Universal Mentors Association

Racial comment inflames Berkshire Conference of Women Historians


University of Southern California

The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians is an acclaimed meeting for female historians. It was founded in 1973, and its meetings attract a who’s who of women in the field of history.

This year, a racially inflammatory comment by a senior faculty member in women’s history during an opening plenary session on Friday inflamed the meeting. The faculty member in question was Lois Banner, professor emerita of history at the University of Southern California.

The conference posted three tweets in response.

The first, on Friday night, was “The Berks officers do not condone or support the inappropriate remarks made by one of the speakers tonight. A formal statement from the presidents will be made after the break.”

The second, on Saturday: “Please join the officers & trustees of the Berks to discuss the 50th anniversary plenary & your thoughts of how the organization can move forward to create an inclusive space for diverse histories and historians of diverse backgrounds.”

The third, on Saturday: “Thank you for those who gave their time, thoughts and input at the meeting today. The board and trustees listened, took careful notes, and are planning action. The conversation is not over and the board will have a statement and a concrete action plan soon.”

The co-president of the organization, Barbara Molony of Santa Clara University, sent Inside Higher Ed an email message that said, “The Berkshire Conference is developing a statement about Lois Banner’s troubling and racist remarks. We intend to develop a plan of action that will allow us to heal and better protect our membership and colleagues.”

What did Banner say?

She did not respond to email requests to discuss the incident. Comments on multiple Twitter accounts of people who were in attendance recounted that she said she wished she were Black (she’s white) so her career would have been easier.

The comment not only struck attendees as racist but as a reflection of the way some liberal white women take for granted the support of Black women.

Banner is among the women who founded the Berkshire conference in the early 1970s. She is the author of numerous books, including American Beauty, In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power and Sexuality and Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. Her history of women in the United States, Women in Modern America: A Brief History, has been continuously in print since 1974.

Deborah Gray White, Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, said via email, “Yes, a racially insensitive remark was made but it was no more insensitive than the plenary itself. Although the conference sessions reflected the diversity of subjects and people that the field now encompasses, the plenary did not.”


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