It was 2016, and I was glued to the TV watching a sea of pink, cat-eared hats. As I read the signs of protest statements and listened to the speeches, it sent chills of excitement and pride up my spine. The determination and outrage of the masses of people who gathered for the women’s march were awe inspiring. It made me so proud to be a woman and witness the power of my gender. At the same time, I also saw the anger and ridicule from the opposite side: a sea of red hats screaming out “Make America great again!”
Has America or any other country ever really been “great” for women?
It made me wonder, and I decided to dive into thousands of years of history to learn about women’s lives in the past. Have we always been this divided?
The election of 2016 was the first time I really started to get passionate about politics and our government. Friends and those close to me asked me why the sudden change? I told them because it was so visceral. I couldn’t explain it, but as Trump was sworn into office, I instantly felt attacked, vulnerable, and numb. Why was I so fearful? Could one man really take away my freedoms and the way of life that I have become accustomed to? Most people that I tried to explain this emotion to would scoff or laugh at me claiming that I was ridiculous and one man could not take all of women’s rights away or change the way that our government viewed women. I wish that their words would have appeased me, but as I dove into our roller coaster of a past, I learned that one man, one choice, or one law has drastically tipped the scales for women many times in an instant.
Women’s history is filled with constant rocky waves of freedom.
There were leaders, warriors, unsung heroes, revolutionaries, and so many liberated women that fought and made huge strides for women’s rights. At the same time, there were just as many blows to knock down their progress and bring them back to nothing. Is this why we are still fighting? Is this why women refuse to let their guard down? Let’s explore some history and try to at least understand who we were then, that way it may help us to understand our fight now.
10,000 BC to 5,000 BC mainly consisted of Neolithic societies. They were mostly nomadic and lived off the land. They were hunter-gatherers. Every day was a constant struggle to stay alive, so there was no time for government or hierarchies. There wasn’t a great concern for money, power, or land. Physiologically there were differences between men and women, but both carried substantial portions of responsibility to provide for their families and the rest of the communities. It was mainly an egalitarian society.
Later in 5,000 BC, there are recordings of the first civilization in history. They were known as the Sumer or later the Sumerians in early Mesopotamia. They left the first pieces of evidence of an agricultural society. They stayed in one place and even began forming versions of government and temples with priests. Parts of Egypt started forming small civilizations as well. At this time there was no evidence of differentiation between men and women’s rights. It was still mainly communal and equal collective work for the day to day survival. So far for the first 5,000 years of our history things may have been very hard for women but no obvious historical evidence of discrimination, persecution, or divisions. So what changed?
The Babylonians took control of the Sumer civilization in 2004 BC. A written language started to develop, and laws began to be recorded in history. The cone laws were introduced in 2400 BC on the Enmetena and Urukagina cones there was a law recorded stating:
“If a woman speaks out of turn, then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.”
This was when any glimpse of an egalitarian society vanished.
The strong air of patriarchal ideals came into play and massively emboldened in the years to come. Wars between the Babylonians, Persians, and Akkadians grew, and warriors became invaluable. Through war, men were glorified and as empires grew men’s power greatly increased as well. Women increasingly became property, breeders, and thought of as frail burdens to be cared for.
Women were to be seen and not to be heard.
In 1754 BC laws were made that actually benefited women. They were granted the ability to own property and laws also forbade ill-treatment or neglect of women. This was a huge reprieve after the blow of the first wave of the cone laws, but a short reprieve. Later this law caused women to lose even more of their freedoms because they became property themselves. If they owned land or property that was passed down to them their value increased causing men to use their daughters as bartering tools. Women’s sexual history and beauty became part of the package of land or property. They became chess pieces in games of land and wealth. Another rough wave.
In 1806 BC There is a history of the first Queen. Her name was Queen Sobekneferu. Her name meant “the beauty of Sobek.” She ruled for 4 years. They have found evidence that she represented herself as a woman and embraced it, but also wore a combination of men’s and women’s clothing. Some scholars believe this was to show her strength and assert herself as a powerful queen not just as a woman.
