What is it like to be a female historian in the 21st century?

Expertise is not just a man in a suit anymore. Ellie Cawthorne spoke to four leading academics about internet trolls, juggling work and family, and their plans to shake up the study of history...

From left: Fern Riddell, a cultural historian specialising in sex and suffrage; Janina Ramirez, a broadcaster and historian based at the University of Oxford; Joann Fletcher, a broadcaster and writer, and an Egyptologist at the University of York; Anna Whitelock, a historian of royal and early modern history, based at Royal Holloway, University of London. (Photography by Helen Atkinson)

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Q. What do you think are the main challenges facing women working in academic and popular history in 2017?

Janina Ramirez: I think that many of the challenges are the same as they’ve always been. I’m a mother and that’s had a huge impact on the amount of time I can work, and how much I can justify being away on big projects. But I think that things are changing. Social media also really helps – you can reach out and talk to people directly, even if you’re changing nappies or loading the dishwasher.

Joann Fletcher: I totally agree – it’s a constant juggling act. When my daughter was young it was a real struggle to do the TV work, the media, the museum work and write books. But you had to do all of that if you wanted to progress. I think that there’s still an idea that women should be able to do it all, but it’s just not a level playing field.

Fern Riddell: If you look at a male peer, a male academic in the same position, it’s not necessarily that things come easier to them, but there doesn’t seem to be the same pressure to show that you can do absolutely everything in order to be taken seriously.

Anna Whitelock: Yes, young female academics now really are all-singing and all-dancing. But I think women in these positions also have a responsibility to be honest about their frailties. It’s important to realise that you don’t have to be perfect.

Q. And what are the particular challenges facing female historians on TV?

AW: If you think about the origins of TV history, it was very much a male preserve – both in terms of the presenters and the topics they covered. At the time I was doing my PhD, it was pretty much David Starkey and Simon Schama on TV, and they were almost interchangeable – the grey-haired, suited man was the model of authority. Female experts on TV have to have ‘a look’ – a USP almost – and justify their existence in a way that guys don’t have to.

JR: Yes, I got called a Goth historian! I’ve never even listened to Goth music, but you have to have a tag.

FR: When we think of our favourite male historians working in popular history – Dan Snow, Dan Jones or Greg Jenner – they don’t have PhDs. But all of the women do. I’ve been told that, while I can appear on TV as an expert, I can’t present programmes because I don’t have my PhD yet, and they need me to have that rubber stamp.

JF: You’ve got to have all the bells and whistles. Every piece of armour you can possibly find.

AW: This is a much broader issue – society at large has to start to change its idea of what authority and expertise is. It’s not just a man in a suit anymore. I actually think we are in an age of transition – we’re about to enter a golden age of female TV historians. If you look at the women working in popular history today, they are all so interesting and individual, and I think that’s increasingly what people want. Women are arguably making popular history even more accessible and engaging than men – they’re the kind of people you could go down the pub with. They’ve brought a new approach to TV history, which is not just simply top down, limited to one authority-voice and one perspective.

Q. Is there pressure on female academics to present themselves in a certain way on public platforms?

JR: There are some really awkward issues to address here. When I first appeared on TV, my mum started searching for my name online, and the hate comments that appeared were unbelievably destructive. Really nasty personal comments all based on appearance: “She looks awful in that”; “She’s obviously not the first to the salad bar.” Immediately afterwards, I hid under the duvet and thought: “Why am I doing this?” Then I pulled the covers down and went, “Right. Sod it. Let’s get on with it.”

FR: When I made my first TV appearance, I was so nervous I threw up in the bathroom five minutes before. My university had given me no guidance – I really had to teach myself. I work on the history of sex, so when I first started I felt a pressure to look really serious, because I was talking about subjects that would leave me open to criticism. But I quickly found that I was worse on camera because I was too restrained.

JF: It’s important not to be scared of being yourself, warts and all. I don’t have social media – I do my own thing and if people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. I would die a thousand deaths if I had to dress up in a pink frilly frock just because I’m a woman. I’m often wandering around Egyptian monuments, and I want viewers to be looking at the beautiful objects of this amazing culture. I don’t want to be a distraction from that! As long as I’m there to present the information, that should be all that matters.

