#thanksfortyping

Hop over to Twitter and check out the two-day-old hashtag, #thanksfortyping. The creation of UVA mediaevalist Bruce Holsinger, #thanksfortyping aggregates screen shots of book acknowledgement excerpts in which men thank their (typically) unnamed wives (and sometimes their daughters) for typing their scholarly works. Indeed, in many of the acknowledgements, the wifely duties extend beyond typing to transcribing, editing, and more.

There are two striking feminist lessons from this growing archive. First, it is stunning just how much scholarly work by women was historically unpaid and went uncredited. Not only the careers of individual male scholars, but the smooth functioning of departments and disciplines owed much to women’s uncompensated labour. Second, it is worth remarking that any scholar who did not have a wife to serve as their voluntary r.a./co-editor/co-author — so, for instance, women scholars — was competing on a very uneven playing field indeed.

11 thoughts on “#thanksfortyping

  1. I mean, to be fair they could’ve just been trying to save the family money. Hiring out transcription services can be quite expensive. I would estimate that very few of the wives in question feel in any way slighted by this imagined “slight.” Perhaps they were too modest to want their name included, because they didn’t feel like their contribution was significant enough to merit a formal acknowledgement.
    Spouses do things for each other all the time, as a selfless labor of love. If I transcribed/edited one of my SO’s essays because she was simply too busy with other things (as she often is), there’s no way in Hell I would want any credit whatsoever, even if I modified one of her points and she agreed with/kept said modification. I’d be mortified if my name appeared because my contribution was negligible.
    It’s still HER work. Seems like this is desperately grasping for disparity where one simply does not exist.

  2. Your comment doesn’t, it seem to me, negate what I described as the two big take-aways from #thanksfortyping: “Not only the careers of individual male scholars, but the smooth functioning of departments and disciplines owed much to women’s uncompensated labour. Second, it is worth remarking that any scholar who did not have a wife to serve as their voluntary r.a./co-editor/co-author — so, for instance, women scholars — was competing on a very uneven playing field indeed.” I didn’t discuss a slight; I discussed material conditions. Since you refer to the economic benefits of having a spouse type one’s work, I take it you agree?

  3. This makes me think of George Eliot. In both Middlemarch and Romola (maybe others?), you find women protagonists, Dorothea for Casabon and Romola for her father, working to aid, organize, and transcribe scholarly work for men. They do so as subordinates but it’s palpable in Eliot’s work how this is their only good access to the work and to intellectual life, for which they are then often belittled by the scholars/male relations themselves. Eliot is the earliest that comes to my mind but I bet there are other works by women that capture the experience from inside the “thanks for typing” phenomenon.

  4. Great point! In her famous “Reply”, the 17th c. Mexican philosopher Juana Ines de la Cruz discusses at some length the limits under which women intellectuals in her context worked. She was never the woman behind the man (she bacame a nun precisely to avoid this) and she never just did the typing, but she is really explicit about having to find opportunites to do science/philosophy/theology in quotidian tasks and in aesthetic productions because so many forms of intellectual activity were barred to her.

  5. The obvious subtext is that the authors were inherently chauvinistic and made a deliberate, pernicious decision not to credit their wives. I merely suggested that perhaps these nominal acknowledgements were never requested or even desired to begin with.
    It doesn’t necessarily undermine your assertions, but what’s the purpose of making those assertions if not to highlight a perceived injustice? Does it impact the academic merits of the works themselves?
    Transcribing is admittedly not easy, but it isn’t necessarily a creative or authorial contribution. It just escapes me how this is a relevant or worthwhile pursuit, unless the goal is to further a narrative of inherent sexism in academia.

  6. Gregory,
    I won’t speak for Lady Day but I was merely remarking some very memorable literary versions of the scribe-woman role that do seem to betray a certain frustration with gender constraints of their age. I assume you’re not asserting that those constraints didn’t exist, but that there might be variations in how we could read gratitude for the scribe-woman in acknowledgements? If that’s the claim, then I think I agree, but I gather that Lady Day’s wider point was that book acknowledgements give windows into complex realities of scholarly production we rarely register (or even can’t register) as fully as we ought. Gratitude for wives is one example of how we get a peek behind the curtains, but it seems reasonable to assume that the work of any author rides on the work of many, some of whom have little access to their own means of work or receive little recognition. That, at least, was how I took it, not least because Lady Day is also referencing the hidden labors of others – e.g., staff persons. I gather too that you wouldn’t deny that historically these unrecognized forms of labor that enable scholarly production do skew in particular demographic directions, not just along gender but also class lines. Not to mention the myriad historical authors who enjoyed the comparable leisure for scholarship because they owned slaves. I don’t know how we ever really account for the labor the sits under our books and thoughts. Even in our more egalitarian age, it’s a stunning mountain of hidden labor on which we stand, whether we think of the hidden labor that sustained historical authors on whom we rely for inspiration or the staff people who daily insulate us from all sorts of tedious tasks that would siphon energy away from scholarship. It’s rather humbling to contemplate. And more than a little unsettling to realize the reach of our dependencies, and dependencies on all sorts of inegalitarian arrangements, for producing things we then count as “mine.”

