Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Men Write History--Of Men

Men, Women, and “History”


A few days ago, I ran across Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion’s essay in Slate—“Is History Written about Men, by Men?”

Of course, even without reading the any further, I was pretty sure I could answer that question correctly: yes.
Even so, the findings of their study, inspired by VIDA’s annual “Count,” are depressing:
We examined a set of 614 works of popular history from 80 houses, which either published books we defined as trade history or landed books we defined as trade history on the New York Times Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction best-seller list in 2015. . . . We found that 75.8 percent of the total titles had male authors. Interestingly, the effect was slightly less pronounced among titles that made the New York Times best-seller list—but only slightly (70.4 percent of those authors were male). University press and trade imprints had roughly the same proportion of male to female authors. The persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians.
Kahn and Onion further note that 71.7 percent of all the biographies published in 2015 were about men—mostly Founding Fathers, presidents, war heroes, athletes, and male writers—and they were written by men (mostly—87%). Of the relatively few biographies about women published in 2015, most were written by women (only 6% of the biographies about women were written by men).

Rachel Hope Cleves's
history, published by Oxford,
mentioned in the Slate article
Just a few days later, last Monday, Alison Flood reported on Slate’s piece in her “Popular History Writing Remains a Male Preserve, Publishing Study Finds,” published in The Guardian. But Flood did more than summarize the Slate essay—she went on to report on figures in the UK, concluding that “the skew is just as dramatic.” 

Only 4 of the topselling 50 histories published in the UK in 2015 were written by women, with 2 more co-authored by women. When The Bookseller, a trade magazine, previewed the top 57 history and politics titles of 2015, only 13 were written by women, with one additional co-authored by a woman (that’s roughly 22.5%).

In response, Imogen Robertson, chair of the UK Historical Writers’ Association, noted, “For me, the gender bias is horribly clear when you look at what women are supposed to write about: men write the grand expansive histories, the thesis-driven revisionist world views, and they mostly have the second world war to themselves. Women are allowed to write about, well, women.” 

Even though I'm now retired, I still spend my time reading and writing about women’s history. In fact, as my dear friend and colleague Tom can attest, about the time I had my fiftieth birthday, I had a bit of a flip-out, declaring that in whatever reading years remained to me, I was no longer going to read books by or about straight white men. He just laughed—saying I was not the first woman-of-a-certain-age he’d heard say that.

While I continued to teach medieval and early-modern literature until I retired in 2014—Beowulf and Chaucer and the Gawain-poet and Thomas Malory and Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser and . . . well, you get the picture, and it’s all literature I love—I have spent the better part of my career writing about women’s history and literature. (To be absolutely honest, though, I'm really glad I don't have to read Astrophil and Stella or teach even the first canto of The Faerie Queen ever again.)

Historian Mary Beard's new book is
one of the few "grand expansive"
and best-selling histories
written by women in 2015
So I find this latest analysis a bit depressing, if not surprising. Last year, as I wrote and posted an essay-a-day about women’s history, I linked to books about the day’s topic, whenever I could. Most of them were written by women. 

And it's not just who is writing and what gets written, it's about who is reading—and what readers are willing to read. 

Over the course of the thirty-five years that I taught at the university from which I retired, the student population shifted—today about 62% of the students are female. Even so, when I taught a medieval survey course or a Shakespeare course, the classroom was a mix of men and women, When I taught a semester-long course on Beowulf in the spring of 2011, a course I'd daydreamed about teaching for most of my career, 10 of the 14 students who enrolled were men.

But when I taught a course with the word “women” or, even worse, “feminist” in the title, I rarely saw a male student in the classroom. Oh, sure, sometimes there might be one or two men in who enrolled in these courses—wonderful, dedicated, interested and interesting, fearless men—but so few that most of those courses were entirely filled with women. 

An excellent new history
of the women's suffrage
movement, recommended to me
by Nate Levin, a reader of this blog
More often, if there was a male student in the classroom on the first day of “Five Feminist Classics,” for example, or “Barbie, Bratz, and Bella: The Construction of American Girlhood in the Twenty-First Century” (a first-year writing seminar), he was there by accident rather than by design—he needed a literature class or a writing class and just picked one that fit his schedule without noticing the course title, reading the course description I'd written, or bought the textbooks. Sometimes they stayed—I'd like to think that the course material looked so interesting they just had to stay.

But I can’t tell you how many didn’t even make it through the first class session—it was pretty clear what was going to happen when we hit break time, and I watched as the one or two men hurriedly packed up all their books and laptops and left the room. “Oh, no, I’ll be back,” I remember one guy assuring me when I asked if he was going to stay in class (there were a handful of wait-listed students sitting in that day, hoping for a spot). But he never returned from that first ten-minute break. (By way of contrast, when Tom taught a first-year seminar under the title of "Fathers and Sons," he always had a plenty of women enrolled in the course, eager for what the semester would bring.)

As I think about these topics—what is history, who writes history, what history is published, who reads history, and what history is being read—I am taken back to my own moment of enlightenment, reading Gerda Lerner’s The Majority Finds Its Past:
Flipping through the pages of The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), a book I just casually pulled off the library shelf one day, probably in 1981 or 1982, I found myself stunned at this observation: "women are and always have been at least half of humankind, and most of the time have been the majority." And then shocked by this one: "The overriding fact is that women's history is the history of the majority of humankind" (from the essay "Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges").
It's hard now to convey my surprise at Lerner's simple statements of fact—"women are and always have been half of all humankind," their history is "the history of the majority of humankind." What seems so obvious now was not at all obvious to me at then--I had a B.A., an M.A., and by the time I found my way to Lerner's book, a Ph.D. I had just started my first teaching job at a private liberal-arts college.  I had spent my life studying literature and history, preparing for my career as an academic, and yet it had never occurred to me that I didn't know about any women writers before Jane Austen or about any women in history beyond Cleopatra, Elizabeth Tudor, and Susan B. Anthony.
We have come a long way since 1979but when it comes to "placing women in history" as writers, as subjects, as readers, we still have a long way to go.

(And, by the way, if you look around for who buys and reads more books in the US, it's women. Here are recent statistics from the Pew Research Center.)