Women’s History, Active History, and the 2014 Berkshire Conference

By Adele Perry

Later this month the University of Toronto’s downtown campus will host the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. This is a big deal for a number of reasons. It is the first time that this venerable and highly visible conference has met outside of the United States. And there is also the sheer scale of the event. There are about 1,300 scholars involved in the conference in over 250 sessions, and still more involved in poster sessions, workshops, film-screenings, and cultural programming. At 167 pages, the conference programme is staggering. The 2014 Berks also suggests some of the ways that women’s and gender history is a particular kind of active history with the power to speak to our complicated present.

The demand that the academic discipline make room for women as subjects, authors, and teachers of history was inseparable from the revival of feminism in the so-called second wave in the 1960s and 70s.  Since then, women’s and gender history has had notable success in gaining entry to – and institutional authority within – the academy, at least in the United States and Canada. Joan Wallach Scott was critical to this push for women’s history, and in 2004 she accessed the changing status and meaning of women’s history in the American university. Scott argued that women’s history had attained a substantial level of success as measured by “an enormous corpus of writing, an imposing institutional presence, a substantial list of journals, and a foothold in popular consciousness….”[1] Of course this is a truncated version of Scott’s argument, and hers, in any case, is not the only possible reading. We might access the trajectory of women’s history in light of the capacity of neo-liberal regimes to undermine feminist scholarship, something that becomes clearer every time a women’s studies department is shuttered. We might also more rigorously situate these gains within the particular terrains within which they have been most clearly felt and more carefully register those constituencies that occupy small and insecure places within the mainstream academy.

We might also point out some of the ways that women’s and gender history has retained their power to challenge and unsettle. It is within the particular tertian of public history that this is perhaps clearest. Ten years after Scott’s article was published, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights commissioned a post in recognition of International Women’s Day from historian Veronica Strong-Boag and then declined to publish it when she refused to remove a one-sentence critique of the current federal government’s “anti-woman policies.” Around the same time, the American National Women’s History Museum abruptly dismissed its Scholarly Advisory Council. That museum has yet to be built, and historian Sonya Michel worries that it is slipping into a “mode of kitschy, triumphalist storytelling.” If any feminist historians were to benefit from the relative institutional authority and success won in the last three decades, it is surely Strong-Boag and Michel. That the seemingly modest and well-documented demands of these well-established scholars provoked the sort of response that it did reminds us of the work that women’s and history can and must do within the academy and outside of it.

The potential of women’s and gender history to challenge, inspire, and engage a wider society will be on full display at Berks 2014. As a conference it seeks to engage multiple audiences, tap an assortment of expertise, and speak to a wide variety of activist and policy concerns. On Friday 23 May we will host “Teachers Day at the Berks”. Working with HerstoriesCafe, University of Toronto Schools, Heritage Toronto, the Ontario Historical Society and others, we have developed a full day of sessions oriented at practicing teachers. There will be continual film and video screenings and seven exhibits at the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus, including ‘KWE!,’ a solo exhibit of Annishnabe artist Rebecca Belmore, an exhibit of lens-based works by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists, and one documenting the history of contraception and abortion rights in Canada. In addition, a range of cultural programming taps into Toronto’s rich local resources. There are sessions at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a number of local tours, and a Queer dance party. Berks 2014 also aims to engage the digital, an issue that will be addressed by historian Jenny Ellison in her post next Tuesday.

This is active history and it is also diverse history. Holding the Berkshires outside the U.S. and within the particular terrain of Toronto puts different histories and issues on the agenda. Indigenous histories will play a major role in the conference as a whole and will be featured in a special plenary session. This Berks is more bilingual than usual: there are papers in French and simultaneous interpretation of key sessions. Histories of migration and diaspora and of sexuality are engaged throughout the conference programme. The “Streams” we have developed will help attendees navigate an enormous programme and find the sessions that match their interest. The listings for Indigenous Histories, Disability History, Medieval and Early Modern Europe, LGBQ, multiple terrains of Black History and more can be found here.

Questions of activism, policy and social change are present even when these sessions are at their most conventionally scholarly. There will be a roundtable about Indigenous women and mobilization, a workshop about varieties of Black feminist activism in the Second Wave, a roundtable on queer challenges to museums, exhibitions, and heritage sites, a workshop on gender, prison, criminalization and collective learning that brings into dialogue former political prisoners from the Middle East and a Canadian organization that brings together incarcerated and non-incarcerated women and transpeople. The Berkshires 2014 conference shows us some of the ways that women’s and gender history is a particular kind of active history, one that retains the power to ask new questions in new ways.

[1] Joan Wallach Scott, “Feminism’s History,” Journal of Women’s History, 16: 2 (Summer 2004).

Adele Perry is a professor in the History Department at the University of Manitoba. She recently served as the Canada Research Chair in Western Canadian Social History.

3 thoughts on “Women’s History, Active History, and the 2014 Berkshire Conference

  1. Love this and looking forward to the conference. Integrating activism and history, in the classroom especially, has become more and more a concern for me as I’ve found myself at an institution that is skeptical of both. Last year my students tried to use their insights into the history of gender to mount a campaign for more gender-neutral and genderqueer friendly facilities on campus:

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