Making Herstory

The Ascent and Descent of Women in History (Pt 1)



As I said I would, I managed to track down The Ascent of Woman by Dr Amanda Foreman (who is a total BABE with that hair and sharp intellect). I managed to watch the first episode on Youtube, so hopefully the episodes following it are available there too. If you have Netflix, they’re fully available there.

This documentary changed my LIFE. Dr Foreman kills it in this documentary. I found it utterly absorbing and I absolutely loved how she answered questions that we have never even asked before!

With the history of civilization being written as the ‘triumph’ of humanity, have you ever wondered why women aren’t prominently mentioned? Have you ever assumed this was because women weren’t as capable or intelligent as men? Or because women naturally chose to focus on raising children rather than working?

Slavery, the Holocaust, segregation and apartheid, banning and oppression of homosexuals and the crimes of the church and state. We are often urged to learn and reflect on history in order to understand where we came from, remember the victims and celebrate the changes we have made towards achieving a more equal and diverse world. Looking for similarities in others as well as celebrating our differences.

So why is it that no one seems to know when or why oppression against women began, even though nearly every nation on earth had some form of laws that categorised women as secondary human beings? Why don’t we acknowledge our past in this sector, and why is it consistently only women are educated in Women’s History?

Originally I believed that women’s oppression stemmed from biblical times. It turns out I was wrong – it happened much before then. With this in mind, one could assume that in fact, biblical segregation of women was not from the Word of God but rather the word of Man.

History seems to suggest that civilisation started from an egalitarian society where hierarchy and gender roles never existed! Some point in 2500-2300BC, due to invasion of Sumerian society and war, women lost their freedoms in law, education, work, in power and in public places, and hierarchy through class systems and male lineage began. This was simultaneously incredibly long ago and also surprisingly not as long ago as I expected.

This was a significant point in time because written language was becoming widespread. One of the first recognised authors was a woman, who held a powerful position in religion. Yet soon after, in one of the earliest known law codes of this time, one law says that “If a woman speaks out of turn, then her teeth will be smashed by a brick”. Later on, a Mesopotamian code would declare more access for women to attain property and legal protection with dowries and inheritance. Also there was the banning of ill-treatment and neglect of women. But then again, there was no work, economic or sexual freedom. The law legalised patriarchy and owned women’s sexuality. Virginity was requirement for marriage, adultery was a sin punishable by death for women, and rape was an economic offense against men, i.e. damaged goods, as the girl was property of her father or husband! This was when male honour and patriarchal authority was established as sacrosanct. Men had all the power and control. Again, this is 4000 years ago, but still happening today in many parts of the world. We may have advanced technologically, but morally? We sunk before we came back up again.

And yet the Assyrians following, and civilisations after, made it an even harsher time to be a woman. 2000 years before Islam (or Christianity) even existed, the first veiling law came out. Women were classed into upperclass (daughters and wives) and lowerclass (concubines, harlots and slave girls) ie. respectable vs unrespectable. The upperclass had to wear veils, the lowerclass weren’t allowed. And if anyone broke these rules, the punishments were outrageous, like allowing the capturer to take their clothes, or have the woman’s ears cut off. Veiling carried on into later cultures (such as Ancient Greece) as a status of contempt or fear of a women’s body, even going so far as to suggest women as a separate species. So when people today claim that women choose to cover themselves, or do it for religious or modesty reasons, I feel quite frustrated because this stems from a pre-biblical, patriarchal law that makes women an object of sexuality, rather than an equal person. On the other hand, at that time, veils gave women at that time liberty and freedom to go into public space. As Foreman says, “It took away, but gave back. Freedoms in a man’s world”. So as you can tell, the freedoms of women have gone up and down over the course of time, but the classification of women consistently made them secondary human beings, allowing for direct abuse of women, and double standard behaviour for men.

One valid point was brought up

“What did women themselves feel about their status? Were they happy? Angry? Held in contempt? Were they honoured as mothers and wives? The answer, I think, simply lies in their silence”. – A Foreman

The fact that women were almost totally absent from public record shows how dominated they were. Considering the power of Goddesses in many faiths world-over, real women were so consistently and ruthlessly excluded. Obedience, chastity, and sons to perpetuate the family line were the only things expected of a woman.

The rest of the documentary talks about women’s roles in other parts of the world during ancient civilization, noting that many women in some cultures were buried with smaller tools and weapons to suggest they were warriors, leather merchants, spiritual leaders and so forth. More evidence that women weren’t always confined to their biological roles. Their value was recognised and valued – as they played a role in society’s advancement. Also, Ancient Egyptian women had a lot of autonomy, and marriage was about sharing a life, not reproduction. And many Pharaohs were female, developing and leading governments for decades. But often these women were erased from public record – reflecting the constant struggle women faced in a largely male-dominated world.

The problem is that we know a lot of this, but no one wants to own up to the fact that we’re still trying to erase this inequality mindset in the 21st century. I can’t believe it took until 100 years ago just for western women to change the laws, never mind the mindsets! But at the same time, I understand that in a male-dominated culture, women are raised to identify with men, so it’s easier to accept a world they see as normal than challenge ‘radical’ ideas of oppression.

“Women are the real architects of society.”—Harriet Beecher Stowe

The condition of women has been greatly improved in most parts of the world today. Take China for example, women have rights to equal education, pay, and hold important positions in almost all the fields as men do, especially in urban areas (we won’t talk about the preferential treatment of sons over daughters just now). But the significance of how much work and fighting had to be done to change this is crucial, and only further emphasises the importance of understanding and acknowledging our history. I thoroughly recommend watching The Ascent of Woman for more in depth information. You can view the first part here and the trailer below:

Share your thoughts!





2 thoughts on “The Ascent and Descent of Women in History (Pt 1)

  1. Pingback: Faith and Feminism: Women’s role in the Catholic Church | T H E . 2 7 . R E S O L V E

  2. Pingback: The Ascent and Descent of Women in History (Pt 2) | T H E . 2 7 . R E S O L V E

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