Dr. Amanda Foreman discusses her BBC Two series on the history of women with Jane Garvey.
Despite women’s liberation and the global rise of feminism, there is still a clear gender imbalance in politics. Which is odd since there is so much evidence that women would do it better.
If women were in charge, the refugee crisis in Europe might have played out a little differently, argued the historian Dr Amanda Foreman this weekend. ‘It’s not in the female make-up to stand there idly by while women and children die like flies on the beach.’ This, she said, is why Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has been most compassionate towards the desperate families seeking a new life, and has argued for a shared housing responsibility between nations.
Religion and men are at the root of the world’s problems, the presenter of a new BBC series tells Alice Thomson.
If we had a more matriarchal society and women were in charge the refugee crisis would not have happened in the way it has, according to the historian Dr Amanda Foreman. “Women looked at that picture of the little dead refugee boy still in his shoes and thought: ‘Not in my name’. It’s not in the female make-up to stand there idly by while women and children die like flies on the beach. Angela Merkel is the one who can’t stomach it but most male politicians think purely in terms of politics.”
Women’s power, or lack of it, is on her mind right now, not least because she is presenting the BBC’s four-part series, The Ascent of Women, which began this week. The mother of four girls, Helena, Halcyon, Xanthe and Hero, and one boy, Theodore, she has been determined to prove that the female of the species has not been an irrelevance, “just there to hang out the washing”.
She has had an astonishing career since coming to Oxford to study Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, then an obscure socialite, for her PhD. “All the crusty men thought I was this mad, ditzy girl writing about this trivial woman,” she recalls. But the thesis became a bestselling and award-winning biography, which in turn became a film starring Keira Knightley. It was followed by an equally impressive and weighty book on Britain’s involvement in the American Civil War.
By James Delingpole
Finally I realise why women are so pissed off. It all goes back to the first codified laws — circa 2,400 bc — when rules like this were invented by men: ‘If a woman speaks out of turn then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.’ Before that, apparently, women lived on a pretty equal footing with their future male oppressors. Indeed, in arguably the first civilisation — a hive-like collection of houses in central Anatolia called Çatalhöyük dating back to 7,500 bc, when mankind was just beginning to emerge from the Stone Age and living with semi-domesticated animals — not a single man was expected to put out the bins while the women dealt with the easy tasks like cooking, washing, child-rearing, ironing, cleaning and leafing through holiday brochures.
That’s because everything was shared equally. Everyone’s house was the same size and everything, including children, was common property. Once you’d given birth, your child would be handed over to the neighbours and they’d bring it up in their household. This bound everyone together in communal loyalty and affection and peace, over 9,000 years before John met Yoko and wrote ‘Imagine’.
Here’s a snippet to make the jaw drop. The women of Ancient Greece (you know, the place that created democracy) were so restricted in what they could do that they were no better off than the poor women of Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Meanwhile just down the road in Ancient Egypt women were treated almost as equals of men, so much so there were six lady pharaohs… who would have thought it? All this and more came to light during the brilliantly inter- THE ASCENT OF WOMAN (BBC2) which took as its eminently reasonable thesis the fact that although women have always comprised half the human race we don’t seem to have featured very prevalently in the history of mankind.
The noted historian Amanda Foreman set out to find out why. Unfortunately, as scholarly and thought- provoking as this new four- part documentary series was, I’m not sure she ever really answered the question. In the earliest known societies, as far as anyone can tell, men and women really did live equally, sharing all manner of But this all changed pretty sharpish when society became more prosperous, resources were not shared equally and some people started to have greater status than others.
The Ascent of Woman
Even the most overpaid enemy of wimmin’s herstory will earn his money if he manages to ridicule Dr Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman. Here, last night, was Foreman on Assyrian law in the 12th century BC. “In my opinion,” she said, “this is a harsh society where the law has become a charter for male oppression.” She had just told us that among the 112 laws recorded on a surviving tablet were death penalties for abortion and adultery, and permission for the wife of a rapist herself to be raped in punishment.
