The Fourteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women


Ms. Boylan is a member of the history department at the University of Delaware.

Last weekend, about 1,500 scholars gathered at the University of Minnesota (“The U” in local parlance), for the Fourteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (“the Berks”).  The theme was “Continuities and Changes,” and the program committee had put together a packed program of sessions – 204 in all – encompassing papers, roundtables, seminars, and plenary sessions.   So packed, indeed, that there was no scheduled lunch hour on Friday or Saturday; registrants gamely picked up box lunches and consumed them either during a 30-minute break between sessions or during the sessions themselves.  But that’s the Berks.  One of the hallmarks of this every-three-years event is the intensity with which attendees devour the proffered intellectual feast; it is not one of those conferences where the main topic of conversation is which restaurant everyone hopes, plans, or declines to patronize.  At the Berks, people actually talk about history.

In keeping with the trends toward writing transnational, multicultural, and interdisciplinary women’s history, many of the sessions crossed national or disciplinary boundaries; the presenters included scholars from New Zealand, Thailand, the U.K., Russia, Mexico, Canada, and a variety of locations in between, as well as sociologists, literary scholars, and filmmakers.  The opening keynote panel, “Forty Years of Women’s History in International Perspective,” provided opportunities to learn about how women’s history has been conceptualized and practiced outside of the U.S. and outside of the discipline of history.  In keeping with another recent trend, the number of program changes and no-shows was striking.  Midwestern flooding took its toll; there were stories of Iowans who stayed home to fill sandbags and move books from the basement of the University of Iowa Library, and the Friday closing of a portion of I-94 in Wisconsin meant doubled or tripled travel time for some hardy Chicagoans, Indianans, and Canadians.

Perhaps the most notable innovation was the introduction of Sunday morning seminars, two dozen thematic sessions, each headed by a leading historian, each permitting presenters and participants to read and comment on the pre-circulated papers.  Judith Bennett and Susan Mann convened a session on “Singlewomen,” for instance, while Virginia Sanchez-Korrol led a seminar on “Latinas in the Americas, 1492-the Present,” and Estelle Freedman’s group worked on “Historicizing Sexual Violence.”  As an answer to the conference-organizer’s dilemma – “what to do with Sunday morning sessions” – the idea looks promising.

With 204 sessions scheduled, it was the 205th, added to Saturday’s schedule at the last minute, that drew an overflow crowd to the Hubert H. Humphrey Center.  (This is Minnesota, after all, where Humphrey remains a local hero and favorite son.)  Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about the session’s topic: Obama-Clinton primary contest and the 2008 election.  There were polished and thoughtful presentations from, among others, Susan Hartmann, Tera Hunter, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Mitch Katchun, followed by a lively discussion with the audience.  Anyone who expected Obama- or Hillary-bashing would have been disappointed.  Instead, there was a nuanced conversation giving lie to the media’s assumption that “women” or “feminists” constitute easily categorized voting blocs, that it is unusual for a Democratic nominee to “have trouble” with white male voters, and that “gender” is merely a kinder, gentler word for “sex.”  When an audience member ventured the opinion that women who criticize other women contribute to misogyny, the comment dropped like a stone; no one picked it up.  There was general agreement about the importance of using student interest in the political process as a “teachable moment,” and working to turn out voters in November.  In the end, the audience seemed to share a complicated sense that this election was a crucial one for feminist concerns and that expectations for the election’s historical possibilities were already impossibly high. 

And then it was on to the next set of papers, roundtable discussion, film presentation, or plenary session – and the next stimulating conversation.

Related Links

  • Claire B. Potter: What Would Natalie Zemon Davis Do? A Few Meditations on Women's History and Women in History
  • AHA Blog: Reports from the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women
  • Claire B. Potter: Day 1 at the Berks: Let the Receptions Begin

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    Liette Gidlow - 6/24/2008

    Thanks to Anne for covering our session, but there are several others who deserve credit for a passionate, energizing, and thoughtful discussion. Ruth Rosen, Felicia Kornbluh, Hilary Green, and I also presented comments, and I organized and moderated the panel as well. The discussion was wide-ranging and thoughtful, and I thank everyone who was there for contributing to a terrific Berks moment.

    Liette Gidlow
    Associate professor of history
    Wayne State University