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Exciting Plenaries and Sessions at the 101st ASA Annual Meeting

by Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, ASA President

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and American feminist Gloria Steinem—two leaders responsible for challenging boundaries in American society—are the lead plenary speakers at this year’s American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Montréal.

At the Friday, August 11, plenary on “Transgressing Sex Segregation: The Law, Social Science and Social Policy,” Justice Ginsburg will speak on changes in the legal profession over the past 40 years. She was responsible for arguing many of the landmark cases that changed employment practices and other civil rights issues in her days as a law professor and the head of the Women’s Rights Division of the American Civil Liberties Union. She will be joined by Deborah Rhode of the Stanford Law School, Director of the Keck Center on Legal Ethics and the Legal Profession, and a specialist on women’s rights and ethics. Rhode was a counsel to the Judiciary Committee during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Also on the plenary panel will be Judith Resnik, of Yale Law School, founder and director of the Arthur Limon Center on Public Interest Law. Resnik’s current work focuses on the United States’ “exceptionalism” with regard to human rights.

Among other special sessions focusing on human rights, Jeremy Waldron, of the Columbia University Law School and a world-renowned political philosopher, will speak at a special thematic session on torture.

Gender and Race Boundaries

On Monday, August 14, Gloria Steinem, the women’s rights activist, founder of Ms. magazine, cofounder of the National Women’s Political Caucus with Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisolm,and author of many books, will address another plenary whose subject is “Transgressing Distinctions on Gender and Race.” Also at the plenary, ASA’s own Lawrence Bobo, Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor and Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and Program in African and African American Studies at Stanford University, will focus on race issues and the political sphere.

Ethnic Boundaries

A number of very exciting thematic sessions are also on the program. They are too numerous to note here but a few are unusual, including a session focusing on how the law is instrumental in undercutting the boundaries of color and race. At this thematic session, noted lawyer Jack Greenberg, who, with Thurgood Marshall, orchestrated Brown vs. Board of Education will speak with Laura Gomez, a scholar of Mexican- American issues, and Rachel Moran, of Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California- Berkeley, who writes on interracial intimacy.

Following up on the ASA’s objective to be responsive to immediate pressures emanating from disasters, Kai Erikson, Yale University, with Shirley Laska, University of New Orleans, has organized and will address “The Flooding of New Orleans: Views from Up Close,” which will tackle the issues stemming from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Also, in the session “Creating and Maintaining Ethnic Boundaries,” Erikson will address, with Immanuel Wallerstein of Yale University, ethnic boundaries and their role in tumultuous contemporary problems.

Labor Boundaries

Further, two sessions were organized to focus on the future of the U.S. labor movement. One is by Daniel Cornfield, Vanderbilt University, on globalizing capital and globalizing labor. The second session is being organized by Ruth Milkman, University of California-Los Angeles, and Dan Clawson, University of Massachusetts- Amherst, to examine the timely issue of low-wage workers. And, the New York Times economics writer, Louis Uchitelle, will speak about his new book, The Disposable American, at a session cosponsored by the ASA Section on Organizations, Occupations, and Work.

Sexuality Boundaries

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose radio and television advice on sexual behavior changed a boundary between the acceptable and unacceptable topics to be discussed on the airwaves, will speak at a thematic panel on changing sexual mores. “Dr. Ruth,” holds a degree in sociology and is the author of a number of books that locate sexual behavior within social contexts.

Unlike academics, a number of guests we invited to the meetings cannot make commitments to the ASA yet, but the Program Committee hopes to have some other interesting speakers on the program, among them the Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency MichaŽlle Jean, and Pierre Sané, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO.

Discoveries at the Boundaries

Thus, although focusing on “Great Divides,” we look forward to productively “Transgressing Boundaries” and examining the social problems this topic suggests. We thus look forward to a very thoughtful, inspiring, and connected meeting for the Association.