The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians is pleased to announce the following awards for books and articles published in 2020.
For a first book in any field of history that does not focus on the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality
We would like to thank all of the authors who submitted their first book in any field of history that does not focus on the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality. This year’s submissions were particularly diverse and interesting. For the 2020, the committee chose to award the Berks book prize to two recipients:
- Gina Anne Tam for Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960.
- Alice L. Baumgartner for South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.
2020 > Gina A. Tam, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2020)
This book starts with an original, brilliantly formulated question about the role that modern societies have assigned to standard languages in the construction of national identities. In the case of modern China, both the question and the answer are counter-intuitive; as Tam notes, “remarkably few people within the PRC’s borders speak [Mandarin] exclusively,” or Putonghua, the official language, with “nearly 80 percent of the PRC citizens grow[ing] up speaking one or several fangyan,” the “local Chinese languages that are often mutually intelligible with spoken Putonghua.”
Working on Chinese history, with challenging archival access and in the face of state scrutiny, is difficult. Moreover, in the wrong hands, a book such as this could be dry and pedantic. Yet, Tam breathes life into her subject, allowing the regional variations of language and the cultural meanings that attach to these differences to sparkle. Through rigorous research and careful prose, Tam wrote a radical alternative story of how modern nations and identities are formed and offers tremendous nuance and context in relation to the contemporary moves that the PRC took to promote a homogenous state and citizenship narrative.
2020 > Alice L. Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War (Basic Books, 2020)
Baumgartner’s beautifully rendered and lucid narrative explores the largely overlooked histories of thousands of people who escaped slavery in the US prior to the Civil War by crossing the border into Mexico, where a gradual emancipation movement that began in 1824 led to the abolition of slavery in 1837 and the codification of the “freedom principle.” The appreciation of Mexico’s active role in annihilating slavery elucidates the joined history of the two countries and demonstrates the influence of Mexico’s “moral power” on US domestic and foreign policies. Her findings raise questions about previous works that mainly drew on US sources and perpetuated the biased view that neither the Mexican government nor Mexican people were committed to anti-slavery.
The book, based on meticulous archival research, gives a fine-grained account of the contributions of the individual people who destabilized the US slave regime by fleeing to free land. Baumgartner’s work is an exceptional example of transnational history. Innovative and elegantly written, the monograph tackles the challenge of weaving a large corpus of sources located in two countries and varied historiographies into a tight fabric. South to Freedom is an important, original, and lasting contribution to the hemispheric history of emancipation.
For a first book that deals substantially with the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality
We would like to thank all of the authors who submitted their first book in any field of history that does not focus on the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality. This year’s submissions were particularly diverse and interesting. For the 2020, the committee chose to award the Berks book prize to:
- Jessica Marie Johnson for Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World.
- Runner up: Erika Denise Edwards for Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, The Law, and the Making of White Argentine Republic.
2020 > Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)
This meticulously researched and superbly rendered study analyzes the subversive practices of African women and women of African descent in Atlantic slave societies of the eighteenth century. The scale and scope of the book are staggering as the narrative moves from Senegambia to colonial Louisiana documenting the agency, actions, and varying experiences of Black women. The author deftly brings together scattered threads of interdisciplinary theories of race, diaspora studies, and feminist methodologies, and draws on primary sources, especially Black women’s life histories, collected from an impressive range of archives. The stories center on everyday realms of pleasure, intimacy, and kinship relations and how Black women negotiated these to challenge their enslavement. Thus, the book problematizes the meanings of emancipation and freedom. Using feminist methodologies, it moves beyond the formal legal, social, and political spheres to reconstruct a more comprehensive history of racial slavery based on Black women’s perspectives and actions. The author’s ability to highlight the interconnections between the macro and micro, the transatlantic and the comptoir, power and dependence, subversions and negotiations, have rendered this book exceptional.
Johnson’s writing transports the reader, taking them to fascinating stories and places. It is a critical intervention, a global women’s history at its most comprehensive, and a welcome addition to the field.
