Friday, 20 May 2011

Herstory: Should women narrate the history of war?

We at Creative Content are very proud of our Short Histories series – it’s given us the chance to work with some fantastic historians and terrific narrators. 

Next in the series is “The Lowdown: A Short History of the Origins of the Vietnam War”, by Dr. David L. Anderson – and we’ve taken the decision to have a female narrator. I thought it was a little unconventional, but as my business partner Ali (Muirden) said at the time, “Why not?”

And it got me thinking – why are there so few history titles narrated by women?
I did some casual research of the top-selling 100 general history titles on Audible UK and Audible USA. About 95% of them are narrated by men – and the ones that are narrated by women have either been written by them or are histories of particular women. (Yes, there are one or two exceptions, like the very well-received “This Sceptred Isle” by Christopher Lee, narrated by Anna Massey.)

When it comes to war, the titles narrated by women are even fewer – and those usually have to do with particular women, or are about the civilian experience of war -Don't Forget to Write: The True Story of an Evacuee and her Family by Pam Hobbs, narrated by Penelope Freeman, Clara's War by Clara Kramer, narrated by Rula Lenska, The Blitz: The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner, narrated by Catherine Harvey.

I asked Ali, “Why do you think it is that around 95% of best-selling non-fiction history audio books are narrated by men?”

She said: "I think it's because people assume that history is a genre that appeals more to men than women. There is also the feeling that the sex of reader should be the same as that of the writer of the book being recorded.  Perhaps subconsciously we feel that if a man has written the book then the reader should be male too - and vice-versa! And a lot of history, particularly military history, is written by men.”
Maybe. Do we think women’s voices don’t suit the material? I’m not sure it’s that: we accent female newsreaders delivering the grimmest details of combat. Is it because war is usually fought by men, or because most significant military figures (with some exceptions) have been men? Is it, as Ali suggests, because most consumers of military history are men, and they prefer to hear male voices reading it? Or is it simply a convention that we don’t question? 

I’m not trying to be provocative, and I’m not even saying it should be different – I’m genuinely curious! Why do you think it is? 
And we’d love to know what you think of our ‘experiment’ - having a straight military history title read by a woman.* - LK

*“I think it's great that we're challenging these assumptions and it's been really interesting to hear so many different view points on the subject on Twitter this week!" - Ali Muirden

Photo by Beverly & Pack

Our Short History titles in eBook:


  1. David MonteathFriday, 20 May, 2011


    I have no problem with female narrators reading war or military history, its a given that the reader knows what they are doing and so it will be a good informed read/ listen.

    I think that the 'problem' (if there is one) is one of generalisations, forgive me for adding to them; historicaly, men fight wars, men send men to fight wars, men write the books about men fighting wars and then men endlessly rehash all this. Therefore, and I assume that this may be the case for women too, men generally cannot associate themselves with a woman's voice describing for example the Somme, the Tet Offensive or the Falklands, simply because we know that women were not there in the capacity of front-line combat troops.

    Of course, nobody now alive fought at the Somme, but an account of the battles related by a man will perhaps resonate more readily than it would by a woman.

    I suppose that this will change with the advent of female pilots and ground troops in more recent or current conflicts, but (and I fully accept that I might be wrong) a mainstream consumer of military history would not neccesarily feel compelled to hear D-Day narrated by a woman.

    Please try it though.:-)

    Interestingly (to me anyway) there was a book by Michael Herr called 'Nam' in which he interviewed many soldiers, aircrew and hospital staff (male and female) and after the first few pages all of the accounts seemed to be spoken by one voice.....does that make sense? only became obvious that the 'speaker' was a woman when they were describing fear of capture and precautions that needed to be taken.

    I look forward to reading other comments.

  2. I think you make a really good point. There is some material that simply suits one gender or the other better - and front-line war has traditionally been something that men are involved in.

    In the same way, although I wouldn't necessarily have trouble with a man narrating - say - a book about the pain of childbirth and the experience of giving birth, the material would probably be better suited to a female voice.

    And I think your point about whether that will change as women's role in war changes is a very interesting one! (I have my own views on whether women should be in combat, but I think that's for another forum! :oD)

    So although I accept the most war-history would probably, for a number of reasons, suit a male voice, I think it might be worth audio publishers looking at their history titles and thinking, 'Actually - could this possibly suit a female narrator?', rather than 'automatically' assigning a male narrator.

    Just to ring the changes!

    Thanks for stopping by and participating!