embrace your femininity and watch 'the ascent of woman'

April 18, 2016 -  Kayla Cobb

“In this series, I want to retell the story of civilization with men and women side by side for the first time.”

That’s one of the opening lines of Amanda Foreman’s BBC series, The Ascent of Woman. The series, which is now on Netflix, focuses on inserting women back into history. The four-part docu-series covers women’s role in everything from ancient civilization to modern day, making this the perfect crash course on feminism. So if you’ve even wondered about feminism and female oppression pre-Judith Butler but are too lazy to actually do any research, you now have a streaming option.

One of the greatest aspects of this docu-series is its matter-of-fact tone. Biographer and historian Amanda Foreman hosts the series, and from the first time she speaks, Foreman makes it clear she believes women have been oppressed in history and by our retelling of history. If you don’t agree with that statement or if you’re looking for a doc that will challenge your opinions about gender relations, The Ascent of Woman most likely isn’t for you. In that way, the docu-series limits its audience only to viewers who believe there are sexist undertones in our portrayal of history. However, while that approach does limit the series’ audience, it allows The Ascent of Woman to immediately dive into the historical deep ends.

The series starts in Catalhöyük in Turkey, a Neolithic civilization that researchers believe practiced far more gender equality and that worshipped a child-bearing goddess, called the Seated Woman. Soon after, the docu-series has made it to ancient Greece, a time when sexual purity is commodified and women are more idyllic than human. More than anything else, it’s this pace that shows how quickly cultural attitudes toward gender have historically changed. The content is interesting in and of itself, but the implications are even more fascinating. Topics such as racism and sexism can feel all-powerful and all-consuming, but looking at them through the enormous history of the civilization serves as a reminder that these things are social constructs that can be changed. However, the best part about this docu-series is how women-focused it remains down to the documentary’s narration. Between Foreman’s explanations, there are interviews from women historians, anthropologists, researchers, actors, and artists. This documentary is so deservedly women-focused and women-led that it’s actually jarring to see a man being interviewed. In a current media environment where experts are men by default, it’s refreshing to see so many accomplished female experts.

The Ascent of Woman isn’t without its problems. While most of the time Foreman’s conclusions come backed by her extensive research, some of her conclusions feel a bit under-explained. This again ties back to the documentary’s matter-of-fact tone, which doesn’t allow much room for alternative theories. But as a starter course on the global history of women, you can’t get much better than The Ascent of Woman. Next time you’re looking for something to make you feel intellectual, hit play on this feminist gem and get ready to learn about some incredible, history-changing members of Team Woman.

The Guardian: "epic"

The myth of a feminist ‘end of history’

September 30, 2015 -  Helen Lewis

There’s a moment at the end of the film Suffragette that makes you gasp. Before the credits roll a simple list scrolls down the screen showing when women got the vote in countries around the world. It starts with New Zealand (1893) and ends with Saudi Arabia (2015), but the name that provokes the gasps is Switzerland. Gorgeous, snow-topped Switzerland, with its adorable cuckoo clocks and dubious attitude to Nazi gold, didn’t give women the vote until 1971.

For context, that’s after a man walked on the moon and the Beatles had broken up. “I don’t know what it is, but for some reason that seems to be the one that gets people,” agreed Suffragette’s writer Abi Morgan when I mentioned this to her. “I think it’s something about, you know, they make good chocolate – so surely they gave equality to women.”

Although I’m not discounting the chocolate connection, I have my own theory. Audiences are surprised because Switzerland is supposedly full of People Like Us: it’s an affluent western European nation, not a sand-blasted theocracy or a dirt-poor African dictatorship. And People Like Us believe in women’s equality. Don’t we?

This posture of racially tinged complacency underlies most of the frequent backlashes endured by western feminists. It’s a version of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, which hailed western liberal democracy as the final form of human government: “Come on, ladies. You’ve got the vote. You’ve got the ability to own property. Some of you are even wearing trousers. Why are you so uptight? No one is taking those away from you!”

But this smugness is unwarranted, as a quick glance around the world – or five minutes with a history book – will show you. The advances in women’s rights that we enjoy today are incredibly recent. Chiswick Women’s Aid, the landmark shelter in west London, was only opened in 1971, the same year women were getting the vote in Switzerland. Rape in marriage became a crime here only in 1991 – the assault that prompted the defining court case happened the same the week that All Around the World by Lisa Stansfield topped the charts.

