Monday 1 August 2011

History is for Boys

by Mary Hoffman

Being a feminist who had studied Linguistics with Michael Halliday at UCL, I had a big problem in the '70s with the word "Herstory." I thought then, and do now, that it made a political point at the expense of etymology and created an ugly word.

But recently I have heard of two incidents that have brought this formulation back to mind. There is a Primary school in the UK where top year juniors were recently given a writing task about WW2. So far, so common. BUT, the boys and girls were given different topics to write about.

Let us say, for the sake of argument that the boys had to write about the D-Day landings and the girls about women working in munitions factories. And now say that one girl chose to write about D-Day.

The girl's work was returned as unmarkable, because she had not chosen the "correct" topic for her gender. Is this possible in the 21st century, I ask myself. Is it even legal? It makes me so angry, I don't know where to begin.

I started my career in writing as a journalist, when the Times Educational Supplement published a long review-feature I had written on sex education books, to which they gave the title Sex and the Sunset. This was in the year of our lord 1972, nearly 40 years ago. I had found that one American writer had made twice the money by publishing two almost identical books, one called Sex for Boys and the other Sex for Girls. I remember that he said girls' sexual feelings were more diffuse than boys', "like looking at a beautiful sunset."

I don't think I would have believed it if anyone had told me then that gender divisions about what the sexes were presumed to feel, or care about, or know, let alone write about, would still be rearing their ugly heads four decades later.

And then I was told about this site:Scholastic My Story (boys) There is a companion one for girls. Now it's not that the books are all about fighting for boys and nursing for girls (though some of them are); it's the assumption that girls won't be interested in Vikings or boys in the Suffragettes [sic].

Which brings us back to the girl who wanted to write about D-Day. I might have been that girl. Suppose I wanted to do it in a historical novel now? No-one writing histfic today could have been there on that beach; would it be easier for me to do the research, imagine the characters, enter that world of 1944 if I had a male member? And if that is arrant nonsense, then why isn't it equally so for that ten-year-old, who wrote about what interested her?

            (My thanks to Catherine Butler for alerting me to both these stories.)


adele said...

I'd love to comment but have to pick chin up off floor. The mind truly boggles. Thanks for posting so well about this. Reminds me of 2 boxes of books (to be read during wet playtimes) in daughter's classroom decades ago which were labelled "for girls" and "for boys." Did think all that had gone now, but no. Dear oh dear.

Louisa Young said...

It went for a bit but then we turned away for five minutes and it came bounding back. This is why it's so important as mothers that we keep our kids' eyes and ears open in all directions. Any further report on what happened with the school?

H.M. Castor said...

I too am flabbergasted that this would happen now in a school... But we are surrounded by the gender issue in 'story' generally, aren't we. Just the other day I heard, in a discussion on Radio 4 about Studio Ghibli's animation 'Arrietty' (based on The Borrowers), an appreciative comment concerning the fact that this Japanese studio was prepared to make a major animation with a female protagonist. Meanwhile, for the studios that make Toy Story et al it seems the main character cannot be female unless it is a girls' (implication: girls only) film (usually a princessy/ fairytale one). And not just that: in Toy Story etc 50 per cent of the population is usually represented by one lone female character amongst the principal group - and expected, no doubt, to be grateful to've been included! Sorry, I've moved away from the point of this excellent post, but I just wanted to say that - esp with 2 young daughters - I am painfully aware of the gender divide in so many areas!

H.M. Castor said...

P.S. Re characters, I imagine the discussion goes like this: ...Let's have a funny one, a brainy one, a brave one, a cowardly one, a bad one (or whatever) and a female one. (Reinforcing the message that as a girl you are defined by your gender, rather than your personality/abilities.) Which is precisely the message given by the history project discussed in this post: nothing about you could possibly be more important in defining you than your gender.

Sam Thomas said...

Geez, that's appalling.

For what it's worth, the assumptions continue into higher ed. I'm a man who writes history and fiction about women, midwifery, and childbirth. When articles go out for review, they inevitably come back with comments like, "Her prose requires a bit more polish."

On the fiction side, editors have been floored that a man can write in the voice of a woman. I think the hard part is a 21st century author writing in the voice of a 17th century person, no matter what the gender!

I'm looking forward to reading more! (And will deal with similar issues on:

Stephanie Burgis said...

GARH. That is totally infuriating, and it certainly sounds like it should be illegal.

Julia Knight said...

How utterly ridiculous. My daughter would have been the one writing about D-day, I have no doubt. And if it were returned as unmarkable, I would be having a conversation with that teacher that they would find VERY uncomfortable.

