It used to be the case that history was the story of upper class white men, written by upper class white men, for upper class white men. Whilst that might be a bit of a generalisation, the fundamental point remains that until fairly recently (by which I mean the 1960s, ish) if you were a woman, of an ethnic minority, or from a working class background, chances are slim that you’d be represented in any historical narrative at all, much less represented in a fair way. Today the situation is somewhat different, or at least I thought it was until the other day, when I read an article which said that of the previous year’s ten bestselling history books, only two were written by women.
At first, I thought that this couldn’t possibly be right: after all, at university the gender balance of my lecturers was more or less 50/50. However, just one glance at my bookshelf was enough for me to conclude that the article might have had a point, and the SJW inside me couldn’t help but wince when I came to the realisation that the number of male authors clearly outweighed the number of females. Admittedly, this evidence is anecdotal and entirely unrepresentative, but it did make me wonder whether the fact history books are so predominantly written by men poses a problem for the study of history in both an academic and general sense.
I don’t think it does for two reasons, the first of which is that the article assumes that books are the main way in which most people engage with history. Certainly, it would be churlish to ignore the fact that a lot of people do read history books. But in terms of the general public’s day to day engagement with history, I’m willing to bet that television is by far and away their preferred medium, and when it comes to television historians, the ratio between men and women is far more balanced.
Before writing this, I tried to name as many television historians as I could off the top of my head. Names such as Lucy Worsley, Suzannah Lipscombe, Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes sprung to mind almost immediately, but I had to think a while before I could come up with a relevant male television historian. Obviously, this is not to say that there aren’t any relevant male television historians, and like my bookshelf survey, it is purely conjecture. However, what my experiment does demonstrate is that the fact more history books are written by men than women does not necessarily translate into female historians receiving less representation in other public media; and if anything, it suggests the opposite is true.
However, even if we assume that books, and not television, are the primary way the public engage with history, I don’t believe that the disparity between the number of books written by men and the number written by women will last for long. According to a report published by UCAS in January 2015, women are 36% more likely to apply to go to university than men, and whilst it is true that the number of people applying does not necessarily correspond to the number of people who are admitted, a UCAS report for university admissions in 2014 showed that 58,000 more women went to university than men. Even if after university most of these students pursue careers outside academia, the chances are that female lecturers and professors will be far more prominent in university history departments of the future; and whilst it may take a few years before the effects fully kick in, the increasing prominence of women within university history departments will, in turn, lead to more best-selling history books being written by women.
All of this is to say nothing of the increasing prominence of women within museums and schools, two media which I would argue engage far more people with history than books do. I guess the main question left to answer is why this is an issue I felt needed addressing in the first place, and the simple answer is that I believe diversity can only be good for history as a discipline. As I said at the beginning of this post, for too long the study of history was restricted to study of rich, white men, which is such a tiny slither of human existence it’d be like trying to appreciate the Bayeux Tapestry through a keyhole. The more history is written by people of different genders, of different ethnicities, and of different social backgrounds, the more varied and nuanced our understanding of history becomes, not just in the sense that we get to learn about new topics or themes, but also in that we gain new perspectives on stories we thought had nothing new to say. The fact is that everyone with a professional or personal interest in history gains from having more books written by women, and the fact that female historians are prominent in other public media is a promising sign for the future.