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Panels to feature Gloria Steinem and others discussing
the future of women's activism and women's history

Editor's note: Media coverage is welcome throughout the conference. To arrange to cover the conference or to interview selected participants, contact Laurie Fenlason at (413) 585-2190 or A photo from the Steinem collection is available for reprinting.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- The past and future of women's history will converge on Northampton on Sept. 22 when the "Agents of Social Change" conference, a gathering of noted activists and historians, gets under way at Smith College.

Sponsored by the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC), the college's internationally recognized repository of women's history documents and images, the two-day conference marks the official opening for research of eight collections of 20th-century women activists, including those of Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, civil rights attorney and activist Constance Baker Motley and welfare rights advocate Frances Fox Piven.

Some 200 people from across the country are expected to attend the conference, many of them graduate students seeking topics for dissertations in social history and women's history for whom the newly processed collections represent an untapped resource. Smith undergraduates are expected to attend portions of the conference, as are academics from other colleges and universities.

As SSC Head Sherrill Redmon puts it, "To scholars of women's progressive activism, this is a gold mine. This is the stuff of which history is made."

Materials in the collections, which span the 20th century, include correspondence, speeches, court testimonies, news articles, photographs and audiovisual items, as well as, in Redmon's words, "a few tchochkes"--among them a portrait of Steinem painted on velvet.

In addition to papers from Steinem, Motley and Piven, the new collections include those of feminist lawyer and judge Dorothy Kenyon (1888-1972), labor journalist Jessie Lloyd O'Connor (1904-88) and civil rights and labor attorney Mary Metlay Kaufman (1912-95), as well as the records of the Women's Action Alliance (1971-97), a national anti-sexism information clearinghouse, and the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (1975­present), a grassroots feminist organization dedicated to preserving neighborhoods and families.

Taken as a whole, says conference organizer and women's historian Joyce Clark Follet, the new collections effectively demonstrate the connections between Old Left socialist and labor activism in the early part of the century and New Left feminist activism that came later.

"Many of the early activists would not have called themselves feminists," Follet explains, "but when you examine their writings, the connections are clearly there."

The conference opens at 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22, with a keynote address by New York University historian Linda Gordon titled "Insider/Outsider: An Historian Looks At Social Movements." Highlights of Saturday's sessions include a 3 p.m. workshop titled "Persistence and Transformation: The Women's Action Alliance and the Feminist Movement, 1971-97," in which WAA founder Brenda Feigen and feminist leader Gloria Steinem will participate. A concurrent workshop on grassroots organizing will feature Piven and National Congress of Neighborhood Women founder Jan Peterson.

The future of feminist activism will be examined in a 4:30 p.m. workshop titled "Permanent Wave: The Next Generation." That panel will feature Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker, and Amy Richards; Walker and Richards are co-founders of the Third Wave Foundation. Also featured will be Smith College student activist Erin Howe, a junior from Iowa majoring in chemistry.
The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion at 8 p.m. in Sage Hall to which the public is invited. Titled "Another Century of Struggle," the session will feature academics and activists engaging with the audience to discuss future agendas for research and activism. The roundtable will be moderated by Smith College historian and Betty Friedan biographer Dan Horowitz.

In conjunction with the conference, an exhibit titled "Agents of Social Change: Women's Progressive Activism Across the 20th Century," will be featured in the foyer of the college's Neilson Library and in the adjoining Alumnae Gymnasium. The exhibit runs Sept. 20 through Dec. 31 and is open to the public during normal library hours.

Founded in 1942 by archivist Margaret Storrs Grierson, the Sophia Smith Collection has grown into one of the world's premier collections of historical materials devoted to the study of women. Its holdings include some 400 collections spanning 6,000 linear feet, documenting the historical experience of women in the U.S. and abroad from the colonial era to the present. Its collections are particularly strong in areas such as women's rights, suffrage, birth control, peace activism and social and political reform. Processing of the eight new collections was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For more information on the conference or to register (space is limited), go to or call (413) 585-2970.

September 8, 2000


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