Below, please find a brief history of the Society for French Historical Studies, excerpted from Edward Berenson and Nancy L. Green, The Society for French Historical Studies: The Early Years 28, no. 4 (2005): 579-600.  This essay was presented at the fiftieth annual conference in honor of the Society’s semicentennial anniversary.  You may access the full version, hereIn addition, the Society for French Historical Studies has recently signed an agreement that will, in effect, fold the venerable Institut Français d’Amérique into the SFHS. In order to provide a comprehensive history of the SFHS, you may also find a brief history of the Institut Français d’Amérique by clicking the link below:

History: Institut Français d’Amérique

A Brief History:
The Society for French Historical Studies

In the mid-1950s our field was an intellectual backwater, and the American media showed little understanding of France. ‘‘Even the New York Times,’’ lamented Evelyn Acomb, a historian of French laïcité, ‘‘writes very patronizing editorials on the country.’’ Acomb added that France lay largely outside the concerns of North American historians. Conferences on European history paid virtually no attention to France, and it was extremely difficult to place articles devoted to the subject in either the American Historical Review or the Journal of Modern History. In 1954 Acomb and several colleagues resolved to do something about this state of affairs. They created the Society for French Historical Studies, and thanks to them and to the efforts of their many successors, French history has become one of the strongest and most vital fields on this side of the Atlantic.

By the early 1990s work written in English—mainly by American and Canadian historians—accounted for one-third of all books and articles on French history. . . . In addition to French Historical Studies, there are two other English-language journals devoted to our field, French History and French Politics, Culture, and Society, and both the Journal of Modern History and the American Historical Review regularly publish articles on France. Moreover, even as French publishers have reduced their social science lists, books by U.S. historians continue to be translated. Perhaps the best evidence of the vitality of American and Canadian work is the record-breaking participation in the fiftieth anniversary meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies in Paris. The conference, held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in June 2004, brought together nearly nine hundred attendees, including a heartening number of recently hired assistant professors. None of this could have happened without the efforts, fifty years ago, to create a professional organization devoted to expanding and publicizing French history, to developing an intellectual space in which a North American historiography of France could thrive.

The Beginnings

In 1954 Evelyn Acomb took the initiative in creating a professional organization for American historians of France. As president of the New York Association of European Historians, Acomb complained that only two papers at the group’s 1954 meeting were devoted to France and that the American Historical Association (AHA) tended to neglect French history as well. . . . Acomb proposed a meeting exclusively for French historians. . . . In December 1954 a dozen people, including Beatrice Hyslop of Hunter College, whom Acomb had also contacted, met for drinks in Fox’s hotel room at the annual meeting of the AHA. At that informal gathering, Hyslop, Acomb, and Fox volunteered to serve as an ad hoc program committee for the Cornell meeting. On April 1–2, 1955, twenty-nine people (including six women scholars, two officials from the French Embassy—Robert Valeur and Roger Vaurs—and Joseph Kraft from the New York Times) gathered in Ithaca for a first, informal ‘‘Conference on French History.’’

This small group of scholars, mostly from New York and New England, took stock of three key issues in French history: Franco-American relations in the revolutionary era, French imperialism since the First World War, and aspects of French labor problems since the Second World War. All three were plenary panels, setting a precedent that would last until 1973, when annual meetings introduced concurrent sessions. The panel on Franco-American relations featured a paper by Gilbert Chinard, read in his absence, with comments by Jacques Godechot (Toulouse), Frances Childs (Brooklyn College), and Carl Locke (National Archives). Vincent Confer (Syracuse) gave the talk on French Imperialism, and Father Joseph N. Moody (Cathedral College) and Jean Joughin (later of American University) spoke on labor issues. . . .

The historians assembled at Cornell agreed to hold a second conference on French history the following year at the University of Pennsylvania. While the founders considered the Cornell meeting their inaugural event, the Penn gathering, held on February 3–4, 1956, became the constitutional convention. The society was formally created, and bylaws were drawn up. The membership fee was set at one dollar; as David Pinkney wrote to Stanley Hoffmann that fall, ‘‘One need have only interest and one dollar.’’ Hyslop became the first president of the permanent organization, charged with arranging the 1957 meeting at Hunter College. Moody was named vice president and Pinkney secretary-treasurer for a three-year term. Seventy-six people attended the Penn conference, including only five women, since Hyslop was in France as a Fulbright fellow. . . . By March 1956, a month after the society was set up, some ninety-five people had already joined the organization, leading Martin Wolfe to worry that ‘‘the membership will undoubtedly go over 200 after the next conference. Is there any feeling this is too large?’’