For a more extreme example, take foot-binding. When I first read Jung Chang’s family history, Wild Swans, I was amazed to learn that the author’s grandmother had had bound feet. It was disorienting to realise that someone alive today could know a woman whose feet had been deliberately bent and broken as a child in order to stuff them into 3in shoes.

But foot-binding is not merely a historical curio: although it was banned in 1912, it persisted in some rural areas into the 1930s, and there are still women alive in China today with the crushed arches, deformed toes and rotting folds of skin that characterised bound feet.

Around the world, equally gruesome practices which stem from the same motive – inscribing subjugation on the female body – persist, from female genital mutilation to breast ironing. Even among People Like Us, in liberal western democracies, only one half of humanity is routinely encouraged to wear shoes that restrict our movement and damage our tendons and ligaments. We can’t see the strangeness of that because it’s woven into the fabric of our culture.

So try to imagine a country where it’s the height of fashion for women to – I don’t know – hop everywhere. Imagine an autumn issue of Vogue, full of adverts for the best jewelled trusses to strap up your “resting” leg. (“Don’t be a dowdy two-footer! Click here to watch an A-list actress hopping seductively up the red carpet!”) To imagine that the urge to control women’s bodies has died out takes a special type of narrow-minded chauvinism.

In her BBC documentary The Ascent of Woman, Amanda Foreman met 84-year-old Wang Huiyuan, one of the few surviving women whose feet hads been bound. She explored why the practice persisted for so long: it was perpetuated by women, because they believed it was a way to gain an advantage in a male-controlled marriage market; and it functioned as a class signifier, because peasant women working in the fields could not afford to cripple themselves.

Those two forces still underpin the pressure towards femininity today, however much we in the west congratulate ourselves on the softer, more palatable way it is expressed. We must also remember that the fact that women participate in their own oppression does not mean it is “natural” or inevitable. Instead, it shows that divide and rule is an endlessly useful tactic for maintaining the status quo.

After meeting women with bound feet, Foreman wrote in Smithsonian magazine that “the lotus shoe is a reminder that the history of women did not follow a straight line from misery to progress”. Our victories are so recent because previous triumphs were only ever provisional.

This is the narrative thread that underpins the epic sweep of The Ascent of Woman. Egalitarian nomadic societies gave way to agricultural ones that enforced a gendered split in labour. As ancient Athens triumphed over Sparta, women were pushed out of the public realm. The women’s march on Versailles was a key moment in the French revolution, but the newly empowered category of “citizen” was restricted firmly to men. In the Arab spring, female protesters found their male peers mysteriously evaporated when talk turned from overthrowing dictators to achieving greater equality.

If you ever want to know why feminists are so bloody angry, this is why. All our triumphs are provisional, contested. The ground must be constantly defended and patrolled.

Still don’t believe me? Look across the Atlantic, where 42 years after Roe v Wade rightwing lawmakers want to deprive Planned Parenthood of federal funds used to give poor women breast cancer screenings because the organisation also provides abortions (even though these are not paid for by tax dollars). Or look closer to home, where women’s refuges are struggling because of cuts to council budgets, and a succession of high-profile men are given acres of newsprint to demand anonymity for those accused of rape, even though the evidence shows false allegations are rare and anonymity would make serial offenders far harder to catch.

So forgive me if feminists don’t seem grateful enough for what women have here, today, in 21st-century Britain. Because even places that make great chocolate can be deeply unequal.

Malay Mail Online: "completely mesmerizing"

The Ascent of Woman: Rewriting women back into history

October 13, 2015 - Helen Hickey

 If you’re like me and hanker for anything positive in the field of advancing women’s rights, then watch The Ascent of Woman.

This pioneering BBC 2 four-part series aired last month in the UK. But be warned, it’s no feet up with a glass of Chablis job!

Keep your wits about you as the British historian Dr Amanda Foreman takes you on a whirlwind journey across the globe, from the dawn of civilization (meet the world’s first author Enheduanna) to modern day (an interview with Russia’s Pussy Riot), revealing history’s extraordinary women in the process. 

Women who have shaped and inspired the world we live in today. And yet, they occupy little more than a footnote to history, or worse, have had their characters vilified rather than their remarkable achievements celebrated.

