A jeho žena

As many of my friends know (and some of them from awkward personal experience), I like walking around cemeteries. Cemeteries from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy are especially great, because you can learn a lot about the people buried there and the time they lived in. Not just names and dates and places of birth and death. Often, the headstone will also inform us about a person’s station in life, their job, their academic and professional titles. It will tell us, for instance, that the deceased was a Doctor of Philospohy. Or an officer for the royal-imperial postal service. Or a house owner’s widow. I love it.

At Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, I once saw a particularly interesting headstone. It listed the professional and academic achievements of the man buried there in all their glory, telling a story of a truly accomplished and well respected member of society. Then, the last line just read: “a jeho žena” (“and his wife”). That was it. The wife had no job of course (except wife), no accomplishments, not even a name. She was just this guys wife. I thought it was funny. It was funny because a) it perfectly illustrated what things were like at a specific time in history and b) that time was more than a hundred years ago. Laughing about the gender inequality of the past always carries an element of relief: Thank goodness those times are behind us.

Or are they? It is with great interest that I have followed the #ThanksForTyping hashtag on Twitter this past week. Initiated by Bruce Holsinger, it is a collection of excerpts from acknowledgement sections of scholarly books, where the author thanks his wife for typing. Often, the wife does not have a name. Quite frequently, she has not just typed, but also helped in editing the book, discussing (or even providing) ideas that went into it or offered research assistance. Still though, she is not listed as a co-author, she is not paid, she is often not even named. As on that grave in Vyšehrad, the man basks in the glory of “his” accomplishments, while the unnamed wife just gets one line.

I read these tweets with a strange fascination. Part of me still finds it funny, but part of me whispers that it’s not far enough away to be funny. That wasn’t a hundred years ago. Many of the excerpts are from the latter half of the 20th century. This means that the men and women in question are probably still around. The men might even still be in jobs – academic or otherwise – where they decide on the careers of others, including of women. This is not ancient history.

And anyway, I would be curious to know what the situation is today. Of course, the wife on the typewriter is gone. Because the typewriter is gone. But what about other things? Being a sounding board, a proof-reader, an unpaid research assistant? Of course, we have all done some of this: proof-read chapters of PhD theses for friends, commented on someone’s grant proposal, talked science ideas in the pub. The lines between paid and unpaid labour, between labour and fun are blurry in our line of work, to say the least. But I am wondering whether it’s still women who bear the larger part of this burden and who go unacknowledged more often.

Maybe someone 100 years from now will find out by analysing our papers, our acknowledgement sections, our twitter feeds. And maybe by then, it will be funny.

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