. . . 

Before and during the Penn meeting in 1956, participants wrangled over what the new organization should be called. Some suggested that it be named the Society for French Studies, but Hyslop insisted that the word Historical be included to distinguish historians from the much larger group of literary scholars. As she put it, ‘‘We certainly do not want to have a majority of members become literary, or even art critics. . . . We are an offshoot of the AHA and not of the [MLA].’’ Though Hyslop’s Fulbright lectureship made her miss the Penn meeting, her notion of the new organization’s identity prevailed: it would be called the Society for French Historical Studies.

Beatrice Hyslop

Born in 1899, Beatrice Fry Hyslop graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1919, where she was captain and star of the basketball team. She received her master’s degree in 1924, and, after teaching secondary school, spending a year in France, and publishing her Répertoire critique des cahiers de doléances in 1933, she received her PhD from Columbia in 1934. Her dissertation was published that same year as French Nationalism in 1789 according to the General Cahiers. Not until 1936 was she offered a position in higher education, as instructor at Hunter College for $150 per month, teaching five sections of European History, 1500– 1815. She remained there until her retirement in 1969, having been finally appointed full professor in 1954.

Beatrice Hyslop (1919)
Mount Holyoke College Special Collections

Hyslop forged wide personal and scholarly networks, in both France and the United States, corresponding regularly (and at great length) with many of the leading American historians of France and their French counterparts. This huge circle of contacts undoubtedly helped bring the SFHS into being. After the war she promoted among American historians the innovative historiography of the Annales movement and of leading social historians like Georges Lefebvre and Ernest Labrousse. She impressed American and French scholars alike by gaining access, well before any French historian, to the Orléans family archives in Dreux. She would later publish a book on Philippe Egalité, emphasizing the landholdings and economic activity of the Orléans branch of the royal family. In her correspondence Hyslop describes the arduous climb up a steep hill to the Orléans chateau. After entering the building, she had to make her way down one hundred circular steps into the unheated archives below. It was well worth the effort, for there she found the stuff of every historian’s dreams, a stack of long-untouched cartons encased in dust. The Comte de Paris himself came down to see how she was doing and threw her off guard by addressing her in English with a hearty ‘‘How are you?’’ The unexpected greeting and the count’s winning smile impressed the American scholar, although she assured her correspondents, ‘‘This experience has not changed my advocacy of a republican form of government for France!’’  Nor did a similarly friendly encounter between the count and Lefebvre change the latter’s political stance. Hyslop had invited the two men to lunch with her at Reid Hall; it is difficult to imagine them sharing a table anywhere else.

Dining with French friends and colleagues (‘‘I never refuse an opportunity to drink champagne!’’) and guiding Americans who came through Paris, Hyslop seems to have been at the forefront of the earliest generation of American scholars trekking regularly to France. There she enjoyed an active social life built on scholarly friendships: lunch at Labrousse’s in the early 1950s was so ‘‘leisurely’’ that it ‘‘took four hours of the work day at the Bib. Nat.’’ Hyslop reciprocated often at the Reid Hall dining room, musing over the ‘‘gossip about me, as I have had a great many guests.’’ In scholarly settings she did not hesitate to assert herself. At the end of the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Société d’Histoire Moderne, she demanded the floor, believing that the Belgian delegate had not sufficiently thanked the French hosts on behalf of all of the foreign guests. Hyslop thus had the final word of the banquet.

Though she may have received less recognition in the United States than other comparably accomplished scholars, the French honored her. Already in 1931 Hyslop was named to the Ordre des Palmes Académiques, and in 1962 she became one of the rare women to be decorated as Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur. Despite such (French) honors, Hyslop did not believe that she and other women historians enjoyed the same professional opportunities as their male counter- parts. Though feminism was largely dormant as a political movement in the 1950s, Hyslop was not without a certain protofeminist perspective. ‘‘I felt always that Lefebvre treated me like any man scholar, although I think he was apt to think women’s brains inferior.’’ Referring to a male colleague and his extremely supportive wife, Hyslop wrote, ‘‘I sometimes wish I had a wife to be a secretary, or a husband for that purpose! I just don’t seem to get ahead.’’