I’ve never met the mother-of-five — unlike my boys who enjoyed sharing their swords and shields with her girls while on their play-date in NYC — but Dr Foreman certainly deserves a large thank you for putting this highly educational and inspirational series together.

You can find the hour-long episodes with a quick Google search. But, here’s a peek at some of what’s covered:

Civilisation — Episode 1

Driving through the dry grasslands of Anatolia (central Turkey), Dr Foreman gets right to the nuts and bolts of the problem: “The hard truth is that in almost every civilisation, women have been deemed the secondary sex... it is an idea that is so ingrained it has been written into history as a biological truth.”

Why? And why have limits been set on women’s sexuality, speech and freedom of movement by almost every civilisation in history? Has it always been this way — leaving history itself to become exclusively male-orientated?

Dr Foreman seeks the answers to these questions by exploring the early civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome. She also searches for another narrative, where the social standing of women might have followed a fundamentally different path. This, she discovers in Catalhöyük, Anatolia one of the world's earliest settlements dating back to 7500BC.

Archaeologist Ian Hodder believes that this aggressively egalitarian society placed women on a clear equal footing. Others have suggested a matriarchal society even, based on the female deity figurines found at the site.

Then there are intriguing stories behind the few women who managed to carve out their own routes to power in male-dominated societies like: Enheduanna, the Siberian Ice Maiden, Princess of Ukok, and Hatshepsut, one of ancient Egypt's most successful, but most pilloried, ruling queens.

In Mesopotamia, Dr Foreman explores the world's first law codes written to regulate women's status and behaviour, including the world's first known veiling law dating from 1350 BC, two thousand years before the birth of Islam.

Separation — Episode 2

The role of women in Asia under the philosophy religions of Confucianism and Buddhism from the 1st century AD to the present day is first explored.

China’s "Mona Lisa", the Qingming scroll is a very visual example (even more so in its 3D animated remake) of how women and men were treated as separate identities under Confucianism: the female world of the home and male world of business and politics. Of the 840 people represented in this 12th century scroll, there are only seven women (concubines and mothers with kids).

Conversely, faiths such as Buddhism and Japan’s Shinto empowered many women to confront the limits placed on their sex.

Such as Vietnam's legendary Trung Sisters, who mounted the first armed rebellion against China. Notably, they are very much in the hearts and minds of Vietnamese society today.

Or China’s truly visionary Empress Wu, the only woman to have ruled China in her own right (pro-Confucian scholars did their best to bring her reputation into disrepute).

And Japan’s Murasaki Shikibu, the 12th century writer who created one of Japan's greatest literacy masterpieces, not to mention the world's first novel—The Tale of Genji.

Featuring strongly throughout this episode, were the ideals of female beauty that advocated immobility, perfect for that home-bound existence—the wearing of the multilayered kimonos in Japan and Chinese foot-binding.

Dr Foreman met 84-year-old Wang Huiyuan, one of the few surviving women whose feet had been bound, to explore why the practice persisted for so long. Makes for a very interesting interview.

Power — Episode 3

On her travels to Istanbul, Paris and Delhi, Dr Foreman uncovers the laws, religions and philosophies of some the most powerful empires of the Middle Ages — Byzantium, Ottoman and Mughal Empires — aimed at enforcing the subordination of woman.

“Is there no end to the determination to keep women invisible and powerless and to justify this as ‘the will of God’?” she asks rhetorically.

Even today, centuries on, just 20 per cent of the world’s political power rests in the hands of women.

The history of women is one of “unequal rights, unequal status and unequal opportunities.” But that, fortunately, is not the only story to be told.

This episode looks at the few exceptional women who worked within systems they had no part in creating, but were able to manipulate the pillars of patriarchy, religion, marriage, law and education, and class to be heard, respected and ultimately, to assume the reins of power. And in doing so, they helped to shape our world.

Empress Theodora transformed herself from a street performer, to palace prostitute, and then to empress and co-ruler of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Roxelana, a former slave, changed the structure of sexual dynastic politics in the Ottoman Court.

And Mughal Empress Nur Jahan, who helped establish trade routes and pioneer the use of the exquisite white marble used in India’s jewel, the Taj Mahal.

That ability to rule, inspire and to educate “is an ability that lies within us all” Dr Foreman reminds us.

Revolution — Episode 4

The role of women in revolutions that have transformed the modern world is under the spotlight in this last episode.

