Monday, 28 September 2015

Fulbright Legacy Conference

On 1-2 Sept, I attended a brilliant conference at the University of Arkansas:

J. William Fulbright in International Perspective: Liberal Internationalism and U.S. Global Influence

I'd been looking forward to this one for a long time--not only is the topic a perfect fit for my research, but there are a lot of names amongst the organizers and attendees that I couldn't wait to meet. I was hoping to get some good ideas for my book revisions, too. I'm ashamed that I haven't submitted my manuscript to the publishers yet, but at the same time, this was a great opportunity to get more final bits and pieces to add!

In the subtopics on the call for papers there were two bits that jumped out at me-- "particular southern variants of mid-century internationalism[;] racial, class, and gender aspects of liberal internationalism or the Fulbright exchange program". For my paper, I combined the specific concern with the South and the subtopic of gender aspects of the exchange program, and looked into Southern attitudes towards women's education, and connected these ideas to the Fulbright Program.

I started working on the paper over a year ago, after submitting the PhD but before my viva. Having something new to work on during that awkward downtime really inspired me and got me excited about research again. It turned out to be quite a big topic with a lot of different aspects that I hadn't considered--the social and economic hierarchical structures in the South, the highly variable curriculum at different women's higher education institutions, the experiences of Southern women at Northern women's colleges, the foreign and domestic activities of Fulbright participants' wives and children as an example of the multiplier effect, the contributions of Fulbright women in academia, women as exchange program administrators, etc. So many different angles and subtopics I had to discard! It's certainly original, too--there's been very little done at all on race or gender in educational exchanges.

The "Southern Belle Paradox," a term I borrow from historian Christie Anne Farnham's excellent book, The Education of the Southern Belle, is the idea that the antebellum South was home to pioneering efforts in women's education, yet these young ladies were educated primarily with the aim of marrying well. There is a juxtaposition of progressive attitudes towards women's education and conservative attitudes towards their place in a patriarchal social structure. The first full women's college in the United States was founded in Macon, Georgia in 1837--thirty years (and more) before the well-known Northern women's colleges, the Seven Sisters to the Ivy League, were established. Southern women's colleges often offered a curriculum equal to that of men's colleges--Latin, mathematics, natural sciences, etc. Many of them were far from the stereotype of 'finishing schools'. Yet when you look at the reasoning behind their curriculum, they no longer seem progressive--women were given this level of education not to compete with men, but to be their companions. The Southern belle strove to be 'fascinating,' to be able to provide intelligent conversation to her future husband. It's a bit like the geisha idea, though perhaps not quite as submissive. Education also maintained the hierarchy of Southern society, setting the upper class young women above the uneducated lower classes, both whites and slaves.

Connecting this concept to the Fulbright Program--my main argument is that both feature an appreciation for the social and cultural capital that education endows, rather than seeing education as a vocational prep activity. Senator Fulbright originally excluded medical students from the program and emphasised the liberal arts and humanities. He saw his program as being more about forging connections and understanding between people of different nationalities, rather than simply paying for a participant's professional development. The connection isn't that strong or relevant, though, so I'm planning on quite a lot of revising before the paper is considered for the conference publication next year. There hasn't been any research on gender and the Fulbright Program, so at any rate, my work is original and there are a lot of new angles to explore in my revisions!

Just before the conference, I found a modern day version of the Southern Belle Paradox in the news. There's been a trend of female medical students in Pakistan who become doctors, but never actually practice medicine--they get the degree for the social capital and improved marriage prospects. So interesting that women's education still has these progressive-meets-conservative features!