Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Daily Mail's "History Girls," or: Do I have to wear stilettos to the archive now?

By now, the internets are all abuzz with links and reactions to the Daily Mail’s Sunday article, “The History Girls,”[1] profiling seven young female historians who “have rescued studying the past from the clutches of fusty academia and changed our view of yesteryear for ever.” Atop the article is a fashion-style shoot of the historians in question, impeccably styled (including some serious stilettos all around) and posed like the ad for a new reality show. Most have PhDs, all are under 40, all are slim and attractive. In the body of the article, each deals with the same questionnaire: “Why topic X?”; “If you could travel back in time…?”; “Who would you resurrect for a dinner date?”

My first reaction? Oh, barf.

Yes, there are second and third reactions, but let’s get to the first one first. No, even before that, let’s get to a pre-reaction: Even in my initial revulsion at the piece, I am not interested in shaming the women themselves. They’re not betraying anyone or anyone’s cause. Chances are that the Mail called them up and pitched this as a piece on young women historians in the UK. If someone had called me up with that, chances are that I would have jumped at the chance to publicly counter the typical image of the old, white, bearded, tweed-jacketed history professor (times ten, since I’m a medievalist). By the time we got to the questionnaire and the photo shoot, I probably would have felt that it was too late to back out gracefully, and hoped that some shred of my original purpose (promote women in the profession!) would have remained.  And stilettos aside, I wouldn’t mind having someone dress me up all high-fashion, just to see what I would like if I were the kind of person who put more than five-minutes' effort into my appearance. 

So, I’m convinced of the good intentions of the historians in question until it can be proven otherwise. Nevertheless, I’m still pretty squicked out at this piece. What are the criteria for being a woman who is making boring old history (::sigh::) interesting again? Well, according to the Daily Mail's selection, you'll want to be young, white (I'm including the one of hispanic heritage), thin, and conventionally pretty. There’s nothing wrong with being any or even all of those things. But historians are not TV presenters (except for the ones that are); our effectiveness in bringing our work to our students and to the public should no more be predicated on broad physical appeal than would apply to a male historian in the same situation.

That, in a nutshell, is my first reaction. Now, let's get the strawmen out of the way. HERE'S WHAT I'M NOT SAYING:
  • That academics shouldn’t be attractive
  • That women shouldn’t be attractive
  • That attractive women aren’t real historians
  • That dressing up fancy is bad
  • That the article is racist
  • That only middle-aged and old historians should be taken seriously 
 Any of these things might be argued to be true, but none of them are what I'm saying. So don't bother arguing against them in the comments, lest you see mine eyes give a mighty roll.

We good there? Alrighty, then; moving on to my reconsideration (second, third, and fourth thoughts about the article):
  1. The questionnaires are dumb, no doubt. But the women’s responses aren’t. Some participants seem to have refused to answer the “who would you date” question.[2] One of them straight-up challenges the idea that women write a different kind of history than men. One of them answers the time-machine question in the same way that I would: by clearly stipulating that she’d first think of loading up on immunizations; another notes that being a European woman in pretty much any past time period would have been much less preferable to being one now.
  2. Some of these women are actually TV presenters on history shows. So for them, looking good and dressing up are part of the job description (whether it should have to be is another kettle of fish). 
  3.  In my opinion, we (not just women) could learn a lot from people whose historical work appears on TV and in the general-readership press. I’m starting to think that we, as academic historians, are part of the problem when it comes to a general lack of historical literacy. If a potential reader needs to be halfway to a graduate degree before they can really “get” something we’ve written, then perhaps it’s time to rethink how we’re presenting our work. Or, at the very least, to think about having a couple of publication tracks going at the same time. And finally... 
  4. It's the friggin' Daily Mail. What did we expect?
I’m still on the whole skeeved out by the piece. I’d have thought that “academic historian” would be one place where I wouldn’t have to be hot or face irrelevance. But beyond the obvious idiocy and pandering, there are some things in this piece worth thinking about.

But don’t worry: You won’t see me posing draped across my desk in stilettos anytime soon.

[1] Title is likely a take on the film "The History Boys." So I'm gonna give the "girls" thing a pass. 
[2] Or perhaps one or more of the "dates" were editorially excluded for being too boring or obscure or even -- saints preserve us! -- not men.


