Soeurs still to see true liberté and égalité

From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women
February 18, 2005

The face of 12-year-old Aziza, an Afghan child bride, still haunts me. It appeared on the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine on May 9, 2004. Aziza had been sold to a 46-year-old farmer to help pay her father's £5,000 debt, the result of failed dealings in opium. "I'm not going! I'm not going!" she had shouted at her mother. But she was already married under Islamic law, making an annulment nearly impossible. Though Aziza's particular story does not feature in Marilyn French's monumental three volumes, From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women , her desperate plight is central to its history.

French, a feminist writer and literary critic, is best known for her novel The Women's Room, published in 1977, which portrayed the stultifying life of a middle-class suburban woman trapped in marriage to a smug, bullying doctor. Other literary successes followed and, somewhere along the way, French became fascinated with the history of women. She collected material for a British television series on the subject, but the project was never to materialise. Still, her interest did not wane. She spent another 15 years researching and revising her material in order to produce this book. In the acknowledgments, she records her thanks to a glittering host of feminist scholars who helped and encouraged her as she sought to explore why, from "the beginning of history... women have been suppressed, rendered unfree, made men's property".

Volume one charts women's roles from the earliest recorded history to the Dark Ages. At some point in our distant past, notes French, men rose in rebellion against women, pushing aside mother-right and asserting the rights of father. To guarantee paternity, they had to control women, keep them under surveillance, own them. Women lost their previous rights as this patriarchal structure was developed, especially in the earliest states found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, Mexico, Rome and Greece.

As women lost status and state formations developed further, so the controls on women intensified, as in China after it was conquered by the Mongols who created the Yuan Dynasty. Since both the Chinese and the Mongols were intent on keeping their cultures separate, they focused on guarding women (and the inheritance rights of sons) from rape and intermarriage by banning the remarriage of widows, emphasising female chastity - and binding girls' feet. Tiny feet became a mark of elite Han culture, an outward sign that a woman was an object to be prized by a potential suitor. From five or six years of age, elite Chinese girls grew up weeping as each foot was tightly swathed so that it grew under, rather than outwards, the sole nearly touching the heel. Sometimes aspiring families, who wanted a daughter to marry into a higher class, would bind her feet too but fail to find the hoped-for husband. Such a daughter, tottering on her crippled stumps, would have no choice but to undertake the labour appropriate to her station, perhaps pulling canal barges or working in the fields.

However, insists French, it was not the development of state formations alone that strengthened patriarchal practices and restricted women. Religion was another structure that robustly undertook this work. Thus Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all pervaded with a vicious misogyny that decreed that women were unequal. Paul, in the New Testament, ordered women to learn in silent submissiveness, not to teach or have authority over men, while, in Islam, men devised the notion of "family honour", so essential to a man's status that he must kill anyone who impugned it. Yet the person responsible for maintaining it was the supposedly weak, untrustworthy female who had to be pure and so self-effacing that she could not arouse suspicion.

Having laid the foundations of her analysis in volume one, French weaves the thread of patriarchy through the other two books in her trilogy, especially in volume two, which focuses on the role of women in society from feudal times up to 1800. She emphasises the importance of the French Revolution, pointing out that, for the first time, women played a significant role in changing their nation's destiny. Women bore arms alongside their menfolk, eagerly supporting the brutal guillotining of Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, as well as hundreds of other people. Yet although the Republic established in 1792-93 granted women equal rights to divorce, with custody of infants and daughters, equal inheritance rights and a share of family property, it did not grant them equal citizenship. Nonetheless, the French Revolution marked a profound change in human affairs, especially in Europe, in that ordinary men and women began to believe that they had some control over their lives and were entitled to a voice in society.

Volume three, which traces the role of women in the 19th and 20th centuries, is the most unsatisfactory of the three volumes because it offers an uneven synthesis of the vast amount of published work in the field. Nevertheless, French emphasises rightly how capitalism triumphed in the 19th century at the same time that European powers expanded their imperial empires throughout Asia and Africa. These years, she points out, marked a turning point for women as they stood together and demanded an end to their subjugation, especially in the US and Europe. A cult of domesticity had defined women as ideally located within the private sphere of the home as wives and mothers, inferior beings who lost their own legal identity on marriage. But women began to organise and claim their right to education, to entry to the professions, to the exercise of the vote and to the ownership of property.