    On another note, I think I have a literary protagonist more in the style you suggest, one who would have disdained being in the acknowledgements: Mrs. Ramsey of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. There’s no suggestion (that I recall) that she worked directly on Mr. Ramsey’s work, but I can’t imagine her wanting to be in his acknowledgements for any of her labors. Not even if the book had been his finally reaching Z.

  7. Gregory Wolfman, you’ve said:
    The obvious subtext is that the authors were inherently chauvinistic and made a deliberate, pernicious decision not to credit their wives. I merely suggested that perhaps these nominal acknowledgements were never requested or even desired to begin with.
    It doesn’t necessarily undermine your assertions, but what’s the purpose of making those assertions if not to highlight a perceived injustice? Does it impact the academic merits of the works themselves?
    Transcribing is admittedly not easy, but it isn’t necessarily a creative or authorial contribution. It just escapes me how this is a relevant or worthwhile pursuit, unless the goal is to further a narrative of inherent sexism in academia.

    I didn’t see any such subtext. And anyway the point is that they did credit their wives, i.e. said ‘thanks for the help’. And maybe they weren’t requested. The issue though is the way that academic work historically has drawn on a good amount of assistance where this was just assumed, built into the practice of academics being men and having wives/daughters/etc. The point isn’t to criticise any individual but to point to the power relations built into the institution. The purpose, I take it, isn’t to further a narrative of inherent sexism (on the part of individuals, I think you mean) but to shine a light onto the power relations involved in how academic work operated historically.
    By analogy: the popular music industry historically – many people were involved in making records who weren’t acknowledged at all – e.g. the ‘Funk Brothers’, the Motown house band, on many Motown records. Now, many more people are acknowledged so that every record emerges as a collaborative production. No criticism of individuals involved here – although of course there have been some individuals who really didn’t want to share credit, and can be criticised – but it’s interesting and revealing to trace these shifts in power.

  8. Since #thanksfortyping started trending I’ve been trying to track down a discussion (maybe it was even here?) of the worst offenders for acknowledgements of wifely editing and typing by male philosophers. Wasn’t there a famous philosophy book written on a ship where the handwritten pages were mailed home to the wife who was also caring for the children? And another who thanks multiple wives and the later one was thanked for her intellectual engagement? (I figured the most recent wife was a philosophy grad student but who knows.) I’m interested in the ‘more than typing’ contributions wives made to their husbands’ philosophy manuscripts.

  9. What bothers me so much about #thanksfortyping is that it illustrates the type of work that is done by women solely because men don’t want to do it, or think themselves above doing it, or too busy to do it. Men are the idea generators and women must do the menial, yet very practical and necessary labor that enables these ideas to get out in the world. Now, I’m assuming that these men are fully physically competent to type things themselves, they have two hands and two arms – but for some reason, they see typing as not worth their time and energy – either to learn how to do properly, or to do at all. And yet a woman’s time is not valued so highly, so they are allowed to and agree to spend it doing these production tasks, rather than spending their own time creating their own works.

    We see this replicated every time a woman is asked to be secretary at a nonprofit, or is asked/expected to take minutes at a meeting (I’ve seen this happen many many times). Now, I personally can’t conceive of taking on a large writing project and expecting someone else to type it out for me. That seems absurd. That is quite a level of entitlement on display by these men.

    I often think about how we have these celebrity chefs today who are often male. Anyone who cooks knows that the fun part of cooking is the actual cooking part, and the not-so-fun, tedious part of cooking is chopping everything up and cleaning up afterwards. So, these famous chefs get all the accolades from doing the most easy and fun part of cooking – the creative part. Whereas historically, the underappreciated home cooks, who have been traditionally women (that’s changing I think!) do everything – all the prep work and the clean-up work yet are not glamourized, are unpaid, and are not highly valued by society.

    The common assumption illustrated by #thanksfortyping is that women’s time is not as valuable as men’s time. This assumption plays out in our society in the way that jobs typically held by women are far less lucrative, compared to careers dominated by men. These individual authors may not have made a pernicious decision to marginalize their women helpers, but the accumulated effect of this type of labor division is very pernicious indeed.

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