The Myth of the ‘Empowered Woman’ in History

The 'Venus of Lespugue'

The Venus of Lespugue. A goddess? Or just a woman?

I wanted to write this post to explain where I stand on some issues of women’s history and its relationship to feminism.

I love researching women’s history. I find it so exciting to recover evidence about women’s lives, which generations of people – men and women, but often men because it’s often men who’ve written history – have ignored and silenced.

I love discovering, for example, the women who took over from their husbands and ran businesses to feed their families, even in the fifteenth century. I love to know that there were women who fought tooth and nail to marry the men they loved, or to protect their children. I love the amount of research at the moment that is insisting we have to value traditionally female crafts like quilting or needlework, as valuable parts of our artistic heritage.

But what I struggle with is the mythologising of female history. This is why my previous post explored some of the loving, poignant and tender words medieval men had for the women in their families, to show that the situation we’re in now, where we recognise misogyny but see the good in our own sons, husbands and brothers, is nothing new.

I don’t know when it started, but at some point, people started making up stories about the glorious, empowered women who lived outside recorded history – and they started selling those stories to ordinary women like you and me, and pretending they were history. This makes me furious. It is taking advantage of women who want to learn, and giving them misinformation, which they will accept because, well, who wouldn’t want to believe that once, women were goddesses in a matriarchial society?

I hear myths all the time, from women who are thrilled and excited to have been told that once, women were powerful.

Just today, I read someone explain in the most powerful terms how the number 13 is unlucky because women’s menstrual cycles happen every 28 days, and should have led to a year with 13 months – only men censored this number out of fear of the Goddess.

I have no doubt women have been censored in the past, and I know for a fact that some men are, and have been, deeply uncomfortable with menstruation as an aspect of female fertility, now and in the past. But the calendar of twelve months – and the idea of a month as a lunar cycle – is not actually as old as all that. Earlier systems had ten months, not corresponding even nearly to lunar cycles. And there are big issues with the assumption women’s cycles are 28 days. Cycles can range from 21 to 35 days in adults, as most of us know – but in teenagers (and we’ve got to bear in mind that, if this censorship of months as menstrual cycles happened in the distant past, we’re talking more about teenagers than older women), they can range from 21 to 45 days. Disturbingly, this information, which should be well known, is something I have had to explain in some detail to GPs, who appeared unaware of the possibility of a 35 day cycle. And I’m not the only woman who’s had that experience, by a long shot.

Another myth I commonly hear is that, in medieval Europe, women were entirely disempowered, could not read, and were kept modest and ignorant. I say, have a look at this woman!

And yet another myth is that, prior to Christianity, women were worshipped and adored. This myth is important for us to debunk, because it is essentially the same myth that persists as a tool of misogynists. The idea is that if the image of a woman is highly visible – as a statue of a goddess, the Virgin Mary, Venus, or Ceres – then her human counterparts must be equally well appreciated. Or, to put it as our contemporary friends like Heff would: ‘I love women! Especially naked!’

Excuse me while I vomit.

I felt the grim irony of these stories when I listened to the appalling forensic report on a woman living a thousand years ago, who was buried with her three babies: one she may have given birth to, one she struggled in labour with before she died, and one who died in the womb after her own death. No-one should have to imagine such a fate – and no amount of mythical adoration could make up for it. I spend a lot of my time reading about people in the distant past, and living with the minutiae of their lives. And I will defend their humanity again and again. But I won’t celebrate the aspects of their lives that were horrific. You can watch that story, from History Cold Case, here. It’s just one example, but it’s a reminder of something far more real than any pseudo-’empowering’ myth could be.

The problem with this has two levels: one, women are being lied to, and believing – and therefore perpetuating – a lie. That, amongst other things, makes it harder for us to be taken seriously. Secondly, this fake history erases the reality of women in the past. We don’t know those women, and we may never know anything at all about their lives. But they were real, and they deserve our respect, just as every human being does.


33 thoughts on “The Myth of the ‘Empowered Woman’ in History

  1. I totally respect where you are coming from and have read every line slowly and with thought, but I can’t find the evidence for those Goddesses of the past being a myth. Other than saying it is so, how do you argue that case? I have read it twice and can’t find it?

