The 2008 Berkshire Conference: The Year Cultural History Broke?

Well, it’s been a whirlwind of a conference, and worth the two-and-a-half years of planning that preceded it!  The weather was sunny (mostly), warm, and fair.  All of the panels and roundtables I attended were full of fascinating people who had great conversations with their audiences.  (And those I didn’t attend I heard were also really good too–although if opinions differ here, I appreciate that no one wanted to complain about the conference this weekend.  There will be plenty of time for accusations and recriminations after the fact.)

Some observations and highlights:

  • Thursday night’s plenary session called “THE CHANGING (?) STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE HISTORICAL PROFESSION:  PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES,” was in fact more about the persistent challenges than any measurable progress in the past 20 years.  Noralee Frankel from the American Historical Association (AHA) told us about the Rose report in 1970 on the status of women historians, and about the 2005 report–and showed us how we keep making the same observations and recommendations again and again, and how relatively little has changed over these 38 years (Historiann’s lifetime!)  The big gains were made in the 1970s and up through the late 1980s and the early 1990s, but we’ve flatlined since then according to Robert Townsend, also from the AHA.  He reported that as of 2003, women made up only 30% of history faculty in the U.S., well below our representation among History Ph.D.s (in the low 40s, about what it’s been for the past twenty years.)  And of course, there are still more women at the Assistant level than at the Associate or Full Professor rank–in about the same proportion as twenty years ago.  So clearly women are not moving up through the ranks as they should.  Elizabeth Lunbeck of Vanderbilt University (and author of the 2005 report) made the stunned observation at the end of an evening full of bad news:  “I’m struck by how we’ve been drawn in repeatedly” by a progressive Whig narrative that says that equity is on its way, “when the situation [for women faculty] remains the same.” 
  • At the conclusion of this rather depression plenary panel, I had the honor of announcing a new article prize, the Mary Maples Dunn Prize, which will honor the best article in early American women’s history by an untenured scholar published in The William and Mary Quarterly that uses gender as a primary analytical category.  Mary chaired the Thursday plenary, so her complete shock and surprise was visible to everyone there in the Ted Mann Concert Hall.  (It’s been such a huge success that it looks like we’ll be able to endow the prize!)  If you’re an untenured scholar in this field, sharpen your pencils and get to work.   
  • If we made a conference documentary, it might be called 2008:  The Year Cultural History Broke.  (With apologies to the classic grunge rock movie by David Markey.  I still love you Courtney and Thurston!)  This was an unexpected but fascinating sub-theme of a good number of the panels that I saw and that I heard about:  get thee to an archive!  There’s lots of new knowledge there just waiting for us.  (I’ll post more on this topic later, for sure.)
  • Tenured Radical was there, and cross-posting about the conference at Cliopatria.  I met Knitting Clio for the first time, too–I’m sure she’ll share some of her observations and experiences at the conference, too.  (I hope she slept better at the Holiday Inn Friday night!  I wonder who the troublesome guest was, if she was with the Berks…)  TR is apparently a big Ramones fan, and Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois can dance!
  • Terri Snyder of California State University, Fullerton, put together a brilliant panel, RESEARCHING AND WRITING THE LIVES OF UNFREE WOMEN for Friday afternoon.  Once again, we learned how stupid and untrue is the claim that “you can’t do research on women, especially unfree women, because there are no sources.”  Most of the lives uncovered for us in this panel were the result of painstaking research in state and local archives–and their stories should encourage us to find and tell some new life stories of our own.  And it turns out that Annette Gordon-Reed is just as beautiful and as brilliant as I always thought she must be–plus, she’s really nice, too.
  • To borrow Muriel McClendon’s term for her group of allies on the faculty at UCLA, there were a lot of POW’s (Pissed Off Women) at the RETHINKING GENDER, FAMILY, AND SEXUALITY IN THE EARLY MODERN ATLANTIC session Saturday morning.  The roundtable discussion should perhaps have been called, THE PROBLEM WITH ‘THE ATLANTIC WORLD’ PARADIGM.  The early modern European historians and cultural studies scholars there–panelists Karin Wulf and Bianca Premo, and audience members Allyson Poska and Lisa Vollendorf, for example, sounded an alarm about the precipitous decline they’ve seen in dissertations and new scholarship on women, gender, sexuality, and the family.   
  • The reception Saturday night for the journal Gender and History was in the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum, which sits majestically on the Mississippi River.  Walking over the bridge from the West Campus to the museum, it loomed in the sunset like the City of Oz.  (See my not-great photo at left, and at the top of the post is my snapshot of Roy Lichtenstein’s World’s Fair Mural, which greets you as you enter the Weisman.)  What a spectacular setting for the reception–made only more dramatic by lightning strikes nearby as the city got hit by a brief thunderstorm.

