by Bridey Heing
In her BBC documentary and forthcoming book, historian and author Amanda Foreman uncovers the historical precedents that have erased women throughout human civilization.
History has long been a boys’ club, from the people being written about to the people writing the books. But historian and author Amanda Foreman is out to change that. With her recent four-part series on BBC aptly called “The Ascent of Woman,” she told the story of women in civilization in four parts. That, however, was just a warm-up. Her upcoming book, The World Made By Women: A History of Women From the Apple to the Pill, is the story of humanity from the perspective of the female half.
Here, Dr. Foreman shares her thoughts on the origins of patriarchy, the historical conspiracy responsible for silencing women, and the figures hidden in history whom we should all know more about.
Presenter of BBC’s The Ascent of Woman chats to Geoff about the role, portrayal and treatment of women through the ages.
Listen here: https://player.fm/series/geoff-lloyd-with-annabel-port/mind-expanding-monday-dr-amanda-foreman
By Gerard O’Donovan
Watching the final part of Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman (BBC Two) was a reminder of how powerful, inspiring and important television can be at its best. One of Foreman’s chief arguments has been that women have contributed as much to history as men but have rarely been accorded the credit for it.
And this final episode, which focused on a series of extraordinary but little known 19th- and 20th-century revolutionaries and campaigners, offered a formidable exposition of the extent to which so many women have, unforgivably, been written out of that history.
Literally so in the case of the French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges, who published her Declaration for the Rights of Women in 1791 and whose champions Foreman met and interviewed still, 200 years on, marching the streets of Paris to have her contributions fully recognised.
Time and again Foreman offered examples of revolutions in which the contributions of women were encouraged – until the subject of their own rights was broached. Perhaps most fascinatingly in the case of Alexandra Kollontai, an extraordinary firebrand who pushed feminism to the heart of the Bolshevik agenda during the Russian revolution – only to see it rolled back again by Stalin and her considerable achievements wiped from the record.
It was on the subject of forgotten heroines like this that the programme was at its most atmospheric, with Foreman joining candlelit memorial parades in Moscow, or interviewing Kollontai’s natural heirs, the members of Pussy Riot. But she was just as ardent, if not more so, in recalling the better known achievements of campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett, founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, and Margaret Sanger in America, whose tireless (and wonderfully fearless) campaigning for access to birth control eventually led to the development of the contraceptive pill in 1960 – a day when “women’s lives changed forever”.
There were times when Foreman could be accused of oversimplifying her argument. That there were political and social factors other than an unalloyed male desire to suppress the rise of women that perhaps contributed to the extinguishing of some of these feminist flames.
But to argue that would be to miss the point. What Foreman achieved in this episode was to distil the essence of the last two centuries of global striving for equality into the space of a single hour with enormous passion and erudition. Few who watched could be anything other than grateful for her efforts to redress the balance of history, or disagree with her conclusion that it is “vital for the future that we have a proper understanding of the past.”
If the women-to-the-back debacle of Jeremy Corbyn’s new cabinet has a silver lining, it’s the reminder that women are good for revolutions, but not all revolutions are good for us. For many on the left this is a painful truth, and one often avoided for fear of giving ammunition to the right. Yet for the future, let alone the history, of women, it’s a truth that has to be confronted.
Since the 18th century it has been the same old pattern. The people become restless. Women mobilise against injustice and the status quo. Their participation tips the scale in favour of change. The old regime collapses. A new order emerges. Political reforms ensue. Women demand their fair share. They go home empty-handed.
Since ancient times, it has been the practice of the victors to obliterate the culture of the losers. The images of ISIS destroying the world’s historical monuments are a sad reminder of the totalitarian nature of conquest.
The first cultural conquest wasn’t of a nation or tribe however, it was of women and specifically their means to self-expression. In the 23rd Century BC, the high priestess of Sumer, Enheduanna, invented literature. She was the first person to realise that writing could do more than record a contract, send a message, or convey facts. It was her genius and vision that resulted in the creation of the poet, poetry, and literary form.
Sargon the Great, her father, had appointed Enheduanna high priestess in the hope that she would be able to help him unite the disparate cities of Sumer into a single functioning empire. She more than rose to the challenge, using religious poetry to create a unified theological tradition that embraced all the Sumerian gods and goddesses under one political entity, the rule of Sargon.
Charlotte Hodgman is joined by historical author Amanda Foreman to discuss her new BBC2 TV series The Ascent of Woman.
By Lucy Waterlow
A Chinese woman has revealed how she endured having her feet bound when she was only six years old, even though the painful procedure had been outlawed.
Wang Huiyuan, now 84, who lives in the rural Tonghai County, Yunnan, had the ‘beauty treatment’ in the 1930s, decades after it had been officially banned in 1902.
‘Then it was fashionable to bind feet. Everyone did it. If not, you’d be laughed at, “look at her big, flat feet”. Once I was laughed at, I bound my feet,’ she explained to Dr Amanda Foreman on BBC documentary The Ascent Of Woman.
The octogenarian recalled how the process of binding her feet to make them smaller – an ancient practice that can be dated back to the 13th century – was unbearably painful.
Dr. Amanda Foreman discusses her BBC Two series on the history of women with Jane Garvey.