Enheduanna. Hatshepsut. Empress Wu. Murasaki Shikibu. These ancient women were the first feminist trailblazers, yet they’ve been largely expunged from the historical record.
Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon the Great of Sumer, became the world’s first recorded author in the third millennium BCE. Hatshepsut ruled the Kingdom of Egypt for 20 years, adopting the full regalia of a male king — beard included — before her successor had all signs of her reign erased. Empress Wu, also known as Wu Zetian, united the Chinese empire and reigned as sole monarch for fifteen years before her successors also tried to obliterate her achievements. Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, the Tale of Genji, between 1001-1010 AD. Her real name and personal details remain largely unknown.
These influential women are just a few of the female iconoclasts featured in The Ascent of Woman, Dr. Amanda Foreman’s four-part BBC documentary that premiered to U.S. viewers on Netflix earlier this month. The series aims to “retell the story of civilization with women and men side by side for the first time,” as Foreman declares in the introduction. Reinscribing women into their rightful places in the human story, the documentary corrects the erasures of history’s male heirs.
“Everybody knows the saying that knowledge is power, but they don’t always apply it in their own lives,” Foreman says of the project. “For women, our history has been hidden from us. The history that we’ve been given has us largely written out. And even when we’re not written out it’s gendered in a way that marginalizes women for the most part. By giving up our right to our history, and letting others write it for us, we are allowing them to determine how we think of ourselves in the present and they are also shaping what we think we can achieve for the future.”
Beginning at the site of the first known human settlement, The Ascent of Woman chronicles how women went from being equal partners in labor, politics, and war to being subject to the patriarchal structures of the modern age. To do so, Foreman and her team traveled from Turkey to Siberia, Vietnam, China, Japan, Germany, France, and beyond, literally retracing the footsteps of women like the Trung sisters, who led an army of 80,000 Vietnamese in revolt against their Chinese conquerors in 41 AD.
Filming a documentary about the history of women on location, in public, proved to be an excellent way of probing the sometimes troubled contemporary relationship to powerful historical women. In Vietnam, where the Trung sisters are widely celebrated, people were fascinated by the project, Foreman says. In China, “they just weren’t that interested. Women aren’t that interesting and therefore they weren’t that interested in what we were doing … we were left to do our thing, which in a way was great, but it was also kind of telling.”
“The hardest time we had was in Turkey, where we really found ourselves being hassled,” Foreman says. “We would start filming in a place, and then suddenly our license would be revoked, while we were standing there. At one point the director was manhandled — there was an official attitude to us that we didn’t encounter just among civilians, who were interested in what we were doing and very supportive. The government, officialdom, was unhelpful — to put it mildly.”
What emerges is a highly textured portrayal of how the female trailblazers of the past still exert a powerful influence over the present — so much so that governments may still be threatened by any celebration of their achievements. This tension becomes most evident in the fourth and final episode, “Revolution,” which profiles the contemporary women battling for political equality and representation like ?Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and ?Maria Alyokhina in Russia, Lindiwe Mazibuko in South Africa, and more.
“Revolutions are often highly unequal, and often end up with women if not where they started, sometimes two steps backwards,” says Foreman. Since the documentary debuted in the U.K. in September 2015, Foreman has watched two feminist revolutions simultaneously erupt.
“People are talking about and grappling with gender issues and feminist issues in a way that’s never been done before. It’s finally come out of the fringe and entered mainstream public discourse in a way that just wasn’t possible even 10 years ago — and that really is a revolution,” she says. “It’s incredibly difficult to make real change when you’re confined to the fringe.”
The second revolution, Foreman argues, is an economic one. “It’s not going on in the West, per se — it’s going on more in places like Africa and parts of the developing world, and it is centered around small businesses and female-led businesses, women taking charge of their finances… That is a revolution that is happening very slowly, and of course, it’s always in danger of being derailed.”
Foreman has a knack for telling the stories of powerful women — her first book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, became the feature film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley. The Ascent of Woman lays the groundwork for her next one, The World Made by Women: A History of Women from the Apple to the Pill, which will be published by Random House in 2017.
“I always wanted to write a history of women. But, anything that’s a general history, that covers a great deal of time and needs a lot of synthesizing, you need to do when you’re at the top of your game,” says Foreman, who has been working as a historian for more than twenty years.
“I am now at the top of my game.”