Thank You, David: One ugly woman’s message to David Starkey

This week historian David Starkey, was quoted as saying: ‘

The only chance I have of being on TV again is if I were very ugly. I think only old, ugly women can get on TV. Like Mary Beard,

What a delight!

But it may come as a surprise to many (who have probably heard a few of my feminist rants or seen me light up your tellybox briefly, championing the women’s suffrage movement) to hear that I owe David Starkey, historian and broadcaster, a great debt.

He has been my teacher for many a year, and in the last couple of days I’ve found out that I keep learning valuable lessons from him.

So where to begin? We might as well start with a thirteen-year-old girl, who loved history, and had grown out of Horrible Histories. I found Starkey’s biography on Elizabeth I on a bookshelf in my granddad’s house one day, and although I didn’t understand half of it, I still ploughed through it.

That book sparked a love affair with Elizabethan history that didn’t end.

I used to beg for us to watch his documentaries on the television, used to ask my dad if he’d explain what certain turns of phrase meant. Because Starkey didn’t speak to me, not really. He wasn’t there for a young northerner with a borderline obsession for a Tudor ruff and the six wives of Henry VIII.

He spoke to people who spoke like him who had been educated like him. And it wasn’t until I was older, halfway through my degree, that I realised Starkey had taught me my first big lesson: history is not kind to women.

I spend a lot of time in my job, being angry at how history has treated women. Thanks for that too, David. You started me young there. Whilst you were kind of saying, poor old Anne Boleyn got what she deserved, I was shouting WHAT ABOUT HENRY! into the pages of my books.

It didn’t stop there, evidently. So cheers for that – thanks to you, I’ve successfully made a career out of vindicating forgotten women in history.

And this week, you’ve taught me that it’s not just history books that treats women with disdain – or worse, leaves them out entirely.

We should also be afraid of those who hold the power over history; who can bend it and warp it and change it. Because if you hold authority over the past, it’s quite likely that you hold authority over who gets to talk about it.

And it’s funny, isn’t it, how there’s quite a lot of people who seemed to have listened to David over the years – like I did, once – when he has called books by female historians ‘historic Mills & Boon’, when he launched a scathing attack on what he referred to as ‘feminised history’, stating that female (and female readership, dear reader, let’s not forget that), can reduce great histories – like that of Henry VIII (you know, that guy in history who nobody has heard of, talks about, has a series of biopics…) – to soap operas.

So thanks, David. You’ve spent a good long while reducing female historians to airheads who can’t tell history straight, and I think you might have rubbed off on a few folk.

In the last month alone, Dr Fern Riddell was subjected to abuse after asking to be referred to as Dr rather than Miss, and I myself – a curator and specialist in women’s suffrage – was targeted after appearing on several documentaries about the centenary of the first female voters.

I was told I needed plastic surgery, whilst talking about the suffragettes. Lucy Worsley is attacked constantly for her appearances on TV, despite arguably now being the most famous public historian in the country.

And don’t even get me started on how Goddess of goddesses Mary Beard – the person solely responsibly for my Classics degree – is treated by the public.  

And you’re not stopping yet, are you David? Because we’ve gone from being too pretty to being ugly and old. We’ve gone from feminising and romanticising history, to spoiling it for everybody else by keeping the righteous men off the screens.

There is a consistent problem here, that however women are telling the stories –  they are not telling it right. And its thanks to you, David, that experts like Dr Riddell, and young, early-career women like myself, are being subjected to the abuse.

And you’ve been fanning the flames for so long, it’s about time you got a burn yourself.

So thanks, David. From your elitist, misogynistic drivel, I learnt that women empower other women, and they are on screen not because of how they look, but because they say things right.

Thanks, David, because growing  up with you on the telly has taught me that diversifying public and exposing people to experts who aren’t white middle-class men is crucial

Growing up, I always loved history, but history didn’t seem to be for me. History wasn’t for a young northerner who didn’t apply for Oxbridge. It was for wars, kings, and men talking about men.

And now? History is about the home, the streets, BAME people, women, working classes, middle classes, kids, grown ups. There are silly songs, but there are also moments of passion and vibrancy, coming from different accents, genders. When you make history for men alone, it stops being relevant.

So thanks, David, for putting yet another nail in the coffin of your career. Blame women all you like.

Blame Beard, Worsley, Ramirez.  The only thing that’s keeping you off our screens is your branch of patriarchal, dominating history simply isn’t the history the world wants to see anymore.

I’ve spent this year shouting loudly about women who were bullied and abused in their question for representation, so I’m not afraid to carry on their fight.

The only person hurting your career, David, is you. History is for women – not to be feminised, but to explore new, diverse and forgotten narratives. When women are the best for the job, despite how they look, what they wear, how they speak, then they’ll get the job.  And you, my friend, and the elitist, misogynist tales you have so long been allowed to tell, will be over. 

Now go and sit in the corner with Richard Dawkins and think about what you’ve done.

Helen Antrobus is a curator and expert in suffrage. You can find Helen at The Manchester Peoples Museum and on Twitter.

10 thoughts on “Thank You, David: One ugly woman’s message to David Starkey

  1. Isn’t there a circularity. Women are obsessed with their appearance because their only route to survival or power has been through men, so, you can slap them down by easy jibes.

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  2. Very well said. I love watching the female historians on TV share their various expertise. They offer not just monarchical history (which I love) but the diverse stories that keep me hugely fascinated with the subject.

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  3. As a male lover of history, a greater number of my all time most beloved history books were written by women.
    Mary Elise Sarotte’s book ‘Collapse’ the accidental fall of the Berlin Wall is an extraordinary Book.
    Women are underrepresented on television in history programs or in history entirely.
    But history in general seems pathetically infantalized now on Television regardless of biological sex of Producer/Presenter/Author. .
    unless this has changed, I don’t know, I haven’t seen television for 8yrs.
    Nevertheless I enjoyed your critique of Dstarkey.

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  4. I like watching a well informed historian, with a passion for their subject, from whom I can learn something new.

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  5. It’s entirely justified to criticise Starkey for his misogyny, but repeated references to yourself as a northerner sound rather odd when Starkey was himself born and brought up in Kendal. He was a working-class boy who overcame a number of difficulties to get to Cambridge. Making a caricature of him as unusually privileged weakens your argument.

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    1. To a degree: Starkey was indeed born in Kendal, to parents mainly in the cloth trade, but he has also re-invented himself and completely disowned his background. It’s also true that he encountered homophobia in his education as well as overcoming prejudices relating to his physical condition. One might hope that these experiences would help him to be more appreciative of the disadvantages suffered by others due to gender or ‘race’ but he has a long record of not only misogyny and racism. He would be the last to celebrate his ‘northern’ roots,

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  6. As a former History teacher and the author of a forgotten early female MP Edith Picton Turbervill OBE, I so welcome this open letter.
    Well done.
    I am doing something to and started the Grampian Branch if Women’s Equality Party.Together we can change this💪💪

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very well put – this is in stark contrast to my immediate response, which employed rather colourful language and exasperation that he gains any credibility from being a (former) historian.

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