‘ Big books by blokes about combats ‘: Why is history still written mainly by men?

Only four female writers appeared in the list of top 50 bestselling history titles in the UK last year. And females are still perceived as more are in accordance with writing about drawing rooms than battlefields. Why? Leading historians and biographers discuss sexism and subject matter

Mary Beard

So many girls write great general history books, why dont they sell in the vast numbers that they should? My guess is, rather gloomily, that this is another aspect of the womens voices problem; that public authority is still very largely vested not just in what humen say but also what they write( and for the most part, white, middle-class men at that ).

The point is that big sales are heavily dependant on off-the-cuff, unplanned buys, on people choosing the book out of any number they might buy from the bookshop display before Christmas. I am afraid that time and again, the mans name signals knowledge and reliability. The median punter, armed with little more information than the name of the author and the blurb, will tend to trust a woman author to write about women( just as they listen to them on childcare or health ). Their instinct would be to turn to a male writer on the Napoleonic wars or early 20 th-century economic policy.

It is something like this that underlies what I slightly unfairly call those big books by blokes about combats that predominate the bestseller listings( theyre not all about battles, but you know what I mean ). So how have those of us who have bucked the trend managed it?

I wish I knew. It cant be a straightforward issue of quality, or of good reviews. How much influence reviews have on sales is utterly imponderable. I guess I must thank my publishers for giving SPQR an elegantly authoritative jacket. And I must thank TV program makers for presenting me as someone who knows what shes talking about when it comes to the Romans( however much in need of a makeover ).

But none of us are immune to the power of stereotypes or the desire to cast history into one particular mould. When people write to me about SPQR they are often warmly appreciative. When they do complain, its largely to say that there is too much on ancient obstetrics( theres actually very little) or the lives of the urban poor( theres more on that) and not enough on Hannibal, the second largest Punic war or how the emperor Trajan thrashed the Dacians.

Mary Beards most recent volume is SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome ( Profile ).

Antonia Fraser


Antonia Fraser. Photograph: Dave M Benett/ Getty Images

When I wrote Mary Queen of Scots , I did it out of passion, without for one moment reflecting that we were both female. My motivation was that she was a romantic queen, and I was a humble would-be biographer. However, when it was published in 1969 I believe it was a great advantage that I was a comparatively young woman( I was 36 ), and publicists constructed much of the facts of the case. The original reason that I prefer Oliver Cromwell as my next topic, which would be published in 1973 under the title Cromwell: Our Chief of Men , was that I didnt want to be pinioned as only writing about romantic queens. Like everyone else, I felt I should be free to write about anyone who aroused me regardless of sexuality, nationality, century or whatever.

This time I believe being female was a disadvantage. One distinguished historian in a review asked in effect what this nice, sensible downright girl could know about the torments of a human like Cromwell: there was condescension but not inevitably accuracy in every term, beginning with the nice. I wrote four full-length biographies, two about women and two about humen, the order being: female( Mary Queen of Scots ), male( Cromwell ), male( Charles II ), female( Marie Antoinette ). Today I feel more strongly than ever that biographers should not be limited by their own perceived identity including age, sexuality, race, profession and so on. Although I should add that I still want the highest standards to be maintained, and it still worries me when a minor character is elevated in significance strictly for the sake of her/ his sexuality. Cats can write biography as far as I am concerned, so long as they do the research and write well.

Antonia Frasers latest book is My History: A Memoir of Growing Up ( W& N ).

Antony Beevor

On the whole in non-fiction, even more than in fiction, men tend to write about men and women tend to write about girls, presumably because they understand their own sex better. A male preponderance in historical biography is thus fairly predictable for the obvious reason that, until very recently, girls had little chance of distinguishing themselves because of ignorant prejudice. And since volumes on major historical figures sell better than those on the lesser known, there is almost inevitably a self-perpetuating component there.

