The Ascent of Women – Sept 2015 BBC2

Dr Amanda Foreman began a new series looking at the role of women in civilization on BBC2 on 2 September 2015. Foreman began the programme with the statement that there has ‘never been a better time to be born a woman’, but went on to pose the intriguing question of what has made the state of women so vulnerable to patriarchal challenges across 20,000 years of history.

This programme offered an engaging insight into the ways in which women had been ‘hidden from history’, as Sheila Rowbotham put it as long ago as 1977. In fact, as a contextual introduction to the theoretical debates surrounding the teaching of women’s history, the documentary had much to recommend it.

The rather whistle-stop pace with which the early centuries of civilization were covered by Foreman nonetheless showed how women, from being equal partners in Sumerian society (from 6th Century B.C.), became increasingly excluded from economic freedom and public space, as they became ever-more defined by their biological function.

Religious observance, in which the priestesses of the ancient world had held a powerful place, became increasingly subject to male codes, as did the rules which governed societies as a whole. These tenets became increasingly militaristic in nature, particularly under the Assyrians where, of their code of 112 laws, no fewer than half directly related to marriage and the control of women’s sexuality. This, Foreman concluded, meant that the law became a charter for misogyny.

By far the most insightful part of Foreman’s documentary for me was her consideration of the practice of veiling women. Quite rightly, she set up the piece with the caveat that we, as modern- day viewers, should not place our contemporary notions or assumptions about veiling onto the practices of the past – a useful observation not often made in TV programmes.

Foreman showed how the veiling (or not) of women in Assyrian society defined not only their class but also their social status. She said prostitutes and slave girls could be severely punished should they cover themselves. Islam, therefore, only continued an established practice in the ancient world – which was, essentially a male one.

However, the programme concluded on a note of challenge to this increasingly patriarchal history. In looking at the Nomads of the Eurasian Stepp Foreman found a post-Soviet resurgence of a culture that privileged the role of women – even though this was within a culture that was just as martial as Assyrian society.

Like Sumarian society before it, Nomads valued women, especially in the spiritual life, where they were honoured over the military male. Like women, Foreman argue, Nomads are commonly excluded from history, but they placed more value on the community than on the individuals that inhabited it. Here, as in Sumaria, this allowed women to exercise more power.

Rather skimming through the periods of Greek and Roman civilization (this would have made a programme of its own) Foreman showed how Aristotelian thinking, which challenged women’s power to think rationally, opened the way to the segregation of public and private space.

I would have like to have seen the presenter give a little more justification to her claim that this cultural influence also fostered the ill-treatment of women behind the closed doors of the home – because I felt more evidence needed to be given to support her analytical point.

Foreman concluded the episode by rightly noting that recording the history of women is not just a simplistic charting of a Whiggish progression from darkness into light. The history of the world can be read more correctly, perhaps, by understanding the fact that what it meant to be ‘civilized’ could be defined by a society’s ability to ‘control’ its women.

This programme, though time constraints limited its ability to give more than a snapshot of each civilization, was interesting to both scholars and students of women’s and gender history as well as to a  wider public. It held the attention, and I shall be recommending it to my students as a very worthwhile watch on iPlayer.

© 2015 Maureen Wright, PhD

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