My Library Is Still Sexist

A follow-up from one of my most provocative articles at Life of An Econ Student.

I counted my bookshelf.

At least all the books not stored away in boxes, anyway. And there’s a lot of them, though not nearly enough to satisfy my heart’s desire. Fiction, non-fiction, university textbooks, biographies — you name it. Lots of stuff and a lot I’d want to immerse myself in once again.

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About 90–95% I’ve read, though some of them haven’t received the love they rightly deserve in the time they’ve decorated my various abodes.

It reminded me of a snarky blog post I wrote little over three years ago. With only a few hundred pageviews I can’t say it was particularly successful — though very interesting to write. I followed the advice of my guilty pleasure back then (the lovely content creators of EverydayFeminism) and women-checked my bookshelf.

Now, a few years have passed: I have a bigger library and the full sample at my disposal, so I thought I’d repeat the exercise. The results might be slightly better — who knows? — and, if anything, they seem a little less skewed than in 2017:

  • Out of 320 titles I counted, 57 are written or co-written by women — 50 of which exclusively written by women (for an 18% and 16% share, respectively)

Not exactly balanced, but slightly less skewed than the 12% I reported in 2017.

Unfortunately, about half of those titles consist of 19th century literature classics with authors like Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, as well as 21st century fantasy/Sci-Fi writers like J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and Veronica Roth. To the dismay of the kind of person who pushes gender identity (and other such politics), the novelist Ayn Rand decorate the collection with 3 titles.

Oh, and about 5 of those titles are Deirdre McCloskey’s, which — as she was once a man — I’m not sure is pro or a con in this cosmic quest for justice.

Most people, then, would conclude that my library is sexist — that I haven’t paid enough attention to female writers, that I don’t read widely enough (I do have some Asian writers, some Hispanics and some Middle Eastern writers if that counts for something…?)

Well, Compared to What?

This, the perennial Economist’s Question: What’s the proportionate number? 20%? 40%? In these enlightened times of gender equality we often mistake any deviation from 50:50 as clear evidence of discrimination:

  1. my interests or selection of books are sexist;

Sure, those are all possible explanations but, for now, let’s just consider them not proven.

On some level, the world is the way it is: either women constitutionally have different interests than me, or they spend their time more productively elsewhere (either inside or outside of academia), or there is some structural wrongdoing in publishing and academia and society at large. Regardless, that’s the world presented to me and I have very little blame in making it so (I’d even posit that I have very little responsibility in rectifying it insofar as it’s considered a problem).

Here’s what I’m thinking: most intellectuals or academics are not women. Of those who are, most don’t do history or economics. Of those that do, most don’t do the Big Picture-civilization stuff or financial/monetary topics (or randomness) that I spend my time with. If you have explanations or insights into why that is, I’m all ears, but it doesn’t really matter for this argument: Most women don’t produce the kind of reading that interests me. Differently put, of the work that does interest me, very little of it is produced by women.

That’s unfortunately. Actually, I don’t really care: the Misogyny game gets old pretty quickly. I’d rather just engage with good stories, good writing, good data, and fascinating takes.

One of the stranger things I encountered in my five university years of economic history was how often “Euro-centric perspectives” were derided. To focus on events in Europe, to see the world from a “European” perspective, and to approach tools and methods and perspectives somehow derived from Europeans was a bias — and only intolerant bigots would engage in something so vile.

Many of my university lecturers and professors would jump at the opportunity to consider works by non-Europeans (really, white Westerners), or topics investigating India, China, the Middle East or some other area not usually in the spotlight of economic history. Perhaps rightly so: there are probably lots of fascinating things to uncover.

The reason this always sat strange with me is that the most fascinating event of human history — the one that laid the grounds for us even having the change to argue over this — happened in Europe. The Great Enrichment. The Industrial Revolution. Modernity. Whatever term you prefer.

If so, why shouldn’t we spend most of our time and resources on those topics? Contrasting empires (Joel Mokyr’s many “fits and starts”) of other times, places, and cultural underpinnings is great, but ultimately the Great Divergence happened in (Northwestern) Europe — so where’s the harm in focusing on that?

The same reason guides the reaction to my apparently sexist library. So what? The best and most important stuff in my fields is done by men — so I’ll largely be reading men. Got a problem with that? Have women write better stuff!

Needless to say, I don’t have a principle against reading female authors (who does?!). If it’s good and deals with the right topics, I’ll read it.

And amidst the avalanche of great male writes on topics I care about, there are quite a few women I much enjoy reading: Anne Murphy, Angela Redish, Anne Goldgar, Judy Stephenson, Catherine Schenk, Stephanie Kelton, Carolyn Sissoko, Victoria Bateman, Chenzi Xu, Deirdre McCloskey — and probably a bunch me I’ve unforgivably neglected.

I do wish, however, that more women wrote better books or even dared taking the plunge into big-picture stories that men seem to do (even if they’re not always that good…)

In a few years or so, I’ll circle around to this and do a similar comparison again. Until next time, happy reading!

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Writer, editor, and student of money past and present. Here: mostly off-topic stories, personal finance-musings, worldly observations and Reykjavík reflections.

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