“Netflix Review: ‘The Ascent of Woman’ — Making Women Part of the Narrative” – Women’s Voices for Change
In the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander’s wife Eliza begs him, “Let me be a part of the narrative.” This heartbreaking scene has to do with their marriage and his obsessive work on behalf of the new country he’s helping to build. But, it can also be interpreted as a broader plea. In the American Revolution, as in France’s and later Russia’s, women worked alongside their husbands to attain independence, only to find that when the dust settled, they were back where they started. One patriarchy had simply been replaced by another.
This is one of the many powerful themes you’ll find in The Ascent of Woman, Dr. Amanda Foreman’s illuminating documentary mini-series, available now on Netflix.
Originally created for BBC2, The Ascent of Woman goes back 10,000 years to trace women’s roles inside — and sometimes, outside — society. “In this series,” Foreman explains in the first episode, “I want to retell the story of civilization with men and women side by side for the first time.”
We’re in good hands on the journey. Oxford-, Columbia-, and Sarah Lawrence-educated Foreman is an accomplished historian and writer. She has a bi-weekly column, “Historically Speaking,” in The Wall Street Journal, and also contributes to The Sunday Times and Smithsonian Magazine. Foreman has authored two award-winning bestsellers, A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided, and the earlier Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which inspired a movie starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Her new book, The Ascent of Woman: A History of Women from the Apple to the Pill, a companion to the documentary, will be published later this year.
In The Ascent of Woman, Foreman makes two seemingly counter arguments. On the one hand, she is able to demonstrate historic linkage between diverse laws and societies. For example, the full-face veil that we equate with today’s Muslim extremists traces back across a variety of cultures, 2000 years before Islam. Seemingly unrelated customs we now see as oppressive and misogynist, like foot-binding and female genital mutilation, were carried out by women themselves, making it difficult for outsiders to criticize the practice. Countless inequalities (the right to vote, to divorce, to own property) show up in surprisingly similar forms, centuries and continents apart.
These recurring traditions might lead you to think that there is something inherently natural (biologically or psychologically) about women’s second-place status. But, Foreman makes it a point to uncover man-made economic and political circumstances that led up to them. She’s quick to argue that yesterday’s societies created the inequities — and today’s societies can correct them. In fact, the series makes a compelling case that the way a society treats its women is indicative of not only its overall fairness, but also its economic success. “At stake,” Foreman insists, “Are the goals of autonomy, authority and agency for all.”
The Ascent of Woman is organized into four thematic and chronological parts. In the first, titled “Civilization,” Foreman visits Turkey, Siberia and Greece to examine how the status of women declined as urban settlements rose. In Catalhöyük, one of the world’s earliest known societies, it’s believed that the sexes were equal. Men, women and children lived together in communal harmony and worshipped a fertile goddess, flanked by leopards. It’s a sharp contrast to Mesopotamia, where the first laws were recorded, dramatically limiting not just women’s rights but their very participation in society. A law from 2,400 BC stipulates that “If a woman speaks out of turn, then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.” Even ancient Greece, which we tend to romanticize, severely limited the role of its women unless they were slaves or prostitutes.
In the second episode, “Separation,” Foreman explains how the idea of two “separate spheres” developed through the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism and Shintoism. Building on the concept of Yin (the female) and Yang (the male), there were strict definitions of feminine virtue. Women were segregated to the “Nei,” the domestic sphere, while only men could inhabit the “Wai,” the world of politics and business.
“Power,” the third part, focuses on individual women who managed to rise to power — either directly or indirectly — from within the limits of their home, palace, convent or even harem. Foreman visits Istanbul, Germany, London, Paris and Delhi, exploring the stories of Empress Theodora of Byzantium, Nur Jahan of Mughal, Hildegard of Bingen, and others. She is joined by celebrated actress Fiona Shaw who infuses a speech by Elizabeth I with contemporary light and meaning. “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too!”
In the final episode, “Revolution,” Foreman takes us to Europe and the United States, to see how women have participated in — and fared after —some of modern history’s most important and globally game-changing uprisings. Examples range from French Revolution martyr Olympe De Gouge and Bolshevik radical Alexandra Kollonti, to women’s rights activists Millicent Fawcett and Maraget Sanger, to current African leaders Lindiwe Mazibuko and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucuka. Foreman insists, “I think radical change is happening to women right now. It is by no means universal and in some parts of the globe it’s not even going in the same direction. Nevertheless, it’s a wholly new kind of revolution: it’s an uprising without bloodshed, in which women are challenging the status quo, through awareness, through dialogue and through education.”
When The Ascent of Woman aired on BBC2, it was met with enthusiastic critical reception. The Telegraph described it as “Powerful, inspiring and important.” And, The New Statesman asserted that it was “Wonderfully even-handed.” The work is thorough and thoughtful, and deeply moving. An idea or two (or twelve) will certainly stay with you. Perhaps more importantly, you will be encouraged and challenged to learn more.
Nevertheless, watching The Ascent of Woman, I found myself frustrated. Not by the documentary itself, which is wonderful, but by the need for it. It’s the same way I feel about the proposed (and perpetually stalled) National Women’s History Museum in Washington DC. Our history isn’t separate from men’s; it didn’t run on its own in some parallel place somehow. Women lived and died (and as Foreman reminds us, often shaped their societies) alongside men. It’s just that when the time came to write it down, women’s stories simply weren’t included.
What can we do then? If, like Foreman, you’re an author and historian, you can research and write about it. For most of us, it’s a matter of bearing witness, which we can do by supporting work likeThe Ascent of Woman. Through this groundbreaking series, 10,000 years of women are finally becoming part of the narrative.