There are sizable differences in the amount of time that men and women spend thinking about historical topics, a recent YouGov survey finds — with men generally saying they spend more time than women do musing about history. While the frequency with which men think about the Roman Empire has become a popular topic of discussion online in recent weeks, this survey finds that there are gender imbalances in the time Americans spend thinking about a range of historical events, while also shedding light on the topics to which men and women give the most equal consideration.
Do men really think about the Roman Empire every day?
Contrary to the claim of a viral internet meme, few American men think about the Roman Empire daily. However, there is a kernel of truth behind this hyperbole. Men are much more likely than women to report regularly thinking about the Roman Empire. While only 4% of American men say that they think about the Roman Empire every day, this is significantly higher than the 1% of women who say the same.
While thinking about the Roman Empire every day may be extreme, American men also are more likely to select every other frequency category than women. On the other hand, a majority of American women (53%) say that they never think about the Roman Empire, compared to only 30% of men who say the same. So while it is a big exaggeration to say that men think about the Roman Empire every day, it reflects the reality that American men think about the Roman Empire significantly more often than women do.
What other historical topics do Americans regularly think about?
After men’s fixation on the Roman Empire became a trending topic, historians and internet commenters noted other topics that live rent-free in men’s heads, including World War II, the American Civil War, Sparta, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Alexander the Great. Others suggested historical topics that women may think about more frequently, such as the Salem witch trials, the Titanic, Greek mythology, the six wives of Henry VIII, the Romanov family of Russia, and the British royal family. On the other hand, many hypothesized that present-day concerns may occupy more of American women’s thoughts than men's, leading women to think about historical topics less often than men do.
These discussions inspired YouGov to ask Americans how frequently they think about a range of historical topics, including the Roman Empire. Results show that American men are indeed more likely to say they think about the Roman Empire every day than about any other historical topic. However, this survey reveals that American women think about other topics more frequently and that the Roman Empire is not the historical topic that Americans think about the most overall.
World War II is the historical topic Americans think about most often
While the Roman Empire takes the crown among the historical topics we asked about as the one American men are most likely to think about every day, it was not the overall most thought-about historical topic for either men or women. The average American man thinks about World War II more often than any other topic included on the survey. Only 15% of American men say they never think about World War II, and the majority say they think about it about once a month or more frequently.
While American women think about World War II less frequently than men do, a majority still think about it about once a year or more often. Among all adults, Americans think about World War II more frequently than about any other historical topic included in the poll.
Spending time thinking about some historical topics is more gender-balanced
While American men think about the Roman Empire and World War II more frequently than women do, this pattern doesn’t hold for all historical topics. The Salem witch trials are a less popular topic for frequent rumination than the Roman Empire or World War II, but American men and women think about the trials with roughly equal frequency. (Most of the victims of the trials were women.)About half of both American men and women say they never think about the Salem witch trials. While very few Americans think about the trials most days, American women are slightly more likely than men to say they think about the trials at least about once a month (10% vs. 8%).
American men think about many historical topics more frequently than women
For each of the surveyed topics, American men are more likely than women to say that they think about it most days, or more often. This supports the belief that women’s thoughts may be more focused on topics other than history than men's are. However, the gap between time spent thinking about history by men and women varies significantly across topics.
While American men are more than 9 percentage points more likely than women to say they think about World War II most days or every day, this narrows to a 4-percentage-point gap for the American Civil War, the second-most popular historical topic across all Americans. The British royal family, the fourth most popular topic overall, has almost no gender gap (although some respondents may be mulling over current news about the royals, rather than pondering the family’s historical significance).
American women are more likely than men to say they never think about historical topics
On the flip side, American women are more likely than men to say that they never think about most historical topics. The biggest exception was the British royal family, which slightly more men say they never think about. However, these responses also have widely varying gender gaps.
American men and women are equally likely to say they never think about the Titanic (27%) and the Salem witch trials (48%), suggesting these topics may be equally appealing to Americans regardless of gender. Thoughts about the six wives of King Henry VIII also are more gender-balanced than for most other topics, with only a 5-percentage-point gap between men and women.
On the other hand, the widest gender gap is for the Roman Empire: American women are 22 percentage points more likely to say they never think about the Roman Empire than men. This provides further evidence in favor of the internet’s folk wisdom. It seems thinking about the Roman Empire truly is a disproportionately male pastime.
— Carl Bialik and Taylor Orth contributed to this article.
Methodology: This poll was conducted online on September 15 - 20, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.
Image: Adobe Stock (muratart)