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The Ascent of Woman: Excellent Series on Netflix

Empress Theodora

 I discovered The Ascent of Woman on Netflix, an excellent piece by Dr. Amanda Foreman that is quite unique in that it isn’t simple, flashy biographies of a couple of women through history, it is a clear, accessible, and well-written series on the overall rights of women through history as well as revelations of great women of the time, not as an anomaly but as key players in history who have been written out.


Dr. Foreman says that the condition of women is not a straight-forward march from darkness to light, from subjugation to freedom but a journey forward and back, twists and turns throughout history in every culture. To anyone who thinks that we haven’t played an active role in history or that women’s history is “a mindless narrative of oppression” she “throws down the gauntlet” and declares that any history of the world that excludes or marginalizes women “is not just a distortion but an untruth that must be challenged.”

Here are some of the highlights that I gleaned from the program (4, 1-hour episodes) with my own interpretations. [Please note that while I have included links to Wikipedia, many of the pages need additional information.]:


·       7,500 BCE: Catalhoyuk in Turkey is one of the first known settlements in human history, and shows clear evidence of equality and communalism as driving social forces. There is no evidence in this settlement of hierarchy, no finer belongings or marks of status on either the walls or the graves. Men and women ate the same diet and did the same work. And based on burial rites, anthropologists maintain that even the nuclear family did not exist. While early feminists believed that the seated figure for which this settlement is known was a queen, anthropologists now believe it was their central goddess. 


·       4,000 BCE. The Sumerian culture invented mathematics, the calendar, irrigation, and by 3,300 BCE, writing. People still lived with a sense of equality and family. Women thrived during this time, with equal legal status, access to business, education, and divorce.


·       Unfortunately, the freedom and equality of women in Sumer came to an end when Sargon (known traditionally as Sargon the Magnificent) conquered Sumer and made it a vassal state.


·       Dr. Foreman maintains that the agricultural surplus in the Fertile Crescent created class and inequality. A colleague of mine recently said that “the first thing purchased with disposable income was war.” During this time, women in divinity were reconstrued as strictly fertility goddesses while the main gods of justice and power were male. Mesopotamian women became increasingly invisible in the images of the culture.


·       Enheduanna (2,228-2250 BC), was the first named author in history. She not only signed her work but referred to herself in her writings, which was unheard of.  She was the daughter of King Sargon I, who put her in charge of all spiritual activities and, with her unifying work, made her the cultural power behind her father’s thrown. Her collected works include 42 hymns written on clay tablets and a poem, The Exaltation to Inanna, a goddess of fertility, nature and destruction.


·       By 1770 BCE, the Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia codified patriarchy. Considered the first law code, it contains some interesting language to protect the poor and weak from the strong and powerful. [Footnote: Sad to me to think that even then inequality was apparently so great that it had to be legally constrained.] But it was a mixed bag for women: it outlined laws over women’s bodies, described brutal treatment for social infractions but at the same time women at this point were allowed to own property, inherit, and were recognized as distinct persons.


·       The Assyrians were a militaristic society and removed protections for women altogether. Half of all their written laws had to do with marriage and sex. 2,000 years before Islam insisted on the burqa and the veil, the Assyrians prescribed it for their women.


·       In the grasslands of ancient Russia, women were central to the nomadic life, in charge of spirituality as well as being warriors and workers.  Anthropologists have found no evidence of segregation of tasks or status. In fact, in 1993 in the Altai Mountains, near the borders of Russia and Mongolia, Natalia Polosmak, a Russian archaeologist, found the tomb of a woman she calls “The Ice Maiden”, dated to 400 BC and containing relics that identify her as a revered religious leader for her tribe. Local people, now under Soviet rule, consider her their Khan, their Princess.


·       Dr. Foreman says that the Greek obsession with battling the Amazons is actually their battle against the nomadic women of the north.


·       Ancient Greece: a culture with many female goddesses honored through statues while at the same time keeping real women ruthlessly in check.  Women are silent in the historical record here. Women’s lot in Ancient Athens was closer to a woman’s lot in Afghanistan under the height of Taliban rule, says a expert during the program.


·       Seventh century BC Persians and Greeks taught that women are a separate species altogether. The Greeks believed that Pandora was the first ‘species of’ woman and we’re all well aware of the myth of Pandora opening the box of misery onto the world.


