Making Herstory

The Ascent and Descent of Women in History (Pt 2)

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Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans

I have John Lennon to thank for getting me back into the Ascent of Woman series. I’ve been so caught up in the throes of day to day, that I haven’t had enough time to finish blog posts, let alone watch the second episode of The Ascent of Woman.

As this blog is a significant part of who I am and what I value, this quote reminded me that I am the one who constructs my life, and where my purpose leads. So I finally stopped, put my other jobs on the backburner, and got back into this wickedly awesome BBC series.

The first episode focused on women in prehistoric civilisation. You can read my review of it here. The second episode is opened with the introduction of an 11th century Chinese artwork called the Qingming Scroll, which depicts an idealistic view of China as envisioned by an Emperor: peaceful, well governed and almost exclusively male. Like in the many centuries before it, and across the globe, women are expected to be behind closed doors; quiet, chaste, obedient.

A large portion of the episode was dedicated to the effect of Confucianism on women; a Chinese philosophy that played a large part in the shaping of a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal China. It encouraged social harmony, through the idea of Yin (female essence) and Yang (male essence), but this was eventually challenged when Yin was labelled as inferior to Yang by male scholars. The hierarchical system went so that the Emperor was practically God, and women were fundamentally bottom of the ladder. Confucianism believed everyone had a social order, which aligned with heaven, and if everyone kept their place, the cosmos stayed in balance. But if not, the heavens wreaked havoc through plagues and famines and such. (No pressure, women!)

The confucian classics – written by all-male scholars – were a cornerstone of which Confucianism was based. Liji, the Book of Rites, governed rules of state and individual behaviour and conduct. Women were in the home, the men could be in the public realm of government and culture. Many beliefs of this society were shaped by writings that endorsed a mentality of male superiority – even up to the 20th century!

In this episode, what stood out to me was the story of a Chinese Empress in the 7th Century, Empress Wu, who defied the Confucian model of womanhood by creating her own dynasty. She came from a low-ranking family, ended up the concubine of an Emperor, and married his son, to become the new Empress. She clawed her way up to the top in order to prove herself, and in return was vilified, with hundreds of crimes laden upon her. This reminds me a lot of Hillary Clinton – who is by no means sleeping her way to the top – but for being ambitious and being a woman, she has been labelled a criminal for actions that in the case of others, were overlooked as mistakes. And like Empress Wu, who to this day is the only Chinese Empress to have ruled China, is still seen as an ‘evil and corrupt woman’. In reality, it was her challenge of the Confucian order that got her to power, and during her reign she lead as any other male Emperor lead, with some outstanding achievements and reformations, but also some cruelty in her practice. Despite the good she did, she was vilified more than any other male counterpart. But the horrific cliches of woman in power are pumped out in every culture. To this day, government and politics is still very much a male preserve.

“I think that people take a moral perspective when they judge a female political leader; people think from the achievement angle when they judge a male political figure.” – Ascent of Woman

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Making Herstory

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

 

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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. Continue reading

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Making Herstory

The troubling and toxic phenomenon of anti-feminism.

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You’d think one wouldn’t have to justify a movement that promotes the welfare of 50% of the world’s population. But here I am.

Last week I mentioned that the wave we are currently going through is facing backlash and obstruction in a surprisingly similar fashion to its predecessors. Despite the relevancy of women’s suffrage (and even when you think people today would be enlightened to it), there is still a strong sense of anti-feminism out there. Just the other day I read a revolting article (written by a woman), discussing the dangers of modern feminists/’feminazis’ because they are “tyrannical and cliquey”.

Apparently we’re back in high school. I also didn’t realise that feminists were the cause of the biggest racial genocide in modern history… (bit of an unfair comparison, don’t you think?)

Meryl Streep (whom I ADORE) was brought into the conversation (was it a conversation? I felt it very biased). While promoting her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Streep was asked by an interviewer, “Are you a feminist?”, she replied: “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance”. It’s confusing why she’d avoid using the term feminist, considering her actions are unfailingly feminist. This is a woman who sent letters to Congress demanding they pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and set up a fund for women screenwriters over 40. She also called out Hollywood for being too male-dominated. The writer of the article was affronted by the outrage generated by feminists over Streep’s statement. As a feminist (and I probably speak for many in our circles), I have nothing against a person who calls themselves a humanist – but you have to understand that in this context – by not identifying with the term, she was holding back a movement which is having to spend too much unnecessary time changing the negative context of the word instead of getting on with the things that really matter. As JK Rowling claims:

“Fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself”.

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Making Herstory

Tides of Change at the Turning of the Century

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I have a special place in my heart for the Edwardian era. There is something quite endearing about the time, from the absorbing history and elaborate dresses to the sentimental stories in literature and art nouveau architecture (even if one may sniff at the overkill). I’m certainly not impartial to modern adaptions and impressions of Edwardian life and history, such as Downton Abbey, Berkeley Square, Anne of Green Gables, Goodbye Mr Chips, Titanic and Mr Selfridge etc. but one of the issues with the representation of this era is the Pictorialist approach that emphasises beauty of the subject matter and tone, rather than the documentation of reality. There is more focus on aesthetic, and therefore the representation is rather romantic and utopian.

In reality, it wasn’t a utopian society for women at all. Following the end of the Victorian Era in 1900, it was unfeminine for women to have opinions, be political, or to hold ideas or desires of their own. Any woman who stepped out of this role risked everything simply because of the social expectations placed on their gender. If I were transported 100 years into the past, I would have been on the bottom most rung of the social ladder as an unmarried woman. I wouldn’t have had much of an education (unless very wealthy), and my brothers and father would have the control over what I could or couldn’t do in terms of my job and lifestyle. As a teacher, I would be unable to marry. What interests me the most about the Edwardian Era is the social changes that were happening. Many people mistake the 20s as the era of rebellion, but it was really the 1900s-1910s where revolutions towards modern society were beginning to take place – their effects finally being recognised ten years later. Wider access to education and economic and social gaps between the rich, poor, men and women were rallying points for socialists and suffragettes. Dresses were baring shoulders and shaved armpits, and Hollywood – the instigator of all things scandalous – was in its heyday. One of my interests is actually the art of the silent film, and the birth of the Hollywood Star. I even started a drawing challenge based around Silent Film actresses. I love Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Bebe Daniels, Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor, Barbara Stanwyck, Anita Page….Even though it was scandalous to be an actress at that time, I seriously think that their power to influence society was just as powerful as it is today. No doubt the expectations of how women ought to behave in society were softened when these actresses presented diversity and complexity to the female character. Despite the legends of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd et al, I really do think that women dominated the silent screen.

I started collecting candid photos of the Edwardian era around 2014, with the goal of completing a book of anonymous photos. I’d like to think of these photos as ‘reflective nostalgia’; looking at the issues of the era with critically aware eyes. What I do appreciate is the dominance of women in the collected candid photographs – particularly young, middle class women without the ‘gift wrap’ – reflecting women’s emerging voice and freedom. The ‘New Woman’, as they called her, was free-spirited, well-read and worldly. She was no longer the sweet, chaperoned sort, happy to play a background part in history. She was independent and scary: she represented the reform that well-to-do people frowned upon. Despite the layer of nostalgia (I struggled to find anyone who wasn’t white) there is a visual cry of the New Woman taking her rightful place in society.Our freedom of choice today is largely thanks to the suffragettes and New Women of the Edwardian Era for their nerve, courage, and non-conformity.

 

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