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) was one of France’s greater thinkers and political activists. But her revolutionary ideas secured her the guillotine rather than a burial in the Panthéon in Paris. The entrance inscription on this mausoleum reads “To great men a grateful nation”, a truly men-only club as not one woman was buried there during the 18th and 19th centuries. Currently, there are 71 men versus 4 women.

 “It’s one thing to be written out of history, but it is quite another to have this carved in stone,” Dr Foreman laments. The message being: only “the men count.”

Russia’s radical Alexandra Kollontai discovered that while her fellow Russian revolutionaries put women's rights at the crux of ideological change, the post-revolutionary world failed abysmally to address gender imbalance.

Thanks to the crusade of America’s Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and her alliance with a wealthy heiress, women today have access to birth control. Sanger saw contraception as the key to pulling women out of poverty, and fought hard against the establishment and their laws holding birth control an “obscenity”, alongside abortion and pornography.

I enjoyed watching Hillary Clinton put the record straight on Sanger’s unjustly tarnished reputation.

Africa leads the way when it comes to women in politics—hear what Lindiwe Mazibuko, South Africa’s former parliamentary opposition leader, has to say. I admire her gumption.

I have to say I found this series completely mesmerizing, and I certainly want my girls, and boys, to watch it when they’re a bit older.

Let me leave you with Dr Foreman’s closing statement:
“It is vital for the future that we have a proper understanding of the past, once we accept that the history of women has no endpoint, and is still in the process of being written, then we can be proud, vigilant and united in ensuring that the next revolution is the age of gender equality…”

- See more at:

Telegraph Review: "powerful, inspiring and important"

The Ascent of Woman, episode 4, review: 'passion and erudition'

By Gerard O'Donovan  24th September 2015

The conclusion of Amanda Foreman's BBC Two history series was powerful and inspiring, says Gerard O'Donovan

Watching the final part of Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman (BBC Two) was a reminder of how powerful, inspiring and important television can be at its best. One of Foreman’s chief arguments has been that women have contributed as much to history as men but have rarely been accorded the credit for it.

And this final episode, which focused on a series of extraordinary but little known 19th- and 20th-century revolutionaries and campaigners, offered a formidable exposition of the extent to which so many women have, unforgivably, been written out of that history.

Literally so in the case of the French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges, who published her Declaration for the Rights of Women in 1791 and whose champions Foreman met and interviewed still, 200 years on, marching the streets of Paris to have her contributions fully recognised.

Time and again Foreman offered examples of revolutions in which the contributions of women were encouraged – until the subject of their own rights was broached. Perhaps most fascinatingly in the case of Alexandra Kollontai, an extraordinary firebrand who pushed feminism to the heart of the Bolshevik agenda during the Russian revolution – only to see it rolled back again by Stalin and her considerable achievements wiped from the record.

It was on the subject of forgotten heroines like this that the programme was at its most atmospheric, with Foreman joining candlelit memorial parades in Moscow, or interviewing Kollontai's natural heirs, the members of Pussy Riot.  But she was just as ardent, if not more so, in recalling the better known achievements of campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett, founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, and Margaret Sanger in America, whose tireless (and wonderfully fearless) campaigning for access to birth control eventually led to the development of the contraceptive pill in 1960 - a day when "women's lives changed forever".

There were times when Foreman could be accused of oversimplifying her argument. That there were political and social factors other than an unalloyed male desire to suppress the rise of women that perhaps contributed to the extinguishing of some of these feminist flames.

But to argue that would be to miss the point. What Foreman achieved in this episode was to distil the essence of the last two centuries of global striving for equality into the space of a single hour with enormous passion and erudition. Few who watched could be anything other than grateful for her efforts to redress the balance of history, or disagree with her conclusion that it is “vital for the future that we have a proper understanding of the past.”

New Statesman Review: "wonderfully even-handed"

The Ascent of Woman isn’t perfect – but it does let female expertise shine

The Ascent of Woman seems like it was born to be broadcast on the BBC.