Later in 1478 BC, there is a record of a 2nd queen named Hatshepsut. She became queen regent of Egypt after her husband died. She has been recorded as the longest reigning female Pharaoh in Egypt and is considered one of Egypt’s most successful Pharaohs. After her death, it is believed that Amenhotep II defiled her tomb and tried to erase all records of her life’s work as Pharaoh. Later Cleopatra became Pharaoh in 51 BC and reigned for about 21 years.
So, from 2400 BC to 30 BC women had minimal rights, were controlled by their property value and were bought and sold for their youth and beauty like cattle, but at least there were some female leaders right? I guess at this point in history I will take what I can get.
While the rest of the world was mainly patriarchal, Vietnam was mostly considered matriarchal until Chinese rule came and introduced Confucian patriarchal values.
When the harsh rule of Chinese governor ToDinh began to drastically change the Vietnamese way of life the Tru’ng sisters could no longer stand by and watch their world be crushed.
They were well-educated daughters of a powerful lord. They raised an army of over 80,000 people to lead their rebellion. They trained men and women alike to be fighters and generals. With their army, the Tru’ng sisters drove out the Chinese rule in 40 AD. The people proclaimed Trung Trac to be their leader (one of the Tru’ng sisters) and re-named her “Trung Vuong” or “She-king Trung.” The sisters continued to rule for three years while fighting back the Chinese armies. Out armed and out manned by the Chinese forces, they were defeated in 43 AD. Though defeated their legend lived on in history. Poems and songs were written about them. One famous poem is:
“All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission; only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country” (15th-century poem).
Similar to the Tru’ng sisters another woman will live on in history as a courageous heroine who had faced and beaten down unimaginable forces. Her name was Boudica.
She was a Celtic woman living in Brittania in 60 AD. She was married to a man named Prasutagus. When Prasutagus died, he left his lands to his wife Boudica and her daughters. Prasutagus’ lands were an independent ally of Rome. When he died his will was not honored, and Rome annexed his kingdom, and his property was taken. His wife Boudica was flogged for resisting, and their daughters were raped.
Boudica would not walk away in defeat.
She raised the Iceni, Trinovantes, and others in revolt and rebellion. An estimated 70,000- 80,000 Romans were killed in multiple cities by her armies. Nero almost considered pulling out of all Britain realms to save his own armies. She was later defeated in a large battle and was forced to retreat and submit. Rome took control of the province. She remains a legend and Celtic heroine in history. She was known as the Celtic queen.
She is one of my favorite legendary women in history with her blue Celtic markings and wild red flowing hair. Her ferocity and courage to endure being publicly ridiculed, her children defiled, and her rights ignored she rose up with a vengeance to show the true meaning of a “woman scorned.”
So, in a time where women like Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, the Tru’ng sisters, and Boudica could rule, dominate and overthrow forces of unimaginable power how was it that the rest of women in society were thought of as property, breeders, bartering tools, sex slaves, frail, helpless, 2nd rate citizens with no voice and no power?
My only conclusion from my research thus far is that by the lack of education for women and the sole focus of conquering and building up empires at this time in history made it the time of the WARRIOR. The major physiological differences between men and women and the minds of those in power at this point in history saw no value in women because they could not or were not allowed to be soldiers.
I do want to note that as much as it enrages me that women were thought of and treated this way in history, I do need to “place credit where credit is due” (a quote from one of Camille Paglia’s speeches which I will elaborate on later in my piece). The massive walls, pyramids, and ruins of large empires that we see today were built on the backs of men and were defended by men. The soldiers and male workers deserve that acknowledgment.
Without them, those early civilizations would have been defenseless, but should their accolade cause women’s ostracism? Does one gender’s glory have to mean the other’s demise or belittlement?
Maybe we have always been divided? Can we ever heal that divide? Do we want to or should we? Everything in my soul says we must, but how? Let’s see what the next 500- 1000 years tells us. Will women regain a sense of value and strength? Will they continue to fight and follow in the footsteps of the strong warrior women before them? If they do, will they succeed and what will they do with their new freedoms?
To be continued….
Stay tuned for “Glass Ceilings: The rocky waves of freedom 30 BC to 1600”
Works cited and references:
Google, Wikipedia, history.com, “The ascent of women” documentary, “Warrior Women” documentary, Britannica.com, womeninworldhistory.com