The History of Erasing Women's History
In her BBC documentary and forthcoming book, historian and author Amanda Foreman uncovers the historical precedents that have erased women throughout human civilization.
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History has long been a boys' club, from the people being written about to the people writing the books. But historian and author Amanda Foreman is out to change that. With her recent four-part series on BBC aptly called "The Ascent of Woman," she told the story of women in civilization in four parts. That, however, was just a warm-up. Her upcoming book, The World Made By Women: A History of Women From the Apple to the Pill, is the story of humanity from the perspective of the female half.
Here, Dr. Foreman shares her thoughts on the origins of patriarchy, the historical conspiracy responsible for silencing women, and the figures hidden in history whom we should all know more about.
Broadly: "The Ascent of Woman" wrapped up recently on BBC. What was the experience like putting that together?
Dr. Amanda Foreman: What we really wanted to do, and what I think we achieved, is to start the public conversation. That was more important than anything else. If [these women] are invisible, then it doesn't really matter how important they are, because in the public consciousness they don't exist. So getting them out there was absolutely vital. That was the whole plan all along.
How do you feel about the reaction? I know Caitlin Moran was a huge fan!
It was actually amazing. The groundswell of emotion and relief on social media was incredible. People were saying over and over again, "Finally, my story is being told. Finally, I feel the concerns and questions I've had all my life are being aired, and thank you for doing that."
I've never seen that in a television documentary to be honest. That just doesn't even happen, and I feel that if I never made a documentary series again, which hopefully isn't the case, but if I never did, I'd feel the one I just made is the gold standard for me.
How is it that structural power ended up in the hands of men? Why did we end up being the second sex?
In scope, it sounds like your book is rather similar, although the show is condensed into four episodes. How did you decide what stories had to be told and which to leave out?
Everything is predicated on the time you are allocated, and we were allocated four hours. Would I want it to have been longer? Yes, but you do the best with what you have. So rather than making it a contest in which we were going to pick women to tell their stories, we instead wanted to ask the really important questions and then select examples that helped to illustrate and answer those questions.
So the first question was what is the origins of patriarchy: How is it that structural power ended up in the hands of men? That is one of the most burning questions for women today, which is why? Why did we end up being the second sex? Was it always this way? Is it biology being our destiny, or is it something else? And, by not answering that question, you let alternative mythologies take up that space. If you don't know what the origins of patriarchy are, how do you fight back against the assumption that women were born inferior, or that it's God's will that men are in charge or it's simply survival of the fittest or whatever it is.
Number two, having explored the origins of patriarchy, we looked at the mechanisms of separation. How is it that men ended up co-opting the public space and women were confined to the domestic space all over the world in every culture? Why is that? How did that come about? And, again, you can pinpoint these things. They're not miasmas in the atmosphere. They didn't magically come down to us. And anything that can be made can be unmade. That's the difference between reality and magic.
Once you have patriarchy and once you have separate spheres, how did women find their root of power? What were their mechanisms, what were the ways in which they subverted existing power structures in order to find autonomy, agency, and authority? We looked at marriage, education, religion—all these different ways that women throughout the Middle Ages found ways to do these things.
Finally we looked at modern times, from the 18th century onwards, and asked: What have revolutions done for women? And the answer to that is revolutions have betrayed women. Women have been at the vanguard of these revolutions, and yet they have always been betrayed by them. Because there's a fundamental difference between what men and women want to achieve. Men are simply out to exchange one power structure for another. For women, it isn't about exchanging one power hierarchy for another. It's about widening the access to power and equality. It's a completely different kind of revolution, and those are the kinds of revolution you start to see in the 20th century beginning with the Pill, the sexual revolution, and feminism. So the moral of that is that if you want women to succeed, they have to be the leaders of their own revolutions.
The tools of oppression begin with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that's why you have to set the record straight.
How is the The World Made By Women coming?
It's the most joyous and in a way utterly inspiring project because I'm basically writing a history of the world, right back to the very beginning, to the dawn of humanity and civilization, and I'm doing it because I want to shift the perspective. What we've been reading and writing has been the history of man, starting with man the hunter. If you follow that male perspective, what have women been doing all these years? We're just waiting in caves for evolution to come to us. But maybe there's another story. Maybe men were out hunting, but as we know from modern hunting and gathering societies, meat provides less than half the nutrients that these societies depend on. Women have been gathering and foraging, and maybe they're the providers. Suddenly you have a completely different perspective on our history. That's much more inspiring and interesting.
