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.