The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians apologizes sincerely for the harm experienced at the 2023 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders and Sexualities. The very public racism witnessed at the Fiftieth Anniversary Plenary session is not the only instance of this racial harm, but rather exemplifies continuing racism and inequality in our organization, the historical field, and our wider society. The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians leadership condemns the racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic comments of one of the Big Berks conference co-founders, Lois Banner. We acknowledge harm and apologize to scholars of color for their underrepresentation in decision-making positions and the continuing racism they encounter within our organization and in the spaces we create. We will take concrete measures to confront and correct these problems, and assert that the burden of these actions will not fall, as it often has, on our colleagues of color and LGBTQ+ colleagues. This labor must be done primarily by white women.
The organization now known as the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians was founded by a group of women scholars in 1930 — all of them white and mostly connected to elite, same-sex universities. As historians, we must acknowledge the gaps between our aspirations and what we have — and haven’t — done. Despite our longtime goal of creating community for women scholars excluded or grudgingly accepted by a white male-dominated profession, this organization has often fallen short in our goal of creating a climate that is welcoming, healthy, and productive for colleagues of color and those otherwise under-represented in the academy.
This is not old history. The Berks did not have a panel on lesbian history until 1981 or a woman of color as an officer until 2002. Events such as the Little Berks retreats excluded those not already in the network and were financially and geographically out of reach for many. As we wrestle with Banner’s comments and our own inaction, we must note that her remarks constitute only the latest incident for our members, officers, and colleagues of color; many report one-on-one microaggressions and racist encounters at this conference and prior events. Though our organization looks very different than it did almost a century ago, we have not done enough to counter the bias within our own ranks, including last week.
On Friday evening, attendees of the Berkshire Conference on the Histories of Women, Gender and Sexuality gathered for roundtables about the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Big Berks, titled “We Have Changed History: A Celebration.” During the first panel, Dr. Deborah Gray White gave a compelling speech on the absence of Black women in the Berkshire Conference’s early years and how the organization has been exclusionary. Dr. White’s powerful presentation was immediately followed by remarks from Lois Banner, which contained racist, homophobic and anti-Muslim comments that were also profoundly historically inaccurate. Banner’s talk exemplified the racist and exclusionary atmosphere that Dr. White had just described. Banner was called out by an audience member on her racist statements and refused to apologize or back down. Many attendees walked out. The panel eventually continued, with presenters delivering comments as scheduled.
No one grappled with the difficult history of the organization shared by Dr. White. This was our grave mistake, as was not reacting quickly to Banner’s comments as they happened. Before the second roundtable began, Co-President Dr. Barbara Molony apologized and spoke out against Banner’s comments, and later in the program, Vice President Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens directly addressed Banner’s words using Black feminist praxis.
Banner’s remarks are a symptom of a larger problem in our profession and our society. In the past decade, we have seen a rise in white supremacist ideas and language openly circulating in our society. Attacks on abortion rights, voting rights, affirmative action, and LGBTQ+ rights and bodies are all part of the continuation of structural inequality and overt and implicit violence against the Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ communities. Banner’s comments and other micro-aggressions at the conference were particularly harmful as the Supreme Court of the United States announced its ruling to dismantle affirmative action in higher education that very day. We as historians are not immune to this legacy of hate, but we are also the best placed to combat it.
We recognize that a formal apology, while necessary, is not sufficient, and that structural change must be central to our response to this particular iteration of the deeper and wider history and current presence of racism and other harms. As an organization, we commit ourselves to action:
- We will develop guidelines for attendees and moderators, examine and address how we develop the overall program and organize plenary sessions, and create mechanisms for finding support at our meetings and sharing feedback afterward.
- We are making structural changes to the organization itself, including a revision of our bylaws to increase democracy, transparency, and participation within our organization.
- We will provide resources for scholars of color to attend our conferences and meetings and participate in the organization and to support and center the scholarship of scholars of color.
- We will seek to push the larger historical academic community to address structural racism along with transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny and the myriad crises of this historical moment and to ensure that this work transcends the academy and engages a wider audience.
We intend for this apology to begin a period of action and meaningful change. Our aim will be to engage in fundamental transformations so that the organization’s commitments to equity in practice and leadership, diverse leadership, and diverse scholarship are a reality. Throughout this process, we will create opportunities for feedback and participation in guiding the organization’s work. The executive board calls on white women who are tenured or tenure-track to be leaders in this work so that the burden of changing racist practices does not fall on scholars of color.
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Executive Board
July 5, 2023