Mean Girls: Public History’s Fascination with “Good” and “Bad” Women
This month, BBC History Magazine released the results of its annual “History Hot 100” poll, a survey which asked readers to name the historical figures that have been “fascinating” them most in 2017. Polls can often be an interesting reflection of public consciousness and awareness of different issues, but where public history is concerned, they can provide a startling insight into the position held by female historical figures.
In 2013, two data analysts from Cambridge University attempted to compile a comprehensive list of the thirty most significant figures in global history, drawing on a range of different public rankings. The analysts ranked the candidates by the number of times each figure made an appearance in a poll or survey of the most talked-about historical figures. The results were revealing, if a little shocking: of the thirty ‘most significant’ historical figures only two were women – and both were English queens: Queen Elizabeth I (ranked number 13) and Queen Victoria (at number 16).
In 2015, the results of BBC History Magazine’s annual survey showed little difference in the position of women; only 26 of the overall 100 were women. What is perhaps more revealing is the backgrounds of these women – whereas only 28% of the listed men were royalty, 65% of the women were. Moreover, only one non-royal woman (Lady Arbella Stuart) actually featured in the top 50, with the rest all languishing in the bottom half of the rankings. All of these non-royal women were most famous for their subversive ideas or careers, including Emmeline Pankhurst (no. 74), Mary Wollstonecraft (no. 77) and Lucrezia Borgia (no. 91). By contrast, half of the top 50 most talked-about historical figures were non-royal men, followed by 10 male royals.
Skip forward two years, and the polls show little major difference in the man-to-woman ratio. The results of the 2017 survey were dominated by men yet again; this time, however, the number of women on this list stood at 35, a 9% increase on the year before. However, 78% of this year’s most talked about historical women were royal, compared to only 33% of the men, with Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn and Queen Victoria remaining mainstays in the top 10.
So what can these results actually tell us about the presentation and discussion of women in public history? These breakdowns and statistics may appear excessive and perhaps confusing, but they offer an interesting, even concerning, glimpse into how women feature in public history. The lists still appear to be dominated by stock characters traditionally associated with controversy, subversion and transgression – Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Woodville, for example, were all non-movers. In many respects these are the ‘mean girls’ of public history, who used the power at their disposal for their own ends, in a world dominated by men. Even the newer entries court a level of subversion that isn’t necessarily apparent in the lists of male inventors, military commanders and religious figures. Hatshepsut, for example, entered the rankings for the first time this year, being only one of a handful of known female pharaohs, who was famed for her alleged adoption of masculine dress. Additionally, Bess of Hardwicke, Marie Antoinette and even Cleopatra all make new entries into this year’s rankings.
One thing that is perhaps most apparent in these rankings is the ‘good vs bad’ battle that they contain. It seems as though the majority of women who place in these results rely on controversy to justify their status as historically significant; whether that’s the women who defied patriarchal obstacles to wisely govern or advance science (the ‘good’ girls) or those that used violence, manipulation or division to secure their own agendas (the ‘bad’ girls). Of course, these standards are highly anachronistic and the categories of good and bad have far more depth than the definitions above, but public history has been plagued by teleology and anachronism for decades. It is the underrepresentation of female historical figures that intensifies this broader issue. With Jane Austen, Marie Curie and Joan of Arc fighting it out with Lucrezia Borgia, Catherine the Great and Boudicca for public consideration, there is a risk that the contributions of women to history will be significantly underestimated if they become absorbed into wider, and hugely anachronistic, concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ achievements.
This issue is already coming to the fore in one of the mainstays of public history: the anniversary. With the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death this year prompting renewed interest in her life and works, there has been increasing interest in recasting her in a ‘feminist’, sometimes even radical, light. Some of the cases made on each side of the debate have been tenuous, but the growing focus on this giant of literature has helped to rescue her life from the status of polite, middle-class irrelevance and instead replaced it with a willingness to understand her complexity.
This form of commemoration, played out on both public and academic platforms, offers a promising outlook for the anniversary of women’s (limited) enfranchisement next year. It must be hoped that the documentaries, books and theatre that will inevitably accompany it avoid the trap of retrospectively casting 1918, a period as rife with controversy now as it was then, as the triumph of radical feminism over a reluctant patriarchy. The popularity of Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison in traditional accounts should now give way to a more nuanced discussion of political violence and class tensions – the two key themes that nearly tore the movement apart before the First World War.
So too should the simple male-female oppositional binary be replaced with one that gives significance to, for example, the many female opponents of female suffrage. Although an uncomfortable issue for many, sophisticated women-only groups campaigned against the WSPU and against the idea of female suffrage altogether, leaving a difficult dilemma for modern historians. These women derived a sense of empowerment that didn’t necessarily conform to the male concept of power as being something that derives from political engagement. Even though their contributions have been consequently neglected in the traditional narrative they, along with every ‘good’ or ‘bad’ woman in history, had their own understandings of what it meant to be a woman in a masculine world.
As ever, history has been written by the winners, but feminist histories at a public level risk becoming redundant if they only address one strand of women’s activism – if they only address either the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ women.