The Times: Children wouldn’t die on a beach if women were in charge
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.
She points out that women were treated equally before the plough was invented 5,000 years ago. “The hunter-gatherer societies were much more egalitarian. The Mongols may have been pillaging their way across the world but they treated their own women with equal status and respect. One of the greatest writers in the world was a woman, Enheduanna [2285-2250BC], but then women were silenced,” she says.
“One of the most pernicious effects of our history is that it has taught women that they have always been sidelined. If you think you are nothing and come from nowhere, you are already at a huge disadvantage and few overcome that. Yet we know it’s not in our nature to be second class. It’s vital for women’s self-esteem that we look again at our roots: who invented gender inequality, why did it start?”
Religions, she suggests, have played a huge part in prescribing women’s roles. “In Buddhism women’s greatest aim is to be reincarnated as a man. In Christianity the best a women can be is the Madonna figure otherwise we are all whores.”
Dr Foreman, who is Jewish and married to a Church of England vicar’s son, is equally hard on all religions but it is the veil that attracts her greatest ire. “There are women who will defend their right to wear the veil to the death and you have to respect them for that. But I want to demystify it. There is so much hot air about the veil and what it represents. It has become mixed up in the East versus West argument but it predates all that.
“The veil was originally just a human dog collar — it indicated who your master was, that as a woman you were the property of your husband. I can’t stand it when we elevate it above that.”
She does not think that taking away someone’s right to wear a burka is the answer to increasing liberty “if Britain is going to be a country of immigration which it clearly is, it needs to pull its finger out and start finding a way of uniting everyone. That includes a clear understanding of human rights and liberties. A major factor is that we believe in a free and equal society for women so we are not going to accept arranged marriages or FGM or women being second class.”
Dr Foreman, who always looks immaculate in crisp white shirts, points out that women’s obsession with looks has intensified again. “The competition over looks has existed for generations — having the smallest waist the tightest corset, tiniest feet. Now it’s high shoes, cosmetic surgery, toned bodies. Our bodies are still seen as our greatest commodity. We call it freedom dressing as provocatively as we can, looking like porn stars, but we are allowing ourselves to be tools?”
Didn’t she pose naked for a magazine? “I thought it was hilarious. I was 30, I wasn’t wearing make up, I was covered by books, it was all quite innocent. Now girls on Instagram feel they have to show everything.”
As a mother she is determined that it has to stop. “There aren’t enough of my generation standing up and saying, ‘Don’t do it, just be yourself’. We fear being called fuddy duddy, we want to seem cool. But that isn’t being strong, it’s being weak.”
An Anglo-American, she now lives in a New York brownstone, and has managed to balance having five children in six years with research. Things have been tough. Her husband, Reg, overcame non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and she was sacked by her publisher, but kept writing — often between 10pm and 3am — determined to prove that women were not the inferior sex.
Her worst experience was when she was fired. “I was pregnant, I already had three children, they thought I would never finish the book. I thought: ‘I made you millions with my first book’, but it didn’t matter. I was a mother, there is no way that they would have done that to a male writer.” Her husband “is 100 per cent committed to an equal partnership”.
Called Bill from childhood, she has a male assertiveness. “A lot went wrong in my childhood but my mother was amazingly supportive. I think that growing up in California my parents had very liberal Californian attitudes to gender. ”
Her father Carl Foreman, a screen writer who brought us High Noonand The Bridge on the River Kwai, was blacklisted as a suspected communist sympathiser in the McCarthy witchhunts. “My father gave me ambition. He was a perfectionist. I was 15 when he died and I had a terrible mismatch with school. I was just born not being very good at being a child.”
At ten she was sent to board in England. She returned to the US to do her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the birthplace of the women’s history movement. “They made me feel I could do anything.”
Her daughters started their education in America. “Girls in America are taught to inhabit their own space and not to be apologetic about it, to be proud and speak their own minds. English girls aren’t.”
She sees herself as a feminist. “I’m a womanist, a feminist and I think all women should be.”