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The Berkshire Conference on the History of Women: Reflections on Historical Practice

Posted by Jodey Nurse
29 May 2014 - 7:36am

Last week I attended the Sixteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, which was held for the first time outside of the United States, in Toronto, Canada. This was my first “Big Berks.” I realized that I was privileged to present a paper, and I knew that attending this conference would be both informative and stimulating. What I had not anticipated, but was not surprised about, was the incredible sense of community that I encountered. I hesitate to use the word 'community', and recognize some historians’ unease with the concept. However, I did feel a strong camaraderie and connection with my fellow participants. This was not just because of the sizeable presence of historians focusing on my area of research, rural women’s history, but because of the general sense of purpose among all attendees: highlighting “Histories on the Edge” (the conference’s theme), which included international studies on the history of women, gender, and sexuality. I could go on at length about the fascinating research that was presented, for which both organizers and presenters should be commended, but instead I want to spend my time discussing one aspect of the conference that I found particularly impactful.

 I was most inspired by the women historians who opened up about their own histories, approaches, and processes in researching and writing history. The incredible openness with which these women shared their personal connections to their research, and their reflections on the challenges they encountered with sources, theory, and historical practice were extremely valuable. The information they imparted about their research topics was important, but the lessons they provided, and questions they posed for students and colleagues about various approaches to writing history resonated with me and has led me to consider new ways of approaching my own area of study. The practice of oral history, the usefulness of hegemonic masculinity, the field of feminist legal history, the limits and possibilities of biography, the potential for collaboration in historical research, and the question of 'rural feminism' were some of the topics discussed that gave me additional insight and a clearer vision for my work. I want to thank the women who shared their stories and experiences, and who were candid about the difficulties they faced, and continue to face, in their historical practice. By sharing their processes they aid others in the complex, and often intimidating (though rewarding), task of writing the history of women.

Thank you to all of the organizers, volunteers, and participants who made this conference such a memorable event.