As for military history, the idea of a woman being interested in military subjects, let alone writing about them, was more or less unimaginable. Nothing struck most women as more boring than the military buff. This was largely because military history always used to be written in a top-down, collectivist and dehumanised way. Only in the last 20 years or so, when the study of war widened and deepened dramatically to include the fate of individuals civilians as well as soldiers have women started to show an interest. Female writers on the subject are still in a small minority. They may have lacked military experience, but that is not necessarily a disqualification for an author. Lyn MacDonalds books on the first world war defined the standard for a generation, and Catherine Merridales superb description of life in the Red Army , Ivans War , is unlikely to be equalled. What they managed to achieve came from empathy and appreciation, and not from facile attempts to pass moral judgment on an organisation they detested. Those who approach the subject from outside, attempting to impose an ideological grid on a topic they do not try to understand are bound to build serious mistakes. I long for more MacDonalds and Merridales to bring fresh perspectives.

Antony Beevors latest volume is Ardennes 1944: Hitlers Last Gamble ( Viking ).

Claire Tomalin


Claire Tomalin. Photo: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

I began writing about females because I felt that there wasnt much good historical biographical information about them there was a huge gap. I was inspired by JE Neale, who published a biography of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1930 s. It was one of the large biographies, and it blew me away as a child. I was also inspired by Eileen Power, a great historian who died young in the 1940 s.

When I started, people asked, Why arent you writing about humen? I replied, You may have noticed that you cant write of one sex without writing about the other too. My great friend the poet and novelist Dennis Enright once asked, Why are you writing about Nelly Ternan and not about Dickens? I said, Because there was a story to be told there about them both. But I dont see a difference between writing about men or women. Writing about human beings, looking at the style they develop, the style they struggle through life, the style they attain, the price they pay, the price those around them pay for their achievements the sex seems to me not the thing we should be looking at.

There are lots of very good female historians writing now: Caroline Mooreheadis outstanding, Jessie Childs, who wrote Gods Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England is wonderful, Alison Lights Common People is terrific and original history, but got some very mean-spirited reviews, and of course Jenny Uglow and Antonia Fraser.

Claire Tomalins most recent volume is Charles Dickens: A Life ( Penguin ).

Margaret MacMillan

I never set out to be an anomaly. Most of what I have written is about war, peace and international relations, although I have also written about women. I am still not quite sure how this happened. When I was a student in Toronto women were expected, as the joke had it, to aim for different degrees of MRS. The History Society, where they were rumoured to drink port and smoke cigars, was for men merely. And although I had some wonderful male professors( the only female in the history department had given up and fled to a chair in the US) none of them asked me where I planned to do alumnu work, as they did the men. Yet somehow I did go over to Oxford, where I did imperial history.

I know what the obstacles are to women doing certain kinds of history, the men, for example, who ask how a woman can possibly understand war.( If I want to be unkind I ask what was the last war they opposed in .) The hiring committees( they are better now) that used to assume that female candidates werent worth it because they would let their hormones operate their brains and only go over and get married. Or the seminars where the male profs would take all the men to the saloon afterwards.

What helped me was reading great female historians such as CV Wedgwood and Barbara Tuchman, who wrote so wonderfully about war and politics. I was very lucky too in that my parents treated their sons and daughters the same. We had household canoe trips in the wilderness of Canada where my sister and I paddled and carried packs just like our brothers. We were encouraged to read, voraciously, whatever we wanted. And our mothers left us alone to choose our careers. Although it didnt feel like it at the time I was also lucky in get a job at a polytechnic where the teaching loading was heavy but there were not expectations that we should the investigations and publish. So I merely wrote what I wanted. My other piece of luck was seeing a publisher a man who was prepared to take a chance on my volume on the Paris peace conference.

Looking back at my own trajectory, I cant offer easy solutions. I have had female mentors and publishers who have helped me a lot but as many or even more humen. If I have advice for young lady it is do what you want and not what is expected of you.

Margaret Macmillans Historys People: Personalities and the Past ( Profile) is published on 18 February.

David Kynaston


David Kynaston. Photograph: REX Shutterstock

Chaps like writing about chaps. I should know. Between 1976 and 2001 one volume on the Victorian working class, two on offices of state, three on cricket, four on the City of London, plus four institutional histories girls barely featured in my volumes. In the 1990 s my editor at Chatto, Jenny Uglow, gently pointed this out to me, and I could not deny the soft impeachment.