    • Oh, sorry … the blog I commented on when I posted about why I found Sarah Ditum’s comments really moving for me. My Elegant Gathering of White Snows.

  2. Hi Liska. Thanks for replying, and I’m glad you found it ok to read.

    Here you are:
    Obviously this link is just wiki, but sums it up nicely. The links at the bottom give the more academic sources.

    As to Goddesses of the past being a myth – well, I don’t know if they were, but claiming they are history and/or ’empowering’ is the thing that bothers me.

    See, take the Venus statues like the one in my picture, right? We know those exist. I would love to think that they might have been made because, at some time in prehistory, people honestly thought plump women looked wonderful, and worshipped them. And I know that is what people want to think. But there is no evidence – it’s entirely up to interpretation, because no written sources survive. Same story with the idea that, in pre-Christian history, women must have been treated as ‘goddesses’. We know that the Romans and Greeks could be pretty horrible to woman.

    The reason I mention modern stuff like Heff, is that I think it helps understand what’s going on. I reckon we both know Hugh Heffner is not exaclty, well, ‘worshipping’ women! 😀 He likes them, sure, but a lot of people would also think he is patronizing to them.

    If you were a historian, and all you had to go on was pictures from Playboy, you might conclude that women with huge boobs were being worshipped – that’s pretty much what people assume with the ‘goddess’ statues. But we know from the modern comparison it’s not that simple!

    So that’s where I come from, basically.

  3. Okay, but stay with me, I am talking about Priestesses in the lost city of Atlantis and the fact that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ “wife” and a priestess, yet because they wanted the church to be male dominated they perpetuated a lie that she was the equivalent of a prostitute. Apparently the Pope retracted THAT myth and admitted her importance circa the 1960s (I’d have to look it up) but the apology didn’t undo 2k years of believing otherwise. So how do you disprove my belief about those sort of Priestesses some of whom were experts in the use of crystals and healing remedies etc…? Other than by telling me that Venus statues were the ancient equivalent of Page 3?

  4. I think Atlantis is a myth – do you have evidence to the contrary? I didn’t think it was real.

    I don’t know about Mary being Jesus’s wife. From what I’ve read, I don’t know for sure she was. But I agree with you 100% that women were far more important in the early Church and I would say this is a huge issue. The Orthodox Church is just beginning to accept women were deacons in the early years, and that their role was hugely minimized later on.

    Mary certainly wasn’t a prostitute, you’re right. That’s a medieval myth and a really nasty one.

    I think my problem is, I reckon we have to go on what we have evidence for. I do not disagree with you that it would be nice to believe these stories. God knows, I want to! That’s what I am saying in my blog. But if there is no evidence, how can we be taken seriously?

    And when it’s a situation where the evidence actually suggests women were treated badly – for example, in pre-Christian Roman or Greek societies – I think it is more important to respect the women we know were real, rather than to cling to stories that probably are not real.

    I do find this a difficult part of being a feminist, because of course I *want* to believe that once, society was fair and equal and kind to women (mind you, I reckon we’d need male gods as well for that). But in my heart of hearts, I just don’t see the evidence it was.

  5. When you say myth was spread I don’t know if you mean myth that she was powerful or myth that she was a woman of the night. Anyway, I know which one I believe. Thankfully the Church DID retract the lies about her being a prostitute, but like the Sun making a lie a front page and the retraction on page 45, some people never ever got to know it WAS retracted but it clearly states it here, on Wiki where it says: “It is almost universally agreed today that characterizations of her by the Western Church as a repentant prostitute or loose woman are unfounded”

    What I struggle with, with academic types such as yourself (despite having grown up as one myself) is that you give no regard to what we inwardly KNOW. The akashic record etc…. I know that Goddesses once walked this Earth, I don’t need a medieval book to prove it to me. Yesterday I was thinking about Mammasaurus and wondering when she would email me the follow up points from Blog Clinic from Saturday and 30 seconds later she emailed me. Same day, I was wishing Circus Queen had commented on my #blogfest post and 30 seconds later she did; a similar coincidence happened today. I hardly ever get in the zone to tap into this telepathy or psychic talent, but to only believe what we have proof for, only uses 10% of our brains and denies us access to ancient knowledge.

