Big Berkshire Conference 2014 Report

Big Berkshire Conference 2014 Report

Last month, I attended the 16th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (aka the Big Berks) at the University of Toronto.  For those unfamiliar with this event, it is a triennial research conference held by the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (aka the Little Berks).  According to the Little Berks website, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians “formed in 1930 in response to women academics’ sense of professional isolation.” Women historians were allowed to join the American Historical Association (the professional organization for historians in the U.S.), but “were never invited to the ‘smokers,’ the parties, the dinners and the informal gatherings where the leading men of the profession introduced their graduate students to their colleagues and generally shepherded them into history jobs in colleges and universities.”

In order to create their own professional networks, women who later formed the basis of the Little Berks began to hold breakfast meetings atberks1 the AHA annual convention. In 1930, a group of twenty women historians from the faculties of women’s colleges in New England and New York State held their first spring weekend retreat at a country inn in Lakeville, Connecticut, naming themselves the Lakeville History Group.  The Little Berks website says  “the immediate impetus for the format of a spring weekend came in response to a week-long retreat for male historians led by J. Franklin Jameson when he was the Executive Secretary of the AHA. Whereas the men’s group collapsed when Jameson died, the women’s weekends have continued to the present. These informal country gatherings have met every year since 1935, when the name Berkshire Historical Conference (since they usually met in Stockbridge) was adopted. In subsequent years the name was amended to the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. ”

I was invited to the Little Berks retreat a few years ago to participate in a panel on blogging with Tenured Radical and Clio Bluestocking, and it was great fun. The number of attendees is very small — usually about thirty or forty — which makes the setting quite cozy. There are some scheduled scholarly discussions and business meetings but much of the time is spent chatting and enjoying the outdoors. Most of the day scholars hang out in shorts and t-shirts or other casual clothes. I wasn’t informed that it’s a tradition to dress for dinner, and so I wore the same casual outfit to the evening event. Although it clearly wasn’t mandatory, as there were others who were still in their day clothes, I missed out on the full Little Berks experience. So, if you do attend, I encourage you to bring some fancy clothes for the evening (I saw a lot of vintage thrift store outfits so you don’t need to spend a lot).

The organization is about to launch a new website, where you can find out when the next Little Berks will be held. Meanwhile, you can go here to join the organization. Remember, this is an organization for historians who are women (both cis and trans).  As the website states, “You do not have to work on the history of women or gender to be a member, and many of our members work on other fields. Nor do you have to work on American or European history; indeed we especially welcome new members working on other areas of the world.”

The best known event sponsored by the Little Berks is the meeting of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, or “Big Berks,” held every three years. Unlike the Little Berks, the Big Berks is an academic conference. One does not have to be a member of the Little Berks, or a woman historian, to attend or present. According to the Little Berks website, the Big Berkshire Conference “began in the early 1970s and grew out of the flourishing interest in women’s studies across the country. The first Berkshire Conference on the History of Women took place at Douglass College, Rutgers University, in 1973. Expecting only 100 or so participants, the Douglass conference drew instead three times that number, prompting calls for another. The next year the Big Berkshire Conference met at Radcliffe and drew over a thousand participants (an enormous number by the standards of the time).” Clearly women’s history as a discipline had arrived.

Meanwhile, women historians in the American Historical Association battled sexism in the historical profession. Although the Little Berks created a sense of community among women historians, the AHA was still very much hostile to women and other outsiders. According to Bernice Carroll, during the 1960s and 1970s, the organization was “a gentlemen’s protection society . . . openly supporting practices of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and antisemitism.” [1]


In December 1969, shortly before the AHA annual meeting, a group of women historians organized the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians in the Profession (CCWHP). [now called the Coordinating Council for Women in History] As stated on the Council’s website, the Committee’s goals “were to recruit women into the historical profession, to alleviate discrimination against women students and faculty, to secure greater inclusion of women in annual meetings and the committees of the AHA, and to encourage the research in and teaching of women’s history. The CCWHP soon became an affiliated organization of the AHA. Reflecting the emerging scholarship on women in history, the Conference Group on Women’s History (CGWH) was created in 1974. Since the CGWH remained closely associated with the CCWHP.”  In 1995, the two groups merged under the name of the Coordinating Council for Women in History (CCWH).

According to a recent article in the AHA’s Perspectives in History, “During the past 40 years women historians have achieved significant gains. They range from the percentage of women receiving PhDs in history, rising from 11 percent in 1969 to 42 percent in 2008, to the growing prominence of women historians as presidents of the AHA and the Organization of American Historians.” The CCWH continues to foster the work of women historians by helping “to organize and co-sponsor panels for the annual meetings of the AHA and its affiliated societies, and other groups such as the World History Association. It cosponsors a reception for graduate students, members, and friends at the AHA annual meeting, as well at other meetings such as the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. Its luncheon at the AHA meeting showcases the work of a prominent woman historian and helps members network across age, regional, and subdisciplinary categories.” The CCWH also offers several awards to women historians. “The Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women’s History is for the best work in women’s history or feminist theory. The Catherine Prelinger Award endows the research of a scholar who has followed a non-traditional, academic path. The CCWH-Berkshire Fellowship and the Ida B. Wells Fellowship help doctoral students to complete their dissertations. The Nupur Chaudhuri First Article Prize is for an article that a CCWH member publishes in a refereed journal.” [2] You can find out more about these awards at the CCWH website.