·       Aristotle considered women imperfect men.


·       1508 BC Egypt was very focused on equality. Men and women had the same rights, wore essentially the same clothing. A shared life, rather than reproduction, was the focus of marriage.


·       Egypt has had six known ruling queens. Hatshepsut, ruled for two decades (1508-1458 BCE) and is sometimes shown in statues as wearing the “pharaonic beard.” She organized Egypt’s largest trade mission in history. “Her legacy was peace and prosperity,” Dr. Foreman said.


·       Vietnam: now home to the largest women’s union in the world, with 15 million members, Dr. Foreman characterizes Vietnam as a culture with strong women, dating back 2,000 years to when Vietnam was born. The country was founded in the Red River culture in the North, in which women had extreme agency over their own lives and could even take multiple husbands. All this changed in 111 BC, when the Vietnamese were conquered by the Chinese Han dynasty that then imposed its patriarchal rule. In 41 A.D. the Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, raised an army of 80,000, led by both men and women generals and, after a series of victories, crowned themselves kings. Two years later, however, the Chinese routed the army and kept Vietnam as a colony for 900 years. Under Chinese rule, women became second-class citizens. In 939 A.D. Vietnam won its independence and festivals to the Trung sisters are held to this day.


·       The Confucian world was extremely male. The example she uses is of the famous Qingming Scroll meant to depict life in the ancient Chinese world: of 814 people featured in the scroll only 20 are women and most of those are concubines and waitresses. Women held second-class status and were excluded from public life. Ying and yang have their origins in writing on the separation of women into the internal realm and men to the public realm. This was a backlash to the power of concubines and empresses in the court; and the status awarded to the oldest family member regardless of gender.


·       Buddhism became an alternative to Confucianism because it taught that, like all polarities, gender was meaningless.  Chinese women also were comforted by the concept of reincarnation.


·       Empress Wu (624-705 AD), was China’s only female emperor.  She was the second daughter of a lumber merchant but ‘clawed her way’ from concubine to wife of the emperor.  ‘She is caricatured as the ultimate evil woman,” Foreman says, but she is the only woman to have ruled China in her own right. “It was her skill in using Buddhism as a challenge to Confucianism that secured her power,” Foreman says in Season 1:Episode 2. “In 690, Empress Wu found two obscure prophecies that said that a female ruler would be the reincarnation of Maitreya (one of Buddha’s most revered bodhisattvas)” which she used to further secure her position. She further transgressed by renaming herself, and creating that name from a combination of the sun (male) and moon (female), eradicating gender. But what’s impressive about her is that she created the civil service; she reformed the tax code and improved China’s diplomatic and commercial ties. She promoted men and women equally. She also appointed Shangguan Wan’er [Wikipedia pages needs updating] as the first prime minister, though she had been a palace slave. The Tang Dynasty had a very open, free and egalitarian attitude toward women, in part because they were descended from the nomadic steppe people, Foreman says.


·       In Japan, the Shinto religion had women at its heart. It characterized the sun as a female deity, Amaterasu, and the moon as male.


·       Heian women in Japan, because they were isolated within their homes, developed extreme kimono art and writing in ‘the woman’s hand,’ [Wikipedia page needs to be created] a unique language developed by women. Unlike in China, Japanese literature was started by women. Under the pen name of Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014 AD), a still unnamed woman wrote The Tale of Gengi, considered the world’s first psychological novel. (Murasaki, or ‘violent’, was the name of one of her characters; Shikibu denoted her father’s position in court.) She found solace in the Buddhist Ishiyamadera Temple in Otsu, which is now a pilgrimage site for Shikibu devotees. Later, when the samurais took over control of Japan they reduced women’s rights, including inheritance rights that were not returned until the 1930s. Foreman says it would take 1,000 years for the freedom of the Heian women to re-emerge.


·       Women have only 20% of the political power in the world, she says, in Season1 Episode 3.


·       527 AD, Byzantine World: Empress Theodora in Istanbul ruled with Justinian. She was a former street performer, and I have mentioned before how she is denigrated in the history books, but the Codex (a compilation and examination of Roman law) was influenced by her. The Hagia Sophia church has their intertwined monograms engraved on the columns [Wikipedia needs updating] and when she died women in Byzantium had more rights than anywhere else in the world. There is a smaller church nearby, the Little Hagia Sophia, that was dedicated to her; it is now a mosque. (The inscription she wrote that is in the church is inspiring. Be sure to see it in the episode.) [Wikipedia page needs updating.]


