Saturday, 4 March 2006

More women

As promised in an earlier post, I have dredged the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for figures illustrating the gender (they call it “sex”) comparison for the number of entries over the centuries: HERE they are.
I don’t know that there are any tremendously interesting conclusions to be drawn from this, except perhaps that in earlier times you had to be a very extraordinary woman indeed to get yourself written up by posterity, and even now you have to be a lot more extraordinary than a man. It was probably rather a pointless exercise but it did give me a happy hour playing with this fascinating website.
I did notice that men who died in the second half of the nineteenth century qualified for inclusion at a rate (an average of 177 each year) which has never been exceeded or even equalled. This is surprising, since “famous” people of today include many (I mention no names) who wouldn’t have had a chance of having their biographies written if they had lived in earlier times. I suppose that in the nineteenth century there were huge numbers of chaps energetically building railways, writing novels, inventing things, making money and growing spectacular whiskers, thus providing something for biographers to write about. The number of women with biographies didn’t start to increase appreciably until the early twentieth century, perhaps because they seldom made money or had whiskers
In the spirit of generosity which has made Other Men's Flowers a by-word among literati everywhere, I shall be happy to look up things on behalf of sad people who have no access to the ODNB and to answer such questions as Who were the eleven women who died before the fifth century and whose biographies were included? Of course, if this turns out to involve a great deal of work I shall have to charge a small fee, possibly to be passed on to some charity.
The Oxford University Press also publishes the American National Biography. This has 24 volumes, is also on line (though most people have to pay for access), and includes 17,400 people. This is rather less than it should be, I would have thought; although it only goes up to 1999 and they couldn’t have found many to include before the Pilgrim Fathers, apart from the odd Aztec. Hollywood alone must have produced a few thousand people whose fame, if not their lives, makes them eligible for inclusion.

10 comments:

Hugh said...

I see from your figures that a FIFTH of the biographies now being published are of women. The little dears are getting in everywhere, aren’t they? Well done, girls!

Lucy said...

Grampa H, you are a rotten, ROTTEN pig.

Hugh said...

Why, hello there, Lucy dear! I thought you were too busy with your horsy interests (and Nigel!) to have time to read any blogs apart from mine. Why bother with the blogs of people you have never met?
Anyway, I know quite well that you are angry with the this dictionary of biographies only because THREE of your great-grandfathers are in it and NONE of your great-grandmothers.
Big kisses, Grampa H

Hayden said...

of course, for much of the history of western culture it was considered very poor breeding for a woman to be in a newspaper or be written/talked about - Even in the early part of the 20th century, a woman was supposed to have her name in the paper when born, married and died, more than that was considered excessive and to demonstrate questionable character.

Tony said...

Well, maybe, but most biographies—and all the ones in the ODNB—are posthumous, so what was considered proper at any period is hardly relevant to subsequent inclusion in an anthology of them.

PerfectlyVocal said...

I'm thrilled to see Barbara Castle in there. My old headmistress saw herself as something of a Jean Brodie and I remember being presented with a prize on Speech Day by Barbara, and listening to a long speech on the merits of women in politics. Funnily enough, it didn't inspire me into politics, the only thing I remember is trying olives for the first time and Barbara insisting that we should all develop a taste for them. Memories eh?

Tony said...

A friend of mine is Barbara Castle's nephew and I saw her at his (late in life) wedding, not long before she died. Spectacular red wig and clearly a full set of marbles.
Can't imagine why your headmistress invited this great compassionate socialist to your speech day if she saw herself as the appalling fascist snob Jean Brodie.

PerfectlyVocal said...

That's an interesting point, Tony. My headmistress was an appalling fascist snob, but dedicated to women's rights. I can only assume she managed to reconcile this in her own inimitable way. Mainly by patronising those of us who were "scholarship gals"!

Tony said...

Obviously she couldn't face the fact that it was you who were really the crème de la crème.

Hugh said...

But aren't women dedicated to women's rights often appalling fascist snobs?