But you are judged very differently. I’ll always remember AA Gill’s comments about Mary Beard. [In 2012, the critic jibed that the classics professor “should be kept away from cameras altogether” because of her appearance.] The vitriol that academic women of Mary’s calibre receive is unbelievable. In my case it’s never just been because I’m female – there’s a far bigger elephant in the room – I’m from the north. Even now, a few people say: “She’s from Barnsley and she’s an Egyptologist? She can’t be with that accent!” That snobbery drives me crazy.

Q. The majority of books and article pitches we receive at BBC History Magazine are authored by men. Why do you think that’s the case?

JR: One simple reason is time. When I had my kids, I kept up my teaching and TV, but my writing fell by the wayside. I just couldn’t get that sustained time at a desk; I couldn’t clear my head enough.

JF: Yes, I wrote a biography of Nefertiti in a year. Then I had my daughter. My next book, a biography of Cleopatra, took me five years.

AW: When we talk about men writing more than women, it’s important to highlight that we are talking about mainstream ‘trade’ books, rather than academic books. One recent factor could be the centenary of the First World War. Men tend to write about wars more, and those are often the books that sell in huge numbers.

You also have to be incredibly courageous to publish mainstream books. Everyone will read the reviews; it’s all very public. Maybe women are more reluctant to put their heads above the parapet in that way.

Q. There are plenty of women specialising in social and royal history. But why don’t we see them as much covering military, economic or political history?

FR: We do! There are some amazing women working in those fields. But they don’t get the same profile. If commissioners want someone to speak about economics or politics, they choose a man, because a male voice is seen to have more authority on those topics.

JR: There’s a traditional way of commissioning those sorts of programmes for TV. And, in book publishing, there’s a traditional market who want to be satisfied with a traditional approach. But I think those traditional forms of media are now breaking down.

Q. Should we be doing more to highlight female historical figures and ‘women’s history’ topics?

JF: My last book was a history of ancient Egypt. I wrote it because I was sick to the back teeth of every single history of Egypt – brilliant though they might be – seemingly suggesting every single ancient Egyptian was a man. Ancient Egyptian society was far more equal than others, so I decided to tell the whole story, and discuss all Egyptians. Then you get a very different kind of history.

AW: I’ve always felt slightly conflicted about the idea of ‘women’s history’. I understand why you would want to highlight the role of women, but the point is that they need to be situated back into the mainstream narrative. Shouldn’t it all be much more integrated?

FR: I never wanted to be a ‘women’s historian’ for exactly that reason. I’ve ended up as a sex and suffrage historian, but because I wasn’t trained in the ‘women’s history’ discipline, I think it has given me a different perspective on the subject. I look at suffrage violence, bombings and arson attacks. It challenges people’s perceptions: ‘women’s history’ isn’t just about ladies sitting around or breaking a few windows.

JR: I guess I did the opposite with my series on the Hundred Years’ War. While I covered battles, weapons and troop formations, I also gave a cultural dimension to all the military stuff, looking at the art and music that came out of it. You could say I ‘feminised’ the military history.

AW: It’s also about changing the emphasis of history and taking the spotlight off the principal agents – which, in most western cultures, were men. Whether we like it or not, men were the soldiers, leaders and politicians, and it’s their voices in the historical record. But if we start to take a more macro view of history in the round, then gender becomes less important. I don’t think the next generation will have such a strong sense of studying ‘men’s history’ or ‘women’s history’.

Q. How can we ensure female historians are better represented in the future?

JR: People have suggested positive discrimination, but that idea gives me goosebumps. I can’t see how it’s helpful in any real terms.

FR: As women, I think we have to be much more supportive of each other. It has predominantly been other women that have torn me down, and I think that’s something that we need to change. Because we have to claw so hard to get there, we also have to leave room for others to come up alongside us.

AW: There’s a line to walk between absolutely championing the charge of women, and being realistic. I don’t actually think we should be worrying about getting more women into history. Young women are doing history; female students certainly dominate in the classes I run. Instead we should focus on encouraging all young people – whether male or female – to value history as a discipline.

JF: It’s just about equality – equality in the classroom, on the TV screen, on social media. But also equality in how we express, describe and put history out there. Then I think it will filter through, and in 10 years’ time, we won’t be having these debates. People will look back at us having this discussion and we’ll look like a bunch of dinosaurs in crinolines.

JR: These things take time to evolve. But we’re historians – we know how to do patience.

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You can listen to an extended version of this interview in our weekly podcast here.