I’ll report more later–I’m going back to the Weisman with friends who like me don’t fly out until this evening.  Thanks so much to those of you who introduced yourselves as readers and commenters–I hope you’ll add your thoughts and observations below!

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.

Bad news/good news round-up, yee haw!

The weather here in Potterville is gorgeous–Historiann’s roses, irises, lupines, poppies, and bachelor’s buttons are blooming–it’s almost too perfect, so let’s have a little bad news today to wash down with our daily cup o’brimstone, shall we?

  • Bad news:  Frank Donoghue says that as much as we bitch and moan about our jobs (if we have them) and the job market in academia, we’re living in the not-so-golden age as The Last ProfessorsHe makes the daring prediction that we’re on the slippery slope to hell, and that the corporitization of the university can’t be reversed.  Says Donoghue:  “The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. . . . [T]he hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. . . . Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors.”
  • Good news:  Via Inside Higher Ed, the Big Dog says he won’t speak at UCLA’s commencement, out of respect for AFSCME’s unresolved contract with the university. 
  • Bad news:  Student newspaper shuttered after publishing photo of a buring U.S. flag.  Oh, grow up, school administrators!  What’s the point of student newspapers, if not to publish occasionally stupid and juvenile stories and photos?  Giving students a publication and then getting all hopped up because they publish something dumb is like handing kids a firecracker and then getting angry when they light it up.  Guess what?  By shutting down the paper, you’re making this story a bigger issue than it would have been had you ignored it!  Did it not occur to you that the people who write for major U.S. dailies are the kinds of people who used to work on their high school newspaper, and that they might find an otherwise silly local story like this newsworthy?  Jackasses.
  • Good news: the later week/weekend forecast for Minnapolis is improving, with only 20-30 percent “chances” of showers and thunderstorms Thursday through the rest of the weekend.  Still, those of you who will be at the Berkshire Conference are well advised to be prepared for anything–so bring your raincoat and sunscreen, too.  (For a few years after moving to Colorado, I drove around with an umbrella in my car, which made me an eccentric; after living here for a while now, I completely forget that it rains anywhere else in the world, which makes me an idiot!)

Odd ducks

I thought I heard a duck quacking suspiciously near my open office window this morning, but I didn’t think anything of it, because there’s a pond in a park one block away, and we hear quacking and honking all of the time, all year long.  But just a few minutes ago, my next-door-neighbor rang the doorbell, and who was standing there with her but the duck in question, bold as brass, quacking loudly whenever my neighbor threatened to walk away and return to her window-washing. 

I’ve seen this duck before–ze’s an odd little farm duck who apparently isn’t welcome among the other birds down at the park.  (Most of them are very cool Mallards and Canada Geese who are busy raising their little families this time of year.)  This duck seems to be very comfortable with humans–ze let my neighbor pet hir, and quacked in protest when I went back inside.  Ze might be flight impaired–I’ve never seen hir fly, and believe that ze must have walked down the street to our yards!  Poor thing.

Childbirth, motherhood, and the maternal body

Since my post OB/GYNs, Ourselves was so popular (or at least inspired a very interesting debate in the comments), I thought I would let you all know about some of the large number of sessions we’re featuring at the 2008 Berkshire Conference this weekend on the subject of childbirth, motherhood, and the maternal body.  As anyone working in women’s history knows, the history of the body and the history of sexuality have been really big lately, and they’ve given birth (so to speak) to books, articles, and conference papers on the broad subject of maternity.  Here are some very interesting examples:

Saturday, June 13, 8:30 a.m.


Chair: Jacqueline H. Wolf, Ohio University

Comares: Mothers, Midwives, and Wetnurses in Late Medieval Valencia

Debra Gene Blumenthal, University of California, Santa Barbara

The Anatomy of Eve: Imagining the Maternal Body in 16th-Century Germany

Kathleen Maisie Crowther, University of Oklahoma

Examining the Wetnurse: Theory and Practice in Medical Texts of the 12th and 13th Centuries

William F. MacLehose, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Comment: Rebecca Lynn Winer, Villanova University



Chair: Elizabeth Watkins, University of California, San Francisco

In Their Best Interests: Social Science, Feminism, and the Revaluing of Working Mothers in the 1960s

Elizabeth More, Harvard University

Mixers and Moulders: Neo-Evangelical Models of American Motherhood, 1943-1960

Eliza Young, Harvard University

Mother’s Milk without Mother’s Body: A History of the Late 20th-Century Milk Bank

Kara Swanson, Harvard University

Comment: Janet Golden, Rutgers University, New Brunswick



Chair: Rebecca M. Kluchin, California State University, Sacramento

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Maternal Body in Contemporary Art

Rachel Epp Buller, Independent Scholar

(Re-) addressing the Maternal Body: Representations of Motherhood, Modernization, and the Roots of Public Health in Chile

Jadwiga Pieper Mooney, University of Arizona

“Baby Factories” and Squatting “Primitives”: Laboring Bodies in Mid 20th-Century Representations of Natural Childbirth

Jane Simonsen, Augustana College

Comment: Cheryl Lemus, Northern Illinois University

Ann Simonsen Oswood, The Childbirth Collective


Saturday, June 13, 11 a.m.