For example, Enheduanna, the High Priestess of Sumer, invented literature. You would think that words are male, that writing is something that men invented, but they didn't. I mean, the tools of oppression begin with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that's why you have to set the record straight.
How do you go about tackling a subject that's, you know, just a little bit ambitious—the history of women?
It is ambitious, and you know, I'm in my 40s, and the great thing about now being a writer and historian since my 20s is that ambitious projects are not frightening. They are challenging, but not frightening. Women are always thinking they aren't good enough. "Oh, I shouldn't risk something, or put my neck on the line because I might not have the authority to do so." Men never think that. They just think, "Great, I'll have a go."
Women are always thinking they aren't good enough. Men never think that. They just think, "Great, I'll have a go."
In terms of going about studying women, particularly in the ancient world, a lot of these voices have been left out, or in the case of great women, have been shrouded in myth. How do you get the stories of everyday women and get through that myth to the women themselves?
It's incredibly difficult, and you have to accept defeat sometimes. The same is true in terms of class. We know more about the elites than we do about slaves. Because unless these things are written down or they have grave goods or some kind of physical tangible record, those experiences have gone to the grave with them, so you have to make do with what you have. The great change is that we have invented new ways of collecting and finding information: We don't just rely on diaries to paint a picture of life. You can look at parish statistics and see changes in labor patterns, changes in the age people got married, changes in when people decided to have children or not, and that can help you get a general view of non-elite light, but actually getting their voices, what they thought and what they said that can be very, very difficult the farther back you go.
I'll give you an example of how women get scrubbed out. I write a column for the Wall Street Journal called Historically Speaking, and it takes contemporary issue or ideas and flips them back into the past to see how the two connect. This week I'm writing about the flu, and why people get vaccinated and why isn't the flu taken as seriously as malaria and smallpox. I was looking at vaccination.org, and it lists every single development in the history of vaccination. It's everything you never really wanted to know and more. In the 18th century is says, variolation techniques arrive from Turkey in Europe. Scroll down a little more—1822, the town of Little Piddinglyton begins practicing variolation.
But the thing is, what's missing is that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was in Turkey, she observed variolation taking place. She became convinced it was that the only way to prevent the disease in Europe. She took it back to the UK, she convincing the royal family to have a go, they offered pardons to twelve criminals if they would agree to being inoculated, and when they didn't die, everyone thought, "Oh fine!" Lady Montagu singlehandedly brought inoculation to Britain, and she's been erased. She doesn't exist. It's as is somehow inoculation magically flew across the sea to Great Britain. A woman brought it, but we get all this bullshit-y stuff about some piddly town in the north of England. You don't always hit pay dirt, but when you can actually show it and expose it for what it is, then you when you can so say, "See? I'm not paranoid, it's really happening."
It's true there has been a conspiracy to silence us.
Has there been anything you've learned throughout the process that really shocked you?
The discovery of Enheduanna took me by surprise. I had no idea a woman invented literature. That blew my mind away actually, because I'd followed the male scribes, writing, poets, Shakespeare malarkey, and I really didn't know the profound influence women had had on writing. That was a massive shock.
Also the discovery of when the silencing of women began. We have a law, one of the first laws in history that came down to us from 2400-2300 BC, and its says that when a woman speaks out of turn she will be smacked by a brick, and that's it. That's where it began. It's true there has been a conspiracy to silence us. I think that was the most shocking thing because you feel like most women are terrified of public speaking, we feel inauthentic—it still exists. Where does it come from? It came from there. It's not magic. You can get a handle on these things. These things evolve, and they evolved for a reason.
Who are two or three underrepresented women you think should be required that people know about immediately?
Go find out about Enheduanna, it's absolutely vital. Go find out about Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is incredible. It's a moving novel, and the first novel in history so read it and feel proud. Three, go find out about Olympe de Gouges, the woman who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, or Mary Wollstonecraft. These last two are absolutely key—they are the female response to the enlightenment and vital to establishing what human rights means. Finally, go back and discover the origins of the Pill, because the Pill was the idea of a woman, funded by a woman, and the research and the release was done without any kind of government support whatsoever. It was a woman-led revolution and it reminds us what we can do when we put our minds to things.