Well, it’s been a whirlwind of a conference, and worth the two-and-a-half years of planning that preceded it! The weather was sunny (mostly), warm, and fair. All of the panels and roundtables I attended were full of fascinating people who had great conversations with their audiences. (And those I didn’t attend I heard were also really good too–although if opinions differ here, I appreciate that no one wanted to complain about the conference this weekend. There will be plenty of time for accusations and recriminations after the fact.)
Some observations and highlights:
- Thursday night’s plenary session called “THE CHANGING (?) STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE HISTORICAL PROFESSION: PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES,” was in fact more about the persistent challenges than any measurable progress in the past 20 years. Noralee Frankel from the American Historical Association (AHA) told us about the Rose report in 1970 on the status of women historians, and about the 2005 report–and showed us how we keep making the same observations and recommendations again and again, and how relatively little has changed over these 38 years (Historiann’s lifetime!) The big gains were made in the 1970s and up through the late 1980s and the early 1990s, but we’ve flatlined since then according to Robert Townsend, also from the AHA. He reported that as of 2003, women made up only 30% of history faculty in the U.S., well below our representation among History Ph.D.s (in the low 40s, about what it’s been for the past twenty years.) And of course, there are still more women at the Assistant level than at the Associate or Full Professor rank–in about the same proportion as twenty years ago. So clearly women are not moving up through the ranks as they should. Elizabeth Lunbeck of Vanderbilt University (and author of the 2005 report) made the stunned observation at the end of an evening full of bad news: “I’m struck by how we’ve been drawn in repeatedly” by a progressive Whig narrative that says that equity is on its way, “when the situation [for women faculty] remains the same.”
- At the conclusion of this rather depression plenary panel, I had the honor of announcing a new article prize, the Mary Maples Dunn Prize, which will honor the best article in early American women’s history by an untenured scholar published in The William and Mary Quarterly that uses gender as a primary analytical category. Mary chaired the Thursday plenary, so her complete shock and surprise was visible to everyone there in the Ted Mann Concert Hall. (It’s been such a huge success that it looks like we’ll be able to endow the prize!) If you’re an untenured scholar in this field, sharpen your pencils and get to work.
- If we made a conference documentary, it might be called 2008: The Year Cultural History Broke. (With apologies to the classic grunge rock movie by David Markey. I still love you Courtney and Thurston!) This was an unexpected but fascinating sub-theme of a good number of the panels that I saw and that I heard about: get thee to an archive! There’s lots of new knowledge there just waiting for us. (I’ll post more on this topic later, for sure.)
- Tenured Radical was there, and cross-posting about the conference at Cliopatria. I met Knitting Clio for the first time, too–I’m sure she’ll share some of her observations and experiences at the conference, too. (I hope she slept better at the Holiday Inn Friday night! I wonder who the troublesome guest was, if she was with the Berks…) TR is apparently a big Ramones fan, and Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois can dance!
- Terri Snyder of California State University, Fullerton, put together a brilliant panel, RESEARCHING AND WRITING THE LIVES OF UNFREE WOMEN for Friday afternoon. Once again, we learned how stupid and untrue is the claim that “you can’t do research on women, especially unfree women, because there are no sources.” Most of the lives uncovered for us in this panel were the result of painstaking research in state and local archives–and their stories should encourage us to find and tell some new life stories of our own. And it turns out that Annette Gordon-Reed is just as beautiful and as brilliant as I always thought she must be–plus, she’s really nice, too.
- To borrow Muriel McClendon’s term for her group of allies on the faculty at UCLA, there were a lot of POW’s (Pissed Off Women) at the RETHINKING GENDER, FAMILY, AND SEXUALITY IN THE EARLY MODERN ATLANTIC session Saturday morning. The roundtable discussion should perhaps have been called, THE PROBLEM WITH ‘THE ATLANTIC WORLD’ PARADIGM. The early modern European historians and cultural studies scholars there–panelists Karin Wulf and Bianca Premo, and audience members Allyson Poska and Lisa Vollendorf, for example, sounded an alarm about the precipitous decline they’ve seen in dissertations and new scholarship on women, gender, sexuality, and the family.
- The reception Saturday night for the journal Gender and History was in the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum, which sits majestically on the Mississippi River. Walking over the bridge from the West Campus to the museum, it loomed in the sunset like the City of Oz. (See my not-great photo at left, and at the top of the post is my snapshot of Roy Lichtenstein’s World’s Fair Mural, which greets you as you enter the Weisman.) What a spectacular setting for the reception–made only more dramatic by lightning strikes nearby as the city got hit by a brief thunderstorm.
I’ll report more later–I’m going back to the Weisman with friends who like me don’t fly out until this evening. Thanks so much to those of you who introduced yourselves as readers and commenters–I hope you’ll add your thoughts and observations below!
11 Responses to “The 2008 Berkshire Conference: The Year Cultural History Broke?”