Sick of the sidelines

July 23, 2004

Let's face it, history is sexist, as demonstrated by the 2001 RAE, insists June Purvis

The Association of University Teachers' report Gender and Research Activity in the 2001 RAE is a timely reminder to academic staff of "institutionalised sexism". The report notes that only 19 per cent of female academics were included in the research assessment exercise 2001, compared with 37 per cent of men.

Furthermore, Gillian Howie, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool University, pointed out in The Times Higher (July 16) how many male heads of department, university managers and leading academics judged subjects in which there are a large number of female academics, such as gender studies, as inferior, peripheral and not always worthy of inclusion in the RAE.

In history, my own discipline, the situation is as bad. Women's history was considered so insignificant in the last RAE that there was no expert on the subject on the history panel. There is no excuse for this since women's history as a discipline took off in this country in the early 1970s. As female historians of that time sought to find out about the lives of their foremothers, it became painfully obvious that history had a male bias, both in regard to what was considered historically interesting and in interpretation of archival sources.

History was written largely by men and about men's activities in the public sphere - war, politics, diplomacy and administration. Women were largely excluded and, when they were mentioned, were usually portrayed in stereotypical roles such as wives, mothers, daughters and mistresses. Men's experiences were taken as the norm and from such experiences generalisations were made about humankind.

Since the 1970s, the list of publications in women's history has expanded enormously so that women are now visible where once they were hidden.

Research reveals that their lives usually followed a different pattern from those of men. In the 21st century, it would appear that the richness and diversity of such publications, more nuanced than before, have become a success story. Yet a perusal of any of the mainstream history journals offers a sharp corrective to such optimism. Most publish no articles on women or gender, few include book reviews in the field. And it is from such "worthy" academics that RAE panels are drawn.

I was pointedly reminded of these issues when I read David Cannadine's soapbox, "Why I believe there should be even more history on television" (July 2). Cannadine reported on a conference on history and the media, held at the Institute of Historical Research in 2002. I was one of the 400 who attended and who has bought the book of conference proceedings.

Cannadine argues that we need more history on television and radio, which I would agree with, but rather than challenge the male bias of so much media history, he endorses it. At the conference, 21 men were listed as speakers and just five women, the main content of these talks offering a gender-blind analysis. There was no billing on women's history, when there could have been. After all, a series on "Women in History" appeared on our screens in the 1990s, the decade in which the highly popular 1970s series on the suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain, Shoulder to Shoulder , was also rerun. Unexpectedly, the conference volume reproduces a "malestream" analysis.

History in this country is dominated by a white, male, middle-class elite that decides what is "worthy" and whose opinions and research are given greater weight than those of scholars in women's history, almost invariably women. The consequences of this for the RAE, for equal opportunities and for definitions of the discipline must be confronted. It is time for the profession to examine its bias and practices and not to leave it to those of us who write women's history to raise the issue.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

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