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Q&A: Megan Shockley on activist women in Virginia then and now

March 12, 2018

Historian Megan Shockley, Ph.D., speaks about the experiences and voices of Virginia women captured in interviews from The Virginia Feminist Oral History Project on Monday, March 19. The presentation, 3 p.m. at Cabell Library, is free and open to all. The oral histories, now available through VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives, is a collection of audio files and transcripts. It documents the stories of Virginia women involved in activism in Virginia. To sign up for the March 19 event

Shockley, professor of history at Clemson University, conducted the interviews as part of research for the book "Creating a Progressive Commonwealth: Women Activists, Feminism, and the Politics of Social Change," which is expected from Louisiana State University Press in 2018.  

Some questions and answers with Shockley:

Briefly describe the intent/scope/thesis of your forthcoming book?

The book examines the work of progressive women to advance feminist issues in Virginia from the 1970s through the 21st century. It provides an overview of their efforts, focusing on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, addressing and ending violence against women and protecting access to legal abortion in the commonwealth.

What contribution do you hope it makes to scholarship on this topic?

Most histories of feminism tend to ignore the South, assuming its more conservative values hampered the ability of activists to gain traction in the region. This work argues that southern feminist activism helped to move Virginia forward to become a more progressive state.

What do you hope lay readers will take from your book?

That there were women activists in the South who challenged traditional norms and advanced feminist agendas. While they weren’t always successful, their work changed Virginia.

What do you hope scholars will take from your book?  

The same thing, but also recognize that there is much more work to be done to tell the full story of feminism in Virginia and the region.

In your March 19 presentation, you will be discussing “Listening to Progressive Women.” What are some of the themes or key points you will be sharing?

  • The significance of oral history in recovering activists’ stories.
  • What oral history can tell us about social movements that we might not learn from documents.  
  • The centrality of narrative and self-analysis in oral history.  

As you are aware, in recent months, a wave of female activism has swept through Virginia. Discussion groups have formed and women participated in marches. An attempt was made to reintroduce the ERA. Women were credited with some of the outcomes of the 2017 election.  In generally conservative Chesterfield County a chous of female voices are being heard on local, state an national issues through a group Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. With all this real-world activity in the 20teens, are there parallels or ideas from your research that these activists can and should learn from? What are some of those learnings that could inform this “next” wave of feminism.

I actually discuss the most recent election in the conclusion of the book. What I hope today’s activists learn is that they are building on the work of thousands who have fought to advance women’s issues in the commonwealth for decades.

As a scholar and as a teacher, how would you envision students and other scholars using this collection?

There are so many themes in the oral histories, from how the women recognized their feminism, to divisions within the movement, to memories about their own activist efforts, to what they did later, that there are many directions in which a scholar could go.  

Looking back at the interviews and your research involving Virginia women, can you identify any unique issues or qualities that Virginia women faced that set them apart from women in other parts of the country? What were the social mores, customs or Southern sensibilities that presented special challenges or barriers to women trying to create a more equal and a more just world?

That’s really the gist of the book. Certainly many of the women interviewed believed Virginia was a special case. The Byrd administration orchestrated a situation in which the General Assembly did not always reflect the will of the majority, and the General Assemly committee mechanism held up a tremendous amount of legislation, including ERA ratification.  This could work FOR feminists sometimes, as pro-choice allies could get restrictive bills killed in committee, but usually it worked against the interests of feminists. Also, Virginia was just coming out of the period of massive resistance—and some of the very legislators who worked to hold back civil rights advances were in the General Assembly when feminists were fighting for ERA and other issues.  

Women interviewed who noted Virginia was different often cited the General Assembly, traditional social customs, and conservatism in their explanations. 

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