Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

A prostitute in the Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City, 1934


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:


Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Carnival strippers between shows, Fryeberg, Maine, 1975; from Susan Meiselas: In History, the catalog of a recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography, edited by Kristen Lubben and published in 2008 by ICP/Steidl

A woman was subject to her father in youth, her husband in marriage, and her son in widowhood. But that was the theory; in practice she was subject to her parents in youth, her bullying mother-in-law in marriage, and, in widowhood, she in turn bullied her daughter-in-law.

Women beware women; in Volume IV, French will explain the Indian mother-in-law’s role in “a new form of capital accumulation”—the disposal of brides whose dowry has proved unsatisfactory. A girl is held over a cooking stove, her sari catches fire, and the murder is explained as an accident.

Irresistibly anecdotal, French describes the European appropriation of North America, highlighting Jesuit testimony to the gentle and egalitarian societies of Native Americans: “Indians never imagined rape until they saw Europeans perform it.” If true, this challenges the assumptions to which the rest of her project leads us—assumptions not just about men and women, but about how the strong exert power over the weak. Was Abigail Adams wrong when she said, “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could…. That your sex is naturally tyrannical is a truth so thor- oughly established as to admit of no dispute”?

It was, French argues, the chosen task of the Church to suppress egalitarianism in Native American society and to teach men to be brutal to their women. She tells us this with great conviction, and here and elsewhere she amply demonstrates that the Catholic Church is one of the most effective misogyny machines ever devised. So, in her confused and error-strewn section on the French Revolution, perhaps the most surprising opinion is that women of the era stood by the Catholic Church because it “exalted nurture and valued the contribution of women.”

As we move into the nineteenth century we have a much fuller record of women’s lives, generated by the women themselves and seen here against the background of a larger story of reform. Women become “actors in their own play.” In Volume III, French calls this century “the lowest point in women’s history” but also “the most cheering period in female history, the moment the tide began to turn.” In the rapidly industrializing West, women’s capacities are proclaimed to be exactly what economic need requires them to be at any particular time. Oppression puts on a mask of concern. Is it not an erosion of women’s natural rights, employers ask, to try to protect them (and their children) from the long hours and filthy conditions of labor in factories and mines, when their men are not so protected? And if the cheap labor of women and children is not available to owners, will not enterprises fail, making men, the support of their families, destitute too?

In this way, working men and women are set against each other. Work performed outside the factory system, because it does not produce a profit, is now seen as worthless; housekeeping and childcare require no economic recompense nor recognition of their public value. Women must be careful when men praise them:

In a world devoted to power, the belief that women are by nature more humane and compassionate, less aggressive and acquisitive than men, justifies the status quo and its division of power.

In nineteenth-century America, “the rhetoric of achieved revolution” con- ceals vast sexual and racial inequalities. Woman is no longer cast as diabolically sexy; now she is asexual, and responsible for regulating men’s desire. In her, desire is abnormal; uterine function dominates mental function; too much thinking is bad for reproductive health; and “all exclusively female physical functions were considered inherently pathological.”


French’s range of reference is so vast, her examples so various, that you get the best from her history only by reading the volumes end to end in one Stakhanovite enterprise. In the annals of African countries she finds women war leaders who also have spiritual gifts, and women who can only assert themselves by displaying supernatural powers and trading on the uncanny. The reader thinks of Joan of Arc. We read of African spirit mediums who became rich, and long for French to cross-refer to their American and European equivalents, and to the mediums, spiritualists, and hysterics of nineteenth-century psychopathology. But the linear nature of the narrative refuses connections, and time and again wobbly detail saps the reader’s faith.

Sometimes French’s history is more pleasing and picturesque than what really occurred. Writing of the suffragists in Britain, she recalls that “as the king rode to the Derby, Emily Wilding Davison hurled herself in front of his horse crying ‘Votes for Women!'” The idea of the careless monarch trampling his subjects is wonderfully enraging; in fact, Davison ran onto the track in front of a racehorse belonging to the king, and whether she was a suicide, as French claims later, is debatable.

