Dear Members of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship,
As I conclude my presidency of this organization, I wish to share a few comments and reflections.
I begin with my deepest thanks and gratitude to you all for trusting me to lead our society in these unprecedented times. As a dedicated service leader, it has been an honor to use my particular collaborative and action-oriented approach to leadership to help our society make meaningful and high-impact choices which, I hope, will continue to be developed and implemented going forward. I am proud that every decision made on behalf of SMFS throughout my time as President was made through shared governance, with no action taken by me unilaterally, so that our work has truly been a collaboration on behalf of the full organization and not the product of a few voices or my own views.
Thanks and deepest gratitude go in particular to all of the members of the advisory board with whom I have had the privilege to work on behalf of our society constituents and shareholders. We have worked together on so many important initiatives, from statements of solidarity and financial donations to various service organizations in response to hate crimes, to conference programming, collaboration with other scholarly organizations, mentoring and research support, our various prizes and fellowships, and offering leadership, fellowship, and support on both individual and communal levels to our constituents throughout the pandemic. This organization depends on the generosity of spirit of those who volunteer to take on the duties of advisory board members, and your service on our various committees, your input on every initiative and proposed course of action, and your responsiveness and empathy, have all sustained and supported me personally and professionally, as well as ensuring the success of our society’s endeavors. It has been my distinct honor to work alongside you all, and I cherish our relationships. I am also deeply proud that I am leaving the society having worked over these past two years with the most diverse advisory board we have fielded, one far more representative of our constituents than has historically been the case.
I also owe great debts of gratitude to Liz Herbert McAvoy and Linda Mitchell, past-presidents of SMFS, for their guidance and mentoring throughout my time as vice-president and then president of this large and diverse organization. From Liz, I learned that principled and ethical scholar-activism begins and ends with listening and responding to those with and for whom I am engaging any given action. From Linda, I learned the importance of ensuring the people I’m working for feel seen and understood, and how to make hard or unpopular leadership decisions with humility and disinterest. From both, I learned that good and effective leadership stems from genuine engagement and personal investment both in the organization and in its membership. I feel I have grown so much as a person and as an administrator through their guidance and support, and I hope I have lived up to the example they set for me.
Over the course of my time on the executive team for SMFS, we have undertaken a number of initiatives and approaches to challenges faced by our organization, our communities, and our world, of which I am especially proud of three:
- Action-oriented leadership in response to hate crimes. Where our society has always taken a firm stand on issues of misogyny, sexism, and racism, issuing statements of solidarity with underrepresented scholars finding themselves at the mercy of hateful and bigoted attacks and denouncing bad academic behavior, inequitable working conditions, and inaccessible and hostile conditions caused by inattentive conference planning, we have listened to our constituents and understood their frustration at what can seem to be merely “lip service”; consequently, in addition to issuing statements and calling for specific and actionable responses to issues such as sexual assault in the academy, we have also contributed direct financial support to a number of organizations combating racism, sexism, and misogyny. For our own Society, this year we have established the “Rising Star” grant to monetarily support the work of early career BIPOC medievalists, which joins our roster of scholarly support for precarious and early career scholars, including the Foremother’s fellowship and Trans* travel fund, graduate essay prize, and best book and best article prizes. I am personally most proud of founding this grant during my presidency, a support grant which I hope signals and will continue to signal a deep and shared organizational commitment to a more just and inclusive medieval studies.
- Medieval Feminist Forum. This year, the SMFS advisory board, working together with the MFF editorial board, oversaw the move of Medieval Feminist Forum to Medieval Institute Publications. In addition to providing the journal with a stable publishing platform and greater resources for publication, this move also has streamlined our membership process and enabled the journal to move forward with the managing support it requires after our irreplaceable Chris Africa’s (richly deserved!) retirement. MIP is also overseeing the establishment of an archive of nearly the full run of Medieval Feminist Forum, from the earliest bulletins created by Jane Burns through more recent issues, generously donated by Judith Bennett, which will be housed at the Medieval Institute and available to feminist researchers attending ICMS/ Kalamazoo. My particular thanks and gratitude go to Chris for all of her many years of dedicated service to this organization and its journal, and to Jes Boon for her hard work in ensuring the journal’s smooth transition from Chris’s management to the MIP system and facilitating the archive’s donation.
- Covid-19 response. In the face of the devastating global pandemic, we understood immediately that as far as careers go, women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and disabled scholars would be disproportionately affected and stood to lose the most ground professionally. We committed to making and holding space for the work of underrepresented scholars. Where many organizations simply canceled their various initiatives throughout 2020, we focused on what we could modify and innovate in order to make certain our membership could continue to feel connected and productive. Our initiatives in this vein included facilitating virtual book clubs and research working groups, a virtual mentoring scheme pairing early career and mid career scholars with senior scholars, and hosting a full roster of sessions and informal Zoom receptions at the virtual Leeds, GMS, and Kalamazoo congresses, so our members had options for presenting their research, support for their various scholarly and professional initiatives, and the opportunity to network and engage in collegiality, despite lockdowns and attendant interruptions to work. This is work I hope will continue as we move into the next phase of the pandemic with the Delta and Omicron variants. The reality is that if organizations like SMFS do not continue to hold space for the development and dissemination of the scholarship of feminists and underrepresented researchers, there will be no such spaces for those scholars in the future. We must remain committed to carving out and preserving our spaces at conferences, symposiums, and colloquiums, online and in-person as possible, in order to support our membership’s research and teaching. SMFS-sponsored sessions at these events are the most immediate and wide-reaching means by which we support our constituents.
We have, of course, also continued to engage in our usual Society business, including supporting the Bonnie Wheeler fund and our own various prizes. Another new initiative I will continue to develop as past-president is the SMFS Foremother’s Project. The Foremother’s Project will be an ethnographic archive of informal conversations held between current ad-board members and senior scholars in medieval feminist scholarship and recorded, to be hosted on a password-protected page of the SMFS website, where current members can access them. These conversations are intended to provide a retrospective, a chance for reflection, collegiality and bridge-building between senior and junior scholars, and lessons and advice, for the next generation of medieval scholars. They will be used as well to support the new “retrospectives” section in Medieval Feminist Forum.
As I conclude this letter and my time as SMFS President, I am grateful for everything I have learned over these past several years. I have gained so much knowledge and insight into how to effectively engage in shared governance and how to turn ideas into projects and actions, and found so much meaning and joy in that work. I encourage SMFS members to run for election to the advisory board, in order to actively participate in the governance and future development of this society and because it is such a personally and professionally rewarding experience. And, finally, I take great delight in handing over the charge of SMFS leadership to my successor, the wonderful and indomitable Roberta Magnani, who takes up the President’s office on 1 January 2022. I know she will be the leader SMFS needs and that she will do an amazing job.
I wish you all health and happiness as we round out the year, and look forward to the time when we can gather in person in fellowship at a ‘Zoo or Leeds banquet again. In meanwhile, I remain yours in service and collegiality, and welcome hearing from you anytime.
Melissa Ridley Elmes