Publications (English)

Who do we allow to be the masters of the historians’ guild?

The historian is a middle-aged white man. That is, according to the Dutch public broadcaster NOS. Recently, an animation appeared online in which the broadcaster showed how the content of the school books in the Netherlands was determined—this was after some public debate about history education in the Netherlands. According to the images in this clip, the actual writing is being done by a historian (male) and the history teacher (female) is limited to using these materials in the classroom—even though our minds are put at ease by the assurance that she has the liberty to give certain topics greater emphasis in her lessons.

The historian according to Dutch public broadcaster NOS. Screenshot Wie bepaalt wat in onze geschiedenisboeken staat

Would the NOS really think that the historian is a man? I decided to take a closer look and searched for the historians who have been named in NOS programs and articles in the past two years. Using various Dutch terms to search the NOS website for historians[1], I found 126 items. In these items 87% of the historians were male—some appeared more often than once. If we make a further selection and limit ourselves to historians who are working at a Dutch university and who, based on their expertise, the NOS has explicitly asked for comment on a certain event, then 91% of the historians who are speaking are male. Almost all Dutch historians I found are white.

Although I know my working environment at the university is in reality very white, which is problematic enough in itself, I was more optimistic about the fact that the percentage of female historians working at university has increased significantly. But this fact has hardly registered with our public broadcaster. In recent items with historians commenting on current affairs, the NOS invited three historians: all white, all male. Considering this, it is no surprise that the broadcaster has made a clip in which ‘the’ historian is so stereotypically represented.

The NOS is certainly not the only one in the Netherlands to espouse such a view. Only last year, a number of Dutch female full professors of history criticized a history special published by the national newspaper NRC, that was about men—both in terms of the historians who contributed to the special, and in terms of the historical topics chosen. It’s the same when you Google historian in Dutch: you get a rather one-sided view.[2]

Google images: first results when looking for the ‘historicus’

Of course it could be that the public broadcaster regularly invites female historians and that these invitations are politely declined. In a way, that would be understandable. Take the example of migration history. It is currently a hot topic, for which historical context from various perspectives is vital. In the Netherlands, someone like Professor Leo Lucassen of Leiden University regularly speaks up about the historical development of migration, and just as regularly he receives toxic responses that are more about his intellectual capabilities—or rather his perceived lack of them—than about the actual content. Men have to deal with trolls, there’s no denying it.

But another case makes clear that the type of comments that women can expect is even more toxic. Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University, who has dealt with backlash for years, recently spoke about diversity in Roman Britain. She dared to assert in public that there is proof that not only white people inhabited Britain in the time of the Roman Empire. The digital abuse was to be expected, and sadly the high number of negative, sexist, misogynistic comments as well. Her authority was questioned based on her gender. And it’s not only a problem of gender. Here in the Netherlands black historians can, in addition, expect racist attacks, and explicit trivialization of the history of slavery. These historians who join the public debate deal with such abuse admirably, but sometimes, when I read the online vitriol and blatantly sexist comments, it is actually quite an attractive thought to stay safely inside the walls of my little ivory tower.

Dutch universities and funding bodies don’t encourage public appearances much either, although of course in a very different way. With research applications in the Netherlands the value given to English publications is striking—on your CV as well as regarding your intended output. For your CV, many public activities are simply a waste of time. People in vulnerable positions, especially those on a temporary contract, are encouraged to aim for research and peer-reviewed international publications. This is mostly a younger generation of scholars, of which women are a much larger part. Women with a temporary contract are moreover more vulnerable than men, especially if they would like to start a family. In our Dutch guild, choosing how we spend our available time is increasingly determined by the necessity of peer-reviewed publications and the need to internationalize. This happens in spite of the importance and relevance of our historical perspectives for the public debates that are going on in the Netherlands and beyond, especially in this day and age.

