I never skip a book's acknowledgments section. It can be informative, touching, inspiring — or downright infuriating.
"Finally, without my wife, Rhoda, who served as editor, research assistant, and soul mate, this project could never have been finished." —Randall Bennett Woods, author of LBJ: Architect of American Ambition.
As a female historian, I have developed a Pavlovian response to older, white men who refer to their wives as "research assistants." As soon as I could see straight, I took to Twitter, where such "findings" thrive, and wrote "male historians often call wives research assistants while female historians say husbands were patient/encouraging."
It isn't the first time I've written about this issue. I made a similar observation in a long-form essay at the Atlantic, but when I looked at the comments section, I realized most postings focused on men — as did responses to my tweet. The idea of women supporting and sacrificing for male genius has certainly been explored, yet I can't explain why women would primarily thank their husbands for emotional labor ("patient/encouraging"). Don't husbands proofread their wives' work? Aren't wives understanding of their husbands' professional obligations?
My theory that husbands and wives recognize each other differently in public is correct, says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown. It turns out the author of You Just Don't Understand shares my obsession with acknowledgments and remembers how differently she and a male colleague interpreted one long ago. Tannen saw a female author's recognition of her husband's contributory support (such as editing and research) as unremarkable, while her colleague pounced. He saw an admission in her gratitude; she could not have completed the project without her husband.
This is not uncommon. When aviatrix Beryl Markham thanked her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, in her memoir's acknowledgments "for his constant encouragement and his assistance in the preparations for [West with the Night]" in 1942, no one took issue. When her memoir enjoyed a second life in the late 1980s, however, critics were suddenly suspect. Schumacher never wrote anything on par with West with the Night, not that it mattered. The charge that Markham didn't entirely write the memoir herself follows the book wherever it goes, including No. 8 on National Geographic's 2001 list of the "100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time." The magazine didn't dismiss the allegation as unfounded or untrue, but irrelevant.
A man's intellectual authorship would never be so easily dismissed. "Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home," teased Zelda Fitzgerald in her New York Tribune review of her husband's book The Beautiful and Damned, but it was no joke. F. Scott Fitzgerald was constantly and openly appropriating parts of Zelda's diary and private letters without permission, but few seem to care. It's just another part of the Great Gatsby author's extraordinary talent.
Why are women so easily questioned and men so quickly excused? In Second Sex (1949), French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir — the lifelong partner of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre — wrote that women have always been viewed in relation to men:
She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other.
Beauvoir et al. bummed me out, so I sought better examples of literary couples in hopes that they were somewhat egalitarian in acknowledging each other. Joan Didion was no help. She rarely wrote acknowledgments other than to thank publications that had previously published her essays; thus her husband, writer John Dunne, seldom appears until The Year of Magical Thinking, a book she wrote about mourning him. Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and Virginia Woolf and Leonard Wood seemingly emerged unscathed from the gendered-acknowledgment trap, too.