University of Rochester

EVENT: University to Host Women Historians' Conference

March 1, 1999

Less than a year after national attention focused on western New York and the 150th anniversary of the first women's rights convention, the area will be the site of another major event celebrating women's history.

More than 2,000 scholars from around the world, both men and women, are expected to attend the 11th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at the University of Rochester June 4 through 6. Held only once every three years, the event is a mammoth undertaking featuring more than 200 panels, workshops, and roundtables.

This year, special sessions on teaching women's history in secondary schools have been scheduled and opened to local high school teachers.

"We're very pleased and excited to be on this historical turf," said Claudia Koonz, president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. "Not only are we meeting at a site that's important for women's history, but the University's Department of History has an outstanding reputation for scholarship and teaching. Many well-known historians of women have taught and have graduated from the University."

The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians formed in the early decades of this century. Though allowed to join the American Historical Association, women academics weren't invited to informal networking gatherings or social events like "smokers." They began to sponsor their own events to meet and exchange ideas.

In the 1930s, a group of women historians from colleges in New England and New York started holding regular country retreats, eventually adopting the name Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Their annual gathering, called the "Little Berks," continues to provide a weekend of socializing as well as discussions of historical research.

Growing interest in women's studies led to the first Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in 1973. Held at Douglass College of Rutgers University, the "Big Berks" was expected to draw only about 100 participants. Instead, more than 300 attended this first major conference devoted to women's history. The following year, the Berkshire Conference drew more than 1,000 scholars to Radcliffe College.

In subsequent years, the "Big Berks" were held at small liberal arts women's colleges in the Northeast such as Vassar, Smith, and Mount Holyoke. As the event grew it required larger accommodations, and the most recent Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in 1996 was held at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Lynn Gordon, associate professor of history and education at the University of Rochester, is chairing local arrangements for the Berkshire Conference.

"The conference is a wonderful opportunity for the university to showcase itself," she commented. "It's also an opportunity for participants to visit the area where Susan B. Anthony began her campaign for women's suffrage and where the first women's rights convention was held nearby in Seneca Falls."

In addition to hosting the "Big Berks" conference and the "Little Berks" weekend retreats, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians works with other organizations to improve the status of women in the historical profession and in society. It sponsors gatherings at major historical conferences throughout the year, awards a postdoctoral summer fellowship for research, and awards prizes annually to the best book and the best article in history written by a woman.

Last year, Alice Conklin, associate professor of history at the University, was awarded the Berkshire Conference's Book Prize for A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930. Two women who are alumnae of the history department have also been honored by the conference: Judith Walkowitz of Johns Hopkins University won the Book Prize in 1980, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham of Harvard University received the prize for the best article in 1992.