I suspect I was far away from alone among historians of my generation. Seeming back, I realise that the key historians of my formative years were all men: GM Young, AJP Taylor, GR Elton, EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm. And overwhelmingly, those historians wrote about men. Thompsons The Making of the English Working Class ( 1963) is widely recognised as the greatest British history volume of the 20 th century, yet it is striking to turn to the indicator and count the number of women: only eight, in 939 pages. All this represents a huge impoverishment. Those five historians wrote many fine volumes, but with one massive omission. Nor was it merely down to the staying-in-their-comfort-zone subjects ultimately it was down to an idea of history that privileged predominantly male worlds of activity over female worlds.

For myself, I have become convinced of the wrongness of that privileging in the course of researching and writing my Tales of a New Jerusalem seriesof volumes about postwar Britain. What matters in an account of a society is what mattered to people at the time; and in, say, the 1950 s, female domestic concerns( often articulated by wonderful women diarists such as Nella Last or Judy Haines) mattered just as much as male more public concerns.

Clearly things are changing. Not only in the sense of men and women now living in much less separate realms than half a century ago, but also with the emergence of impressive female historians, often approaching the discipline in a strikingly different and more insightful way from their male counterparts. Historians such as Juliet Gardiner, Selina Todd and Alison Light, to name just a few from my own field. If there is a reluctance on the part of female readers to read history books unsurprising after being in effect frozen out for so long I suspect that will diminish.

The next frontier is biography. Female biographers have given us a golden age of literary biography, but so far very few biographies of male legislators. The living legislator who will one day be the subject of a truly fascinating biography is Gordon Brown. If I was a publisher, Id be looking for the right female to write it.

David Kynastons latest book is Modernity Britain: 1957 -1 962 ( Bloomsbury ).

Amanda Foreman


Amanda Foreman. Photograph: BBC/ Silver River

First of all, lets not get sidetracked by sum over quality. There may be fewer females historians writing on traditionally male subjects, but they are outstanding in the field like Margaret MacMillan. So I dont see a crisis in history. Nor is there a conspiracy to keep girls out. Many female historians, quite rightly, are interested in the gaps in those areas that have been dismissed. So of course they are going to write about so-called female topics, because for centuries girls were written out of history. When writing about war, if you only look at tank battles, troop movements and military strategy then all youve presented is the facade, without the larger meaning. To give you an example from my own field, the American civil war genuinely gives itself to armchair fanatics because it has so many set-piece battles. Such questions as what on globe General Robert E Lee thought he was doing at Gettysburg in 1863 offers lots of scope for fun analysis , no doubt about it. But the war was won when General Sherman took the fight into the heart of the South specifically to demoralise the civil population. He perfected the modern idea of total war. That basically means a war on women and, to some extent, infants. Any book that treats the female aspect as a side show to the real events entirely misses the point about how that war was won.

But merely because theres no conspiracy doesnt mean there isnt a glass ceiling in operation. When women do take on traditionally male subjects, certain male colleagues can seem affronted that a woman has dared to trespass on their topic. I could dedicated you dozens of instances, but heres one: Max Hastingss review in the Sunday Time in 2009 of Miranda Carters book The Three Emperors . The language he employed says it all: This time around she offers a cavort through the palaces of Europe …. His use of cavort signals to the reader that this a womans book, stuck in the superficial world of balls and dances Jane Austen territory. Hastings goes on: but there is little here to astound any student of modern history. So now we have a clear division between Miranda Carter the amateur dame writer and real students of modern history ie shes no professional, she doesnt belong to the club, dear boy. Hastings ends on a coup de grace: She has shown that she is capable of writing a so much more book than this one, but perhaps it should have been within a less ambitious compass. Hastingss review deserves a place in the now-classic book by Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Womens Writing . While we are still in the situation facing having to fight every step of the way for legitimacy, you are going to see an imbalance.

Amanda Foremans A World on Fire: Britains Crucial Role in the American Civil War is published by Penguin .

Alexandra Harris

I dont think theres any shortage of brilliant history being written by women, but more is gonna be done to get people reading it. How is a general reader to know what kinds of mind-changing work is waiting on the library shelves if what he or she sees promoted in bookshops is chiefly the seasons big war book and the biography of an 18 th-century mistress? Lets hope Waterstones superb efforts towards variety can be sustained and deepened, and that university presses help by continuing to make attractive titles available at( virtually) trade prices.

