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 One patriarchy had simply been replaced by another.
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’.
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.
As a graduate student at Oxford I remember writing a throwaway sentence about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, being a dilettante much addicted to “unhelpful dabbling” in politics. That was the standard line on her then: rich, pretty, oversexed, undereducated and willing to trade kisses for votes on behalf of the Whig party. Naturally such a person was unworthy of any serious study, especially anything to do with politics or power. If I’m honest, I think I was rather embarrassed by her. Georgiana seemed to be the kind of woman who confirmed every male prejudice about our fitness for public life.
I never questioned my own opinions until I was deep into my PhD thesis on attitudes to race in 18th-century England. I was interested in learning more about Earl Grey, the prime minister who as a young man in 1806 had proposed a motion to abolish the slave trade. While delving into his life I discovered his affair with Georgiana and her private letters about it.
The first time I read them it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over my head. It was immediately apparent that everything I thought I knew about her was false. Worse, it was a vicious caricature of a brilliant, effective and tragic woman. I realised I had inadvertently colluded in the trashing of her reputation.