Why is history so male oriented?

by beaverclea

So much of history seems to be about men, written by men, and consumed by men. (I am a guy as well). Why is that?

Why do men have a need to be remembered after they die? Is it because men do not bear children, and therefore do not automatically have a lineage? Do women not strive for "greatness" or to be remembered for their accomplishments because they have created life through children? Is it because women who take credit vs. who are collaborative are punished by other women? Is it because women have not been permitted to take on real roles of responsibilities (i.e. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the first women political/governmental figures to have died, because of the utter lack of women in political/governmental roles)?

Is history, the exercise of studying past events, primarily a male-oriented exercise with a focus on achievements 99% of which were done by men? History disproportionately focuses on wars, military leaders, and exercises of dominance and power, however, history is the study of past "events", why not focus on events such as the empowerment of marginalized groups, the advances of health/science? Traditional history studied in high schools/universities tend to ignore the creation of life that women are largely responsible for. How would a female dominated history differ from a traditional "history book"? Would there be a greater focus on relationships between actors (i.e. something more akin to sociology) rather than who won what war or how many men died at what battle?

Just throwing it out there.


“Well, Miss Elliot,” (lowering his voice,) “as I was saying we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman, would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you—all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

(Persuasion, Jane Austen)

This is an interesting question, because on the one hand your question is worthy of a book-length answer, but on the other hand, it can also be summed up extremely quickly.

Sexism. The answer is sexism. As Anne Elliot pointed out in Persuasion, history was the province of male scholars and writers for centuries; it's not that there were no educated women, but educated women were a tiny minority (typically members of the upper classes, before the nineteenth century) and their work was less widely studied, often treated as a hobby rather than a contribution to whatever field they were working in. Why didn't the male historians study the past more holistically? Because they were sexist, and considered that history was simply driven by governments (staffed by men), rulers (nearly always men), and military actions (ordered and carried out by men). This is why there is a long-standing stereotype that the field of history is simply a progression of names and dates, a timeline of Great Men and their actions.

It has nothing to do with men feeling a need to write history because they don't have lineages due to not giving birth: we live in patriarchal societies where male lineage is the primary vector of inheritance. Women typically take their husbands' names on marriage, and children nearly always have their fathers' surnames. It was only in the nineteenth century that it became standard to consider children as perhaps not entirely their fathers' property in the case of a divorce. You seem oddly focused on women's ability to give birth here, but in reality, women's ability to give birth actually is one way they have tended to end up in the history books: as the mothers of princes and kings, and sometimes as their regents. Think about the way that, for instance, Henry VIII's wives are typically discussed, focusing on their ability to give birth and typically losing any political or personal characteristics other than their beauty or lack of it. There has also not been a total lack of women in political roles (Ruth Bader Ginsberg wasn't even the first woman on the US Supreme Court), but they have typically been minimized as well, whether we're talking about women who made their way up into important positions (e.g. Frances Perkins, US Secretary of Labor 1933-1945) or who acted in royal politics in ways other than giving birth.

I understand that you are trying to look more broadly at women's contributions to history, but you seem to be stuck in a trap. Women's biological capabilities are of no more overriding importance than men's biological capabilities, trying to increase representation of women in history should not mean focusing on "the creation of life", and the reason for the lack of women in history books isn't because women have pulled each other down for trying to take credit. "Credit" particularly galls here - over and over we see men take the credit owing to women for various historical moments of importance, whether that's scientific advancements (such as Rosalind Franklin's now-famous discovery of the structure of DNA, which was stolen by Watson and Crick) or more low-key diplomatic work by wives or mothers of political figures attributed to their husbands/sons by default.

History now as a field does focus on social history now much more than "who won what war or how many men died at what battle" - it has since the social turn of the late twentieth century. It's certainly possible to find books that take a view of history that doesn't simply focus on the traditional politics-and-war, particularly if you step away from the most popular of pop history (which tends to be about twentieth century wars). The Journal of Women's History collects syllabi from many different courses, which often include booklists/relevant readings, and we also have our own booklist with many many topic headings to explore.