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.