“Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths [..] but when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress bathing in milk.” Dr Bettany Hughes argues that women have been largely written out of history and this seems to be a recurring theme. Bettany Hughes, an English historian and author discussed with English Heritage about how women are misrepresented in history, and why this happens:
DO YOU THINK WOMEN HAVE FEATURED LESS IN HISTORY THAN MEN HAVE?
Absolutely, it’s the inconvenient truth that women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history. Clearly something has gone wrong here, the maths just doesn’t work.
WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS?
To solve that particular problem I think we need to go right back to pre-history. When we go back into the pre-historic world, we see the polar opposite.
If you look at all the figurines made between about 40,000 BC, until around 5,000 BC – a period which really sees the flourishing of the modern mind- at that time around 90% of all these figurines are of women. So women are very present in the archaeological record, but then start to disappear once pre-history turns into history.
At the birth of civilised society, you have these very highly productive and sophisticated, settlements, with women having great status; they are high priestesses, they have property rights and own land, they write poetry- but these new civilisations want to expand. So – broadly speaking – when that happens, what you need is muscle power, and society becomes more militarised. The balance of power shifts.
It really is quantum shift in the story of the world, we start to find these powerful warrior gods appearing in the archaeology as well as in epics; The Epic of Gilgamesh; The Iliad and the Odyssey; and this represents a gear change in how we are told the story of humanity.
BUT WHY DOES THIS SHIFT IN SOCIETY THEN BECOME AN ENDEMIC THROUGHOUT HISTORY?
We retain this status quo; we keep what we have by growth and military means; muscle still matters. This becomes a base note in society, where as previously a measure of achievement might have been the physical survival of the community, and of quality of life, it is now expansion and success. Women’s roles remain diminished.
SO DO WOMEN CONTINUE TO IMPACT HISTORY?
Yes. There are brilliantly feisty women from history who have made an impact, and whose stories need to be told. For historians it’s our job to fill in the gaps in history. We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS THEN, THAT WE KNOW OF SOME WOMEN BUT NOT OTHERS?
A lot of the women that we think of, like Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, one of the reasons their stories have lasted is that they are portrayed as highly sexualised. They are exciting, but the danger of their influence has also become a warped morality tale; we remember them as creatures who draw men towards their beds and towards their death.
ARGUABLY WE CAN BE SEEN TO CATEGORISE WOMEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Definitely, often women aren’t allowed to be characters in history, they have to be stereotypes. Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths; she wasn’t that much of a looker. But when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress bathing in milk. Often, even when women have made their mark and they are remembered by history, we are offered a fantasy version of their lives.
SO IS THIS WHY, EVEN NOW, WE DON’T ACKNOWLEDGE WOMEN’S ROLE IN HISTORY AS MUCH AS WE DO MEN’S?
I don’t think there are malign forces at work here; it’s just a practical issue. Physically the stories of women have been written out of history, rather than written in. But times are changing; we’re getting more interested in the story of what it means to be human, as opposed to being a man or a woman.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP THIS CHANGE HAPPEN?
Whenever I feel sad about how systematically women vanished from history, I take the long view, and say, there has been a problem here for at least 3,500 years, so it’s no surprise that we have some catching up to do! But that in itself is quite empowering, because we know what we are up against.
This is an issue that has very deep roots, and we can see how and why that plays out, and therefore what we can do to start to change things. What we need to do is make sure that collectively we are known as the generation that opened rather than closed minds, and who opened these stories up, and put them back onto the page and into our collective memory.
Dr Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. For more on her work, visit www.bettanyhughes.co.uk