Photograph by Michael Lionstar

When Carol Berkin arrived at Barnard, she had been a voracious reader all her life but was still “a babe in the woods,” she says. “I had read everything from Greek mythology to librettos from great operas,” she remembers. “I had read Goethe, but I thought it was pronounced ‘Go-ett.’ I was ill-prepared for everything, but I was so thrilled to be around people who were smarter than me.”

Berkin went on to become a best-selling author known as a pioneer in early American women’s history. A presidential professor emerita at Baruch College and a faculty member at the City University of New York Graduate Center, she recently published Wondrous Beauty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), about Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, a former sister-in-law of Napoleon and an independent spirit who was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in America. 

Photograph by Michael Lionstar“Barnard helped me to come into my own, and was a life-changing experience for me. I had extraordinary professors at Barnard,” she insists, citing several, including modern-European historian Sidney Burrell and Medieval historian Norman Cantor. “They made me realize history was really just amazing human stories. That these were things that had happened to real people really grabbed my attention, and made me love American history.” Annette Kar Baxter ’47, a cultural historian renowned as a teacher of women’s history, was another inspiration. “She pushed me to do my best, to hone my skills further and deeper.”

A public school education had nearly squelched her love for learning, says Berkin, who was raised in Mobile, Ala., in the 1950s. “Public school in the South at the time taught American history as the coming of the Civil War and its aftermath. Of course, it wasn’t called the Civil War. It was the War of Northern Aggression.”

Being raised by Easterners—Berkin’s father was from Manhattan, her mother from Connecticut—gave her a wider perspective. “At home, I heard about a larger American history, and I was allowed to see beyond the Southern charm, all the rules for good girls of the era,” which Berkin can still rattle off. She says, with a sigh, “I was a failure at them. I kept forgetting to wear pink and not have an opinion. Needless to say, I was not asked to senior prom.”

She was, however, accepted at Barnard. Considering a major, Berkin felt ill-equipped to choose. “My mother said, ‘Well, you have only two talents—you read fast and you write well.’ So we decided that history or English were the only things that fit.”

Berkin arrived on campus near the end of Millicent Carey McIntosh’s presidency. “[Mrs.] Mac made it clear that not only could women do anything, but that we must do something important in order to be whole people,” Berkin remembers.

Determined to fulfill that destiny, Berkin headed next to Columbia, where she received her master’s and PhD. Her dissertation on Jonathan Sewall, a friend of John Adams and the last British attorney general of Massachusetts, won the Bancroft Dissertation Award, and the subsequent 1974 book, Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Loyalist, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

“When I applied for a scholarship to Columbia in 1964, one of the department members said to me, ‘Oh, we can’t give money to you. A cute young thing like you will be married and pregnant within the year!’ So when I won Columbia’s Bancroft Prize, well, I have to confess I really enjoyed the looks on some of the men’s faces.”

A position at Baruch followed, during which time Berkin built her successful publishing career. Her book A Brilliant Solution (2002) is perhaps the most popular narrative on the Constitutional Convention; many of her books on early American women’s history, particularly First Generations (1996) and Revolutionary Mothers (2005), are among the most widely read on the topic.

Berkin calls the subject of Wondrous Beauty, Betsy Bonaparte, perhaps “the first-ever American celebrity.” Born into a prosperous Baltimore family in 1785, she met Jérôme Bonaparte at 17, and they married within the year; the union infuriated both Betsy’s father and the bridegroom’s famous frère, who expected his brother to marry a member of the European nobility. The emperor had the marriage annulled and banned Betsy from entering France. She eventually found a berth near London, where Jérôme’s son was born, and later, she and her son sailed back to Baltimore, although she spent much of her life in Europe, bored with provincial America.

She lived to age 94, but Betsy was mostly miserable. Berkin’s skillful storytelling elevates Betsy’s long, embittered life, casting her as an early feminist who carried on and became a wealthy landowner after being dismissed by patriarchies on two continents. “People have said to me, ‘Oh, Betsy was a bitch!’” says Berkin. “I ask them: Do you know what it took for a woman to travel to Europe alone in the 19th century? And to have been courted by many men, but remain respectable, and never remarry. She was an extraordinarily strong woman, willing to make the sacrifices necessary in order to be her own person.

“In a way,” Berkin muses, “Betsy Bonaparte was living as the strong, independent woman so many of us learned to be at Barnard, all those years later.”