Google Search
UTSC mounts first made-in-Canada Berkshire Conference on the History of Women

According to University of Toronto Scarborough History Professor Franca Iacovetta, the 16th Berkshire Conference represents “the single most important international conference on the history of women, gender and sexuality.” The conference will welcome up to 2,000 participants to Toronto and to U of T on May 22nd to 25th. It’s the first time the conference is being held outside the US.

This year’s conference, themed Histories on the Edge, explores such issues as war-displaced, immigrant and migrating women; transgressive women; women and psychiatry; reproductive health; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) histories.  

Eighty years ago women historians, marginalized in their profession, began gathering at informal retreats in the Northeastern United States to network, in what has come to be called the “Little Berks.” Second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 70s launched the Berkshire Conference or “Big Berks.” The conference has helped solidify women’s reputation as respected professionals, as well as uncover women and gender as essential subjects of historical inquiry. Big Berks aims to bridge gaps among scholarship, lay publics, artistry and political engagement to analyze both history and the modern day.

Beyond assessing any emerging progressive changes for marginalized groups overall, Iacovetta, the conference president, and her team are bringing a particularly Canadian bent to the program, spearheading a major new indigenous focus that will spotlight analysis of edged-out indigenous peoples and women nationally and internationally,

Iacovetta, her UTSC program co-chair Professor Jayeeta Sharma and co-chairs from York University, Laval University and the University of Manitoba are also at the vanguard of a much more international trend for the Berkshire Conference, with perspectives from Asia and its diaspora, Latin America and the Caribbean. Big Berks will feature a vast program of panels, workshops on pre-reviewed scholarly papers, a lab of major digital history projects, a day of sessions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and an artists’ and performance hub at Hart House.

Primarily situated at King’s College Circle on U of T’s St. George campus, the conference has taken three years to plan and happens every three years. “We have 245 academic sessions alone,” says Iacovetta.  Colleagues from across U of T are involved as members of the program committee, session organizers, presenters and co-sponsors, volunteers, and are featured on the program including Ursula Franklin and Natalie Zemon Davis, who is virtually a founder of the Big Berks.

More than 100 sponsors and partners from university centres, women’s studies and history departments, research programs and community associations across the city and the country are involved in the program.

Postdoctoral fellow Camille Begin is the Berkshire Conference program coordinator. “This experience has really put me inside my field, giving me access to incredible networks of historians and the current trends in gender history scholarship,” she says. Begin will also chair a panel on “Poverty, Gender and State, Paternalism through Food,” which is co-sponsored by UTSC’s Culinaria Research Project, of which Begin is executive director.

The conference is equally a research and learning enterprise. UTSC undergraduates and U of T graduate students in History, many of whom teach at UTSC, are involved as research assistants, in everything from the conference call for papers, to helping adjudicate the poster entries, selecting and scheduling the “mini film festival,” operating the digital lab that is coordinated by UTSC Associate Professor Natalie Rothman, streaming documents on the conference website, even to performing their own works at the AGO venue. Iacovetta has also challenged graduate students to have their own research vetted for possible inclusion and to connect with historians with like interests.

As administrative assistant to the conference and graduate-student coordinator, Jen Evans says the conference is a demonstration of feminist mentorship: “Both in terms of our organizational work and our input into the program based on our own research interests, Prof. Iacovetta and the conference co-chairs have made sure that graduate students have played a meaningful role in the Berkshire Conference.”

Two of Iacovetta’s departmental colleagues, Professors Christine Berkowitz and Connie Guberman, will also take up the Berks as their undergraduate students’ ‘library’ for their summer courses. Their students will have the unique opportunity to interview noted international historians of women and gender, in sessions that Iacovetta is calling “15 feminist minutes.” 

For more information, visit

© University of Toronto Scarborough