What does it matter? The historians who are commenting in the NOS items are all experts in their field. But expertise is given extra authority when someone is invited to appear as an expert in the national news. The NOS has awarded this authority, at least in the past two years, disproportionately to men. Such a public image implies that historical authority is in the hands of men—even though by now a much larger percentage of the historical scholars working at universities in the Netherlands is female. This public image of historical authority determines how our society looks at the history profession and perhaps, although we prefer not to admit this, who we, as historians, consider to be the true masters of our guild.

Cover of the NRC history special

The image that the historian is a white man has impact, from a young age. When I was a history student and I told someone of my age that I wanted to be a professor at university, he laughed at me. Female historians of my generation were told in high school that history is not a subject for young women to study.

Perhaps people nowadays don’t say it this explicitly anymore. But our image of ‘the’ historian is one-sided, and gender bias has an impact on our working environment. It influences the way that men’s CVs are—subconsciously—seen in a more positive light than similar CVs of women. It influences the way young women with impressive publication records are considered ‘diligent’, instead of unique new talent. It influences the way men are always allowed to give their opinion, whereas it is still not always appreciated when women weigh in.

As a woman you respond subconsciously to these social perceptions—more often women tell me that they feel they are not enough of an ‘expert’ to join public debates, and I notice such doubts within myself as well. Our image of ‘the’ historian influences the future our students envision for themselves. It influences the jobs or scholarships women dare to aim for. And the way we speak up. I asked my fellow panelists in preparation of this piece if it wouldn’t make me come across as a big whinger. My (male) fellow panelists had not even considered that being critical of our profession could equal being considered whingy.

This piece has been mostly about gender, but I am fully aware that it is even more difficult for historians of color to fight your way into a world where the image of ‘the’ historian is still overwhelmingly white—more difficult, and perhaps even entirely unattractive.

With the hashtag #ilooklikeahistorian, the recently launched Twitter account @womnknowhistory collects images that show that the default image of the white, male historian is outdated. Perhaps it’s time to launch the Dutch equivalent #ikbenhistoricus. Then we could, I hope, not only show that a lot of women in the Netherlands are historians, but it would also encourage us to think more about the shortage of people of color within our profession.

The Twitter account @wmnknowhistory

Can we change things with such awareness campaigns? That depends, of course, on what we intend to do after. If we are asked to appear in the media and our schedule is full, who do we refer journalists to? Who has declined an appearance because of the idea that you are not yet really, truly an expert, and was that a justified thought? And how do we teach early career academics to express themselves publicly based on their expertise, to join fellow historians actively in discussions, and at the same time allow each other enough space to speak during these debates?

If we really want to think about the rules that define our historians’ guild, we will have to talk about the way our public image of gender and color define our profession and the way we deal with each other as historians.

Suze Zijlstra is an assitant professor at the history department of Leiden University, the Netherlands. 

This article is an adaption of an article published on the Dutch public history blog Over de Muur. I would like to thank Kate Ekama for proofreading the English version of this piece and I am grateful for her valuable translation comments.

Author’s note—I first published this article in Dutch in August and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive—and much more so than I dared to expect when writing this piece. I even got an email from the final editor of the NOS department responsible for the short clip that I referred to in the beginning of this article. He agreed with my assessment that their image of ‘the’ historian was too stereotypical and the department had taken my piece as a reason to discuss who they invited as experts in their programs. He indicated that they always tried to have a wide range of experts, but given the time pressure they faced when producing news items, they often depended on the people already familiar to them. To increase their pool of experts, they are now pre-emptively drafting new lists of experts on different topics—also for fields other than history. And when producing graphics, they would more actively think about the images they convey. I wanted to include this to say, again, that awareness campaigns can truly have an impact, and there are women and men who are willing to make a positive change. To conclude: your words can make a difference.

[1] historicus, historica, historici, geschiedkundige

[2] I googled both ‘historicus’ (that resulted in the image above) and ‘historica’, which did not yield images of female historians either.