David Starkey vs. Women

I should write something sensible about David Starkey and his little rant against 'Women Historians' ... but instead I'll just make a few points, as by and large I fully agree with him:

a) All the 'women historians' I know who have written books about women are now being told by their editors to try their hands at novels, or other types of books - clearly it was a 'trend' which now seems to be over, as the publicity the women got did not translate into sales. My friends who write straight history are not being told to change genres, indicating that there is still a market for History books - just not books about someone's mistress or divorce ...

b) There were some very interesting women who were historically important. Most were not - that does not mean a book about one cannot make an interesting read, but frankly I tend to avoid books about women.

I ignored Kate Williams' England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton for a long time because I thought "oh God, not another ..." and only picked it up when a guest left behind a tattered paperback on holiday and I had nothing else to read. It turned out to be brilliant - I also recommend her Becoming Queen - but the way it was marketed, and the way 'women historians' are marketed and publicized put me off it. Emma Hamilton's life was not particularly important historically, but the book itself is a good read.

Artemisia of Halicarnassus' life was historically important - she was Xerxes' ablest general, the first known female admiral, and a ruler greatly admired by Herodotus. I'm working on her history right now, but was very reluctant to do so for a long time largely because she's a woman - I'm not good at 'gender studies' and didn't want her to get lumped into the 'girlie' books. She's military history not fashion and sexual scandal a la Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

c) The same 'women historians' I know often complain to me about some of the things they are asked to do, and comments made to them. At first I was shocked. But the bottom line is that if you come across all girlie, wear miniskirts, flutter your eyelashes and flirt your way through life ... then it's not surprising if people treat you like a Girl. Years ago, long before the Tomb Raider movies but possibly inspired by the video games, some TV producer wanted me to present a documentary dressed in tight black leather, riding a Harley - I told him where to put it. The same for the documentary about brothels, where the producer's fantasy involved me in a low cut top. If you present yourself in a highly sexualized way, you'll get treated as a sex object. I understand that TV companies want younger women to counter all the old, male academics - but it is possible to go on TV and not dress like Academic Barbie.

I don't 'do' ruffles and bows, or rhinestones or batting my eyelashes or pouting or gushing. Nor am I 'butch' or 'masculine' - just straightforward. And as a result I get treated as a normal human being not a Girl. The only person who's been 'odd' about my writing a book on military history as a woman is one single journalist named Andrew Roberts (did a B.A.; no military experience). TV companies have had no problem with it, nor have the well established (male) military historian I know , nor have publishers. General Charles Gurhrie, Baron Guthrie of Craigiebank, GCB, LVO, OBE, DL, ex Chief of the Defence Staff, ex Chief of the General Staff, ex head of the British Army, has never, unlike Mr. Roberts, objected to my delusions that I can do military history. Nor did General Guthrie ever, like Mr. Roberts, pat me on the knee and say anything only the lines of "you girls aren't interested in politics or war" ...

I was in Morocco whilst the 'women historians' debate was going on, and declined offers to get involved as I was on holiday. I did however check my email, and saw offers to be a visiting scholar and a visiting professor from two universities in Muslim states - who clearly have no issue with my gender.

I know I'll get a lot of angry emails about this, but ... The bottom line is that if you behave normally and just get on with things, you can accomplish far more. If you dress like Paris Hilton, don't complain you're not being treated seriously. When your only marketable asset is your cleavage sooner or later someone younger and perkier will come along.

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