I write more often from the male POV than from the female. I'm not unusual either. When I write anything, I'm writing from another's POV. A different gender is only part of it. In some genres it's still 'women are there to be love interests or scenery, not because they are interesting in their own right'

To which I say rude words.
Sadly, still a long way to go. *sigh*

Will Coe said...

Yes, absolutely shocking. Only issue I have is that this blog is posted on a gender divisive site. I love your site. I like the title of it. Of course, it's the herstory version of 'The History Boys'. Arguably that's a clever marketing gimmick rather than a gender exclusion zone.
What you don't consider in your first example is the reaction to a boy pupil writing about women in munitions factories. If that was unmarkable too then all you might have revealed is a school teaching its pupils to 'Read the Question!'. Admittedly, assumptions have been made about children's interests based on their sex. But, for all we know, the next task they were set was to write about the WW2 subject they hadn't written about in their previous test. That would make it an exploration of gender issues and not a crass assumption. Not likely, I know. Yet dismissing the possibility might be a gender based assumption itself.
Interesting that you find herstory an 'ugly' word. It may be many things from silly to inspired but it is not a collection of letters lacking in beauty.
I think there's room for a Guest Bloke Blog on your site. In the interests of gender neutrality, you understand. We write histfic too.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Mary and fascinating range of comments. On midwivery topics,my daughter-in-law has been distraught with breast-feeding problems. Her saviour was a male breast advisor sent by the NHS to her doorstep...the most patient and helpful person she could ever have wished for. I'm sure his teacher didn't filter out separate questions for boys and girls.

Katherine Langrish said...

How utterly ridiculous and infuriating. I'd love to know what happened next. A letter to the head tacher demanding to know the equality policies of the school? (Trouble is, this kind of action sometimes really embarrasses ones offspring, who veto it.)

Alex said...

It reminds me of those "clever" posts I've seen recently about JK Rowlings wizard trilogy starring Hermione Grangier.

Female leads are still rare because their is the perception that a female lead equates to a girls film/book.

Sad innit?

James Mayhew said...

From a male perspective I, too, am frustrated by the division of sexes. Publishers and the media are largely to blame for the stereotyping. i've deliberately chosen a lot of strong (I think) female leads in my picture books (Miranda the Castaway; Katie), yet time and again that's considered odd. Why? Likewise if I say I like opera and ballet (as I do), it's considered unmanly. This all begins at primary age, in schools, with books, with endless cycles of conditioning. A lot of it is down to publishers marketing things in a particular way. The problem definitely exists. But it affects both sexes.

Anonymous said...

Will Coe said..."But, for all we know, the next task they were set was to write about the WW2 subject they hadn't written about in their previous test."

No, they were not. :-(

As the parent of the little girl in question I can assure those who find it hard to believe that, if they knew the area of the UK the school was in, they would perhaps be less surprised.

The school also teaches my daughter that God created the world, and the trees, and the animals and, of curse, us. And that's taught not as in one particular theory, but taught as solid fact.

It is stuck in a time-warp and the local education authority has no interest in changing things, which in fact follows the local political philosophy of keeping that small part of the UK living firmly in the past, both socially and economically.

It's a sad fact of life in that area that the village schools simply see the future of their female pupils as being farmers wives or shop workers (or perhaps village school teachers?), and can't really see the point of educating them for much more.

C. xx

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm wincing in sympathy.

alberridge said...

Wow! Great post - and a shocking one. I had no idea such things still happened, and (like Adele) I'm still boggling.
But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, as this gender-divisive approach to history seems to permeate at least 'perceived' reading habits today. I write in the traditionally male area of action-adventure and military history, and no-one here needs telling why the name on my jackets is 'A.L.Berridge' rather than 'Louise Berridge'.
In the same way I know a man who writes (extremely good) romances, but has to use a feminine pseudonym for publication.
In pandering to these perceptions, we're only prolonging them - but would a publisher let us risk it any other way?

Mary Hoffman said...

Am just back from a holiday without computer so am late replying to these comments. Thanks, anonymous C. for clarifying the situation to Will Coe.

And, Will, perhaps we should post on the blog site what was in our Press Release about the name?

We had no intention of being "gender divisive" and will certainly have guest posts from men, interviews with them, reviews of their books etc.

It was just then when I started looking around from contributors it was astonishing how many historical fiction writers for YA were female.

It's not a feminist blog (though I am an unashamed feminist, I didn't ask the others)

Oh, and words are so much more than "collections of letters" I believe. We'll have to disagree about Herstory.

John Moore said...

I could imagine even greater horror if the female student had chosen to write about the following important aspects of World War II:
The Battle of Stalingrad, The Battle of Kursk, the T34 tank, the SS and the Einsatzgruppen.

Would her teachers be happier if she wrote about the effect of large numbers of American Servicemen on British women?