The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians is a women’s organization that meets once or twice a year in a scenic location in the Northeast for a weekend of relaxation and informal talk about history. It has been meeting like this for the last 70 years. This weekend retreat provides a forum for women historians to network and to share their views, work, and ideas. The retreat itself is often referred to as “The Little Berks.” While historically the meeting was held in New York or Massachusetts, the fall 2008 meeting was held in Interlaken, Connecticut, and the next Little Berks will be held in Philadelphia.
Those who join the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians are invited to attend the weekend retreats. At the retreats, members are often asked to get more involved by serving on a prize committee or as an officer, trustee or member of the nominating committee. There are no regional or national residency requirements for membership in the Little Berks, but those people willing or able to attend the annual retreats generally get more benefits from membership than those who cannot.
The Little Berks is an organization for historians who are women. 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.
Prospective members may wonder what our relationship is to the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (also known as “The Big Berks”), the internationally famous women’s history conference held every three years. The answer is that we founded it and our members now plan it! Unlike The Little Berks, The Big Berks is not a membership organization or a series of retreats. Rather it is a typical scholarly conference. You do not have to be a member of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians to attend or give a paper at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women; indeed most attendees and paper-givers are not members of the Little Berks.
The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians formed in 1930 in response to women academics’ sense of professional isolation. Although allowed to join the American Historical Association (the professional organization for historians in the U.S.), women 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 an attempt to get to know each other, women who later formed the basis of the Berkshire group began to sponsor breakfasts at the AHA to establish a network among female historians, as well as to exchange ideas on professional activities.
A group of about twenty historians from the faculties of the women’s colleges in New England and New York first met on a spring weekend at an inn in the Connecticut countryside in 1930 and constituted themselves the Lakeville History Group. In subsequent years, the group met at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA, at the Shaker Mill Farm in New Lebanon, NY, and at the Mohonk Mountain Lodge in New Paltz, NY. In 2004 it returned to the Red Lion Inn. Actually it is thought that 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. This gathering, “The Little Berks,” is a weekend of hiking, conversation, sports, and general socializing, in addition to a business meeting where the officers for the Conference are elected and broad plans are laid for the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (the “Big Berks”). Each evening there is a session where members discuss recent research in history. The Berkshire Conference especially encourages graduate students, junior faculty and independent scholars to attend these retreats.
The best-known aspect of our organization is the meeting of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, or “Big Berks,” held every three years. 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). In the next two decades the Big Berks was held at Bryn Mawr (1976), Mt. Holyoke (1978), Vassar (1981), Smith (1984), Wellesley (1987), Douglass (1990), and Vassar (1993).
By 1996 the Big Berkshire Conference (now held every three years) had begun to draw several thousand participants from all over the world. By the mid 1990s, the small liberal arts colleges could no longer accommodate the number of participants nor bear the expense of hosting such a large gathering, and bids were sought from larger research universities. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill hosted the June 1996 conference.
In welcoming the participants to the 1996 Big Berks at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Provost Richard Richardson emphasized the significance of this conference to UNC. Notably, 1996 was the first time the Big Berks had ventured onto “traditionally co-ed” soil, away from the Northeast and into the South. And for UNC it was the first time in the college’s over 200-year history that it had canceled classes to accommodate an event. According to Provost Richardson, the university was acknowledging a women’s history conference with a place of importance (cancellation of classes) that, despite entreaties, had been refused even when UNC hosted the NCAA basketball championship.
2011: The meeting was held at the beautiful Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. The relaxing locale provided a perfect backdrop for the historians to discuss the fascinating presentations given by Claudia Koonz (our Friday night keynote speaker), Nadia Jones-Gailani, Kathi Kern, Anna Sheftel, and Lisa Ndejuru.
2009: The meeting was held April 24-25 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.
2008: The meeting was held in early October at Interlaken, CT.
2007: The meeting was held April 27-29 in Stockbridge, MA, at the Red Lion Inn. On Friday, we enjoyed a presentation by Wang Zheng of the University of Michigan. On Saturday, Ann Braude, Director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School, moderated a discussion on the theme of “Teachable Moments: When Students Bring Religion Into the Classroom.”
2006: The meeting was held at the historical Hotel Northampton in Northampton, MA. On Friday evening, Toby Ditz of Johns Hopkins University gave a talk entitled, “Home and Away: Anglo-American Familial Letters & the Gendered Micro-Politics of Power in Eighteenth Century Advice to Youths.” We also had a panel presentation and discussion on the AHA report on the Status of Women in the History Profession with Mary Maples Dunn, Barbara Molony, and Jenny Brier.
2005: The meeting was held in Saratoga Springs, NY, at one of the premier resorts of the 19th century. While earlier visitors came to Saratoga Springs for the curative powers of the spring waters, Berkshire Conference attendees came for a range of restorative and professional activities, including a presentation by Michele Mitchell, Jennifer Morgan, and Jennifer Brier about an anthology they were editing on the history of sexuality.
2004: The meeting was in Stockbridge, MA, at one of the first conference sites for the organization, the Red Lion Inn. Research presentations were conducted by Shirley Lim and Mary Ann Villereal. We also discussed strategies for ensuring that gender, race, and ethnicity are not ignored at the higher ranks of academic and administrative appointments.
2003: The meeting was held at Arden House, the Averell Harriman estate run by Columbia University in Harriman, NY. The facilities encouraged interaction among participants as they ate, hiked and made local excursions in a rural retreat setting. A few brave souls even contemplated swimming in the brisk waters on the Arden House grounds. Research presentations included emerging work in African American History in a panel organized by Jennifer Morgan. A wide-ranging discussion of women and tenure engaged most participants in the Saturday night presentation.
2002: The meeting was held in Mohonk Mountain House in the Hudson Valley, an 1869 Victorian Castle and included the chance to assess the recent large conference and to begin planning the next conference, including the election of Vicki Ruiz as the next President of the Berkshire Conference. Participants broke into smaller groups to discuss other matters over activities including hiking, golfing, croquet, and badminton. Research presentations included a panel organized by Judith Zinsser.
1999: The meeting was held at the Beekman Arms Inn, a landmark since the days of Rip Van Winkle, in Rhinebeck, NY, from October 29-31. Thavolia Glymph and Nan Woodruff, both from Pennsylvania State University, presented papers on “Questions of Power: Race, Class and Gender in the Southern Countryside” from two quite different methodological and chronological perspectives. Jane Caplan, Bryn Mawr College, showed slides to illustrate her talk on the history of tattoos in Europe, entitled “Now You See It—Now You Don’t.” Participants also enjoyed hiking above the Hudson and in the Innisfree gardens, bicycling in a nearby state park and on the bike trails of the Mills mansion, visits to the Wildenstein and to Hyde Park for the Roosevelt estate, as well as to the unforgettable outside art creation, Wing Castle, and excursions for wine tasting along the Dutchess wine trail.