For the first twenty years, the Big Berks meetings were held at women’s colleges: Bryn Mawr (1976), Mt. Holyoke (1978), Vassar (1981), Smith (1984), Wellesley (1987), Douglass (1990), and Vassar (1993). By the mid-1990s, the Big Berks had become too large for these venues, so the conferences began to be held at large research universities. The first such conference was held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1996. This was also the first time the conference was held at a coeducational institution and the first time it was held outside the Northeastern United States.

I’ve attended every Big Berks conference since 1990 and encourage anyone interested in women’s history to go, regardless of their professional status. It’s an especially good environment for graduate students and junior scholars, and increasingly, K-12 educators and public historians. As Tenured Radical wrote in her review of the conference, a key virtue of the Big Berks is the “lack of posturing, professionalization exercises, and BS that makes status differences between scholars a constant, unspoken dynamic” at most other history conferences, especially the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting. The Big Berks has “no sanctioned job market activity, and there is very little emphasis on formal mentoring. This, combined with the informality of the conference (on nice days, shorts and tee shirts are the norm) means that there is a lot more informal cross-generational contact.” In other words, it’s like summer camp for historians.

The 16th Big Berkshire Conference was the first one held outside of the United States. According to the University of Toronto news release on the conference, over 2,000 people from all over the world attended. The conference “lived up to its reputation” as “the single-most important international conference on the history of women, gender, and sexuality” in the world, “offering more than 245 academic sessions, over 20 special archives and other workshops, extensive cultural programming and major performances.” These events included a full day of programming aimed at K-12 teachers called “Teacher’s day @ the Berks”, film screenings, various arts exhibits and live performances, and even a drag show. A highlight for some was the Saturday night dance (I’m not a dancer plus I wanted to attend my roommate’s Sunday morning session, and so I skipped the dance). As @Leah Wiener tweeted, “ is where you dance with the people you cited for your comprehensive exams.”

Berkshire Conference President Franca Iacovetta said  “U of T was an ideal place to hold this first internationally located Berks Conference” because the University “is an internationally recognized university with internationally respected, leading-edge scholars.” In addition, Iacovetta observed, “Toronto is one of the most global, diverse and queer cities in the world.”

I’m happy to report that the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon that I mentioned in my last post was a great success. About twenty or so budding Wikipedians dropped in to begin writing women into Wikipedia. We even started an entry on the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (feel free to edit it). Tenured Radical (TR) also started an entry on her graduate school mentor, Susan Ware. TR says that Wikipedia has pointed out “multiple issues” with the entry so please help her address them.

The conference was a great time to get caught up with colleagues from other campuses, meet new people, and hear some great presentations.  There were plenty of Twitterstorians in attendance (we held a meetup on Thursday evening) so there was a robust backchannel (see #Berks2014). There were famous women historians in abundance as well as other celebrities. I even ran into the filmmaker/actor/Oscar66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra) nominee Sarah Polley in the washroom.

Polley was at the conference for a screening and Q & A for her film “Stories We Tell.” Unfortunately I missed the screening in order to attend a friend’s session. [Too many sessions, too little time!]  Here are some tweets from @BerksConference:

“Polley: because the film is about storytelling, I thought it was important to include my process as a storyteller.”

“Polley introduces the film, thanks us for applauding at news she’s adapting [Margaret] Atwood’s “’Alias Grace.’”

In summary, there was something for everyone at the Big Berks conference. Even a star of Polley’s caliber stuck around to check out other panels (including my roommate’s early Sunday morning session). I think this is a sign that the Berkshire Conference has succeeded in its efforts to reach beyond the academy and appeal to a wider audience interested in women’s history.

Despite the work of the CCWH and Berkshire Conferences, both Little and Big, women still have a long way to go to achieve equality in historical profession.  According to a 2010 report by Robert Townsend, the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications, “even as the rest of academia has moved toward greater balance in the representation of women, history has lagged well behind most of the other fields.” For example, a survey of college and university faculty conducted in 2007 “found that women comprised just under 35 percent of all history faculty (Figure 1). This compares to 42 percent of the faculty in all fields, and 51 percent of the faculty in the humanities. History was slightly closer to the norm in conferring new PhDs, as 42 percent of the last two cohorts of history PhDs were women. But this proportion still falls below the average for all disciplines, 46 percent, and well behind the humanities as a whole, where women receive 52 percent of the degrees.” [3]

This is where you can get involved. Towards the end of the conference, President-elect Susan Yohn announced that the next Big Berks will be at Hofstra University in 2017. The CFP usually appears at least a year and a half in advance so mark your calendars now. Meanwhile, consider joining the CCWH and/or the Little Berks, and keep an eye on the Little Berks website for an announcement of the next weekend retreat.


[1] Bernice Carroll, “Scholarship and Action: CCWHP and the Movements,’ Journal of Women’s History, 6 (Fall 1994), 79, quoted on Coordinating Council for Women in History Website.

[2] Nupur Chaudhuri and Barbara Ramusack, “The Coordinating Committee on Women Historians: Accomplishments and New Goals,” Perspectives in History, September 2010.

[3] 1. Robert B. Townsend, “What the Data Reveals about Women Historians,” Perspectives on History, May 2010.

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.