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Sexism in the National Humanities Medals

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If there was one place where you would not expect to find sexism, it’s in the awarding of the National Humanities Medals. Given that the choices for these awards are sometimes on merit and sometimes political (seriously, during the Bush years, winners included Shelby Steele, Art Linkletter, the late-era conservative version of Elizabeth Fox Genovese, and Victor Davis Hanson. What, no award for Charles Murray?), one would expect a Democratic administration and a prize committee to be sure to include at least some women. It’s not like there’s not a lot of deserving female scholars out there. Moreover, even if they did so for purely cynical reasons, i.e., to stop people like me from pointing out the inherent sexism in the awards, it would still be progress of a certain kind.

But no. The new award winners include 8 men and 1 institution. It’s not like the men aren’t deserving. Robert Darnton is a great French historian. Kwame Anthony Appiah is an important writer of the African diaspora, among other subjects. Amartya Sen is a very important economist. Moreover, it’s not as if the search committee didn’t pay attention to race. The award winners are incredibly diverse except that they are all men.

What’s more, in 2010, 1 woman (Joyce Carol Oates) won in another male dominated group (including Philip Roth, Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn, and Wendell Berry).

And in 2009, 1 woman (the deserving Annette Gordon-Reed) and 7 men (including Robert Caro, David Levering Lewis, Ted Sorensen, and Elie Wiesel).

So during the Obama years, you have 16 men, 2 women, and 1 institution. What gives with that? Just as a few deserving women off the top of my head, the prize committee could name Judith Butler, Vandana Shiva (American citizenship is not required), Nell Irvin Painter, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Natalie Zemon Davis, and so many more.

I don’t understand this complete gender blindness by the committee. It’s actually quite offensive.

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