The writing of private, domestic and forgotten histories has powerfully changed the shape of grand sweep narrations, but these kinds of writing need not be opposed. Look at Jenny Uglows vast panorama of life in the Napoleonic wars, and Margaret MacMillan on the first world war, and Jane Stevenson on womens utilize of international Latin. These live on my desk beside( yes) Simon Schama and Peter Conrad, and I dont plan to separate them out.

As an academic I know that humanities research tends towards extreme specialisation: if you want to be taken seriously its best to devote a lifetimes study to one particular period or issue, and I suspect girls worry about this more than men. We need intense focus, but we also need to foster young scholars who want to think across a broad spectrum, or write six completely different books, and who will be respected for doing so.

Television documentaries are clearly influential in shaping the savors of readers, and I hope that deeply learned female presenters will be trusted more frequently to set out detailed arguments on screen. If only they were allowed to talk about more and walk about less. Im not assured that we always need to be told tales or taken on journeys: notions can be gripping too. And I am boycotting the term costume drama, which attains costume the defining feature of any drama set before about 1960. With language like this , no wonder females are associated( in the minds of both men and women) with sprigged cambric dresses rather than the history of ideas, to which we have so much to contribute.

Alexandra Harriss latest volume is Weatherland: Writers& Artists Under English Skies ( Thames and Hudson ).

Richard J Evans

As a long-time judge of the Wolfson history prize, which is worth a total of PS50, 000 per year, I can report a marked change in the gender balance of the wins in recent times. Nine out of the 21 wins in the last 10 years have been women, whereas in the previous 10 years there were only four girls out of a total of 24. The prize, often awarded collectively to two books, rewards the all too rare combination of scholarly excellence and readability and is open to authors who are UK citizens living in Britain.

Its striking that the female historians who have won the award have written about a whole variety of subjects: they have included military history( Joanna Bourkes An Intimate History of Killing ), French politics( Ruth Harriss The Man on Devils Island ), the history of religion( Alexandra Walshams The Reformation of the Landscape ), the biography of a man( Susie Harriss Nikolaus Pevsner , Susan Brigdens Thomas Wyatt and Rosemary Hills Gods Architect ), Russian politics( Catherine Merridales Red Fortress ), culture history( Margaret McGowans Dance in the Renaissance and Evelyn Welchs Shopping in the Renaissance ) and archaeology and memory ( Pompeii by Mary Beard ). True, these are not all volumes that have topped the bestseller lists. But thats merely a crude and instead misleading touchstone. If you take quality history with an appeal beyond the academic, then girls are discovering publishers and readers and winning awards too.

Richard Evanss latest volume is The Third Reich in History and Memory ( Little, Brown ).

Ruth Scurr


Ruth Scurr.

I find the notion of a preserve male or female troubling. Im suspicious of all historians who act in a territory style towards their subjectHistory is our common inheritance; it is about sharing and communication , not ownership or control. The idea that history is gonna be divided by publishers, authors or bookshops into topics suitable for girls and for sons is just ridiculous.

I wrote my first volume, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution , because Im interested in power and politics. My second daughter was born before I had finished. I didnt find it difficult thinking about the reign of terror while sterilising feeding bottles and washing baby clothes, but I was extremely tired. Cyril Connolly was right the pram in the dormitory can be an adversary but not an invincible one. In this respect, I think things have got better for female writers than they were in previous generations; and I hope that by the time my daughters are having infants they will be better still.

My second volume, John Aubrey: My Own Life , was anything but a safe and natural progression from my first. It involved a change from the 18 th to the 17 th century and a return from France to England. In addition to those upheavals, I decided to write Aubreys life in the form of a first-person diary. For a long time I didnt tell anyone what I was doing in case they supposed I had gone mad. I believe good books result from taking hazards. My advice to younger women is to write only about what most interests you, and if an agent or publisher tries to persuade you to write a safe volume on a suitable topic, run as fast as you are able to from that poisoned apple.

Ruth Scurrs latest volume is John Aubrey: My Own Life ( Chatto& Windus ).