    I have done too many years of yoga and meditation to only believe what we read in books. If the ancient books said powerful stuff about women, don’t you think men would have burned them as they did with the parts of the bible that turned up?

    Liska x

  6. I meant the myth she was Jesus’ wife, sorry! I agree it was a myth made up in medieval times that she was a prostitute. And I don’t think anyone has ever seriously disgreed she was powerful – she rocks! Sorry to be unclear.

    I hope I don’t give no regard to what we know inwardly. I do think it is a difficult question. And I think the fact that – as I’ve said – I *want* to believe this stuff is true is probably how I feel the same thing you are feeling, that I very much want this to be real. I certainly do not believe women deserve to be oppressed. So I think that must be the same.

    I’m not very into mystical stuff – I’m boring down-to-earth – but I think there are real, strong reasons why it’s important to go with the historical evidence. I’m not naive enough to think strong women haven’t been erased from history. I bet they have been! But let me put it this way: I know about a woman who swung a mace to defend the place where she lived. I know about a woman who managed to endure giving birth at 13, and went on to be a brilliantly strong queen. I know about women who led armies into war and acted as generals – look at Ethelflaed – and women who motivated other women to form an army when they were being attacked. I don’t see why we need to talk about women goddesses who may or may not have existed, when there are real women who did amazing things?

  7. I think we have an inner power that WE oppress when we keep watching our subjugation instead of reclaiming our power. At the point where I had to end the part 1 video (due to the You Tube cap of 15 mins) even the chair of the panel made that point. We as women are too too quick to belittle ourselves when women like the ones you’ve just referenced are capable of GREAT things and I don’t think it is great to put a BEAUTIFUL pic of a mother in the NewStatesMAN and say it is a self abnegating mother, whose style of mothering benefits mother more than child when there is quite a lot of scientific evidence to the contrary xx

  8. That is really nicely put, and I don’t think any feminist would want to deny women are capable of great things.

    I don’t honestly think feminists are belittling this aspect of being a woman, though.

    I think – and obviously my view is coloured by the fact I am not a mother – that there is a very real issue when women are sacrificing their happiness to bring up children. I don’t think I could tell, just from a picture, what was going on, but I do understand that PND can be very serious, and I don’t think things like that should be discounted. I do believe a child will benefit more from a mother who is happy. And I think every mother deserves to be happy, too.

  9. When I was pregnant I read Spiritual Midwifery which really shows what women are capable of in birth. That shows the empowerment we are capable of, when we step away from a medical community that was built by men (yes I know it can also save our lives!). That is a real issue for women, reclaiming our birthing powers, with photographs and stories of real women not mythical ones. Having midwife led births instead of consultant led. (Assisted by women, instead of men – yes I know some consutltants are women). By the intuitive rather than the pre-determined.

    Nature dealt me a blow, because I read IT ALL throughout my pregnancy and then had a boy, with a head the circumference of which, could not be birthed other than via a c-section, so I know all about having to conform to medical, when the Lioness in me wanted to do otherwise….

    I know I am digressing but all this women talk, is bringing up a lot of “issues” for me


  10. The reason PND is so so so so common is because a chemical imbalance (and deficiencies) result from having spent 9 months creating another human. I dealt with mine with Chinese Herbs and the hairdresser said she had NEVER seen hair regrowth like it (another thing women think is normal is thinning hair after childbirth which is not necessary and NOT normal, or at the very least reversible). Anyway, I am quite knowledgeable about PND having experienced and written about it:
    See I am not one of those PASTEL blogs that Sarah Ditum referred to, on panel, when she said they gloss over parenthood.

    • I don’t know, but I read PND is less common in societies where women have better support. It’s certainly something I try to think about, that.

  11. You’re not digressing at all. I think it is an big issue. I have not had children but most of the women who helped me learn about feminism have. So I am very aware this is an issue I can’t really speak about, but I also know it is very important.

    Something I don’t know – but I wonder about – is if maybe women had been doctors for longer, would we have better pregnancy and labour care? Because I read that the amount of money gone into drugs like viagra is huge, and of course that’s not trivial, but I wonder what could be done with the money if we didn’t have people saying ‘oh well, we’ll just do a C-section?’

