Complaint: David Starkey’s criticism of female historians is wrong





[Natasha is a British historian and writer living in Switzerland. She graduated from Oxford with a degree in History and German and has a Masters in Russian with International Relations from UCL.]

David Starkey’s recent pronouncements on female historians, which I came across on April 1st, did at first seem to be a bad joke. Apparently, history, especially that of Tudor times, has been feminized by waves of women analysts focusing on Henry VIII’s love life at the expense of the real power players, the white male elite. First of all let me say that Starkey has a point. Women do like soap operas more than men do, although the number of boys quite hooked on Neighbours et al. should not be underestimated. Perhaps more women than men historians like to focus on the dramatic romanticism of historical accounts instead of drier facts.

The first thing to do is to account for this: number one, the study of history has changed a great deal. Nowadays the emphasis is on the thematic not the empirical. It is also on the historian themselves, something less encouraged in the beginning of the age of rationality, or “enlightened” times. The great debate in historical writing has always been the tension between presenting facts and opinion. Many more recent writers have written the history of their line of thought, assessing the past to suit their own dogmas and willfully making the facts fit. This is not necessarily the wrong way to write but it can be deconstructed and attacked more effortlessly than the more straightforward empirical tomes of the 19th and early 20th century, before historical writing became quite so politicized. Facts are now available at the click of a button. Therefore historians sometimes spend less time looking for them or recording them and more on interpretation.

Many historians today like to project themselves onto the story. Starkey claims the past (of Britain anyway) was shaped by the white male leaders of the time. To some extent this is true but it misses the fact that even if those men did make many important decisions, what history teaches us is that everything is connected. History is not just from above or just from below. It is from the turbulent mix of the two that the most accurate picture emerges. It is not true to say that the smaller actors are of no import, as a long line of toppled dictators, monarchs and overlords have found to their cost. You never know when the small actor might grow in stature; you cannot just separate him or her from the lives and decisions of those at the top.

Of course the history of these smaller actors is more difficult to pinpoint if taken as an excluded entity. We know much less about the social history of the poorer in society, partly due to their lack of access to education and thus greater illiteracy. The poor tended to pass down their tales as oral history; it was not recorded in the same grandiose way as that of the Kings, with their rooms full of memorabilia and libraries of servile scribes. Before the times of mass communication, it was all the powerful could do to record their own achievements, never mind those of the wider community.

Number two: if girls are writing in a more “girly” way, perhaps this is linked to education: girls tend to be given the softer subjects like “describe a typical day in the life of a peasant girl OR city girl during the Russian Revolution” for class presentations in high school, rather than the “describe the defensive tactics of the Red Army during the Russian Revolution” that the boys get. I exaggerate to make a point, but in the field of history, there are as many men who enjoy dissecting the psychological lives of great characters as there are women who enjoy a good foray into tank widths and legal insignia. Starkey appears to have chosen a very narrow range of history and historians to point at and to have ignored the range of male writers who were quite happy to focus on melodrama (think of Roman writers for a start)....


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Randll Reese Besch - 4/8/2009

I so dislike people like Starkey who think that history is for males and other things 'soft' are for females. Genitalia nor brain type do not dictate how we look at things in some gender role model writ to epistomology and pantology searches and explanations of what was and is. Each person is and individual and must be looked at on their merits alone and not some group think.