2020 Runner up> Erika Denise Edwards, Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, The Law, and the Making of White Argentine Republic (University of Alabama Press, 2020)
Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic (2020) is an excellent study of the lived experience of African-descended women in the city of Córdoba that spans the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The historiography of the Black experience and on slavery and freedom in Argentina (Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata) has focused on the capital Buenos Aires. Hiding in Plain Sight reorients our attention to a place in the interior with a strong African presence, where women made important personal and economic choices to lead dignified lives in a context where whiteness correlated with privilege and power. Based on rich archival research and a command of race, diasporic, and gender theory, Edwards’s book shows that African-descended women protected themselves and their families by adeptly navigating legal and social obstacles put into place by statesmen to uphold white supremacy. It is history-from-below at its best.
2020-2021 Berkshire Book Award Committee
- Julie de Chantal, Georgia Southern University – Chair
- Ashley Baggett, North Dakota State University
- Christian Crouch, Bard College
- Jeannette Estruth, Bard College
- Anna Krylova, Duke University
- Tatiana Seijas, Rutgers University
- Priyanka Srivastava, University of Massachusetts Amherst
For an article in the fields of the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality
2020 > Rosanna Dent, ‘Subject 01: exemplary Indigenous masculinity in Cold War genetics’, British Journal of the History of Science, 53 (3), September 2020
Rosanna Dent’s insightful work draws the history of the social sciences to recast our understanding of masculinities and aggression in the culture of the 1960s. She discusses the research on genetics at a time when popular conceptions of evolution were promoting an image of “natural” human masculinity, which some scholars believed could be identiﬁed in indigenous groups still living in tribal communities. A key debate among evolutionary biologists at this time was whether humans have a greater inclination to individual violence or to group cooperation.
She argues that research, focusing on indigenous peoples in Brazil, drove a particular vision of masculine violence: “The arguments which developed out of the research on Apöwẽ and Yanomami warfare promoted an individualistic evolutionary beneﬁt to male aggression, setting up conditions for sociobiologists to frame violence as innate.”
She goes on to show that this research did real-world harms to the Yanomami, as it was instrumentalised by “Brazilian fazendeiros and politicians in an attempt to block the demarcation of a large uniﬁed Yanomami territory.”
Dent explores the persistent tendency in genetics (and popular science) to regard indigenous groups as living exemplars of the deep past, and the use of indigenous people as research subjects to demonstrate evolutionary claims.
For article in any field of history other than the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality
2020 > Amy Chazkel, ‘Toward a History of Rights in the City at Night: Making and Breaking the Nightly Curfew in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 62 (1), 2020
Amy Chazkel’s work uses temporality as a lens to explore the historical experience of Rio’s residents in the nineteenth century. Night criminalized activities for certain inhabitants–slaves or people who could be taken for slaves, women, foreigners–that were perfectly legal during the daytime. Her creative approach gave a literary ﬂair to the piece, and the committee were particularly impressed with the way her tools could be used by other scholars.
She refers to her sources, police notebooks, as “glimpses through a tiny keyhole at nocturnal public culture before the era of Rio’s famed nightlife, before there was supposed to be any.” Scholars teasing out what existed where it wasn’t “supposed to” is a signiﬁcant way of reading “across the archival grain”, and Chazkel shows how we can extrapolate a broader understanding of the ﬁeld. In her case, this is an urban environment evolving alongside, and through, the development of modern policing, transport and technology.
2019-2020 Berkshire Article Award Committee
- Katrina Gulliver, Bristol, Chair
- Maria Bucur-Deckard, Indiana University, Bloomington
- Margaret H. Darrow, Dartmouth
- Victoria Hodgson, Bristol
- Pernille Ipsen, Wisconsin
- Amanda Ricci, York University
- Karin Rosemblatt, University of Maryland
- Nichole Rustin, Rhode Island School of Design
- Rachel Sandwell, Rhode Island School of Design