Chair: Anna R. Igra, Carleton College

Enforcing Dependency: Immigrant Mothers and Health Care Access

Lisa Sun-Hee Park, University of California, San Diego

Begging a Different Memory: Revisionary Images of Mothers in Rickie Solinger’s Beggars and Choosers

Ruby Tapia, Ohio State University

Child Care Choices: Mothers, the Market, and Federal Policy
Elizabeth Rose, Central Connecticut State University
Comment: Assata Zerai, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Since the conference starts on Thursday, and I’ve got official responsibilities pretty much every day all day long, I don’t think I’ll be able to blog about the conference.  However, a past U.S. and Canadian history Program Committee co-Chair will be blogging the Berks, so those of you who can’t be with us in Minneapolis can check in with Tenured Radical for news, views, gossip, and scandal!  (Well, I doubt that there will be scandal, or if there is, I hope that it won’t involve Historiann!) 

Some good political advice from the non peer-reviewed internets

nast-donkey.jpgHow to talk to non-supporters about Obama” is an excellent primer that explains very effectively how to get other Democrats on board for November.  The author, demoinesdem, was a precinct captain for Kerry in 2003-04 and for Edwards in 2007-08 (in Iowa), so this wasn’t her first rodeo, and it sounds like she’s a very patient, practised, and effective campaigner.  (Her website is Bleeding Heartland.)  She’s got a lot of great scripts for comments that people who didn’t vote for Obama in the primary might throw at you, and examples of both ineffective and effective replies. 

Much of her advice boils down to this:  “Remember that voter contacts are not about winning an argument. They are about finding ways to get on the same side as the person you are talking to.”  In other words, you don’t have to bring people to a Road to Damascus moment about Obama so that you can bask in the warmth of your shared enlightenment.  You just need their votes.  Some people will never warm to Obama or see him as the Democrats’ best bet, and it’s not prima facie evidence of a character flaw that they won’t, so don’t annoy people with your Testimony.  (Do you really want to be like the Jehovah’s Witnesses?  Think about it.)  She’s got some great anecdotes about how some Obama supporters lectured her when she was an Edwards supporter.  One person actually wrote her an e-mail that started, “I actually feel bad for you, I really do, and I do NOT mean to be even the least bit demeaning, or snooty (no matter how it may sound — I really don’t.)  Because I think you are missing out on a unique time in US political history…”  What can you say about a guy like that?  (That reminds me of an anonymous note left on someone’s windshield, which was equally ineffective in its evangelizing.)

There are only two major points in her essay that I’d quarrel with.  One is a simple factual error.  About Clinton supporters, she writes: 

These people are just as disappointed by the way things turned out as you would be if the superdelegates had handed the nomination to Clinton after Obama earned it. They liked Bill, they like Hillary, and they thought she would do a great job. They are frustrated that millions of voters picked the hot shot over the smart, hard-working woman. In their minds, Hillary deserved the nomination, but voters picked someone less prepared for the job.

No, the voters didn’t pick Obama by “millions.”  (I know she’s not claiming that his victory margin was in the millions, but her phrasing here obscures the millions of votes that Clinton won.)  This race was a photo finish to the end.  Even the most generous interpretation of the popular vote totals for Obama (and the least generous for Michigan!) puts him ahead by only about 151,000.  And other entirely reasonable ways of counting up the popular vote put Clinton ahead by 48,000 to 287,000 votes.  That’s something that Clinton voters may still be sore about–because it clearly wasn’t “voters” who “picked someone less prepared for the job,” it was the Superdelegates who picked Obama.  Addressing people still unsettled about the popular vote is the one major omission in demoinesdem’s excellent scripts.  (Perhaps acknowledging that the popular vote was indeed essentially a tie, and expressing regret that only one candidate could emerge the victor would be the way to go with this one?) 

Secondly, demoinesdem’s frequently suggested tactic for getting Democrats on board with Obama is to invoke the spectre of a Supreme Court with two, three, or four new Associate Justices appointed by John McCain.  This strikes me as a little weak and a little desperate–if you’re canvassing for Obama, you should give people reasons to vote for Obama, not reasons to vote against McCain.  It may come down to that for many loyal Dems, but that should be a reason of last resort.  At this point (June, people!), citizens who didn’t vote for Obama may not be familiar with his overall record–try to surprise them with an impressive detail or clear policy position that will make them feel better about their vote. 

All in all, however, demoinesdem is on the money in acknowledging the power of emotions in this primary, and in suggesting some ways to find common ground.