    And of course, this may be a fault of ‘patriarchy’, but it’s a problem for individual men. It’s only very recently they’ve even been allowed to attend births of their own children.

  12. Sorry I didn’t conclude my point in that last comment. Adding to your basket of interests, so that the child is not your sole concern (or soul concern) does not fix the very crux of the problem of the PND (in terms of body chemistry health), so I don’t link it with the self abnegating argument at all x

  13. I can see it might not be the link that explains every case. I really can’t comment properly because it would be rude, as I do not have children.

    All I do know is, I have seen women who felt pressured into putting their child/children above themselves all the time, and who were sad. And I don’t think that is right or fair. If I think about what I would want for a parent, I would never want them to do that. So I think it should never be something women feel pressured to do.

    I think that is very different from saying, ‘sometimes I am selfless for the sake of my child,’ because surely everyone is selfless *sometimes*?! I mean, I love my baby niece dearly, but it’s only a certain level of selflessness that has me changing her nappy! 😀

  14. Very interesting blog post- I remember after the Da Vinci code and these mythical “Goddesses’ of the past were bandied about. Surely if women held this power and influence in the past, the power wouldn’t have just been unanimously taken from ALL of them across ALL countries to be left in the imbalance we’ve found ourselves in for the past 1000 years.

    • It seems unlikely, yes!

      I think maybe the term ‘goddess’ is up there with ‘princess’ as a way of appearing to relate women to power while actually undermining them.

    • Firstly it has been more like 2,000 years and secondly, it’s that thing called patriarchy that took it away, quite powerfully and yes, more or less unanimously, which is which Feminists are so focused on patriarchy and rightly so, and thirdly, no, it has NOT happened across all countries which is why ideology tries to get into the countries where it hasn’t done, starting with Disney/McDs etc……… I find this comment a little ill informed xx

      • Hi Liska. I could be wrong, but I expect the 1000 years was simply a number picked out of air. 2000 isn’t more of an important point in history, so far as I know? Do you mean the birth of Christ?

        The issue with taking that as a starting-point for patriarchy is, simply – it wasn’t! We know that misogyny is much older than that. The Bible itself will show you that, as will studying Roman, Greek, or any of the other cultures that Christianity replaced over its first millenium.

        I do agree it is the patriarchy that is the problem, but I don’t visualize the patriarchy being like an army who suddenly appeared on the horizon to attack women-dominated societies. It’s a shorthand term for a structural imbalance whose roots are in prehistory, in my view.

      • Thank you for this, really interesting! I enjoy reading about matrilineal societies. There’s also an argument that the Celts in Britain may have included matrilineal tribes, although we don’t really know. Something pretty cool is, you can sometimes find clues as to when individual families have practised matrilineal transfers of property down the generations, because the sons end up with feminine-ending names (names in English like ‘Brewster’ or ‘Baxter’ have feminine endings – they’re the female versions of ‘Brewer’ and ‘Baker’). Obviously, that’s only suggestive, but I like thinking about it.

        I think there is a big question to be asked, whether matrilineal societies, or matriarchies, are the feminist ideal, or even represent what we’d recognise as women ’empowered’. I’m not convinced they do.

        A huge issue is, as soon as you bring in Protestant Christianity – or as soon as you exist in the modern world outside a community – how can you still feel empowered? *Are* you actually empowered?

        I think this goes back to my earlier point about the difference between something that looks as if it’s a symbol of female power (eg. goddess statues), and something that really demonstrates equality of life. Jewish descent is matrilineal as we know – but it’s also the society from which, thousands of years ago, we get disturbing stories about rape, killing of women, etc. etc.

        I am not saying these aren’t important cultures to explore or questions to look at. I believe they are. I just think this is an area of history (anthropology?) that we need to treat with great care before we buy into myths instead of trying to understand realities.

  15. I think this paper is relevant: The Myth of Matriarchy. In summary, matriarchy myths are often used to justify patriarchy by attempting to demonstrate why matriarchy is undesirable, often due to supposed moral deficiencies of women.

    Modern attempts to construct matriarchal histories by contrast often appeal to the moral superiority of women; Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade, for instance (though it’s years since I’ve read it, so this is from memory) argues that matriarchal societies were egalitarian and peaceful. I would argue that this has the effect of implying that women aren’t really cut out for the world as it is, and therefore inadvertently functions as another form of patriarchy-justification.

