It’s a while since I published a blog. I’ve had some personal issues to deal with and also helping someone else with same (but different, if you know what I mean). I’ve missed two “On this Day” dates that I wanted to either blog or Twitter thread, or both, but could not get my head round. There’s always next year!
I am moved to write this blog after seeing some fierce, mostly courteous, debate on Twitter about diversity in military history.
The only elements of the diversity debate I am going to address are those of which I have experience i.e. gender and social class. Having said that, I will touch on the age demographic i.e. the participation of children and young people, despite never having had children.
With regards to the latter, pre-Covid large coach loads of school children were a regular feature of the landscape on the former war-time 20th Century Western Front. I’m sure their teachers and guides will report that the vast majority of them were interested and engaged in the subject. Yet young people are rarely seen at military events or the military history community of social media. Indeed, a historian friend has tried to engage her two sons and two daughters in the subject with no success. The youngest (late teens) can be found on platforms such as Tik-Tok and Instagram and her interests are far removed from history of any description.
It’s a bit like genealogy – how many middle-aged adults have rued the fact that they never talked to departed older generations about their family history? I put my hand up!
As a woman in her sixties, who grew up on a council estate, attended a comprehensive school and did not go to university, I have some experience, over decades, of inequality of employment opportunity and being marginalised. It is also the case that I do not have friends from my youth, no family members, no peers from other areas of life, who share my interest in military history. I can only conclude that there is something within me that drew me to military history of the Great War and, to a lesser extent Second World War, and did not draw them.
Having arrived at this point, with the strong belief that there have been no barriers to a working class, white female acquiring an interest in military history, and that it is not unusual that this interest developed as a mature adult, what is my lived experience of that interest?
My first attendance at a military history meeting was by myself. The audience was overwhelmingly male and whilst I did not experience outright hostility, I was not made to feel welcome. Maybe if I had been male the experience would have been the same? This was twenty years ago, so please feel free to leave a comment if you have had the same, but more recent, experience.
I eventually went on to give occasional presentations at similar meetings, the last one just before the first lockdown, and whilst the talks did not faze me, I was always nervous of questions from a largely male audience. My experience was that some questioners seemed to want to catch me out (maybe they were the same with male speakers) and there were an awful lot of “this isn’t a question but a comment”, which largely had little or nothing to do with the subject of my talk but was designed to showcase the knowledge/experience of the “questioner”. My observation, also, from regular attendance at such meetings, is that female speakers often garner smaller audiences.
Yet on social media there is a plethora of females tweeting, blogging and pod-casting history. Would my blogs garner a larger audience if I was male? Are my blogs and tweets too mundane? Someone recently told me that (despite interacting with me in other subjects on Twitter) he did not interact with my Great War tweets because my focus is personal stories, whereas his focus is every other aspect of military history except that. Would I have a larger Twitter and blog following if I was younger? Is being an older female a determinant in the level of engagement?
Perhaps if I had grown up with social media and established an online presence first for my interests and research I might have acquired a confidence about tackling meetings, whether as an audience member (on my own) or as a speaker. I think confidence in any given situation is something you either have, or something with which you struggle no matter your background.
Following the recent diversity debate I have asked myself why is it that my history focus is so narrow? Is it because my school history curriculum centred on kings, queens and empires; British (white and male) inventors and explorers; British creatives and artists; British soldiers, generals and battles etc. and other aspects perceived as acceptable history where the Brits “done good” and their unsavoury history pushed to one side? Probably.
It is my experience that certain communities of people dominate the history scene and it is not easy to break into the inner circle. Nevertheless, as a hobbyist please don’t condemn me for the fact that the history I want to research and study is that of the experiences of people like me and my family during two wars and that I wish to engage with like-minded people, most of whom happen to be white males. You can neither force people to like history nor the type of history with which they wish to engage, but I applaud initiatives to broaden historical participation, inclusion, debate, narratives and historiography.