The Ascent of Woman: we should not ghettoise women’s history

Dr. Amanda Foreman in Moscow. BBC/Silver River

In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf imagined that Shakespeare had a sister, a gifted young woman named Judith. Like her brother, she runs away to London to become an actress. Here, unlike her brother, she is met not with opportunity and acclaim but rather mockery and humiliation due to her sex. Her story ends with an unwanted pregnancy, suicide and an unmarked grave “at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle”. Judith is the emblematic figure of women in European culture, condemned to obscurity because of her sex.

In her BBC2 series, The Ascent of Woman, Professor Amanda Foreman seeks to rescue women from such obscurity, not only in European culture but throughout global history. Over four hour-long programmes, Foreman explores the place of women in societies ranging from the nomads of the Steppes through the empires of the Far and Middle East to the revolutions of Europe.

Most of this story is one of women’s silencing. Sumerian laws condemning women who speak to having their teeth knocked out are traced through to laws forbidding women’s speech in the Napoleonic code. Veils, foot binding and kimonos are discussed as tools of female confinement and symbols of male ownership.

Contributors Annabel, Imogen and Liz with image of Elizabeth I . BBC/Silver River

Yet this, as Foreman passionately argues, is not the entire story. Throughout history, women acted, laying claim to agency and identity in ways which threatened patriarchal ideas of order. The Ascent of Woman seeks to tell these stories.

To do so, it focuses on stories of “exceptional” women – leaders, rulers, artists and intellectuals – who, Foreman argues, changed the societies in which they lived. Through interviews with men and women across the world about how these women are viewed today, the programme ties their achievements to present-day understandings of women’s place in society. The programme thus makes the polemical argument that the history of women is ultimately the history of women’s liberation.

‘Exceptional’

Including women in the global historical narrative is undoubtedly vital. There are, however, profound problems with the “exceptional women” approach, because it risks confining women’s history in ways which undermine the very cause Foreman seeks to promote.

The choice of women raises questions. Does Empress Theodora or Hildegard of Bingen really need rescuing from obscurity? The rebellion led by the Trung sisters of Vietnam against Chinese rule in 41 AD may not be well known in Britain, but this reflects geographic rather than gendered myopia. The interviews with Vietnamese women show how the story of these female military and political leaders is remembered and revered.

Contributors Sisters Lydia, Frauasis, Dorotha and Maria with image of St Hildegard De Bingen. BBC/Silver River

And then I’m not sure that the examples of Hatshepsut or Empress Wu are really the stories of female challenge to patriarchal norms that Foreman presents them as. Both styled themselves as masculine rulers, adopting the symbols and titles of men in order to rule. And while both, like Elizabeth I, ruled over ages of artistic accomplishment, their influence seems limited. The programme still explores the words of Shakespeare, not Shakespeare’s sister.

Implicit silencing

In their very uniqueness, these stories fail to speak for the majority of women, women whose voices are harder to access because of their lack of status. Indeed, by focusing so strongly on the patriarchal systems which sought to control women, the programme itself silences them.

In the third episode for example, Foreman details the oppressive argument of King James I’s Demonology, which underpinned the witch hunts of the 17th century, 80% of whose victims were women. She does not mention, however, the trials where defendants, complainants and witnesses gave depositions. Although mediated by a male-dominated legal process, such sources provide insight into the lives and struggles of non-elite women. This, too, is a part of women’s history which needs to be told.

Chinese Tang dancers with image of Empress Wu. BBC/Silver River

This implicit silencing of women who do not fit a narrative of exceptional effort in the cause of female equality limits our understanding of women’s history as rich and complex, intersected by questions of class and race. It also plays into a narrative where histories of the private sphere are viewed as of lesser historical importance than those of politics and public protest.

There is no space in this programme for the sort of stories which, for example, underpin Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff’s Family Fortunes. This seminal 1989 study of “the world as provincial middle class people saw it” places women at the centre not only of domesticity, but also religion and enterprise, the foundation pillars of the British middle classes in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. While the BBC programme explores cultural and material histories, usually in relation to costumes of display, the stories they have to tell of ordinary women’s daily lives remain hidden.

So in arguing her thesis, Foreman actually flattens the history of women’s experience. Until intimate, domestic histories are presented in popular programming as as significant as public and political histories, the full history of women will remain obscured.

In 1929 Woolf claimed that Anonymous was a woman “who made the ballads and the folksongs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter’s night”. If we are to write woman into the history of humanity, we need to listen to Anonymous.