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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