Where in the world is Historiann on this summer’s random public history tour? Well, here’s a clue on the left–some of us dwell in possibility, wherever we go. I had never visited before, and neither had my subset of the attendees of the Little Berks conference this year, at Mt. Holyoke College. The Big Berks–otherwise known as the Fifteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, will be at the University of Massachusetts next June. (Check out that new website!) The program committee meets tomorrow–so keep your fingers crossed if you submitted a proposal last winter.
So many interesting people are here–the elusive Clio Bluestockingshowed up, and seated herself near me at dinner last night. (I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’re reading this blog–only compliments so far, but the conference is only half over!) After dinner last night, Mary Beth Norton and Judith Zinsser spoke about the history of the Berkshire Conference, and the “ladies” who founded it (including the tradition of trillium-spotting and bourbon-drinking. Unfortunately, threatening thunderstorms and hail had us looking for more indoor-oriented activities today.) Norton noted that the official name of the organization is the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, not the Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians, and she lamented that there are very few non-women’s historians who attend any more since the Big Berks conference on women’s history effectively “took over” the identity of the organization.
Is there value in an organization for women historians who are not-necessarily-women’s-historians, or is it perfectly fine that women’s history now dominates the organizational identity of both the Big and the Little Berks? (One audience member, Leisa Meyer of the College of William and Mary, spoke of how “embattled” women’s history has been for the past decade or so, ever since it stopped being the next latest thing, and spoke up on behalf of an organization that is explicitly tied to women’s history rather than to women historians.) I can see merit in both points of view. On the one hand, we’re a small organization, so who are we to turn away a potential member? On the other hand, the Big Berks has been a Big Success, so what’s wrong with a haven for women’s historians? I don’t see too many other organizations stepping up to either plate. In fact, I see none whatsoever, with the exception 0f the American Historical Association’s standing Committee on Women Historians.
What do you think?
0 thoughts on “We dwell in possibility”
What’s your thoughts on that, Historiann? I was just walking through Philadelphia this morning trying to explain to a non-specialist the difference between the “Big” and the “Little,” so this comes timely to hand.
I’m not sure women’s history is more embattled at this point–or maybe even as much so, just to read the posts and threads here–as women historians still are more generally, so I’d tend to think the present structure should be kept. Purely by happenstance, things I’ve worked on lately have had me reading various works by women writing before World War II, and there is definitely a different voice there, even if the subject matter tends to be pretty traditional. Today’s random example is Eloise Ellery, _Brissot de Warville: A Study in the History of the French Revolution_, a Cornell U. diss, published “in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Vassar College.” About a third of the way through a standard account of blood and gore and power struggles, she pauses to ask “in connection with Brissot’s democracy two interesting questions arise: did it extend to women, and was it socialistic in character.” (p. 162) I’m guessing the old walrus up in Ithaca had only urged her to consider the second of those two questions. I think that’s what Norton was probably “remembering,” and I think rightly so.
The “Committee on…” approach in the mainstream organizations may be running its course, energywise. At least, a state-level historical organization that I’m involved in has just disbanded its equivalent, out of some combination of indifference and confusion.
I’m not an historian; I’m an historical archaeologist, which is related, but more along the lines of distant cousin than sibling, in my experience. I have recently finished a heavy duty agricultural context, and explicitly addressed the roles of women and children — something missing from most historic contexts in these parts, I discovered. What I did find is that, while there is an increasing amount of women’s history available, there isn’t enough. There are still huge gaps — and those are only the ones I was aware of during my research as an archaeologist in my little corner of the Middle Atlantic. I think a conference on Women’s History, open to any and all doing the work, is great, and still necessary.
That said, if history is ANYTHING like archaeology, a conference for Women Historians is also totally necessary, and I’m envious. No such critter in archaeology (there is the Association for Feminist Anthropologists, but that’s not the same thing). There is still a mighty strong old boy’s network in my field (especially in prehistoric archaeology); women shouldn’t even be seen, never mind heard, for some of these folks. A place to meet and decompress among others experiencing the same crap as well as to meet and collaborate sounds fantastic, even if everyone is working on different things and from different approaches!
I have been aware of the Berks for years but never paid particularly close attention. I had no idea that it was for WOMEN, rather than scholars OF women. (perhaps if this were better known, that could change the membership?).