As early as 1848, 200 American women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, met at Seneca Falls, New York, with the purpose of righting women's wrongs. A hundred of them signed the Declaration of Sentiments, passed by the convention, which claimed that women were rational individuals endowed with natural rights, the equals of men. "The first feminist revolution explicitly to challenge patriarchy had begun," French states. Yet although many of these pioneers were also involved in the campaign to abolish slavery, racism did not end, nor the gross inequalities experienced by black American women.

The story of the black feminist Ida B. Wells, one-time teacher, writer and newspaper editor, is pertinent. In 1892 she led the fight against the lynching of three young black men for the rape of a white woman, believing that such murders were racially motivated executions. She also joined the activists campaigning for the vote and criticised the great Susan B. Anthony for allowing segregation in the women's movement.

Wells was a feminist who refused to compromise, a quality also evident in Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette leader in Edwardian Britain. Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women on equal terms with men. With her cry "Deeds, not words", she roused thousands of women to claim their citizenship rights. Suffragettes engaged in political acts that were unthinkable for a "lady", such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to pillar boxes, going on hunger strike in prison and enduring the torture of forced feeding. Although all such activity was called to a halt with the outbreak of war in 1914, such deeds were long remembered. "The WSPU's legacy to later generations," asserts French, "was a new image of women as rebels, articulate, visible and organised."

The 20th century, as French acknowledges, has been convulsed by revolutions, genocides and civil wars unparalleled in ferocity and scale. Although Third World revolutions won independence for a large number of states, economic hardship and power struggles among classes, peoples and the sexes still continue in these societies, as elsewhere. Thus in India, a pervasive misogyny is becoming more powerful as several new trends threaten its womenfolk - the spread of the dowry system, the aborting of female foetuses, the rise of militant Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. Indeed, French comes to the general conclusion that, worldwide: "Women, at the bottom of every class, oppressed and discriminated against under the old system, remain so in the new. No revolutionary struggle, no matter how vocal its commitment to sexual equality, actually achieved it." Even in the socialist systems established in Russia, France, Italy and Spain, patriarchy triumphed, just as it did in Christianity and Islam.

Inevitably in a broad-sweep book such as this, covering some 1,700 pages, there are glossings-over and omissions. And, undoubtedly, the whole would have benefited from a more structured, nuanced approach than the mass of material presented here.

But these volumes hit home a powerful message about the ways in which women's lives, including that of Aziza, the Afghan chartered bride, have been controlled and restricted down the centuries.

Optimistically, French sees hope in the global feminism that is emerging that can challenge the very roots of male power. In particular, she highlights the importance of gatherings such as the 1985 United Nations Third World Conference on Women and the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in developing a new moral ideology that centres on human rights - and feeds the growth of a pragmatic feminism that emphasises international links of solidarity across cultures and national boundaries.

It is a solidarity that needs to reach girls such as Aziza, living in a society where the democratic process is being built slowly after years of brutal oppression under the fundamentalist Islamic theocracy of the Taleban. Coverage of her story would have been unthinkable in the old days. The publication of it now, to a worldwide audience, can help to bring an end to the barbaric practice of selling daughters into enforced marriages.

Overall, despite some weaknesses, French's A History of Women is a compelling book that raises questions that cannot be ignored. Bold in its aims and fearless in its feminist commitment, it is a useful starting point for those who wish to know why women have been and remain unequal. French's desire to establish an alternative world, a cooperative, peaceful planet in which neither sex is dominant, where dictatorships, tyrannies and patriarchy are no more, is an aim that should be shared by feminists and non-feminists alike.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women: Volume 1: Origins; Volume 2: The Masculine Mystique; Volume 3: A History of Women

Author - Marilyn French
Publisher - McArthur and Co,
Pages - 322, 462 and 967
Price - £16.99 each
ISBN - 1 558 268 9, 323 5 and 346 4

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