Empowering or undermining? Imogen and Carly respond to ‘The History Girls’ article.

Earlier this week, the Daily Mail published an article ‘The History Girls: meet the women building a bright future from the past’ which raises important issues concerning women’s positions in academia, and the portrayal and perception of female historians.

At first glance, the article might appear to present an empowered form of female identity, highlighting that women can (shock horror…) be interested in ‘glamorous’ clothes, wear make-up and heels, AND be successful, respected academics. Clearly there are important, and obvious, points to be made here: that history is no longer only written by white, middle-aged men, and that being a young woman who wears heels should not preclude a successful, serious career as an historian. However, the article’s approach to highlighting how young women are rescuing history from the ‘clutches of fusty academia’ might also be seen as problematic, troubling and, er, patronising.

In one sense, the article’s interviews with female academics do present a challenge to particular stereotypes about the identity of historians, underscoring the fact that women do hold professional positions as scholars. However, the overall editorial, including the photographs in particular, means that the article focuses predominantly on the appearance and clothing of the academics, which, it could be argued, subsequently undermines any serious points being made about their research, and trivialises the intellectual rigour and curiosity which characterises their scholarly enquiries. Looking at the photographs in the article in light of this, could it be argued that a manuscript, map or painting becomes framed as a fashion accessory, rather than the object of scholarly interrogation…? The article is authored by one of the featured academics, but what kind of framework and editorial constraints is she operating within, and might Joan Riviere’s notion of performing femininity be relevant here…?

Should it concern us that all of the ‘girls’ selected are under 40, conventionally attractive, according to contemporary social and cultural definitions, and white, and that one of the interview questions probes who their ideal historical ‘dinner date’ would be? You don’t need to be versed in feminist history or theory to question whether it is necessary for an article (which claims to highlight the historians’ professional positions) to mention diligently the marital status of each interviewee, and to be able to deduce what this communicates about attitudes towards women’s agency and independence…

Historians are interested in how the language, agenda and meaning of source material is shaped by where texts are published. With this in mind, how does the fact that the article is published in the Daily Mail affect our interpretation?

Empowering or undermining? We’d love to hear your opinion. Join in the debate below, or on our Facebook page…

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