The History Girls vs David Starkey
David Starkey (who last appeared in this blog being a trifle inaccurate on the history of the ancient world) has been sounding off in the Radio Times about how ‘feminised’ history has become: not a development of which he is in favour.
He’s taking about his new TV series on Henry VIII: “One of the great problems has been that Henry, in a sense, has been absorbed by his wives. Which is bizarre. But it's what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience. Unhappy marriages are big box office.”
If only it were true, I found myself thinking. Much as I admire the work of my male colleagues in ancient history, I think that the subject could only be improved by being a bit more ‘feminised’. And, so far as I can see from my Cambridge vantage point, there’s not much sign of modern British history in universities being a bastion of women’s power and influence. In fact, it’s usually said of the gender balance in UK history departments that the further from the ‘central periods’ of British history a subject is, the more likely you’ll find a woman teaching it. We’re let in at the margins, in other words.
But what does a feminised history mean anyway? Is it history for women, by women, about women?
Predictably enough, the papers have collected outraged responses from women who have written about women: Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Lisa Hilton, author of Athenais, The real queen of France, and many others. These are excellent historians in their way, I’m sure. But the point of “feminising” history isn’t just to pretend that women were as powerful or as influential as men, and then to write about them in the same old fashion.
The Sunday Times, enjoying a dig at Starkey, cited some of the famous women who had been powerful in the history of the Roman world, and who shouldn’t get left out of the story. Messalina and Agrippina, Cleopatra and Constantine’s mother Helena.
But hang on, I thought, isn’t it a bit more complicated? Surely we have hardly any clue at all about whether Messalina or Agrippina really were powerful; what we know is that they were useful symbols onto which Roman writers themselves projected all the ills of their political system. I’m not saying that they were demure, shrinking violets. But they were certainly convenient targets for ridicule and abuse, useful figures to blame for a whole range of disasters that afflicted the Roman imperial house. Someone’s just died…must have been poisoned by Agrippina! A history book based around Agrippina makes even less sense (and must be even more speculative) than one based around the emperor Nero.
I thought feminising history was about doing history differently, and having different assumptions about what power was. The sort of history for example that doesn’t always start from the antics of ye olde royal family, and Tudors in tights, perhaps?