The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians was founded in 1930 by Louise Fargo Brown of Vassar College and Louise Ropes Loomis of Wells College. Initially called the Lakeville History Group, after the Connecticut retreat where early meetings were held, the organization became the Berkshire Conference to reflect its new meeting place: the Red Lion Inn at Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Although women had been members of the AHA since the nineteenth century, history departments, even at women’s colleges, were dominated by men. In addition, much of the business and conviviality of the historical profession in its early years occurred at hotel “smokers,” private men’s clubs, and an annual retreat held by J. Franklin Jameson in New London, CT. Women were barred from these events, social occasions when graduate students were introduced to prominent colleagues by their mentors. Other forms of exclusion — specifically, women of color who were active in teaching, preservation, and other forms of what we would now call public history — were, unfortunately, not addressed by the founders as they worked to create a place for themselves in the profession.
The Berkshire Conference began to see a larger role for itself after World War II, as women earned the Ph.D. in greater numbers, and renewed their fight to be recognized in the historical profession. Enthusiasm for women’s history among second wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s made the Berkshire Conference a magnet for a new generation of ambitious scholars. Although women are now accustomed to being honored by all historical societies, that was not the case when the organization established a book prize in 1968 and an article prize in 1971. The list of winners in these early years not only shows the emergence of women’s history as a field, with its own themes and methodologies, but the ways in which women and feminism transformed historical scholarship.
The inaugural “Big Berks” was held in 1973 at Douglass College, Rutgers University, resulting in the first edited collection in the field of women’s history, Clio’s Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (Harper & Row, 1974), edited by Lois Banner and Mary S. Hartman. Perhaps the excitement of that volume propelled the Berkshire Conference into a second scholarly meeting the following year at Radcliffe College. The fast-growing organization soon switched to a biennial model, and then to triennial meetings after 1978. Like many second wave feminist organizations, these conferences also featured a women’s dance on the final evening of the conference, which continues to this day.
The women of the 1970’s and 1980s also shifted their meetings to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. An old tradition dating back to the founders dictated that the first member to spot a trillium, a rare and delicate New England plant, would be awarded a glass of bourbon at the evening cocktail hour. Mohonk presented a challenge to this tradition since, for many years, it was a “dry” hotel. This proved only a small barrier to conviviality, however, and it is said that the bourbon was still awarded – along with cocktails doled out to others — but more privately, and from a bottle smuggled into the hotel in a suitcase.
In 1981, The Berkshire Conference was incorporated in the State of Maryland as a 501(3) c, allowing the organization to create an endowment to support our activities and prizes from membership fees, any profits from the triennial conference, and tax-deductible donations.
The Berkshire Conference also has a long history of creating cooperative relationships with other organizations that advance the cause of women in the historical profession. Between 1982 and 2001, the Berkshire Conference awarded one of the prestigious Bunting Fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. In 1982, in cooperation with the Coordinating Council of Women in the Historical Profession, the Berks began awarding a graduate fellowship, a practice that continues to this day.