or historiographic intervention. Not that the history of legal doctrine or practice stops mattering. But it is also ok-- even urgent--to let people know that the horrible, rich details were part of what drew us to the material on the first place. I cried at the NY Municipal Archives the first time I read welfare recipients' letters to Mayor Wagner, begging for (or demanding) help. I later thought through their strategic and legally structured rhetorical strategies, the role of their urban citizenship claims in the recent literature on citizenship, etc. Can we bring all of these levels of meaning into our work? Can we be sympathetic, or enraged, or reminded of our own families, financial challenges, struggles with bureaucracy without losing professional credibility???? Let's think about it!
Read more highlights from the AHA here, at the History News Network.One more note: this was an especially challenging conversation to have in a room full of women historians (and male buddies). Can we afford to display the mother's milk of human kindness??