The Ascent of Woman: Rewriting women back into history

OCT 13 — If you’re like me and hanker for anything positive in the field of advancing women’s rights, then watch The Ascent of Woman.

This pioneering BBC 2 four-part series aired last month in the UK. But be warned, it’s no feet up with a glass of Chablis job!

Keep your wits about you as the British historian Dr Amanda Foreman takes you on a whirlwind journey across the globe, from the dawn of civilization (meet the world’s first author Enheduanna) to modern day (an interview with Russia’s Pussy Riot), revealing history’s extraordinary women in the process. 

Women who have shaped and inspired the world we live in today. And yet, they occupy little more than a footnote to history, or worse, have had their characters vilified rather than their remarkable achievements celebrated.

I’ve never met the mother-of-five — unlike my boys who enjoyed sharing their swords and shields with her girls while on their play-date in NYC — but Dr Foreman certainly deserves a large thank you for putting this highly educational and inspirational series together.

You can find the hour-long episodes with a quick Google search. But, here’s a peek at some of what’s covered:

Civilisation — Episode 1

Driving through the dry grasslands of Anatolia (central Turkey), Dr Foreman gets right to the nuts and bolts of the problem: “The hard truth is that in almost every civilisation, women have been deemed the secondary sex... it is an idea that is so ingrained it has been written into history as a biological truth.”

Why? And why have limits been set on women’s sexuality, speech and freedom of movement by almost every civilisation in history? Has it always been this way — leaving history itself to become exclusively male-orientated?

Dr Foreman seeks the answers to these questions by exploring the early civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome. She also searches for another narrative, where the social standing of women might have followed a fundamentally different path. This, she discovers in Catalhöyük, Anatolia one of the world's earliest settlements dating back to 7500BC.

Archaeologist Ian Hodder believes that this aggressively egalitarian society placed women on a clear equal footing. Others have suggested a matriarchal society even, based on the female deity figurines found at the site.

Then there are intriguing stories behind the few women who managed to carve out their own routes to power in male-dominated societies like: Enheduanna, the Siberian Ice Maiden, Princess of Ukok, and Hatshepsut, one of ancient Egypt's most successful, but most pilloried, ruling queens.

In Mesopotamia, Dr Foreman explores the world's first law codes written to regulate women's status and behaviour, including the world's first known veiling law dating from 1350 BC, two thousand years before the birth of Islam.

Separation — Episode 2

The role of women in Asia under the philosophy religions of Confucianism and Buddhism from the 1st century AD to the present day is first explored.

China’s "Mona Lisa", the Qingming scroll is a very visual example (even more so in its 3D animated remake) of how women and men were treated as separate identities under Confucianism: the female world of the home and male world of business and politics. Of the 840 people represented in this 12th century scroll, there are only seven women (concubines and mothers with kids).

Conversely, faiths such as Buddhism and Japan’s Shinto empowered many women to confront the limits placed on their sex.

Such as Vietnam's legendary Trung Sisters, who mounted the first armed rebellion against China. Notably, they are very much in the hearts and minds of Vietnamese society today.

Or China’s truly visionary Empress Wu, the only woman to have ruled China in her own right (pro-Confucian scholars did their best to bring her reputation into disrepute).

And Japan’s Murasaki Shikibu, the 12th century writer who created one of Japan's greatest literacy masterpieces, not to mention the world's first novel—The Tale of Genji.

Featuring strongly throughout this episode, were the ideals of female beauty that advocated immobility, perfect for that home-bound existence—the wearing of the multilayered kimonos in Japan and Chinese foot-binding.

Dr Foreman met 84-year-old Wang Huiyuan, one of the few surviving women whose feet had been bound, to explore why the practice persisted for so long. Makes for a very interesting interview.

Power — Episode 3

On her travels to Istanbul, Paris and Delhi, Dr Foreman uncovers the laws, religions and philosophies of some the most powerful empires of the Middle Ages — Byzantium, Ottoman and Mughal Empires — aimed at enforcing the subordination of woman.

“Is there no end to the determination to keep women invisible and powerless and to justify this as ‘the will of God’?” she asks rhetorically.

Even today, centuries on, just 20 per cent of the world’s political power rests in the hands of women.

The history of women is one of “unequal rights, unequal status and unequal opportunities.” But that, fortunately, is not the only story to be told.

This episode looks at the few exceptional women who worked within systems they had no part in creating, but were able to manipulate the pillars of patriarchy, religion, marriage, law and education, and class to be heard, respected and ultimately, to assume the reins of power. And in doing so, they helped to shape our world.

Empress Theodora transformed herself from a street performer, to palace prostitute, and then to empress and co-ruler of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Roxelana, a former slave, changed the structure of sexual dynastic politics in the Ottoman Court.

And Mughal Empress Nur Jahan, who helped establish trade routes and pioneer the use of the exquisite white marble used in India’s jewel, the Taj Mahal.

That ability to rule, inspire and to educate “is an ability that lies within us all” Dr Foreman reminds us.

Revolution — Episode 4

The role of women in revolutions that have transformed the modern world is under the spotlight in this last episode.

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) was one of France’s greater thinkers and political activists. But her revolutionary ideas secured her the guillotine rather than a burial in the Panthéon in Paris. The entrance inscription on this mausoleum reads “To great men a grateful nation”, a truly men-only club as not one woman was buried there during the 18th and 19th centuries. Currently, there are 71 men versus 4 women.

 “It’s one thing to be written out of history, but it is quite another to have this carved in stone,” Dr Foreman laments. The message being: only “the men count.”

Russia’s radical Alexandra Kollontai discovered that while her fellow Russian revolutionaries put women's rights at the crux of ideological change, the post-revolutionary world failed abysmally to address gender imbalance.

Thanks to the crusade of America’s Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and her alliance with a wealthy heiress, women today have access to birth control. Sanger saw contraception as the key to pulling women out of poverty, and fought hard against the establishment and their laws holding birth control an “obscenity”, alongside abortion and pornography.

I enjoyed watching Hillary Clinton put the record straight on Sanger’s unjustly tarnished reputation.

Africa leads the way when it comes to women in politics—hear what Lindiwe Mazibuko, South Africa’s former parliamentary opposition leader, has to say. I admire her gumption.

I have to say I found this series completely mesmerizing, and I certainly want my girls, and boys, to watch it when they’re a bit older.

Let me leave you with Dr Foreman’s closing statement:
 
“It is vital for the future that we have a proper understanding of the past, once we accept that the history of women has no endpoint, and is still in the process of being written, then we can be proud, vigilant and united in ensuring that the next revolution is the age of gender equality…”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.