    • Thank you, Rowan!

      I agree with you that imagining a matriarchial society is a problem too. It also relates to the way that a lot of people still imagine feminism must want either patriarchy or matriarchy – that equality couldn’t come into it. I suppose that’s why the term ’empowering’ is disturbing, because it’s still couching the debate in terms of a power struggle, as if women want to wrest the power from men rather than to liberate themselves.

      I will follow up your reading recommendations – much appreciated!

  16. Pingback: Handmaidens and Icons: Interpreting Women’s History | Jeanne de Montbaston

  17. Hi,
    Lovely post, thank you. I wonder if you’ve come across a very similar dynamic, in the discussions around witch hunts and burnings, which in feminist rhetoric are counted as killing 5-9 million women, while historians estimate up to 60,000 deaths of both sexes. Diane Purkiss has an excellent summary of the aggregate myth of the empowered feminine healer, and the rhetoric around the ‘reaction’ to this as source of the burnings. She walks a more even, measured and factual line down the middle. Lyndal Roper also takes on the ‘burning times’ ideology.
    Some secondary refs are here –

    • Hello! Funny you should mention Diane Purkiss – I referred to her book and that myth on another post, and it is definitely one of my bugbears, though I can’t pretend to know a lot about it as I am not an Early Modernist. I’ll check out Roper, too – thank you very much for that reference.

      I think what is upsetting about the ‘witch hunt’ myth is that sometimes people cling to it as an example of ‘real, genuine persecution of women’ and therefore are reluctant to believe that the witchhunters had their own strong reasons for exaggerating numbers. And it is appallingly sad, because (and I’m not being flippant), 5-9 million is a truly tiny fraction of all the women who’ve been killed through other forms of violence. Absolutely tiny.

      In fact (because it’s on my mind) I’ll link to this post by a woman I know, who’s just pointed out a whole group of deaths from domestic violence that we don’t even think to count:

      It’s one example among many I know, but reading this sort of thing just brings home to me how hugely important it is to stick to the truth.

      (Hope you didn’t mind me going off on one a bit there! Your comment brought it all out, as you see!)

  18. I agree with this post.

    I think the matriarchy belief is a reaction to the opposite type of patriarchal propaganda, that history has always been patriarchal, hellish and unfair for women everywhere. Which tells us that patriarchy is natural and the only type of societal structure that can exist so we should just accept it, and that women should feel *grateful* that men now act in such incredible *civilized* ways (you had the vote and can work now shut up!) (no VAW currently happening right now right?!) Since the past was so horrible the present should seem great in comparison.

    If I didn’t actively went to look for info on different social structures and feminist writings about history I wouldn’t be aware of how there have been and are societies which have things like, different ideas about the sexes, more equal societies, societies where women have/had some, or a lot, or even the most, of religious and decision-making power, matrilineal societies, patriarchal societies in the past where women still had a lot of influence, etc.
    So humans can live in many different ways, have and currently do.

    Like you I’m interested in real history so I don’t want to pretend that there was goddess-worshipping matriarchy everywhere until something weird happened 2000 years ago. But I also do not assume that all human communities ever everywhere have been violent and patriarchal. I highly doubt that.

    We do not know who made those female statues and why.
    Male archeologists have looked at them and been all ” lol porn by men of course”. Men have found cave paintings and assumed men made them. Men have found the bones of Stone Age hunters buried with spears and assumed they were male without actually checking the bones.
    I think the goddess thing is a reaction to that. These women had been fed with a very negative male-dominated view of history so they decided that hey, what if things were completely different. That means a different world is possible today too. It’s might not be the right view, but neither is the narrow-minded patriarchal one. I know that is NOT what you’re saying though, that the patriarchal view is right! Just wanted to rant.
    Tons of women have actually done great things in history, they should serve as our inspiration, no need to make up fiction.

    • Thanks for this – you’re right, absolutely, I wouldn’t want to be simply dismissive of these statutes and deny the possibility they might have had significance that was very positive for women. I just object to the assumption they can be interpreted however we choose, and bent to fit a modern ideology.

      And rant away – you’re spot on!

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