In defence of history by women

The visibility of the resurgence of women’s voices has launched into the stratosphere these last two weeks, from the triumph of the campaign to get a woman back on a UK banknote, to the rather seedy and distasteful rape and bombing threats aimed at women by anonymous so-called trolls.

But what is worse than all that is the society-sanctioned, media-fuelled defence of such revolting behaviour because ‘you can just ignore it’. I am assuming the same people who ignore such things probably in a past life also ignored the inhumanity of slavery – if you don’t want a slave just don’t have one! For there is no virtual world and real world. Twitter, Facebook and anything else onlineĀ is the real world.

She’s rubbish because I don’t like her

So amongst the flurry of comment and opinion about all this I read the latest post on Prof. Mary Beard’s blog A Don’s Life reflecting on her latest TV programme about Caligula, the First Century Roman emperor. I must admit that I have not seen any of Mary Beard’s programmes but I have heard a lot of good things about them, and about her, and I have read some of her published work. I don’t have a TV but I do sneak the occasional fix well after the event on iPlayer etc. so maybe I will watch them some time.

In her post Mary was rather putting her own experience of being a woman on TV, and that too a woman presenting much of her own research, in a serious history programme, in the context of the overt and aggressive sexism experienced by so many women in their everyday lives both online and offline.

Distaste for her TV history manifested in a dislike of her and how she looks. But what really got her goat was the flippant accusation by someone who called her history like that of Wikipedia.


Now, there are two problems here. The first is that Wikipedia is not a source of original information, that is, first time published thought, argument or opinion. It is, if you remember them, meant to be like a set of encyclopaedias (-paediae??), and is entirely reliant on the sources the writer references as to how decent an encyclopaedic entry it is. So some are good and some are bad.

Mary Beard’s chagrin came from the fact that, albeit she is a Cambridge Don with over 40 years of experience in Caligulan history, she is still not taken seriously by those moved to damn her and her work by calling her ‘Wiki-lite’. The second is that if you find yourself not understanding what a historian means then they are not explaining it properly. This is not uncommon and many historians make a career out of being obtuse to dazzle their audience and get promoted in the process. On the opposite end of the spectrum if you find a ‘historian’ enthusiastically saying a lot but not saying very much then they probably don’t know their stuff.

So this post was shared on the Women For Cornwall group on Facebook and there has been a bit of debate about it and the problem women have in being, for want of a better term, taken seriously simply because they are female.

Part of the debate was also about how history is taught in schools. I’m going to blog again about this and the Govian view of school history so won’t dwell on it here. Someone brought up the old S-Level – remember them? I came at the tail end when they had just scrapped the examination but we went through the motions of it anyway. The idea was that those most able to grasp key concepts could spread their wings by inserting some original thought into debates and learn to construct their own arguments rather than clutching a knotted string of others’ opinions. Until this time, apparently, A-Level students were just taught ‘facts’ [those who have taught history undergrads in recent years may feel this comment still stands].

Why don’t you prove it?

I reflected on my own experience. Until GCSE I really did not get school history very much. I enjoyed it but it was not on top of my list. I was after all going to be a scientist of some sort. But I had a cracking GCSE and A-level teacher who did teach us to critique, challenge established facts, learn to understand historical opinion and find bias according to authorial origins. Even my fourth-year primary school (inner London comp) teacher (today’s Year 6) stopped a lesson one day and said, “why don’t you ask me to prove it?” I think we were talking about the troubles in Northern Ireland, no less. God bless you, Mr Hadfield.

That was a turning point in my understanding of the world. The interesting predicament Mary Beard finds herself in is that people’s dislike originates in the fact that she is damn good at both argument and backing it up with evidence – such as being a good historian entails unlike the Starkeys of this world. But saying they don’t agree would be putting the critics on the same level as her, whereas dismissing her as opposed to her arguments is much easier, it’s lazier but hey, it’s online and you can say anything and a few people will Like you for it.

So you think you’re a historian?

And I would like to have a continued go at people who think they are historians because they watch it on TV or cherry-pick information on the web or indeed osmotically absorb other people’s ideas and frankenregurgitate them as their own.

On two recent occasions I have had my own thoughts and ideas quoted back at me, and even ascribed to another speaker, following my giving a paper!

Good historians do argument and evidence very well. They compare. Then then explain by creating a narrative which can be followed. I have said in other fora that one of the main problems with the way that Cornish history is done is that it lacks comparison and lacks an audience in journals and books outside Cornwall, but that’s for yet another post. It is also unsurprising that the arch-narratives of Cornish history, the good and the bad (and there is an awful lot of bad), are all written by men. This has to change.

Would you have a hernia operation by someone who dabbled in a bit of Holby City and YouTube or someone who had studied abdominal surgery for many years? Sorry, in defence of my profession a bit. Especially those women who are in it.