A short history of the Berkshire Conference

I’m off before dawn tomorrow morning to catch my flight to the Berkshire Conference, the triennial “Big Berks” that I’ve assisted in planning and organizing for the past two years.  The following is excerpted from the 2008 program of the Fourteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, pp. 4-5:

“The Berks” did not always mean the triennial conference on women’s history. In fact, you may hear that gathering called the“Big Berks” to distinguish it from the original group, now known informally as the “Little Berks.”

The “Little Berks” is the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.  It differs from the Big Berks—the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women—in three major ways. First, it is much older. It had its genesis when two women historians on the train home from the 1929 American Historical Association convention in Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina, spoke of how they had enjoyed talking to other women historians there and how they could create more opportunities for what we now call “networking.” By this time a few women were serving on AHA committees including the Program Committee; they had been allowed since 1917 to attend the “smoker” after the Presidential address, although few felt welcome enough actually to do so; and seven of them presented papers at the 1929 meeting. Nevertheless, they were excluded from other events, like the informal weekend retreats organized by Executive Director J. Franklin Jameson, and they felt the need for “comradeship in our craft” with other women. In May 1930 they began to hold weekend retreats at inns in New York State and Massachusetts for women historians teaching at women’s colleges in the Northeast.

In 1936, the group who had been coming to these meetings constituted themselves the Berkshire Historical Conference, later amended to the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. The second difference between the Big and Little Berks lies in the meaning of the word “conference” in each name. The Big Berks is a meeting at which people present papers; the Little Berks is a group.  Its annual meetings are weekend retreats at which hiking, conversation, and socializing are among the main activities, along with a business meeting, discussions of issues in the profession, and traditionally a scholarly presentation from one of its members after dinner.  Among the activities of the Little Berks is the planning and organization of the Big Berks, which it sponsors every three years.  It also sponsors gatherings at major historical conferences throughout the year, and it awards annual prizes for the best first book and the best article in history written by a woman. It funds fellowships for graduate students through the Coordinating Council for Women in History (the CCWH/Berkshire Graduate Student Award). It advocates for women in academia in general and the historical profession in particular, and it works with regional women’s history organizations in order to do so. In 1989 the Berkshire Conference helped to coordinate the historians’ amicus curiae brief before the Supreme Court in support of Roe v. Wade.

The third difference is perhaps the most obvious yet often overlooked.  Not all scholars of women’s history are women, and not all women historians work on women’s history. The Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (Big Berks) exists to promote the study of women’s history by all historians of whatever gender, while the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (Little Berks) exists to promote the status of women in the profession and to promote friendships among women historians, whatever their field of study.

Hope to see some of you in Minneapolis!  Do introduce yourself if you happen to see me.  For those of you who can’t come, check in with Tenured Radical, who will be posting through the conference.  (She promises that “something good always happens at the dance” on Saturday night.  We’ll see!  Today, TR helpfully provided a gloss of some of the more recent history of the Berkshire Conferences, both Little and Big.)  I probably won’t have the time to post, so consider this an open thread on the Berkshire Conference, and perhaps I’ll be able to stop by and leave some updates in the comments.

0 thoughts on “A short history of the Berkshire Conference

  1. Pingback: Off to the Berks, with and advance contract « Knitting Clio

  2. Rad–considering the weather forecast, I too wish we were back at Scripps or some other SoCA idyll! (Talk to your new Dean about having the 2011 conference ON the beach at Irvine!)

    But, the sojourn to the midwest is a good idea. I think the closest the Berks has ever been to the midwest was the 1999 Rochester conference. And, since 3 midwestern gals chaired the Program Committee, it’s strangely appropriate. (Remember to watch out for Buckeyes everywhere–and remember too that they always eventually go home again!)


  3. Excuse me, since when is Connecticut Mid-west? Geography please, historiann.
    Actually the location discussion is charged. For many years we went to the old 7 sisters colleges, but they are now too small for us. So we need to go to bigger places. We’ve now been south (UNC), west (Scripps), & now midwest. But the beach — now that sounds like a NICE conference.

    See you soon,


  4. Connecticut’s been in the Midwest since the 1662 Restoration (“Sea-to-Sea”) Charter from the Stuart monarchs. They popped down New Haven for an appetizer (will defer to Historiann on this part), came after Pennsylvania in the 1750s, then tried to hang onto the Western Reserve a generation later. Some of them Nutmeggers even had their eyes on Oregon for a while! Whereever it is, the conf. is off to a great start. The weather was great today, except for those funny little balls of cottony fluff floating around in the air!


  5. The Berks continues very well, both as to program, weather, and general ambience. Historiann is very busy with program duties, but I’m sure she’ll report bye the bye. The Mississippi River meanders scenically through the campus and the conference. It’s hard to believe it’s causing such havoc downstream. A colleague from Arkansas last night actually described it as the “Mississippi Creek” this far up.


  6. Thanks for this history of the conference(s)! I’ve always wondered a bit about it. And I hope you’re all having a blast, and I’ll make a point of joining everybody there in three years…


  7. Hi Notorious–I’ll be posting about the Berks all week long. Everything went very well (at least that’s what people have told me, but perhaps they’re waiting to register their complaints with someone else!)

    The weather was sunny and warm for the most part, not hot and muggy. We had a little rain one afternoon and a spectacular thunderstorm last night at the reception for Gender and History at the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum. But, it was over before most people left for the dance!


  8. Pingback: Reports from the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women | American Historical Association

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