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 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.
Speech is power. That is the message of the upcoming film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, about the women who followed Emmeline Pankhurst to prison.
It’s such a simple message. Yet for women this issue has never been simple. Leaving aside the traditional hostility towards women who speak out, our own fears and anxieties are sufficient to keep us silent. A recent survey found that many women were more frightened of public speaking than either dying or death.
I will be honest here: I know how they feel. I get extremely frightened whenever I take part in a public debate. All my life I’ve suffered from ‘Five Minutes Syndrome’ – the right answer comes to me five minutes after I’ve spoken.
I can write perfectly fluently but I can’t speak that way in public. I just wasn’t born with the gift of the gab; the same way I’m rotten at sports.
For every Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg, Nicola Sturgeon or Margaret Thatcher – women who all, in their different ways, have proved their ability to hold a crowd and transmit a powerful message through the spoken word – there are untold millions of others who are more like me: women for whom the challenge is to separate out the negative voices in our head from the real ones outside.
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.
Some people need to recreate on the outside the loneliness and alienation that they feel within. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino put it quite succinctly: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”
That isn’t how I feel, even though I have spent all my life in the twilight of belonging. I am, to my core, an Anglo-American, neither wholly one identity nor wholly the other. I suppose you could call me a rootless cosmopolitan. Yet I have always felt the opposite. Being the “foreigner” in every place I’ve lived has made me love the two countries I call home all the more. I think that’s what originally led me to study history. As a child, floating somewhere between California and Dorset, I saw difference and similarity in a wholly different light from my peers. Nothing was completely familiar, and yet nothing was entirely foreign, either. As Rudyard Kipling wrote: “What do they of England know who only England know?”
Now that I have children of my own, I have had to think about this very deeply. Do I want them to be British, American or a hybrid like me? The decision goes beyond the question of which passport to have. Where they live and go to school will become the mould that produces the fully formed adult.
I have interviewed dozens of female politicians in my time, and the thing that stands out is how different they are from other women. In that one respect they are just like male politicians who, when you meet them, come across as a race apart from ordinary mortals. First and foremost, they are doers. There’s none of that second-guessing, procrastinating, or introspection that holds the rest of us back. Obstacles only make them try harder. To a woman (or man) they radiate a special combination of ego and energy that seems to propel them faster and higher than everyone else.
In the United States, there is no better example of this all-conquering breed than Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, the first female Speaker of the House and the highest-ranking political woman in American history. As she strides towards my table in the restaurant of the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, immaculately presented in powder blue, smile at the ready, it is like being drawn into a powerful tractor beam. When she speaks she’s so loud and full of purpose, it’s mesmerizing. Despite her slight stature, Pelosi has a diaphragm that could hit you at a thousand paces.
What would you do if you lived in a country where in order to obtain an abortion you, or a woman you know, had to consent to being raped by a stranger before the procedure could take place? Where this year the majority party tried to pass a bill that would force women to carry a dead foetus to term. Where four months ago a woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for charges including “foeticide”.
Where your access to birth control is subject to the whim of local politicians and your chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth is at least three times higher than in any “civilised” country.
I suspect you would look longingly at the West and wish there was some way of getting there. You might even end up as one of the thousands of illegal immigrants who risk their lives to enter America. In which case you would have wasted a great deal of money and effort, since the country I’m describing is America.
Did your brain just do a flip? It seems hard to credit, doesn’t it, when most countries that have draconian sexual reproduction laws also tend to lack indoor plumbing or women drivers. When people think of sexual perverts who use religious ideology as a smokescreen for abusing women they usually have the Taliban in mind. It turns out Americans don’t need to go so far afield; we have our own version right here at home.