What would have happened if French had used Davison, for example, as a case study? She would have found out that Holloway College is in Egham, not Oxford, as she writes, and Westfield College is in London, not Cambridge. She would have been able to highlight pertinent issues about the most effective forms of political protest, and she would have found a way through the thicket of detail. Suppose she had written in more depth about Emma Goldman or Sojourner Truth, or selected as case studies any of the inspiring women who flit through her pages? The recorded history of women, as opposed to the imagined history of women, is a history of exceptionalism; so what would she have lost? Her book would then have been more like other books, but perhaps more moving, useful, and accurate than it is as it stands.

The last chapter of the third volume, “The War Against Women,” has a savage and gloomy tone. Passing on to the twentieth century, French tells us, “The underprivileged won some battles, but the privileged have won the war—so far.” Where did this war originate? In the last volume she refers to “men’s deep unacknowledged hatred of women”—in the barrage of names and dates that precede this reference, in the endless parade of events, we miss the pause needed to reflect on this “hatred,” and it is a reflection needed to pull the whole project together.

The inner landscape of human beings is not on display in these volumes. You would think they were all surface, all show, that through history they said what they meant and meant what they said. French is well aware of the difference between rhetoric about society and what actually happens in the street or in the home, or in the marketplace where labor is sold. “We do not know the facts of behavior,” she admits; but the admission doesn’t move her to scrutinize her own examples more skeptically.

The truth is that even when a people is, in theory, able to inscribe its own story on the record, “happiness writes white.” We are faced with the perplexity inherent in all social studies, that the moneyed and educated classes command media and culture, while those of the lower social classes who make it onto the record do so because they’ve moved the social conscience of the reformer or attracted the attention of the policeman, because they’re recalcitrant or a troublemaker or a hard case, or the exception that proves the rule. French’s examples from literature and art are equivocal; the gap between rhetoric and performance never opens wider than when we are told that Shelley is the “feminists’ favorite poet.” It’s hard not to imagine the hand of his drowned first wife reaching out of the Serpentine, groping for a pen to tell her side of the story.

Looking back on the political upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, French tells us:

No revolutionary struggle, no matter how vocal its commitment to sexual equality, actually achieved it; no matter how strongly revolutionary leaders advocated women’s rights before or during armed conflict, none accepted women as equals once it was won. Women’s experience in struggle had local particularities, but men’s treatment of women as a caste after the struggle is over is strikingly similar from nation to nation.

Socialism failed women, she says, “because it could not break with the idea of male superiority.” Like the nascent religions of earlier times, reformist and revolutionary movements have woman as the yeast in their mixture, activists fizzing with idealism and hope; when the reform is won, the revolution made, women find themselves back at the bottom of the heap. She describes the contribution of women to the Algerian independence struggle; after independence was won, “Algeria’s rulers insisted that women’s place was making couscous.”

The twenty-first century she calls “Dawn.” The section on the history of feminism is admirably concise, clear, and free of jargon. For the rest, a note of triumphalism and a note of complaint are sustained side by side, often in the same paragraph. Feminism has “changed the discourse” and yet “even intellectual men write about history and literature as if feminism had never occurred.” She ends with a chapter on the future of feminism, in which she stresses its radical nature: that it is “a living entity,” not a dogma, and one that offers an alternative model to top-down social organization. Feminism is often misunderstood; people think it is about putting women where men are now, but “the ultimate goal of feminism is to change society.” The design is to create a cooperative world, a task that will not be achieved in a few generations; to do it we will have to free ourselves from the grip of history, from the assumptions of the societies in which we have grown up. The task is to convince the world that “sexism brings men…emotional and biological loss.” She says, “feminism brings joy to people’s heart—it is truly a gospel, a good news.”

