The Sunday Times: Women’s equality dream comes true – 8,000 years ago

Photo: The Sunday Times

Photo: The Sunday Times

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.

Georgiana was an exceptionally talented woman whose taste in art, fashion and literature is an important part of our Georgian legacy. She never traded kisses for votes. She didn’t “dabble” in public affairs: she played a fundamental role in 18th-century politics — as did other aristocratic women of her circle.

To erase Georgiana from the historical record is to mischaracterise completely the distribution of power in 18th-century Britain. It was to make amends for this historic wrong that I threw aside two years of work to start a new PhD, this time on Georgiana alone. That, in turn, led to my first book.

By the time the film version of the book, The Duchess, came out in 2008 I was researching my next publication, on the American Civil War. It was then that I had another moment of truth after reading a harrowing account of wartime rape. In this instance, it concerned a British woman living in the South, right in the path of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army.

Having taken Atlanta in July of 1864, Sherman led his 60,000 men across the Confederacy. During his “March to the Sea”, Sherman allowed his army to cut a 60-mile-wide swathe of destruction. If you read any history of the civil war, it will say Sherman’s soldiers destroyed property but committed no mass rapes. It was all very gentlemanly, don’t you know. The official rape tally for the state of Georgia is six.

I can tell you that the statistics on rape and sexual assault during Sherman’s march are completely phony. The idea that women — whose menfolk were miles away at the front — who had just been gang-raped by a group of passing soldiers would somehow gallop off after General Sherman to demand justice is simply preposterous. The fact that any of them were able to register a complaint with someone in authority is little short of a miracle.

I found myself still furious about this obvious whitewash long after I had finished my book. I had to do something positive with my anger. I decided my next project was going to try to flip the mirror of history, so it no longer simply reflected male assumptions about women.

It took two years to get the Ascent of Woman documentary commissioned and another two years to make it. I was adamant from the beginning that the series wasn’t going to be a plaintive cry of “we were there, too”.

It seeks to confront society’s darkest thoughts about women and turn them into hard questions. The most pernicious of all, I believe, is the unspoken suspicion that maybe there’s a valid reason for our perennial second-class status — and that reason is us. How else, goes the argument, can you explain our historical absence for the past 8,000 years?

The answer is more complicated than shouting “patriarchy” and requires a careful unpicking of age-old arguments. If you believe the history of women is one long, unmitigated tale of woe until the 20th century, then you have already swallowed a lie. Ours is not a straightforward narrative of darkness to light. It may seem that way, but the true story of women is defined by great swings between freedom and oppression.

A society at war with its women is at war with itself, with all the weaknesses and insecurities such a state entails. Conversely, when women have even a little freedom they have an outsized impact on the world around them. We are, and always have been, the communicating sex. The first known writer in history was a 23rd-century BC Sumerian priestess called Enheduanna, whose literary legacy included the psalm, the hymnal and the concept of theology. The first novelist was an 11th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting named Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the tragic epic The Tale of Genji.

But simply saying it wasn’t all bad, all the time, or that you can judge a society by the status of its women, doesn’t provide the diagnosis, let alone a cure, to inequality. To do that we have to look past the great female outliers and analyse the origins of some of our most deeply held convictions about sex and gender.

To explore these I went to Catalhoyuk in southwest Turkey, the site of one of the largest neolithic settlements in the world. Today Catalhoyuk is in a rocky desert, hostage to an unforgiving climate.

Its people had primitive agriculture and a culture that produced both art and religious iconography. But in other ways, Catalhoyuk was nothing like a modern town. It had no streets; people walked on the roofs. It had no tombs or cemeteries; the dead were buried beneath the floors, often with their heads missing, possibly taken by the occupants when they moved to new dwellings.

At the site I met Professor Ian Hodder, the leader of Catalhoyuk’s international team of archaeologists. I had a question for him: what does the settlement tell us about gender differences at the dawn of time — were women the rulers, the equals or the subordinates of men?

