The Guardian, Saturday 18 April 2009 00.01 BST
From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women
by Marilyn French, with forewords by Margaret Atwood.
4 volumes, Feminist Press: 352 pp., 477 pp., 385 pp., 608 pp., $19.95 each
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. On 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.