Michael Holroyd

I do not recognise that part of history called biography as being predominated in Britain by male writers writing about male subjects. Those readers who, in the advise to gather controversial statistics, do not get further than the title pages of books may easily add me to their misleading listing of men-on-men. In fact I prefer writing about females they teach me more than humen can. Women often take over from the men who occupy the title page as Carrington took over the last half of my Life of Lytton Strachey . But since Carrington refused to use her first name, Dora, she was in danger, at a quick glance, of being added to the army of men. Afterward on, when I published a group biography of women and men, I used as my title a line from the seven ages of human speech in As You Like It . I hope that is not used as evidence of some kind.

If I made a list of two dozen most distinguished contemporary biographers, half of them at least would be women. Those who, in alphabetical order, immediately come to mind are Lara Feigel, Victoria Glendinning, Lyndall Gordon, Selina Hastings, Rosemary Hill, Hermione Lee, Ruth Scurr, Frances Spalding, Hilary Spurling, Claire Tomalin, Jenny Uglow and Frances Wilson. And there are another dozen women waiting to take their place. Nor is it true that all of them write exclusively about girls. Even the lives of Angus Wilson and Arnold Bennett, I am reminded, were written by a woman. I rest my case.

Michael Holroyds latest book is A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers ( Vintage ).

Amanda Vickery


Amanda Vickery. Photo: Andrew Hayes Watkins/ BBC

As an academic historian I ran all out to pursue the thing that the discipline most values originality. For me that entailed seeking out new or neglected sources in endless local record offices and using them to create fresh interpretings about society and culture. It is pure scholarship that gets you promoted to a professorship, and that was always worth more to me than writing bestsellers. Of course I always hoped that my books would have crossover appeal and the royalties still dribble in, but volume sales are dwarfed by the benefits of a regular salary, paid maternity leave and pension rights, as freelance historians are painfully aware. I have also found that the academy can be much more open-minded and imaginative than some popular publishers, whose vision of historical importance lags generations behind the research frontier, and in some cases would not be out of place in the Victorian senior common room.

Of course publishers are in the business of selling books and have their own views and research on what the market can bear. Popular histories of war, regimes, empire build and so on appeal to a core of hardback history buyers, predominantly white professional humen in their 50 s and 60 s. A glance at the book jackets of recent publications tells you everything you need to know about the target audiences general syntheses of Big Historical Events have dominant encompass and severe san serif type, while focused studies rich in personal commentary usually have a pretty image, possibly a sepia photograph, and a scrolling typeface. Popular history is bifurcated the Nazis versus Call the Midwife . Graphic design itself seems to reinforce and police a divide between masculine significance and feminine inconsequence. My own tastes are Catholic( my guilty pleasure at the moment is Mark Urbans Tank War ), but when choosing the next book subject I am always on the look out for something forgot or disregarded which noone could claim for the Second World War or the Tsars. I am grateful for the academic liberty to seek my own hunches into the archive. I have a day( and evening chore) teach, administering, dealing with constant red tape and bashing out articles, so I am spared the need to churn out a bonkbuster to pay the mortgage.

Above all though, I reject the ominous subtext about important and triviality at work here. It is almost a century since Virginia Woolf exposed the systematic privileging of masculine interests over feminine. This is an important book, the critic presumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant volume because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a store everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. How can it be that a hierarchy of critical value still prevails that decreases anything associated with such lightweight concerns of women? If the mood takes me I will research war, but not because male death in battle is more significant than female demise in child-bed. It is rigour and scholarship that make a book heavyweight , not manly topic and butch cover.

Amanda Vickerys latest volume is Behind Shut Doorways: At Home in Georgian England ( Yale ).

Lara Feigel

This year I am judging the PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize, and I have on my shelf the longlist of 35 history books published in 2015. Its notable that only seven are by girls, because far better history books have been published this year by humen. Looking back over the awards past, of the 15 winners only three have been women( Jenny Uglow, Clair Wills and Jessie Childs ).

Yet in my own career, I have never felt discriminated against in tackling historical topics. As I teach in an English literature department, I became a historian by collision. I think of myself as writing about life rather than history, but lives are unavoidably shaped by the times in which theyre lived, so Ive become more and more interested in looking at a particular moment of transformation: the second world war and its aftermath. My new book, The Bitter Taste of Victory , combines culture history and collective biography to explore the style that a group of novelists, film-makers and artists tackled the rubble in postwar Germany by attempting to transform the mentality of the nation through its art.

