Almost one year after Jennifer Evans and I began talking about the possibility of organising a conference that would explore pregnancy throughout history, the event has drawn to a successful conclusion. On 16 July, we welcomed a very international delegation to the University of Hertfordshire for three days of discussion on perceptions of pregnancy from the medieval to the modern. We were joined by historians, midwifes, curators, political geographers, literary critics and scholars working on visual culture. The conference was bookended with an exhibition on Victorian Post-Mortem photography curated by Liz Burns of the Burns Archive in New York, and a sneak peak into Ellen du Pont’s forthcoming gift-book for the ‘thinking mother’. The latter is a collection of forty historical images of pregnant women, accompanied by quotations, to coincide with each week of pregnancy.
With our conference, we wanted to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and social media played an important role in helping us to achieve that. It was nice to see our efforts acknowledged by Sharon Howard (project manager for various digital history projects at the University of Sheffield) on twitter:
Thank you, Sharon, for this and the other kind observations you tweeted!
We had speakers from Britain, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Canada and the United States. And although we distributed the call for papers through all the usual channels — H-Net, Institute of Historical Research, various academic mailing lists, Academia.edu, etc. — we are confident that the international complexion of our conference and diversity of disciplines represented is largely due to our activity on twitter. The midwives in attendance, for example, are not on the mailing lists of the various history departments and organisations we contacted.
Both Jennifer and I are on twitter, so not long after we had resolved to organise the conference, we set up a specially-dedicated twitter account with the handle @Pregnancy_Conf. Very quickly our follower numbers grew as we connected with people we already knew on twitter. I think the effectiveness of our twitter account lies in the fact that we did not simply use it to convey information about the conference, but also to tweet news stories, blog posts, journal articles, etc., of relevance to historical pregnancy. By including #twitterstorians or #histmed at the end of our tweets, we made ourselves visible to the on-line community monitoring such hashtags, and they subsequently began to follow us too. Similarly, as people began to re-tweet our tweets so that ‘@Pregnancy_Conf’ appeared in their followers’ timelines also, our follower count grew.
Twitter allowed us to reach a much wider and more diverse audience than mailing lists, etc., ever could. The broad geographical span of speakers whom we attracted to the conference, I believe, is reflective of this. With having so many countries represented, not just in terms of people’s nationalities but also as places the subject of research, we fulfilled one of the main aims of our conference: to hold an international conversation.
Moreover, while we had more than sixty people physically in attendance, we were joined virtually by countless more who followed us throughout the three days as we live tweeted the sessions. Well in advance of the event, we had created the hashtag #pregconf so that people unable to attend could still follow the conversation. Some even joined in and asked questions for our speakers via twitter.
The Perceptions of Pregnancy Blog
While Twitter is undoubtedly useful, the 140-character limit can be restricting, and since both Jennifer and I run our own blogs, it was inevitable that we created one for the conference. WordPress is free and easy to use, and allows anyone to create their own site. But like our twitter account, we did not use the blog just to release updates. In addition to the ‘Messages from the Conference Organisers’ section, we also featured ‘Columns on Conference Themes’ and announcements submitted by delegates. The columns were essentially short posts from people coming to the conference to give a taster of what could be expected.
Although the conference is over, the blog will remain active. A further aim of our conference was to build networks and facilitate conversations, and we see the blog as an excellent forum to do so. In fact, the conference was only a starting point — not just an event in itself. We’ve encouraged those who presented to think about sharing elements of their papers on the blog, but we also welcome contributions from anybody who has an interest in pregnancy throughout history. Furthermore, we are happy to use the blog to advertise upcoming events of interest and relevance. The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog could very easily become a space for the community of researchers working on the male and female experience of fertility, pregnancy and childbirth to engage, exchange ideas and highlight their work. Please do not hesitate to contact us, if interested.
We are delighted with how the conference went, and with the feedback we received. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, the Social History Society and the Royal Historical Society. We are especially grateful to our delegates who travelled from far and wide to deliver fascinating, stimulating and exciting papers, and to those who joined us from a distance through twitter. Lets keep the conversation going now.