Occasionally, I indulge myself in what could be called “feminist” ideologies. I try not to do it too often, though, so as not to become embittered or ridiculous (on top of which, I would like nothing more than to dally at home while my husband supports me financially). Nonetheless, I read two interesting tidbits yesterday that got me thinking. The first was a quote by novelist Lawrence Durrell: “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” How droll, Lawrence; how terribly droll.
The second was an article by Hilary Mantel in the New York Review of Books, “The War Against Women.” She is reviewing Marilyn French’s four-volume work From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. Yes, I’m serious. Mantel astutely points out areas in which French’s staggering work (it took her 15 years and originally ran to 10,000 pages) is lacking. For example, she says, “Sometimes French’s history is more pleasing and picturesque than what really occurred…But here, the imprecision of French’s style makes muddles. She says, for instance, that the UK Representation of 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.”
All that to say we should read with a grain of skepticism, but with no more than we should approach all literature, especially the nonfiction variety which purports to have some authority. But French includes so much research that bears reading. Mantel recounts some highlights: “In the Assyrian empire, which flourished from 1300 BCE, [a woman] 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… 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.’… In the nineteenth century, women’s skulls were measured and their brains weighed, and found wanting.” There’s a bright spot at the end of Volume I, which covers the Middle East during the times of Jesus and Muhammad, who both seemed to espouse a more egalitarian view. But in the generations after their deaths, the doctrines of both religions evolved toward misogyny, or at least toward exclusion of women.
A key element for consideration of French’s work concerns not just gender issues, but power struggles and the way the strong exert their power over the weak. Those who are strong are inevitably being dominated by others who are yet stronger, and the cycle of subjugation perpetuates itself. Margaret Atwood, who writes the foreward for the volumes, says that in the end, despite thousands of years of oppression and atrocities, French “insists on hope.” I think that’s an excellent place to be.