In writing this, Ive found that the( predominantly male) second world war historians are happy to welcome me into the field. And newspapers are happy for me to review the various kinds of history books Im interested in, which often approach the past from an oblique( usually cultural) slant, and are often written by females. Many of these volumes arent easy to categorise as history at all. When Jenny Uglow won the PEN prize it was for The Lunar Men , a collective biography that is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of an era. Perhaps in the end its not a question of persuading more women to write traditional history or of validating those that decide to do so, but instead of expanding our sense of history to include volumes that find new ways of writing about the past.

Lara Feigels latest book is The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich
( Bloomsbury ).

Kathryn Hughes


British novelist on cookery and domestic management Mrs Beeton. Photograph: Popperfoto

I certainly dont think theres a conspiracy afoot to stop girls tackling big, broad historical topics. You merely have to look at Linda Colley ( Britons ) or Margaret MacMillan ( Peacemakers ). Both are exemplary scholars doing original work who manages not only to master great question the founding of nations, the fracture of continents but who speak to a huge non-academic audience through their volumes and broadcasts.

Having said that, I do believe theres a danger that womens historical run gets pigeon-holed and downgraded unless it comes out with a certain swagger, wearing pantomime breeches. I did my PhD and first volume on the Victorian governess because I wanted to use the figure of these excluded citizens as a style of unpicking the social, economic and political forces at play in the construction of bourgeois Victorian Britain. In fact, what I mostly get asked about is how likely it was that Mr Rochester would imagination Jane Eyre.

I had its situation with my last book, a biography of Mrs Beeton. Again, I thought Id use the cookery book writers iconic status as a style of understanding how a hugely expansionist Victorian Britain needed to lodge a particular reading of domesticity at its very heart. As far as everyone else is concerned Id written a manual about how to make a Victorian sponge. Ive lost counting of the number of days Ive been asked to appear on the Great British Bake Off , and one Tv company wanted me to dress up as Mrs B while demonstrating how to make scones.

My forthcoming book is about the Victorian body humen as well as women, beards as well as breasts, and is based on a decade of work in repositories around the world. Its designed to be about everything not just culture, a category that has a slightly female skew to it, but proper son stuff politics, religion, economics. Im quite resigned, though, to the fact that someone will ask me to get dressed up as a Victorian or, worse still, undressed.

Kathryn Hughes The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial .

Alison Light

When I was writing my last book, Common People , I spent a summer read naval history. Many of my forebears were sailors and I wanted to know more about their lives. Most naval history turned out to be about the great combats, diplomacy, ships, weaponry, conquering; far less was written about the crew apart from the officers or the navy after the glory days of Nelson. And the women married to sailors or living with them? I found one volume, by a woman, again mostly about the spouses of the upper ranks. A few paragraphs on prostitutes. The research was invaluable but often infuriating.

Yet it was relatively easy, use census and other records, to track down someones. I could detect if seamen were village sons or townies, or migrants from further afield. They could be located in their families – every sailor has a mother if not a spouse – and their lives traced across day. Standard histories treat the worlds of ship and shore separately but they are always joined. Family history is one way of connecting them and a study of sailortowns is another. Though I hadnt realised it at the time, my volume was part of a new wave of coastal history.

Can girls write naval histories? Of course. Just as there are women historians of royalty and of empire, or of the thirty years war. But what matters is whether those histories are just more of the same. The odds in publishing, as in academic life, are stacked against females, but gender doesnt automatically confer a radical or even a democratic politics. The grand sweeps of the past are maps of power. They can be written by men as well as women with an awareness of the vested interests, or not. History is an debate, and not set in stone.

Alison Lights most recent book is Common People: The History of an English Family ( Penguin ).

Sarah Churchwell


Sarah Churchwell. Photo: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/ Getty Images

Theres enough constant low-level sexism in my daily social, public life in social media, on the street, in meetings, on stage or on television, in the letters and emails I get from strangers to know it operates in my life. Its much harder to measure how influential its been, whether my writings would have had more traction if theyd been published by a man, or if theyve just seen their appropriate level.