Contingent Cassandra said...

Pretty silly, but I agree that they seem to have made the best of the situation (several of the time-travel answers also note the restrictions they'd face due to gender and/or race/ethnicity). They also seem to have resisted any long-lasting image "improvements": while many don't look entirely comfortable in/familiar with the clothes they're wearing, and there's a good deal of makeup involved, their haircuts appear to be their own.

But yike, the stilettos! I can't imagine teaching, let alone walking across campus with a bag full of necessary teaching (or research) paraphenalia, in anything like that without breaking my ankle, if not my neck. I'm pretty sure they'd be an equally unwise choice for stepping out of a time machine into an uncertain situation. Please tell me those things are going back out of style as markers of the powerful-but/and-sexy female soon.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, they're professional historians and they didn't think the Daily Mail wouldn't do something like this?

nightwalker said...

Oddly the author - Lisa Hilton - is also one of the subjects, though in the poorly-proofed piece she has accidentally mixed herself up with another of them, Cassie Newland. I'm baffled as to why perfectly intelligent women would take part in a shoot like this, tbh.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

To the commenter whose comments I've deleted: While your comments are on-point and not spam, I want to avoid links to sites that come with content warnings. Yours may be harmless self-expression, but the bots will find it, and once they do, I'll be doing nothing but deleting spam all day long.

If you'd consider posting without the links to your blog in the post or your blog name-tag (the name would still be there for anyone who wants to find you) or under another login, I'd be happy to welcome you.

Best wishes,


Leslie said...

It's "en pointe", Miss PhD.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.
I was unaware that my Google Content Warning had this unsavoury 'bots' effect.
I apologise.
I was, and still am, quite proud of my "Content Warning" page though. That was hard earned by serially emasculating a bevy of peri-pubescent Yankee boys who had no other riposte but to complain to Mr. Google about how horridly beastly I had been to them. I wear it as a badge of honour. The only possible reason why Google would append a warning must be because of my hyperbolic profanity, which is curious, as the Google Terms of Use do not forbid it.

I have never been deleted before, and your actions were disconcerting. I have been ignored, asked to leave and subjected to a tirade of puerile patriarchal invective, but never actually deleted.
Thank you for explaining your actions. I do appreciate it. I think we will get along fine henceforth.

And as to my 'harmless self-expression', there is nothing harmless in my word salads.
Nyuck,nyuck. Innit?

Thank you again.


Sarah said...

As a woman who is hopeful of someday making a mark in the world as a historian, I have to say that I can appreciate a little attention being paid to women practicing history, regardless of the other factors which you enumerated.
If these women can show anyone that the stereotype of what a historian "should" look or act like is ridiculous, and encourage more interest in the field, than I think that the piece is good.

Susan said...

Oh, and by the way, did you notice (I didn't until someone on FB pointed it out) that the author was one of the profiled historians?

Historiann said...

Sarah wrote: "If these women can show anyone that the stereotype of what a historian "should" look or act like is ridiculous, and encourage more interest in the field, than I think that the piece is good."

Right. Because there has never been any other generation of historians who looked any different from old white guys in tweed jackets with pipes in their teeth. And there is no other possible way to illustrate the diversity of practitioners of history than to squeeze a bunch of pretty white women into tight dresses and pose them like a fashion spread in Vogue.

The Great Forgetting is something that works against real change. Try Bonnie Smith's The Gender of History, which describes the generations after generations of women historians who either were deemed "not professional" (because they didn't have access to the same schools and professional networks as men) or who, once professionalized, continue to forget the women who came before them.

I'm sure you mean well, Sarah, but for some of us older broads, this isn't anything new, refreshing, or any kind of instrument for real, feminist change.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Notorious Ph.D. said...


I hope you don't mind that I passed your follow-up on to Historiann, who was contemplating a more detailed response. I won't repost, since I want to respect your wishes to remove the post from public consumption. But you and Historiann both raise some points that could be productive discussion fodder. To wit:

If we think it's part of our mission, as academics, to "meet them where they live", how far do we take that? If playing to stereotypes that we find reprehensible serves intellectual goals, then is that okay? Does it help the place of women in the profession? Or does it hurt us?

Historiann said...

