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Berger, Iris Brown (1941–) - African History

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Iris Brown Berger was born on October 12, 1941, in Chicago, of Eastern European Jewish ancestry. Her mother was an English teacher at Loop Junior College in Chicago; her father was a workers’ compensation arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission. Iris attended elementary school at the LeMoyne School and the Eugene Field School in Chicago, then Evanston Township High School. She remembers that her politically active family, especially her parents, encouraged her intellectual pursuits. Berger’s mother, who returned to college in the 1960s, was the first returning woman student Berger knew. “Her example prompted me, at the age of 3 or 4,” she writes, “to instruct a playmate, ’I’ll be the mommy and go to a meeting; you be the daddy and stay home with the baby.’” The old magazines her father brought home, she recalls, contributed unwittingly to her penchant for historical documents. Her father’s knowledge of Chicago’s changing neighborhoods, which he shared with his young daughter, also contributed to her interest in cultural diversity.

Iris Berger attended the University of Michigan, earning a bachelor’s degree with distinction in 1963. At the University of Wisconsin she received a master’s degree in African history in 1967 and a Ph.D. in African history/comparative Third World history in 1973. Her interest in history was shaped by spending her junior year of college in France, where, she states, “the legacy of the past seemed ever-present”; by an undergraduate course with Sylvia Thrupp, the only woman role model of her academic career; and by two years of teaching at a girls’ high school in Kenya “during the early, hopeful years after independence.” Berger was also influenced, during her undergraduate years, by the civil rights movement, the early student movement, and her work on the Michigan Daily . “As for many women of my generation,” she writes, “involvement in the women’s movement led to my research and teaching interests in women’s history.”

Berger started her teaching career in Kenya, teaching at the Kaaga Elementary School, the Kenya-Israel School of Social Work, and the Machakos Girls’ High School. When she returned to the United States she accepted a position as assistant professor at Wellesley College. She taught part-time at Hartwick College Page 18  and the State University of New York College at Oneonta before accepting a position at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was named visiting assistant professor in 1981, assistant professor in 1984, associate professor in 1989, and professor in 1993. She is currently professor of history, Africana studies and women’s studies.

Berger has also acted as an administrator. As director of women’s studies from 1981 to 1984, she developed the M.A. Certificate Program in Women and Public Policy, implemented the newly approved minor in women’s studies, and collaborated with faculty in designing internship programs. From 1991 to 1995 Berger was director of the Institute for Research on Women (IROW). She was the co-organizer of several conferences and a faculty work group, and the cofounder of Initiatives for Women, a campuswide fund-raising effort to benefit women faculty, students, and staff.

Iris Berger has published three books, one of which she edited with Claire Robertson. Her most recent book is Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry, 1900–1980 . As reviewer T. Dunbar Moodie argues, Berger contributes substantially to our understanding of women’s lives in South African social history by exploring women’s relationships to labor unions. She recently edited a special issue of Signs on “Postcolonial, Emergent and Indigenous Feminisms.” She has also published sixteen scholarly articles, on race, class, and gender issues in African history and historiography.

Aside from her teaching and publications, Berger takes pride in several other accomplishments. She was elected president of the African Studies Association for 1995–1996. She has also provided service to the American Historical Association, the Fulbright Scholars Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Social Science Research Council. She has received fellowships from many foundations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. As director of IROW, Berger co-directed several projects sponsored by the Ford Foundation, including an international conference of scholars and labor activists on “Women in the Global Economy: Making Connections.” Berger also regularly provides community service, speaking to community groups about South Africa, past and present.

Iris Brown Berger is married to historian and writer Ronald Mark Berger; they have two daughters, Allison and Anna. She is an “obsessive” swimmer who also enjoys running, hiking, skiing, canoeing, cycling, gardening, and traveling.

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