The question was motivated by more than plain curiosity. Catalhoyuk has a profound significance for anyone interested in women’s history. It is the linchpin in the Mother Goddess argument. According to this theory, which was first propounded in the 19th century, Stone Age society was matriarchal, peaceful, spiritual rather than materialistic, and sexually uninhibited. Women were respected for their life-giving powers and the feminine mysteries were worshipped.

The idea gained traction after Friedrich Engels, in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, argued that patriarchy began its inexorable rise with the success of agriculture and the invention of private property. Men claimed ownership over the soil, animals and women, leading to the “world historical defeat of the female sex”.

This theory was further developed in the early 1960s, when the swashbuckling archaeologist James Mellaart found at Catalhoyuk one of the most powerful representations made of female divinity. Known as the Seated Woman of Catalhoyuk, or more popularly the Mother Goddess, it is a clay figurine of a corpulent woman sitting on a throne, flanked by two large leopards. She appears to be giving birth.

When Hodder took over the site, it wasn’t his intention to be controversial. He smiled ruefully when I posed the matriarchy question. He does have an answer, but it has failed to please any constituency — not the traditionalists, and certainly not the Mother Goddess wing of feminism.

His team has dug through 18 levels, covering about 1,200 years of uninterrupted habitation. They found no evidence to support the claim that Catalhoyuk was a matriarchy or that female fertility was worshipped over and above that of phallic or animal spiritualism.

But, Hodder insisted to me, the question should never have been posed as an either/or issue. He argues that his team’s findings are more significant than anything previously imagined. Catalhoyuk was a place where true gender equality flourished.

An examination of male and female skeletons show that both sexes ate the same diet, performed the same work and spent the same amount of time outdoors. In life they inhabited the same physical space; in death they were given the same kind of burials. There is no evidence for either a patriarchal or matriarchal system.

As Hodder told me, in Catalhoyuk a woman’s biology was not her fate. To me, that is a golden age.

When I left Catalhoyuk, I felt a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. People have long accepted that political power is manmade rather than God-given. But it has been different for female inequality. History, religion, science — everything, in fact — has seemed to condemn feminism for being against the natural order.

Thanks to Catalhoyuk, we can say with confidence there is nothing natural or primal about patriarchy. Society can take many forms and shapes. Sex is genetic, but gender is cultural. The “female inferiority complex” is real because we feel its effects, and yet it’s a mirage — a world delusion that has gripped our minds for thousands of years.

The idea of women’s inferiority comes in many forms. From Turkey we flew to Greece to film on the Pnyx hill in Athens, the birthplace of democracy. It is also the birthplace of modern patriarchy. The misogyny of Greeks may have been no worse than the forms adopted by some of their neighbours — the Assyrians, for example — but the Athenians were certainly better at articulating the most extreme position. Ancient Egyptian society, by contrast, was far more egalitarian and inclusive. Unfortunately, theirs wasn’t the gender culture we inherited.

To understand what happened to women under Christianity and Islam, we first have to understand the legacy of the ancient world. The gender issues that dominate the headlines today are not all that different from the ones women faced 2,000 years ago, in particular: male control of female sexuality; a woman’s right to speak in public or participate in public life; divorce, abortion, motherhood and marriage.

It was true in history and it’s true today: societies that devalue women’s contributions pay an economic and cultural price for excluding them from the public space. The status of women has always reflected the level of violence and oppression in a community.

Yet as long as history is predominately written by, for and about men, dissenting opinions in favour of women will seem special pleading at best and wishful thinking at worst. It is as though we are locked in a labyrinth where the present always leads back to the past. The struggle since the founding of the women’s history movement has been how to escape this mental prison. The answer is to become empowered through knowledge.

Bringing down the walls of in–equality isn’t only about doing away with injustice. It’s about safeguarding the future. I have a core belief that boils down to a single statement: whether you look to the past or the present, the inclusion of women in the public space — from the economy to culture — is a vital component of a prosperous and peaceful society.


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