Rachel Cooke 17th September 2015

Amanda Foreman’s documentary series The Ascent of Woman (Wednesdays, BBC2, 9pm) is full of ambition and lavishly produced – somehow the BBC budget has got her to Vietnam and China, India and Turkey, as well as to the door of the V&A in London. In tone, it harks back very deliberately to the glory days of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969) and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973) but with the crucial difference that barely a male face can be seen. During the third episode, when some pasty, bespectacled chap from the University of East Anglia was wheeled on to discuss the 16th-century obsession with witchcraft, I felt vaguely amazed, like I was watching a giraffe wander through my local park. Oh, how I cherish this almost total reliance on female expertise, one clever, learned woman following another, as if it were not at all unusual for women to be clever and learned (though it isn’t in life, most television still conspires to suggest otherwise).

About the material, however, I am less certain. Foreman is wonderfully even-handed, speaking out against the injustices that women have suffered even as she conjures up those few extraordinary females who won wars and ruled empires. I appreciate her determination to show things in full colour, rather than in black and white. Every age has its anomalies and their stories inevitably throw everything into relief.

Yet there is no doubting that her narrative loses its power as it inches closer to our own times and places. The early films covered territory that was, to me, unfamiliar: the Trung sisters of Vietnam who, in 40AD, led a rebellion against the Chinese domination of their homeland; Empress Wu Zetian, whose governance of China was so innovative and ruthless. Now Foreman has reached the Middle Ages and it’s all far less thrilling. She hasn’t much new to say about the Empress Theodora and, although this is probably my failing rather than hers, I find it difficult to think of Hildegard of Bingen as a feminist heroine.

What of Foreman’s style? Quiet and unshowy, unlike most BBC historians, she lets her research speak for itself. Not for her the wild gesticulation, the overemphatic delivery, the modelling of silly costumes. Nevertheless, one scene jarred. In the second film, faced with an inkwell that may or may not have belonged to the 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu, Foreman began to cry. I tried to tell myself that this was fine: if she is the kind of person who finds the life of the anonymous author (Murasaki Shikibu was a nickname) of The Tale of Genji so very moving, why shouldn’t she allow herself a little sob? But the truth is, it drove me nuts. It wasn’t only the preciousness of such a display of feeling that infuriated me (to repeat: she was looking at an inkwell). Much more vexing was that I can imagine no male presenter doing such a thing. In her shoes, I would have insisted on smelling salts and a retake.

The Spectator Review: "entertained, enlightened and, yes, even a little bit chastened"

Finally James Delingpole gets why women are so pissed off

The moment of enlightenment came during Amanda Foreman’s chastening new history documentary The Ascent of Woman on BBC2

James Delingpole 5 September 2015

Finally I realise why women are so pissed off. It all goes back to the first codified laws — circa 2,400 bc — when rules like this were invented by men: ‘If a woman speaks out of turn then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.’ Before that, apparently, women lived on a pretty equal footing with their future male oppressors. Indeed, in arguably the first civilisation — a hive-like collection of houses in central Anatolia called Çatalhöyük dating back to 7,500 bc, when mankind was just beginning to emerge from the Stone Age and living with semi-domesticated animals — not a single man was expected to put out the bins while the women dealt with the easy tasks like cooking, washing, child-rearing, ironing, cleaning and leafing through holiday brochures.

That’s because everything was shared equally. Everyone’s house was the same size and everything, including children, was common property. Once you’d given birth, your child would be handed over to the neighbours and they’d bring it up in their household. This bound everyone together in communal loyalty and affection and peace, over 9,000 years before John met Yoko and wrote ‘Imagine’.

And so the good times continued for another 5,000 years, peaking with the advent of Enheduanna, daughter of the Sumerian King Sargon of Akkad, who appointed her priestess of the moon god Nanna in the city-state of Ur. Besides being wise and semi-divine, she wrote the first works of signed literature in history. In her Sumerian Temple Hymns, she wrote: ‘My king, something has been created that no one has created before.’ Clever girl. (As you’re not supposed to say these days: patronising.)

Then, with the Assyrians, it all went pear-shaped. This was the first culture to introduce the veil. The information came as quite a shock to one of the women, a Syrian, interviewed in Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman(BBC2, Wed). She had imagined that it was a legacy of much-later Islam and the fact that it wasn’t disturbed her, for it suggested that here was a form of oppression that owed more to ingrained male chauvinism than it did to divine wisdom.

Except, as Foreman pointed out, it’s not quite as simple as that. You could argue — as she duly did — that the veil was at least as much about ‘liberty and freedom’ as it was about ‘male ownership and control’. That’s because in a macho, brutal, warlike culture like Assyria’s, it would have been the only possible way that women could venture outside into the public space ‘without compromising themselves or losing the protection of their husbands’.