·       The Renaissance (14th Century) was focused on humanism, Dr. Foreman says, which brought to the fore the ancient Roman teachings that described women’s inferiority. Christine de Pizan (so near to my heart that you can read of her early life in A Slender Tether) was one of the first women to defend the honor of women through her writings. She was celebrated in her lifetime and her books copied and distributed all over Europe. Her City of Ladies was read as a primer by Catherine de Medici, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I.  There are eight remaining copies of City of Ladies, which she wrote in 1405.


·       Women in power at this time included:



·       According to Dr. Foreman, there were 90,000 witch trials held in Europe, from the mid-15th to the 18th century, 50% of which wound up in gruesome executions. 80% of the victims were women. New fact here: King James wrote a book called Demonology that posited that women were more susceptible to the demon’s tasks. [Want a dramatic rendering of this? Read The Mandrake Broom.]


·       In 16th century Islam Suleiman the Magnificent married Roxelana, a Ukrainian who had been kidnapped when she was 15. She is known in Turkey as Hurrem “the laughing one” and she “transformed the nature of dynastic politics.” At the time sultans were not allowed to marry and all concubines could give birth to one son before the women were banished. Roxalana had five sons and one daughter by Suleiman the Magnificent who ultimately freed her and, after changing the law, married her. Her daughter Miramar was the most powerful princess in Ottoman history, affecting politics, architecture and diplomacy. [There is no Wikipedia page for Miramar.]  Women acted as regents for their sons for 130 years, the period called “the Sultanate of Women.”


·       Mughal Empire 16th century India: An empress “ruled in fact if not in name”, Persian-born Empress Nur Jahan, “wife, diplomat, politician, entrepreneur and artistic visionary.” 20th and last wife of Emperor Jahangir he joked that he put her in power because all he wanted in life was her, art, and wine. The Empress was able to blur the separations between women in the private sphere and men in the public, though since she was not able to show her face she whispered “her commands to Jahangir.” The East India Company realized that they would have to do business with her if they wanted to do business in India: every contract, treaty and trade route was signed by Nur Jahan and coins were minted in her name. Her impact on architecture and esthetics was significant; Dr. Foreman argues that it informed the style of the Taj Mahal built by her step-son. The same step-son exiled her after his father’s death.


·       1748 France: It was the women of Paris who dragged cannons in the pouring rain to storm the gates of Versailles, launching the French Revolution. Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women and she was a key figure in the French Revolution, although she was executed. After the revolution there was a violent repression of women. For example, women were forbidden to gather in groups of five or more. The Napoleonic Code was even more repressive and by 1804 women in France had fewer rights than prior to the revolution. Women couldn’t vote until 1946 and it was not until 1966 that women could work without their husband’s permission.

·       By the 1800s the following women were powerhouses in their own right:



·       New Zealand was the first to grant women the right to vote, in 1893. Women in Norway and Denmark won the right to vote in 1919 approximately.

·       Russia under the Communists: the first woman to enter the inner circle of the Bolsheviks was Alexandra Kollontai, who spent her life battling for the rights of women workers and whose ideas were implemented under the communist state. She was Commisar for Social Welfare in the Revolutionary government and in 1920 ran a department to promote the rights of women. But her increasingly radical ideas put her at odds with the political elite and in 1924 Lenin removed her from her post, sending her as an ambassador to Sweden. Stalin rolled back all the advances gained by women.

·       1916: Margaret Sanger began her work to find women birth control and by the 1950s it was clear to her that it needed to be in a pill form. Sanger found a scientist to develop it and Katharine McCormick, suffragette and heiress, funded the development. On May 9, 1960 the FDA approved the pill. Now it’s used by 100 million women around the world, a pill that was “developed by a woman, financed by a woman, and done privately without government funds.”

·       Modern Africa: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia; Malawi swore Joyce Banda in as president in 2012; Lindiwe Mazibuko became the first black woman in South Africa to lead the opposition party.

These are just data points. You have to watch the series to get the whole story and the remarkably engaging way it is presented by Dr. Foreman.


#DrAmandaForeman, #historyofwomen, #feministhistory #JessWells