Her recognition of the privileges male professors enjoyed moved her to respond sharply to an American Historical Review article (1956) surveying U.S. historians, among whom she noted very few women with secure academic positions. ‘‘How often,’’ she wanted to know, ‘‘do heads of departments, asked to recommend young scholars for beginning appointments, give names of promising young women as well as men? . . . [We need] a revolution in the minds of some men historians.’’ Thirteen years later Hyslop wondered if in fact she had ‘‘become a feminist.’’ It seemed to her that after a brief opening, history was now witnessing a ‘‘closing of doors to women’’ and that ‘‘in the field of history men have admitted prejudices against women.’’

Undaunted, Hyslop worked steadily until her retirement from Hunter College in 1969. Two years later, she published her final book, a history of the Soroptimist International Association Society, a volunteer service organization for women in business, management, and the professions. Surveying her career, both American and French colleagues have described her as the moving spirit behind the Society for French Historical Studies in the 1950s and 1960s: ‘‘très dévouée’’ (René Rémond), ‘‘la cheville ouvrière’’ of the society, and ‘‘très sympathique’’ to boot ( Jean Heffer). In 1972, a year before Hyslop died, the SFHS adopted Isser Woloch’s suggestion to devote a special issue of French Historical Studies to her.

The Birth of French Historical Studies

Marvin L. Brown Jr.
NCSU Digital Collections

During the first part of her career, Hyslop, like other French specialists, had lamented the relative difficulty of placing articles on French history in either the American Historical Review or the Journal of Modern History. In 1957 the newly formed SFHS resolved to create a scholarly journal of its own. With a one-hundred-dollar bequest and a few other contributions, French Historical Studies first saw print in 1958. Marvin L. Brown Jr., a diplomatic historian from North Carolina State College in Raleigh, was the first editor, overseeing everything from the review process to producing the journal at the North Carolina State College Print Shop. Brown remained as editor through 1966.
. . . 

With the new journal off to an excellent start, the rapidly growing society looked beyond the Northeast for its fourth annual meeting. Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill agreed to cohost the conference of 1958.

The following year, the SFHS departed yet again from the Middle Atlantic states, traveling to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Registration and dinner now cost $7.50, but the conference included a performance of French music conducted by George Szellof the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Society members subsequently complained, however, that the Cleveland meeting had been too packed with extracurricular activities. Many urged the following year’s officers, Evelyn Acomb, president, and John Christopher, vice president, to scale back the entertainment.

Franco-American Relations

Despite close relations between key early members of the society and leading historians in France, the Americans’ attention to the immediate past and current politics divided them from their counterparts in the Hexagon. Reporting on the inaugural meeting at Cornell, Godechot wrote:

Jacques Godechot   Babelio

Jacques Godechot

"French historians will doubtless be surprised by the nature of the topics considered during the colloquium. They are strongly characteristic of how a great many Americans approach history nowadays. These historians are far more drawn to questions of contemporary history than to the study of periods further removed in time. All too often, American historians tend to mistake news about contemporary life for genuinely historical research. It seems that our American friends will need frequent contact with European historians for their historical work to evolve in a more fruitful direction."

In fact, the Americans as a whole were nearly as interested in the pre-1815 period as their French counterparts. Of the 215 who had joined the SFHS by late 1959, 43 percent concentrated on the pre-1815 period, 39 percent on 1815–1914, and 18 percent on 1914 to the present.  It may be that French and American scholars had different perspectives about ‘‘l’histoire contemporaine.’’ While many of the prominent (male) U.S. scholars had been profoundly marked by their experience of World War II, perhaps they were less traumatized by it than their French counterparts. The latter in any case continued to believe their role should be to explore more distant periods.

The most contentious session at the Cornell meeting was the one devoted to the French empire. Godechot and one of the two other Frenchmen at the Ithaca meeting, Roger Vaurs, seemed in particular disagreement with Vincent Confer’s argument that the French empire had reached its apogee in the 1930s. Though the recent French defeat in Indochina had to be fresh in their minds, Godechot still considered Algeria ‘‘an integral part of France,’’ and Africa seemed securely within France’s imperial sphere. For Godechot and Vaurs, the empire could not have reached its zenith in the 1930s, because it was still largely intact.

Despite the differences over empire, differences not unrelated to the divergent foreign policies of France and the United States, Godechot remained an avid ally of American historians of France. Hyslop, for her part, actively sought French funding to help bring French scholars to U.S. meetings. In June 1956 she wrote the directeur de l’enseignement supérieur in Paris to introduce the newly formed Society for French Historical Studies and to ask him to finance Labrousse’s airfare for the 1957 meeting in New York. She promised to cover his frais de séjour herself. The minihistory of her request shows, however, that official recognition from the east side of the Atlantic was slow in coming. Her appeal wended its way from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose representatives in turn wrote to the French Embassy in Washington requesting information on the society. Embassy officials claimed that they had been unable to find any details about the organization and that the SFHS therefore seemed to have an ‘‘audience assez limitée.’’ The Quai d’Orsay declined to fund Labrousse’s trip. A request from Godechot suffered the same fate the following year.

