Saturday, July 28, 2012

I love our Postgraduate Research Seminars

Yesterday, I was on campus for the latest Postgraduate Research Seminar organised by my School. This is where the BA Hons. and Masters students present their research projects to the School's staff, fellow students, and the wider research community at the university, and I always find them very stimulating. Sure, you get the odd esoteric philiosophy student whose work goes right over my head, but generally, there are at least a few presentations I find really interesting, and sometimes, the odd one that gives me a new perspective or fresh questions to ask about my own research. Because the School is multidisciplinary, it's always an intriguing mix of topics. I've seen everything from the historico-archeaological debate over the siege of Troy to Christian Science beliefs about reason, and from the the ethics of pre-natal screening to the history of fascism in pre-World War II rural New Zealand. 

This year, one of the stand-outs for me was a case history of an intriguing late nineteenth-century land dispute. The case involved an indigenous Maori woman using the procedures of the colonial legal system to convert lands that had been under native leasehold title into individual freeholds under her own name. This process embroiled her in a long-running and apparently very acrimonious legal battle with another woman landholder of European ethnicity, and the dispute eventually saw the European woman being 'run off' and returning to Europe. The student in question is using this as a case study to explore the workings of the Native Land Court in that era, but I found it a fascinating example of some quite unexpected dynamics of both gender and ethnicity, in that a Maori woman used all the powers of the externally imposed colonial legal system (effectively, 'white man's law') to her own advantage (fee simple land title being more secure and, ultimately, more economically advantageous than either 'native' or Crown leasehold title). While the tiny amount I know about this case is only what was presented in this seminar, it does seem to be one of those examples that reinforces the point that feminist approaches to history cannot ignore other categories of identity - such as ethnicity or class - or they will fail to tell the whole story about how power was operating and being negotiated in any particular historical context. In other words, you can't assume all women are 'sisters' and have common interests just because they share two X chromosomes!


tenthmedieval said...

And isn't much of the history of feminism the battle to raise the consciousness of those women who continue to go along with patriarchy? Even if interests are shared it may be that not everyone realises it. I have the same beef about people using kinship as a historical explanation of politics or whatever. Because siblings never fight... ! I wrote about this here, ages ago and naturally enough Magistra came along and said more intelligent things than I'd said in comments.

Bavardess said...

I'm a good feminist an' all, but I think focusing on gender without considering the complicated intertwinings of class, ethnicity, religion etc. etc. is probably going to produce a rather simplistic view of power relations (hence, I don't find 'patriarchy' on its own terribly useful as an explanatory framework). On the kinship thing, yep, my sources are littered with various nephews/ cousins etc. murdering each other. Kinship only works as an explanation for historical social relations when not everyone in the damned realm who is fighting for a piece of the political pie is related to each other.