Writing

Who is History By and For? Gender’s Role in Popular History Books

Editor's Note:

Lorraine Boissoneault is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she studied narrative nonfiction. She is the author of The Last Voyageurs, and joins Signature to reflect on what role gender plays in the writing and reading of popular history books.

 

When I first happened upon the story of a French high school teacher who recruited his students and colleagues for an eight-month, 3,300-mile canoe journey, I didn’t imagine I’d fall so deeply into its history. Even after my initial article expanded into my first book, I told people I was writing narrative nonfiction. “History” was never the descriptor I used. The category seemed elite, or else too academic.

Who was I to decide which aspects of history mattered and which didn’t? All I wanted to do was understand the question that drove me from the start: who are the world’s explorers now that there’s no unmapped territory left to explore?

(The answer was, of course, far more complicated than I’d anticipated, which is probably why the story turned into a book. At this point I’m not sure there even is an answer.)

During the process of researching the teacher/student canoe odyssey across 20th-century North America, I inevitably learned a lot about France’s 17th-century North America—so much that it ended up taking up a sizeable portion of the book. My narrative nonfiction book had turned into a hybrid: part popular history, part adventure story, part travelogue. And I was happy with it. I didn’t stop to wonder why I’d initially been so reluctant to call it history until a recent article in Slate drew my attention.

Is History Written About Men, by Men?” ask the article’s authors, Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion. The team examined 614 popular history books published in 2015 and found that 75.8 percent had male authors. Biographies, which accounted for twenty-one percent of the total number of books, were overwhelmingly written about men (71.7 percent). Most of the biographies that featured female subjects were also written by women. At the end of the article, Kahn and Onion concluded, “A longitudinal analysis of trade history publishing might reveal a swing toward female authorship and diversity of subject matter, and anecdotal evidence points to some improvement, [but] our data from 2015 still look grim.”

Had I unwittingly sensed this trend when I started researching my book? When I reflected on the teachers and professors who had sparked my interest in history, I realized that in eleven years of post-elementary history classes, only two teachers were women. According to Slate, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise; a survey from the American Historical Association found that only thirty-five percent of history faculty at four-year colleges and universities were women.

Did I unconsciously absorb this gender disparity in the classroom and in the books that appear on front-table displays, covered with men’s faces and men’s names? Did my feeling of inadequacy about writing history have to do with my lack of academic expertise, or my gender? Even if those factors did play a role, one might argue the message didn’t stick. I still ended up writing a history book.

But the article also led me to another, more troubling question: should I have written about women or another underrepresented minority group? Was it my duty as a woman to share the stories of other women? The answer I eventually came to was “no”—though I’m sure I’ll take it into consideration when I’m looking for subjects in the future.

One of the main joys of being a writer is choosing narratives that fascinate and resonate with you. I chose the story of twenty-four young men who achieved something remarkable because it brought me closer to understanding how people can still undertake journeys of discovery in the modern world (even if they’re retracing the route of a long-dead explorer). For me, it’s enough of an achievement to have written about history, even a man’s history. After all, some of my favorite childhood books were stories of boys written by women: Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George), and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Madeleine L’Engle).

Women should be allowed—encouraged—to write about male subjects, and men should be encouraged to write about female subjects. In the end, all writers and historians should strive to produce stories that paint a fuller, more nuanced picture of the world in the hopes that readers will find something of their own experience reflected therein.