If formal recognition from the Quai d’Orsay proved sluggish, cooperation with the Société d’Histoire Moderne was almost immediate, again largely thanks to Hyslop’s connections. The Société d’Histoire Moderne invited the SFHS formally to affiliate with it, and in April 1956, two months after the SFHS was founded, both groups approved the alliance. The leaders of the fifty-year-old French organization wrote to Hyslop and Pinkney expressing their pleasure in having ‘‘a young American offspring of their Old World organization.’’

A year later Roger Portal sent a message d’amitié on the occasion of the 1957 meeting:

We are especially pleased by the establishment in the United States of a ‘‘Society for French History’’ [sic], whose activity, together with our own, will do a great deal to tighten the links between American historians and French historians and contribute to the greater progress of historical scholarship. The interest you demonstrate for the history of our country moves us deeply. . . . And from the other side of an Ocean that connects us more than it keeps us apart, our Organization, now more than a half-century old, cordially salutes its young offspring. We look forward to a common undertaking in the service of History.

To express these common interests, the SFHS joined with the Société d’Histoire Moderne in two Franco-American conferences. The first took place in Paris in 1960, the second in 1964 at the Eleutherian Mills Historical Library (Wilmington, Delaware). These events testified once again to the energy and connections of Hyslop, who cochaired them both. Some forty Americans attended the 1960 meeting (en route, for many, to the International Historical Congress in Stockholm). Franco- American historical topics were featured, with one French and one American scholar treating each theme: ‘‘The French Revolution, Atlantic or Western?’’ with talks by Robert R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot; ‘‘France Looks at America,’’ by Durand Echeverria and René Rémond; ‘‘Franco-American Relations under the Second Empire,’’ by Lynn Case and Claude Fohlen; and ‘‘Historical Studies in the Twentieth Century,’’ by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle and Eugen Weber. The colloquium included a private tour of the Archives Nationales, and it ended with a... dînerpromenade on a Bateau-Mouche.

At the 1964 meeting, distinguished French and American scholars were similarly paired on a variety of subjects: social structures (Ernest Labrousse, Shepard B. Clough); public opinion (Roger Portal, Robert Byrnes); the French Revolution (Marcel Reinhard, Crane Brinton); the 1848 Revolution (Jacques Droz, William L. Langer); liberalism from 1840 to 1875 (Louis Girard, Joseph N. Moody); and the prolegomena to the Second World War (Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, John Haight). Marking the tenth anniversary of the SFHS, the Eleutherian Mills meeting drew more than two hundred people, concluded with fireworks at the Longwood Gardens, and resulted in the publication of a notable collection of essays. As Frances Childs, president of the meeting, wrote in the foreword to that book, ‘‘The ‘mustard seed’ sown at our first informal meeting at Cornell . . . had grown through the successive meetings . . . into a flourishing ‘tree’!’’

That tree has continued to flourish, and now that we have celebrated a half century of our own society’s existence, we can take stock of how far we have come. The SFHS has grown from some two dozen participants at the inaugural conference to some nine hundred members. Most large American and Canadian universities have a French historian in house, and several have as many as three or more. Beginning in the 1950s with four sessions and a dozen speakers, our conferences have become large events regularly attracting two or three hundred participants grouped into fifty or more panels. By the mid-1970s it was no longer possible for every session to be plenary or to invite just a handful of colleagues to speak. The quality and volume of scholarship had become such that many dozens of historians wanted to present their work. This scholarship fills the pages of French Historical Studies, a journal that our colleagues in France now read as well. The fiftieth-anniversary meeting in Paris was doubtless an exception, but the program featuring three hundred North Americans, two hundred French, and some fifty colleagues from sixteen additional countries (not to mention the three-hundred-plus others who registered just to attend) confirms that French history à l’américaine continues to thrive. The new interest in colonialism and immigration, as well as our ongoing attachment to social and cultural theory and the history of gender, links our field to a larger transnational history without loosening our ties to France and its vibrant historiographical tradition. By laboring in the vineyards of French history, benefiting from the entraide of our colleagues in the Hexagon, we make all North American history writing that much richer.