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The War Against Women


There was once a woman who never smiled. Her name was Bao Si and she was a concubine to a king of the Zhou dynasty, which flourished in China after 1000 BCE. The king wanted so much to see her smile that he scoured the kingdom for entertainers and performing animals; not a flicker of amusement crossed her face. Then one day a bonfire was ignited, a signal of emergency. Troops poured into the capital in battle array, only to be stopped short and told that the fire had been lit by accident. At this Bao Si smiled; in fact, she began to laugh. Keen to repeat his success, the king had bonfires lit over and over again. His troops stopped paying attention to the signals; so when the invaders came, the king was driven out, and the dynasty was at an end.

It’s a story emblematic of so much else in Marilyn French’s vast four-volume history of women. A twitch of a woman’s lip causes the fall of a nation. On the one hand she is sickeningly, destructively powerful. One the other hand she is a chattel, a beast, a commodity, she and her sisters are “human incubators.” In the Assyrian empire, which flourished from 1300 BCE, she could be impaled for aborting the child she is carrying. For lesser offenses she could be beaten or disfigured behind closed doors, but if her master wanted to mutilate her permanently—cut off her ears or nose, or tear out her breasts—he had to do it in public; though whether for the sake of example or for the general enjoyment, French does not say. She could be punished at various times and places for going veiled, or not going veiled. She could be sold, pawned, or prostituted.

In Aristotle’s thought, French says, women were “deformed” men. In feudal Japan they were barred from climbing Mount Fuji because they would pollute it, and “unhappily married women were expected to commit suicide.” A Buddhist text describes woman as the “emissary of hell.” Her oppression is universal, her story cyclical; construed less as a human being than as an animal or force of nature, her place is outside history.

Even when records begin, most women have no names. At best they are just “wife of” or “daughter of” some illustrious man. A few stand out—they are famous for being almost erased, like Sappho, or startlingly wicked, like Messalina, or they perpetrate shocking violence on a man, like Jael killing Sisera by putting a nail through his head; or like Ruth the Moabite, they offer a pattern of exemplary gentleness, approved by men. If somehow a woman does manage to impose herself on the culture, her achievements will be appropriated by men or dismissed as freakish, a problem expressed pithily in the seventeenth century by Anne Bradstreet, the New England Puritan poet:

If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’l say its stoln, or else it was by chance.

In the nineteenth century, women’s skulls were measured and their brains were weighed, and found wanting. For the criminologists Lombroso and Ferrero, women were big, vicious children. Through much of recorded history they have been slaves, though in some eras “rhetoric granted them the status of angels.” Arguing for women’s moral superiority can be a way of keeping them in their place—a way of removing them from the civil space, where power corrupts, to the supposed purity of the private sphere.

The home, French observes, is seen as women’s natural territory, but is also “the primary site of female prosecution,” the place where she is most unsafe. Sometimes the only power a woman has is to kill herself. In east African traditional societies women committed “cooking pot suicide,” poisoning themselves and taking their children with them. Sometimes a woman is more powerful dead than alive. In the China of the Han dynasty, if an unhappy wife killed herself wearing her red bridal dress, she would haunt the husband’s family and they would have to move house.


There was an Eve, Marilyn French tells us, a universal mother born in Africa; not the first woman that ever was, but the first to pass her DNA on to her daughters, who had daughters in their turn. French’s attempt to trace her story took fifteen years and originally ran to ten thousand pages. She has worked very hard to make it inclusive and to avoid history predicated on Western assumptions. It is a sorry tale and, by necessity, summary: at one point the author tells us, “These 3000 years were hard for everyone.” A project of this size has a life of its own; just as it escapes the power of one writer to hold the subject together, so the books escape any single person’s assessment.

French has been supplied, her introduction tell us, with a mass of material by specialist scholars; a reviewer can only stand in place of the general reader and ask, is this interesting, is this convincing, does this seem true? Every page has something fascinating to tell; the credibility of these fascinating things varies; the reader is often uneasy, without being able precisely to pinpoint an error. Margaret Atwood, who supplies a foreword to the four volumes, sounds impressed by the effort but also bemused:

Men who read it might be put off by the depiction of the collective male as brutal psychopath, or puzzled by French’s idea that men should “take responsibility for what their sex has done.” (How responsible can you be for Sumerian monarchs, Egyptian pharaohs, or Napoleon Bonaparte?)

