Publication Date

January 1, 1990

Perspectives Section



Women, Gender, & Sexuality

With financial assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation and administrative support from the AHA, the International Federation for Research in Women’s History/Federation Internationale pour la Recherche de l’Histoire des Femmes held its first meeting at the Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy, July 3–7, 1989.

Twenty-four historians, representing twenty countries and one affiliated society, gathered to launch the new international organization, which has been designated as an internal commission of the International Committee of Historical Sciences. The first general meeting of the IFRWH/FIRHF will occur in Madrid in August-September 1990 in conjunction with the Seventeenth International Congress. The AHA is the official United States respresentative on the ICHS and will sponsor the United States delegation to Madrid. Three United States delegates who attended the Bellagio meeting were: Mary Beth Norton, Department of History, Cornell University and Karen Offen, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University (coorganizers); and Phyllis Stock-Morton, representing the group’s affiliate, the Conference Group on Women’s History.

The Bellagio conference had two major goals: first, to assess the state of the art of women’s history scholarship in different countries around the world; and second, to foster international cooperation and scholarly exchange among women’s history scholars. Not only were both achieved to a remarkable degree, but a third unanticipated result was the forging of close personal and professional ties among women who will undoubtedly lead the IFRWH/FIRHF in the coming years.

Participants came both from countries where women’s history is a well-developed, lively field (for example, Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands) and from nations where scholarship is at a relatively early stage (for example, Nigeria, East Germany, and Yugoslavia). All, however, discovered common ground in concerns about similar scholarly and professional issues. Papers analyzing the current status of women’s history in each country allowed conference participants to gain a useful overview of scholarly trends in a comprehensive international context that was literally unprecedented. Three theoretical papers also stimulated discussion; one afternoon, for example, produced an extraordinary exchange on the difficulties of translating the concept of gender into a variety of languages.

In addition, the gathering provided an opportunity to hold the first official business meeting of the IFRWH/FIRHF and to begin planning for future gatherings after Madrid. The desirability of holding thematic conferences between international congresses was discussed at some length, and some themes and a site were suggested for one in 1992 or 1993.

The program committee for the Madrid meeting also convened at Bellagio. Cochaired by Mary Beth Norton and Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, it met twice late at night to select forty-three papers—from over eighty proposals—for six sessions on the theme of “women’s life cycles in socioeconomic perspectives.” Among those presenting papers will be eight Americans who will consider such diverse topics as androgyny in aging in the twentieth century United States, childbirth and mothering in the Russian Empire, and marriage in late nineteenth-century Egypt.

Thanks to the congenial setting of the Villa Serbelloni and the hard work and enthusiasm of all the participants, the IFRWH/FIRHF is off to a fine start. Karen Offen, United States, Ruth Roach Pierson, Canada and Jane Rendall, United Kingdom are coediting a volume composed of the papers presented at the conference, along with some additional contributions by other participants. It is anticipated that this book will be published in time for the Madrid conference next year, so that historians everywhere will be able to learn more about current work being done in women’s history around the world.

Mary Beth Norton
Mary Beth Norton

Cornell University