College Hosts “Women Making History”


Cheryl Greenberg (l), professor of history, was among those who gathered to pay tribute to Barbara Sicherman.

An overflow crowd of more than 150 scholars and historians gathered in Mather Hall on Saturday, September 24, to pay tribute to a longtime Trinity faculty member who knocked down barriers for female academics who are still following in her path. The “Women Making History” symposium was held in honor of Barbara Sicherman, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values, who taught history and American studies at the College from 1982 to 2005. A Friday evening reception at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preceded Saturday’s event. Among her many accomplishments prior to retiring last May, Sicherman was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Studies Program at Trinity, now known as the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program, in which she also taught.

“Barbara has been a wonderful colleague and mentor to scores of women throughout her career,” says Joan Hedrick, the Charles A. Dana Professor of History. “She was one of the first people to make the case for women’s studies as a legitimate field. Today, practically every college has a women’s studies program. She is truly a pioneer, and the marvelous turnout for this event is indicative of her far-reaching influence.” 

Following opening remarks by Hedrick and Interim Dean of Faculty Frank Kirkpatrick, keynote speaker Linda Kerber, the May Brodbeck Professor in Liberal Arts & Sciences and chair of the history department at the University of Iowa, delivered a warm, insightful, and, at times, humorous address entitled, “A Historian Reads: The Career of Barbara Sicherman.” The daylong event, which included scholars from as far away as the University of Michigan, Duke University, and the University of Virginia as well as those from more local colleges and universities, featured lively panel discussions such as “Women’s Lives: Past, Present, Future”; “Cultures of Reading”; and “Women’s History/Women Historians.”

A graduate of Swarthmore College who went on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University, Sicherman noted in her closing remarks that the advent of women’s studies as a discipline allowed women who were in graduate school in the late sixties and early seventies to delve into a new, largely unexplored subject that engaged them fully and established a framework for their scholarly work. She recalled that when she taught her first course in women’s history, at Manhattanville College in 1970, there were “about three books” on the subject. It was, she said, a field of study whose time had come.

  Barbara Sicherman leaves the podium to a standing ovation.

“Many of the folks who became involved in women’s studies came out of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement,” she explains. “It was a new field and it was very exciting for those of us who had an interest in it. In time, as new journals were established and the field expanded, it gave people opportunities to study history in different ways. It offered a new voice and a fresh perspective.” 

As an American cultural historian, Sicherman first conducted research on the history of psychiatry and medicine, publishing articles on psychiatrists, diagnosis, and health care, as well as the 1980 book, The Quest for Mental Health in America, 1880-1917. Some of her groundbreaking work in the area of women’s studies includes the 1974 essay, “The Invisible Woman: The Case for Women’s Studies” and her essay, “American [Women’s] History,” which appeared in the premier women’s studies journal Signs in the winter of 1975.

“Her decision to come to Trinity coincided with the beginning of a whole new cohort of women scholars in history and other disciplines,” notes Hedrick. “You only have to look around to see how far we’ve come in the 23 years since she arrived here. She made a difference.”      

“It is, of course, wonderful to be celebrated in this way,” Sicherman says of the symposium. “I’m very appreciative of the College for hosting this event and I particularly like the fact that it was a celebration of the field of women’s history in general, as well as of me. I was thrilled by the quality of the talks, which were at a very high professional level. It was an amazing experience.”  

“Women Making History” was presented by the College with support from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education, in collaboration with Central Connecticut State University, Saint Joseph College, and the University of Hartford. The symposium advisory committee plans to distribute papers presented at the symposium.

Photos by Nick Lacy

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