French recognizes that “control over a woman is the only form of dominance most men possess, for most men are merely subjects of more powerful men,” but she also takes gender oppression to be the fundamental oppression, and “primary, whatever the agenda of a culture.”

Volume I, Origins, looks for the earliest evidence of women’s lives. It comes from bones, flints, and shards; then from carvings and cave paintings. How can we know anything about the lives of our foremothers? We can look at the few Stone Age societies that still exist, to see how they order themselves. We can recall myths of origin in which goddesses precede gods. We can take our evidence from the primates we observe today. We know from studying apes, French says, that mothering is learned behavior. Ape babies separated early from their mothers don’t know how to mother their own offspring; in the same way, not just in urban ghettos and trailer parks but in palaces, human mothers who have themselves been neglected or abused pass to the next generation an inheritance of physical or emotional abuse.

French points to what she takes to be a misunderstanding, very early in human history: mothering was taken to be innate, an instinctive activity. In cases where mothers violate this instinct, they can be punished and their children taken away. Once the link between coitus and childbirth was understood, French says, men began to regard children as their property. In her view, all patrilineal societies stand condemned: “Naming children for fathers is intrinsically an act of force: it reverses natural mother-right.” Sometime before the development of writing, the shift took place from matrilineal to patrilineal societies, then to patriarchy. The war against women began, the long battle to control their sexuality, which necessitates control of their bodies and minds.

In Volume I the civilizations sail by—the Middle East in biblical times, Greece, Rome. Generalities can be very dull, and there are few particulars. In states isolated from one another in time and space, there are similar laws to control women. For a while it looks as if religion will change the pattern of oppression. Jesus chose to have women disciples, regarding them as equally capable of salvation. “Prisca of Corinth hypothesized that, in the Second Coming, Jesus would return as a woman.” Female saints were famous for their spectacular martyrdoms, and ladies and their slaves, like Perpetua and Felicity, died together in the arena. Religious communities of women governed themselves, but such independence became an object of suspicion. Some exceptional women resisted suppression of their talents—women like Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century scientist, writer, and composer, or the mystic Julian of Norwich. But Christian doctrine evolved to exclude women, to stigmatize the very notion of the feminine: “The Trinity procreates without the female—without body, blood, ooze, without nature, and superior to it.”

The final chapter of Volume I deals with Islam, where the pattern is repeated; women are powerful in the formative stages of belief systems that, once established, turn on them and oppress them. The young Muhammad married his woman boss, Khadija, who urged him to trust his visions. French emphasizes the early radicalism of Islam, with its “demand for social justice and an assertion of human equality.” It is true, she says, that misogyny gathered pace in the generations after the Prophet’s death, but she isn’t ready to let the Prophet off the hook: “the constraints imposed by later generations,” she says, “grew from woman-hating or woman-fearing rules introduced by Muhammad himself.” A disjunction occurs between theory and practice. “Qur’anic prescriptions that benefited men were followed; those that did not were ignored.” The revolts of Muslim women are, she suggests, expunged from the record.

In Volume II she shows how “England, Germany, and France accomplished in a few hundred years what Mesopotamia, China, and India took thousands of years to achieve: turning women into property.” The impression is of horror and waste—the brutal toll of childbearing and infant mortality, toil and pain, with 90 percent of women employed as laborers on the land. The volume also tells us about famous women, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, and alludes to women whose achievements have been assimilated into those of men, like “Tycho Brahe’s sister.” The emphasis seems misplaced; French uses up her space on the well-known Eleanor, rather than tell us more about the scientist Sophie Brahe, the astronomer’s second sister.

As the seventeenth century progresses, the dawning notion of rights for men doesn’t necessarily ameliorate the situation for women; liberties seen as desirable for men to exercise are not desirable for their wives and daughters. Mary Astell (1666–1731) writes, “Is it not…partial in men to the last degree to contend for and practice that arbitrary dominion in their families which they abhor and exclaim against in the state?”

But sometimes the women are false to themselves. Members of Dahomey’s female army insisted that “we are men, not women,” a confusion that has beset many high-achieving women in every era. French is not sentimental about women’s natural solidarity. In Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “to eat, one had to obey,” and the hierarchy of oppression she describes sounds like the template for many others, ancient and modern:

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