Coming from almost any other TV presenter save perhaps David Starkey, this would have sounded like a craven exercise in culturally relativist apologism. Foreman, though, appears determined to present this series wearing the mantle of a sober historian rather than that of a crusading social justice warrior or of an embittered representative of multiply-wronged womankind.

For which much thanks. The other week, I complained about the Darcyfication of TV drama, whereby everything from hunky Cap’n Poldark to the sexy rapist in The Fall now seems designed mainly to cater for women’s Fifty Shadesfantasies, while male viewers have been jettisoned as virtual irrelevances. Ditto, TV history. When, I ask you, was the last in-depth documentary about the second world war with a voiceover by Sam West? They’ve all been replaced by simpering girlies telling us about 18th-century needlecraft, early feminist tracts, medieval vaginal decoration and stuff like that. No, actually not the last one: that would have been mildly interesting, so it would never have got commissioned.

Hence my extreme reluctance to watch The Ascent of Woman. I thought it was going to be as much fun as having your wife torture you over breakfast with the details of your pervy sexual preferences, as vouchsafed by your recently disclosed Ashley Madison profile: bitterness mixed with vindictive triumphalism. But because Foreman didn’t do it in an aggrieved, telling-off way — useful tip for wives and girlfriends that: never do it in an aggrieved, telling-off way — I came away feeling entertained, enlightened and, yes, even a little bit chastened.

Did you know that Pandora’s box actually refers to Pandora’s, ahem, ‘box’? That is, it’s another allegorical embodiment of an ingrained male notion that all the evils of the world spring forth from a woman’s naughty bits. Or that Aristotle was the originator of the Harry Enfield sketch ‘Woman: know your limits’? It is cause for pause, surely, that the civilisation we revere as one of the world’s greatest — Ancient Greece — forced on its womenfolk a lifestyle little less constrained and veiled than that experienced by modern Afghan women under the Taleban.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 September 2015

Tags: Amanda foremanAncient greeceAssyriansBBC2Genderstone age,SumeriansTVveilWomen

The Independent Review: "Scholarly yet Pacy"

The Ascent of Woman, TV review: The story of how a feminist hero came to legitimise misogyny


In this scholarly yet pacy BBC documentary, Dr Amanda Foreman started her search for answers a long, long way back

SIMON USBORNE Thursday 03 September 2015

In the current debate about the new feminism, and daily assaults on equality, I do not recall anyone stepping back very far from the contemporary world of pay gaps and thigh gaps to ask the most basic question: why is this a thing? Where do the roots of sexism lead, and how long are they? In the first episode of The Ascent of Woman, a scholarly yet pacy four-part documentary, Dr Amanda Foreman started her search for answers a long, long way back. As far as archaeologists can tell, Catalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old city in modern-day Turkey, was an equal society, and God was a seated woman attended by leopards.

Then things got bad. With agricultural surplus came currency and power, the harvesting of which chiefly became the concern of men and their bloodlines. After the Anatolian leopard woman, a figurine of whom Foreman observed, her binder of game-changing women were exceptions to the patriarchal rule.

The next one was also a paradox. Enheduanna, a powerful Mesopotamian princess, priestess and poet, was responsible for the earliest recorded authored writing. She was a feminist hero way before her time, yet her work also legitimised the empire of her father, Sargon, who laid some of the earliest foundations for legalised male domination. In another museum (there were a lot of museums but Foreman's enthusiasm kept the story alive) the presenter read inscriptions of early, Sargon-inspired laws. Among other things, they set in stone the fair punishment for a woman who dared to speak out of turn: smash her teeth in with a brick.

It got worse still in Assyria, where a rapist's wife would be raped as part of HIS punishment, and where the full face veil emerged more than 2,000 years before Islam. Beyond the myths, Ancient Greece was also a disaster for women. A diversion to the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe introduced us to female warriors who were buried with their weapons but, with few exceptions, this was depressing, oppressing stuff. Left unsaid, rightly I think, in Foreman's travels in a region that now includes Iraq and Syria, was the sickening repetition of history by extremists on some of the same lands today. But if knowledge is the ultimate power, then her relentlessly illuminating examination of that past and its legacy today, from the extreme to the everyday, could not be more timely.