BBC History Magazine: 5 female trailblazers in history

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.

1) Enheduanna: Priestess, poet, princess, and the first named writer (c2285–2250 BC)

The daughter of the Mesopotamian king Sargon the Great, the Akkadian who unified central and southern Mesopotamia, Enheduanna was appointed high priestess by her father in a bid to prove his right as the empire’s ruler.

Enheduanna was the unifier. The Sumerian civilisation of southern Mesopotamia had been conquered but the two peoples needed to be melded into one empire. It was her job, as high priestess, to use her religious power and influence to unite them.

But Enheduanna is not remarkable only for the power that she wielded, she was also an accomplished writer who is widely recognised as being the first known person to attach a signature to her written works.

Enheduanna makes an offering to the gods in this votive plaque from c2300–2275 BC. © Penn Museum

“Before Enheduanna, writing was anonymous,” says Amanda Foreman. “The idea of the individual, and individual self expression, just hadn’t come to fruition yet. Of course there were hymns, lamentations, poems and other works being written, but these were mainly group efforts, or had been handed down through oral tradition. It was Enheduanna who began to put an individual stamp and interpretation on the religious hymns that she was responsible for writing, signing the wet clay tablets on which she wrote with her personal signature.

“It’s incredibly exciting: for thousands of years the notion of the ‘I’ was withheld from women, even after Enheduanna’s time. Yet here was a woman who had incredible power and status, claiming her own work, nearly 5,000 years ago.

“Half a millennium after her death, scribes were still copying out her works, which just highlights her importance.”


2) Empress Wu Zetian: China’s only female emperor (AD 624–705)

Women’s history has been a series of highs and lows, according to Foreman, and nowhere can this be seen more than in China.

“Until the beginning of the Han dynasty in the second century BC, the status of women was really very low”, says Foreman. “Women found themselves the victims of infanticides, they were excluded from China’s political processes, they had no property rights – by all the measures with which women’s status is gauged, it was pretty bad.”

Yet, despite the fact that having a woman rule was deemed to be as unnatural as having a “hen crow like a rooster at daybreak” – so Confucius would have us believe – a woman did rise to power in China, the first and currently the only one to have done so.

Empress Wu Zetian, the only woman ever to become an emperor in China. © Bridgeman

Born into the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906), Wu Zetian benefitted from a period of relative freedom for women in China. Foot binding was not imposed and Wu Zetian was taught how to read, write and play music. After catching the eye of Emperor Taizong at the age of 13, she became his concubine and, later, the wife of his son, Gaozong, after the emperor’s death. When Gaozong died, Wu Zetian became dowager empress, reigning as regent before pushing her sons aside and becoming emperor in her own right from 690.

“Empress Wu temporarily reversed the previously low status of women in China,” explains Foreman. “Not only that, she promoted other women to roles of influence and power, appointing the first female Chinese prime minister, Shangguan Wan’er. During her reign, women flourished as poets and painters: it’s no coincidence that China became a strong, vibrant and prosperous place during this period when women were a part of that narrative.

“She invented the Chinese civil service as we know it today, and believed in promotions by merit alone. Her reign was peaceful, education prospered, and economic and diplomatic ties with China’s neighbours improved. Yet Wu Zetian has always been crassly portrayed as a cruel, sexual monster without shame or reason by the men who have written about her.”

The improvement in women’s fortunes wasn’t to last, however. By 1200 women were excluded from the public sphere once more and foot binding was widely practised. “Some 300 years later, women were now physically crippled as well as legally,” says Foreman, “and China went behind closed doors.”


3) Lady Murasaki Shikibu: The best-known writer of her time and the first novelist (c978–1014) 

The Heian period (AD 794–1185) was a time of cultural and artistic flowering in Japan, which saw new, gentler styles of art, and a cultural sensitivity that focused on ephemeral emotions and an affinity with nature and the changing seasons.

