In April 1982, Barnard College sponsored its Ninth Annual “The Feminist and The Scholar” Conference, which went down in history as “The Sex Conference.” Under the forceful leadership of Carol Vance, a Conference Planning Committee met for several months to discuss how a forward-looking feminist movement should approach the question of sexuality. The impulse for the conference was the growing concern that feminist discussion about sexuality was increasingly limited to a critique of pornography as the major source of violence against women. As individuals, our personal experience with and attitudes toward sexuality were diverse, but we all felt that this sort of feminist sexual politics was problematic: first because sexuality confronted women with opportunities for pleasure as well as potential for danger, and because state repression of sexual images was a violation of civil liberties, one that would rebound against feminist activists.
The planning committee suggested that I give a paper at the conference demonstrating that there was a feminist legacy of exploring greater sexual pleasure for women, and thereby challenging the notion that feminism historically had focused exclusively on sexual danger. Linda Gordon, who had published her feminist history of birth control a few years before, and I coauthored a speech, later an article, that we titled “Seeking Ecstasy on the Battlefield: Danger and Pleasure in 19th-Century Feminist Sexual Thought.” This was my first experience at collaborative writing, and I found it worked if you combined respect for the other with confidence in yourself.
The artifact I have submitted is the original program of the Conference. As I recall, Meryl Altman designed the program, and its visual, inventive, engaging, and unconventional quality fit the conference we planned. Notes from the planning committee meetings appear as diary entries, and statements from members of the planning committee are represented as personal ads. As the conference came near, feminists from the anti-pornography wing of the movement announced that they would picket it because their perspective had been excluded and because they felt that the conference’s inclusion of sadomasochism, role playing, and pornography as legitimate sexual practices was, in fact, antifeminist. I think they went directly to Barnard College administration because just before the conference the College demanded that the program be pulled. The reasons: first, a reproduction of the invitational letter from Carole Vance included the Barnard letterhead, linking the College to the proceedings; and second, images in the program (in particular as I recall several stylized representations of body piercings) were deemed offensive. A second version was issued without the Barnard letterhead. In my judgment, the conference was a successful intellectual intervention in an important issue confronting the feminist movement. From this point on, feminist approaches to sexuality were complex and multifaceted, and the anti-pornography forces were no longer able to represent themselves as “the” voice of feminism.
Ellen Carol DuBois is a Professor of History at UCLA. She was an early activist in feminism’s second wave, working during her graduate school years with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Her work as an historian focuses on the history of political feminism, especially the struggle for the vote. After concentrating for many years on the history of woman suffrage in the U.S., she is now expanding her work to investigate the history of women’s rights on a more global stage. She is the author or editor of many books in women’s history, including the anthology Unequal Sisters: A Reader in Multicultural U.S. Women’s History and Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Ellen DuBois." (Viewed on September 23, 2023) <https://jwa.org/feminism/dubois-ellen>.