Having a PhD and the rank of professor definitely buffers me to a certain extent it gives me some structural authority, but it hardly inoculates me from sexism. For instance: my recent book on F Scott Fitzgerald was assumed by several male reviewers to be simply popularising others research. In point of fact it has an enormous amount of original research( as attested to by actual Fitzgerald scholars ). The reviewers were not experts in the field; they knew they werent, but they felt entitled to pronounce on the originality of the research of a female prof in her field of specialism without doing any homework at all. Would they have felt so comfortable dismissing the operational activities of the a John Carey or a Simon Schama, or would they have said: Im not an expert in his field and so cant adjudicate his scholarship, but heres how it strikes me as a volume to read? I think they would have. Perhaps I simply strike them as not very original. Or maybe it was sexism doing its preconceived, insidious, undermining, work.

Sarah Churchwells latest book is Careless People: Slaying, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby ( Virago ).

John Guy

The statistics tell us what we always knew: serious non-fiction notably history and biography tends to be written by men. Statistics arent everything: think of Claire Tomalin on Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy; Miranda Seymour on Robert Graves and Henry James; Antonia Fraser on Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. But the specific characteristics is clear. And it does seem to be linked, partly, to the predominance of men presenting big television series.

It simply never passed to me when I wrote biographies of Mary Queen of Scots or of Margaret More( Thomas Mores eldest daughter) or chose the later years of Elizabeth I as the main focus for a fresh warts-and-all biography that I was bucking current trends. Im intrigued, mildly riled, often shocked, when fellow academics or authors invite me to justify my options, as if they needed justification. I choose topics because they have good narratives, usually involving collisions of big personalities and big ideas. Thats why I also wrote a life of Thomas Becket.

Although Im happiest now writing biography rather than history, I use life writing to unlock the clashes and disagreements of the past as much as to write a subjects life. I did feel I had a duty, in the case of Mary Queen of Scots, to set the record straight, since the sources clearly justified that. If its true there are gynaecological moments in writing womens lives for which men are not best placed to build decisions, then the reverse must also be true at which point the debate gets rather silly. No one surely believes in the 21 st century that a man cannot write intelligently about the proposed establishment of a child?

John Guys new volume , Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years , is out in May ( Viking ).

Patrick French

All novelists need to be encouraged early on to stretch their talent. If they are women, they are less likely, for embedded cultural and social reasons, to be told they should be writing a big and ambitious nonfiction volume. Women whose work violated through in the 20 th century, such as Gertrude Stein, Margaret Mead or Rachel Carson, faced different obstacles from those faced by girls today. What we have now is a more nebulous obstacle. Stereotypically in non-fiction, females write of the domestic and men write on world wars and politicians. In these nostalgic and sometimes regressive periods, we follow the contours of our upbringing and make what is familiar. It is no surprise to learn that Mark Zuckerbergs reading circle opts titles on subjects like technology and international power politics that are written almost exclusively by men.

British publishers, together with other creative and media companies, depict their talent from a comparatively small social pond: it is possible at a London literary event to find that every person is white and well heeled, bar those who are serving the drinks. Britain today is not, though, short of female editors and agents. Like their male colleagues, they are failing to push talented female writers to go for broke. Think of an older generation, unconstrained by what was expected in fiction or non-fiction. Margaret Atwood said Doris Lessings outland origins had made her a model for every novelist coming from the back of beyond. Starting in the 1940 s, Lessing merrily took on topics ranging from genetics and imperialism to revolutionary activism and the notions of space and hour. To quote Atwood: Doris did everything with all her heart, all her soul, and all her might. So storm the citadel.

Patrick Frenchs latest book is India: a Portrait ( Penguin ). He is currently writing the authorised biography of Doris Lessing.

Simon Schama


Simon Schama. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Germaine Greer, Susan Greenfield, Sherry Turkle, Ruth Scurr, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Linda Colley, Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Laura Cumming, Jackie Wullschlager, Gillian Tett, Sheryl Sandberg, Naomi Klein, Suzannah Lipscomb, Jessie Childs, Karen Armstrong, Stacey Schiff, Helen Macdonald, Lisa Appignanesi, Suzy Orbach, Jenny Uglow, Bronwen Maddox, Daisy Dunn, Deborah Lipstadt, Stella Tillyard, Susan Orlean, Jill Lepore, Claire Tomalin, Flora Fraser, Mary Roach, Catherine Boo, Hermione Lee, Amy Wilentz, Jane Mayer, Carmen Callil.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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