It’s in the nature of French’s enterprise that it suffers from the length of time taken to complete it. In this book, Robert Mugabe’s depredations have not yet ruined Zimbabwe. The trafficking of women for sex is a problem mainly for Southeast Asia. No author can help her book becoming out of date. But neither is it the case that any old story will do, and French does like to believe old stories. It’s a long time since scholars thought that Henry VIII died of syphilis or that droit du seigneur was a feudal right as opposed to a staple of folklore.

In French’s final volume there is plenty about conferences and caucuses, nothing about pornography. She mentions AIDS in Africa without much effort to relate it to social and sexual behavior. She hasn’t the space to explore the export of women’s domestic labor from the developed to the developing world, a form of exploitation highlighted by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild in their 2003 book Global Woman. She does not discuss the new reproductive technologies that, in theory anyway, alter the biological imperatives that have governed women’s lives since the world began. The glossary provided for Volume I includes some limp definitions that get us nowhere; better leave a complex topic alone than define “Manichaean” as meaning “seeing good and evil as utterly separate opposites.”

French’s commitment is never in doubt; it’s her furious haste, her attack, her very lack of style that seem to guarantee her integrity. This, surely, is what many of us said in the 1970s about her most famous novel, The Women’s Room, which many women credit as a life-changing book, as others look to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook or to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The fact that a serious writer with so little dramatic flair launched herself into fiction seemed, in itself, to attest to how urgently she needed to sway opinion.

The profound earnestness that informs her fiction must have been summoned again to carry through this vast undertaking. But here, the imprecision of French’s style makes muddles. She says, for instance, that the UK Representation of the People Act of 1918 (which allowed some women the vote and created universal manhood suffrage) extended suffrage to “all men who had fought in the war”—which is to confuse the political impetus behind the act with what the legislation actually achieved. She suggests that at the time of the Black Death women began to outlive men “perhaps because women as a caste developed resistance to the plague.” The reader who originally frowned at the phrase “women as a caste” will have been bludgeoned into submission by its brutal repetition; still, the notion of an immunological caste needs some explanation.

So often, French seems to have committed herself to paper without pursuing the logic of her claims: in what way can the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Bill be said to have “eased divorce for the poor,” since it left divorce a costly and complex legal business that the poor could not afford? Sometimes her choice of terms, though justifiable in the narrow sense, is odd: to use “anarchy” instead of “anarchism” seems to invite the popular misconception about their ideals that anarchists through the years have fought to dispel.

On that topic, one of her personal and revealing assumptions is that “most people do not like authority and do not feel that others have the right to authority over them.” Is that historically true, or is it wishful thinking by someone who would prefer history to be different? If you extrapolate from animal behavior, as French does in Volume I, to draw out truths about human nature, you cannot overlook the fact that most social animals are hierarchical and that the urge to conformity has been a powerful shaping force in human affairs.

It must be said that the enterprise is on a heroic scale, and consistently thought-provoking. “What we are talking about when we talk about ‘women’s issues’ is life itself,” she says. Yet to live within these books is to walk through a vast graveyard where the dead are not buried yet—atrocity and injustice flow from master to slave, colonialist to colonized, regardless of gender. There is no subtlety here, no irony, and little forgiveness. From earliest history to the twenty-first century, French has taken us on a terrible journey. She quotes a Buddhist text: “Her face resembles that of a saint; her heart is like that of a demon…. A woman has no home in the three worlds.” French explains, “she does not exist in the past, present, or future.” Her battle is just to become visible; to be accorded full humanity, not to be regarded as some transient natural phenomenon, or an animal created for male use.

At the end of the story, French grubs up some optimism: as Margaret Atwood says, “she insists on hope.” Atwood herself seems to doubt the promised “dawn.” Dubious about the future of humanity on a fragile planet, she says, “in practice, it may be a scramble for the lifeboats.” If that’s so, we’re unlikely to hear the old cry of “women and children first.”

This Issue

April 30, 2009