The Moment of British Women’s History: Memories, Celebrations, Assessments, Critiques

Friday, February 8, 2013 - Saturday, February 9, 2013  9:00am International Affairs Building, Room 1501


Free and open to the public

First come, first seated

To reserve a seat, email [email protected]


The Heyman Center for the Humanities

The Society of Fellows in the Humanities

The Department of History

The Department of English

The University Seminar in Modern British History

British Studies at Columbia

The Institute for Research on Women and Gender

The Office of the President, Barnard College

**To reserve a seat, email [email protected]

About forty years ago, historians of women began to claim a place for their subject as a distinct scholarly field.  This movement emerged particularly powerfully in Britain, its early preoccupations and questions shaped by the feminist movement, the New Left, and especially by Thompsonian social history.  A clutch of brilliant young feminist scholars uncovered the forgotten claims and achievements of women Chartists, Owenists, suffragists and social reformers, their work enabled by and further fostering a raft of innovative and successful (if financially fragile) networks, institutions, and publishing ventures.  At the meetings of the London Feminist History Group and through chance encounters in the Fawcett Library’s rediscovered and rich collections, in early issues of Feminist Review and History Workshop Journal, through Virago Press’s publication of new scholarship on women and the rediscovered fiction and historical records of earlier periods, and in the struggle to found women’s studies courses and programs, this new field took shape.

That early flowering of British women’s history was symbiotically bound to American developments from the start.  Strong transatlantic feminist ties brought young American women scholars to London, and the better-funded and, to a degree, more anarchic structure of American higher education also made space for collaboration.  The Berkshires Conference of Women’s Historians, Feminist Studies and other new journals, and the Conference of Women’s Historians, fostered exchanges, friendships, and paradigms.  Graduate courses and then graduate programs in women’s history and women’s studies emerged, launching a generation of women into the profession.  Through the seventies, women’s history also engaged with, and was reshaped by, well-founded criticisms of its blindness to imperial legacies and racial hierarchies; paradigms asserting the ‘primacy of patriarchy’ jostled with those relying on the triumvirate of ‘race, sex, and class.’ Connections to literary criticism on the one hand, and to sociology on the other, turned Victorian ideology and male-dominated social structures into major foci of research.  Then, suddenly, structuralist explanation was under challenge from within, as scholars turned to Foucault, Saussure and Lacan for a theory of ‘difference’ less tied to physical bodies and material or state structures.  Some of the field’s prominent early founders changed course; ‘gender history’ had arrived.

Today, that moment of ‘women’s history’ seems both present and a long way off.  The field’s founders and pioneers are now retiring.  They leave impressive accomplishments – an academic landscape in which ‘women’ as subjects of study and ‘gender’ as a ‘useful category’ are taken for granted; positions, programs and professorial chairs in the UK and US alike; rich scholarship stretching across three generations.  But institutionalization and what we might call analytic ‘complexification’ has also changed the field in many ways.  It seems a good moment for celebration and acknowledgement, then, but also for reflection.  How does this field now look to some of its early pioneers?   How has mentorship and ‘school-formation’ worked?  What have successive generations taken from earlier generations’ work, and how have they transformed it?  What happened to those early institution and networks?  What has been gained and lost through the process of institutionalization?  What has happened both to the ‘place’ of the feminist imperative within history, and to the relatively privileged place of Britain within that scholarship?

Watch this conference on Vimeo.


  • Sally Alexander

    Professor of Modern History

    Goldsmiths, University of London

  • Bonnie Anderson

    Professor Emerita

    Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

  • Christopher L.  Brown

    Professor of History

    Columbia University

  • Arianne Chernock

    Assistant Professor of History

    Boston University

  • Anna Clark

    Professor of History

    University of Minnesota

  • Deborah A.  Cohen

    Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History

    Northwestern University

  • Leonore Davidoff

    Research Professor, Department of Sociology

    University of Essex

  • Lucy Delap

    Faculty of History

    University of Cambridge

  • April Gallwey

    Research Fellow in Oral History, Institute of Advanced Study

    University of Warwick

  • Durba Ghosh

    Associate Professor of History

    Cornell University

  • Eileen Gillooly

    Executive Director

    Heyman Center for the Humanities

  • Kathryn Gleadle

    Lecturer in Modern History

    University of Oxford

  • Susan R. Grayzel

    Professor of History

    University of Mississippi

  • Mary S.  Hartman

    Founder and Senior Scholar – Institute for Women’s Leadership

    Rutgers University

  • Jean Howard

    George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities

    Columbia University

  • Karen Hunt

    Professor of Modern British History

    Keele University

  • Seth Koven

    Associate Professor of History

    Rutgers University

  • Thomas Laqueur

    Helen Fawcett Professor

    University of California, Berkeley

  • Phyllis Mack

    Professor of History

    Rutgers University

  • Deborah Nord

    Professor of English

    Princeton University

  • Susan Pedersen

    Gouverneur Morris Professor of British History

    Columbia University

  • Ellen Ross

    Professor of Women's Studies

    Ramapo College

  • Bonnie Smith

    Board of Governors Professor of History

    Rutgers University

  • Penny Summerfield

    Professor of Modern History

    University of Manchester

  • Pat Thane

    Professor Emerita

    University of London

  • Selina Todd

    Lecturer in Modern British History

    University of Oxford

  • Deborah Valenze

    Professor of History

    Barnard College

  • Judith Walkowitz

    Professor of Modern European Cultural and Social History

    John Hopkins University

  • Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska

    Professor of History

    University of Illinois at Chicago


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