The rise of the female TV historian

I have never hidden the fact that one of my greatest regrets in life is that I never took history at either GCSE or beyond. My reluctance to study the subject was due to the fact that, at my extremely hard up secondary school, options were very limited and I chose drama (why, oh why?) Since my late teens, I’ve been a bit of an armchair historian, devouring books on loads of subjects, but particularly long dead women. If you were a beheaded queen, I’ve probably read most of the books about you. The bulk of my reading is historical non-fiction and, at the moment, I seem to be in a Georgian phase. I’m the family geneologist, tramping backwards and forwards to Ireland to find out about my long-lost relatives. At university, I did an enhancement course on Tudor and Stuart architecture and used to get on the nerves of the actual history students with my enthusiasm for the subject (admittedly it was, in part, dry. But also interesting!) It’s one of my dreams to be able to afford to do some kind of proper qualification in history one day and then to do something with it.

But one thing that was always clear to me was that history was very much dominated by men. The historians I was watching on TV were David Starkey and Simon Schama. I honestly cannot remember ever watching, or seeing advertised, programmes presented by female historians until recently. In the last five years, there has been a massive improvement in the representation of women presenting serious, well-researched historical documentaries and in the last year, we’ve been truly spoilt.

At the moment, we’re lucky enough to have Bettany Hughes presenting ‘Divine Women’, Mary Beard and ‘Meet the Romans’ and recently, Suzanne Castor’s ‘She-Wolves’. Lucy Worsely pops up with regularity and Amanda Vickery is also on TV quite a bit. All of these women have a calm, reassuring presence and I enjoy watching them; without fail, their passion shines through, whether it’s Hughes by the Ganges watching a Hindu goddess being given to the water, or Beard reading with enthusiasm the epitaph of a long-dead Roman. I also never come away from watching these programmes feeling patronised. I wish that I could have been taught by any of these women. Maybe I’d be researching and publishing my own historical work by now if I had. If this is the effect on me, maybe there are teenage girls who are watching who are inspired to take up their own historical research. It can only be a good thing.

However, it seems that these women have something that the male historians don’t; they are consistently judged on their looks. Whether they’re a ‘stunner’, as a Times reviewer once called Hughes in a review ridiculously entitled ‘Historian or Exotic Dancer?’ or berated for their looks, as Mary Beard has found out this week,  it seems that there are still hang ups that seem to influence people’s expectations of whether a female historian is suitable for TV work. Too attractive? Well, are you sure, my love, that you know what you’re talking about? If you’re not a glamourpuss, should you even be allowed anywhere near a TV camera? No one ever made those arguments about Starkey, did they?

Anyway, regardless of what other people think I, for one, will continue to watch, enjoy and be inspired by these fascinating women and continue to dream of my own journey through history. History has always been overwhelmingly male. It was mostly written by men, taught by men and presented by men. I think the balancing that now seems to be happening is welcome and long overdue.

3 thoughts on “The rise of the female TV historian

  1. Helena Whitbread says:

    I,of course, endorse every word of the above re the welcome presence of women historians on the screen. I am a devotee of Amanda Vickery’s work on Georgian households and am also reading Mary Beard’s fascinating books compiled from her blogs.

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