I loved “in my opinion”, not because it was a rhetorical flourish but because other evidence indeed suggested Assyrian women enjoyed rather more freedom than the tablet’s engravers would have liked. Although the first part of this new history of women strove to counter existing narratives of incessant female oppression or, perhaps worse, female irrelevance, it was never strident itself. “It is important not to prejudge the veil”, Foreman even said, having traced the headscarf, the wimple and the nun’s habit back to the Assyrians too (2,000 years before Islam). It gave, she pointed out, Assyrian women the chance to be in public. Repack episode one and you have a show called The Veil Unveiled.
By Simon Usborne
In the current debate about the new feminism, and daily assaults on equality, I do not recall anyone stepping back very far from the contemporary world of pay gaps and thigh gaps to ask the most basic question: why is this a thing? Where do the roots of sexism lead, and how long are they? In the first episode of The Ascent of Woman, a scholarly yet pacy four-part documentary, Dr Amanda Foreman started her search for answers a long, long way back. As far as archaeologists can tell, Catalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old city in modern-day Turkey, was an equal society, and God was a seated woman attended by leopards.
Then things got bad. With agricultural surplus came currency and power, the harvesting of which chiefly became the concern of men and their bloodlines. After the Anatolian leopard woman, a figurine of whom Foreman observed, her binder of game-changing women were exceptions to the patriarchal rule.
By Ruth Styles
From Boadicea of the Iceni to Queen Victoria, there is no shortage of women who have made their mark on history.
But for every Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I, there have been many more whose efforts have gone unrecognised, largely because of their sex.
Now a new BBC series, the Ascent of Women, aims to change all that and shed light on the forgotten heroines of the past.
From the start, says presenter and historian Amanda Foreman, men have ‘conspired’ to control speech while women, lacking the educational opportunities of their male peers, have failed to realise that ‘speech is power’.
But not everyone has been content to remain silent. From the Celtic warrior queen who kept the Romans from her door to the Sumerian priestess who invented literature, meet the women who deserve to be remembered.
The Ascent of Woman
BBC Two, 9.00pm; Wales, 11.15pm
By Catherine Gee
“There has never been a better time to be born a woman,” says Dr Amanda Foreman as she opens this four-part documentary series about the fairer sex. True, of course, but gender equality eludes women in many parts of the world and that is the premise of Foreman’s series – that the history of women is one of swings and reversions rather than a linear march of progress. She kicks off tonight’s opener with a fascinating explanation of the ebb and flow of women’s status through time – archaeological finds from Neolithic times in Anatolia, Turkey, for example, suggest a society in which women enjoyed near-equal status with men; ditto the ancient Sumerian culture in what is modern Iraq, until their privileges were stripped by Egyptian invaders in 2300 BC.
Dotted throughout are segments in which Foreman meets modern women from the areas she’s exploring to discuss the plight of their ancestors – it doesn’t bring intellectual weight to her argument, but their anecdotes do pack an emotional punch. Foreman is knowledgeable and her attention to historical detail impressive; it’s a compelling look at a subject worth exploring. VP
The Ascent of Woman (BBC2, 9pm)
The historian and biographer Dr Amanda Foreman really does want to rewrite history. In this series she sets out to show that a story of the world that excludes women “is an untruth that must be challenged.” In this first episode, titled Civilisation, her case studies include an Anatolian statue of a fleshy mother goddess, the Sumerian poet Enheduanna, who became the first author to be known by name, and the “ice maiden” preserved on the Russian steppe.
It is depressing, however, to see how quickly societies became obsessed with controlling women: the first law on veiling was written in Assyria 3,000 years ago; and it is hard to detect any female voices in ancient Athens because women, considered to be “imperfect”, were silenced. It is a serious look at a serious subject, its only gimmick a smart one: speaking to modern women from these grand civilisations about their feelings on the past and present.