A few times, I have attended the CWH breakfast at the AHA, and had a good time. If the Little Berks is open to historians of the female persuasion who don’t define their research as gender-oriented, I’d be interested in going.
Agreed on all counts w/ Katrina.
I am a woman historian who works in military history, but not on gender or women’s history topics. I can usually count the number of womenfolk in the room on one hand (though there are a growing number of us), and it remains a good-ole’-boys network through and through.
I would love, love, love to have a space/place to meet and talk to other women historians, regardless of their particular historical topics, especially if my decision to work in a “traditional” field and not on women’s history within that field weren’t questioned or derided as selling out.
It seems to me there are needs for both types of organizations. As someone who does women’s history, I still feel like my academic interests are marginalized in the larger field. One of the things I found delightful about attending the last Big Berks conference was that, for everyone there, the history of women was just self-evidently interesting, and did not need to be constantly justified and defended.
I did also enjoy the feeling of being largely surrounded by other historians who were women, however, and it’s good to be able to talk freely about the experience of being female and a historian.
As an aside, I attended the Little Berks once, and found the experience to be a little… odd. It is so small and quirky–how could the organization handle a substantial influx of new members, even if the “women historians” identity were better publicized?
I’m planning on going to my first Big Berks next year – simply because it’s not only women’s history, but includes women historians. Like Katrina and notabattlechick, my research is not on women’s history, although I am on the WS faculty at RNU. I love the idea that there are organizations that will welcome us!
First off — jealous! I wanted to go but just had too much going on this past week, including another conference in Philadelphia.
To address your question — in addition to the CWH, there are other organizations to which I belong that have committees on women in the profession (e.g. History of Science Society, American Association of the History of Medicine, Society for the History of Technology).
Other organizations may do the same thing.
The success of the Big Berks in legitimizing the field of women’s history should not be underestimated. Can anyone think of an arena in which women’s history is featured so prominently and taken so seriously?
As to the Little Berks — I’ve only been once, as an invited speaker. It was fun although I didn’t get to the full experience since I commuted from home. It’s great to mix with other women historians but it’s expensive and hard to find the time to attend (and I don’t have children). I’m wondering if this is really the best way to build a community of women (both cis and trans) in the historical profession?
I think there is room for both organizations. But the Big Berks *is* strictly women’s history – and I think Knitting Clio is right, it’s had great success in demonstrating the importance of gender perspectives across the discipline. And what constitutes women’s history has in some ways expanded.
I think I feel more marginalized as a European historian of an early period than I do as a women’s historian, and within my specialty area, I think not being a political historian is more important than most other things.
As someone who is not a historian, this is an interesting discussion. I am an educator in a health profession that is about 90% women. My profession has a rich history tied to many social justice movements in the early 1900s, and I have been interested for quite some time in exploring the history and trends of my profession in the context of women’s history.
Aside from wanting to attend the conference out of sheer personal interest, I have looked at the Berkshire Conference program for the last several events and have wondered if there is even a place there for a non-historian to discuss women’s history in this regard.
Let’s go Historiann, cough up the good stuff that always goes down at the baby berks! I had to miss it this year…
I seem to recall that there is also a sampling of scholars at the Big Berks who engage in gender history who are not doing women’s historians per se. And for Bridgett: I think the answer is yes!
I, too, am not a historian of women, but a woman who is a historian. I do religious and cultural history and most of the people I work on are men. (Although I’m very friendly to the history of women. And gender, for that matter.) But I’m a woman, and I do history, and the college where I teach is less than an hour’s drive from Mount Holyoke, and I’m excited about the idea of an organization for women who are historians, and I had absolutely no idea that the Little Berks was ever intended to be that. Cool.
@Bridgett — I’ve seen growing numbers of scholars from disciplines other than history (e.g. communications, literature, sociology, anthropology) attend and participate in the Big Berkshire conference. So, definitely check it out.
Just FYI– The Schlesinger Library has recently processed the records of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. See http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch00445 for the finding aid, including a brief history of the organization. The library also holds a collection of the papers given at Berkshire Conferences through 2005: http://:nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch00446
Ellen M. Shea
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
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