Missing Persons

In 1993, a special edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) was published. The original DNB was compiled between 1885 and 1900: 29,120 lives were covered in 63 volumes. After that, supplementary volumes were published every ten years, containing entries on anyone deemed worthy who had died during that decade. If you didn’t make the cut, that was that: you couldn’t be added in a later volume. After nearly a century, an extremely sensible decision was made to have a look back and see who might have fallen through the cracks. The result was the ‘Missing Persons‘ volume.

In the preface the editor and his four (male) consultant editors highlighted some of the categories that had seen a particular bump up in representation. ‘Now there appear large numbers of businessmen (sic), engineers, scientists and women – all categories which had suffered some neglect.’ So let’s look at what happened to the women and the businessmen in a little more detail.

Across all the previous volumes of the DNB just 3% of the entrants were women (no, that is not a typo), so that would make c. 874 entries. In the Missing Persons volume women accounted for a whopping 12% of the 1,086 entries, 130 new profiles. Now I am delighted that some fantastic women featured in this blog finally got their day in the sun, including Gertrude Jekyll, Emma Cons, May Morris, Emily Faithfull, Florence Fenwick-Miller, Sylvia Pankhurst and Amy Dillwyn. But I am not sure that as a result the total number in the DNB still barely scraped into four figures really warranted so much mutual back-slapping by the boys.

When we look at the occupational sector of ‘Business, Industry, Finance, Printing and Publishing’, the language used in the preface is telling. Of the 155 people added in this sector, just three were women. Enough said.

From these tentative steps to readjust the balance nearly thirty years ago, the DNB has made valiant efforts to continue what they started and I am happy to report that now (December 2020), there are just over 7,200 biographical articles written about women (nearly 12% of the total). Women are still under-represented in a category which is itself relatively slim, Business and Commerce. Here they account for just 88 of the 1633 entries, so 5%. Why does that number ring a bell? Oh yes, it’s the same as the % of FTSE 100 companies currently led by a woman.

I am calling out the DNB here but whether we look at the plaques on buildings, the portraits displayed in museums, the statues in our public spaces or the non-regal faces on our bank-notes, the pattern is the same. All sorts of efforts are underway to ensure more space and voice are given to the societal contributions of women but we still have a long way to go and particularly, it seems, when the context is a commercial one.

So in the FT-She 100 blog posts I am going tag two groups of women for whom I see a quick win. The first is a woman whose husband already has an entry in the DNB but where her achievements are not referenced in any way: she is just named. The second is a woman whose father has an entry and at least one of her brother’s achievements are mentioned but hers are not. She might be named, she might not be mentioned at all. I am going to call them both a ‘DNB Ghost’.

I haven’t completed the FT-She 100 so I don’t know exactly how many women are going to start off as ghosts but it is at least four. Let’s see how many of them we can get the DNB to flesh out.

Source: Preface to the Dictionary of National Biography: Missing Persons (1993) ed. C.S Nicholls
The featured image is: The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) by Patrick Branwell Brontë. oil on canvas, circa 1834. NPG 1725© National Portrait Gallery, London

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