My answer to that, Notorious, is perhaps even more deeply cynical than you might think. I don't think that the "History Girls" spread will make one iota of difference, when one comes to terms with the ways in which both the practice and the profession of history are deeply gendered male. Bonnie Smith's book (mentioned above) is so brilliant and so horrifying for documenting all of the ways in which women historians were trivialized and/or dismissed for being sexual or gender outlaws, not to mention all of the women who were systematically excluded from the profession in its first 100+ years.

Plus ca change & all that. I hold out no hope either for changing the public's understanding of history or historians, when historians themselves are so ignorant of their own history and so resistant to change.

Sorry to be such a buzzkill, friends. I suppose every generation of young women needs to feel like pioneers (because our predecessors have left us so little to show for their efforts) who will finally, finally make changes that will last. (I sure felt that way 20 years ago.) But that hasn't happened in the past 200 years. What makes the young so confident that *they'll* be the ones to succeed in a lasting way. I'm sure Germaine de Stael felt that way, as did Alice Clark & Ivy Pinchbeck, or Lucy Salmon or Helen Taft Manning. Manning worked in a department at Bryn Mawr that was nearly all women in the 1920s-40s but lived to see the department become nearly all male in the 1950s-80s after the vets returned from the war and grad schools didn't "need" to fill slots with women students.

I'm not advocating despair. I'm suggesting that we have to have a realistic gauge for measuring meaningful change over time. To what extent are the changes in the academic workplace since 1970 and the casualization of faculty labor over the past 20 years linked to the feminization of the profession? The AHA reports that women are around 35% of historians, not a token amount but far from equality, given our concentration in the junior or adjunct ranks. Might this have something to do with the sytematic devaluation of women's work that we can chart transhistorically? Let's compare the rates of casualization among engineering faculty versus Comp Lit, Art History, and English departments.

Many thanks to Notorious for hosting this conversation, and Sarah (and other young scholars), I'm sorry that I'm such a downer.

Anonymous said...


It is not so much that you are a 'downer', it's that your pragmatic understanding is disconcerting to the ears of idealist youth. Although I am 33, and as such would be counted among the 'youth' of the Western World, I am not at all 'youthful'. I was not raised in the Judeo-Christian world.
I hail from a decidedly Matriarchal society where we do not have a word for 'feminism', much less the concept. We do, however, have a word for 'masculinism'. My introduction to the English language and the culture of the West was mitigated through my 'involvement' with The Tutor. The Tutor being a Caucasoid baby-boomer and raised in the Canadas.

Y'all might find my understanding and sympathy with the Western Feminist movement to be rather bizarre and easily dismissed, but I mean well and I do wish to learn.

Be thankful you weren't born in Myanmar and carrying the passport of your adopted country – Colombia - and living 6 months of the year in frozen Canada. Until I slept with enough people to earn my UN Laissez-Passer, I didn't get into any country without enduring a full body-cavity search – for coca, presumably – and incessant queries as to whether I had ever met the sainted Suu Kyi.

opsimathphd said...

I'm a little to this extremely interesting discussion, but I thought it worth pointing out, in answer to some of the comments above, that all of the historians, according to their bios, have at least some experience presenting history on television. Which means that I doubt they were either unaware of or uncomfortable with the prettied-up and sexualized versions of themselves which this article presents. I don't mean that as a putdown, just a partial explanation (and unless the Daily Mail has a really large photo shoot budget, I'm betting the shoes at least are their own!). They all do appear to be doing interesting work, some of them more so than others.

opsimathphd said...

Sorry, a little LATE to this etc.

sally wilde said...

Very late finding this post, but a personal anecdote comes to mind. I passed 60 some time ago, am 6ft tall and have never been considered pretty by anyone, so far as I know. However, at the 'black tie' launch of a history that I wrote about a bunch of surgeons, I overheard an interesting comment (I was wearing a long frock apropos of the black tie thingy and I had been to the hairdresser, but positively, as is my won't, no make up). The comment was: 'She doesn't look like a[n] historian.'
Do some historians like to frock up and if so, who cares? Would it affect their book sales? well, only if they appear on TV, which is, I suspect somewhat circular. But I have to admit that I experience fleeting annoyance at the uberglamour of the few women chosen to represent our profession in the media.