Murasaki Shikibu had come to the imperial court as a poet, following the death of her husband. She was to become the best-known writer of the period, and, to many, is seen as the first modern novelist.

Murasaki writing The Tale of Genji, a story  considered by many to be the world’s first novel. © Getty

Chinese writing – along with the country’s political structure – had been adopted in Japan in the seventh century, along with some elements of Chinese Confucianism. As a result of these changes, Japanese women were prevented from learning to read and write Chinese, and from taking an active role in public life. “The Heian period was an incredible time for Japan.” says Foreman, “and the country began to develop a new self-confidence, as did women.

“With the Chinese language off limits to would-be female scholars, women instead began to develop their own form of writing. In fact the written Japanese language used today actually comes from Japanese women during this period!”

Murasaki Shikibu is considered the greatest of the Heian poets, and she would entertain the court with her writing. Her tales of Prince Genji (known as ‘the Shining Prince’) is considered by many to be the first novel and has been translated and studied around the world.

“Murasaki Shikibu stood out for me during the filming of the series,” says Foreman. “We were lucky enough to film at the Buddhist temple she retreated to a few years before her death. The inkwell she used is one of the temple’s treasures; seeing it was incredible.”


4) Christine de Pizan: Working mother and the first post-classical woman philosopher (c1364–1430)

The French Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan is credited with writing some of the very first pieces of feminist literature, breaking with tradition by supporting herself, and her family, with her writing.

“We know that there were classical female philosophers before Christine de Pizan”, says Foreman, “but sadly we can only read about them through the writings of their male counterparts. The works of classical women like Greek mathematician and philosopher Hypatia are no longer with us, thanks in part to the burning of the royal library of Alexandria in AD 391, which destroyed so many great works.

“But Christine de Pizan is special for more than just her writing,” continues Foreman. “She was the first woman to tackle misogyny face-on. Tired of reading books about women by male authors who described the female race in such derogatory terms, de Pizan wrote her own book in order to set the record straight as to how women think, feel and act.”

Written in response to Jean de Meun’s popular work of courtly literature, The Romance of the Rose, de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is a defence of women and an argument for them to be seen as valued members of society. In it she calls for education for women and ‘builds’ a city of peace and reason where intellect has free rein.

Writer Christine de Pizan had many patrons at court. Here she presents a book to Elisabeth of Bavaria, in a copy of a 15th-century illumination. © AKG Images

“Despite being a widow with three small children, de Pizan was able to support herself purely through her writing, building up a network of patrons at court.

“The TV series covers a phenomenal amount of time – 10,000 years – so it was hard to select a handful out of the host of remarkable women I discovered,” says Foreman. “But if you’re looking for a modern example of a pioneering woman, who wasn’t born into nobility or money, Christine de Pizan is your lady.”


5) Nur Jahan: Mughal empress who gave Indian women a public face (1577–1645)

Empress of India, Nur Jahan was the 20th – and favourite – wife of Jahangir, ruler of the Mughal empire between 1605 and 1627.

Charismatic, beautiful and well-educated, Nur Jahan was one of the most influential women of her day, using her position and influence to advance the affairs of women, including giving land and dowries for orphaned girls.

Indian empress Nur Jahan was one of the most influential women of her day, as well as the aunt of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman for whom the future emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal. © Alamy

“Nur Jahan became empress of India at the age of 34 and within nine years she had acquired all the rights of sovereignty and government belonging to her husband,” says Foreman. Jahangir – who was both an alcohol and opium addict – actively encouraged his wife to take on the running of the empire, which she did very successfully.

“Although much of the time Nur Jahan had to obey convention and rule through men at court, she did much to give women a public face in India. At her behest, women’s clothing was reinvented so they could move more freely in the heat, and she encouraged writing among the women at court.

“Much of the art and architecture of the period can be attributed to her own tastes and ideas, and women began to be depicted in Indian art for the first time. Nur Jahan herself is the only Mughal empress to have had her name struck in silver coins – tangible proof of her power.”

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