Unconventional Mentor no. 30 - Dr Amanda Foreman
“I believe that any history of the world that excludes women, or simply pushes them to the margins, isn’t just a distortion, but an untruth that must be challenged.”
The TV mini-series, the Ascent of Woman, was one of the major sources of inspiration for this project. Growing up I had this belief that it was in the 20th Century that women finally got the chance to succeed in areas outside of the home on a large scale. I knew about the suffragettes, and the women’s movement in the 1960s and I assumed that because almost all of my history lessons featured mostly men (apart from a few select Queens and because I grew up in Suffolk, Boudica) that women just hadn’t been given the chance to do great things. That in the 1980s, when I was growing up, it was the first time that women really could do anything. Over the years I have come to realise that whilst there have been many limitations placed on what women have been able to do, the bigger problem has been that the history of the lives of women just hasn’t been recorded and celebrated in the same way that the lives of men has. I just didn’t realise to what extent this history had been hidden from me.
The Ascent of Woman completely challenged my ideas of the successes and opportunities that women had in the past. Despite continually coming across women doing amazing things in all sorts of different fields, I still assumed that this was a relatively new thing for the last 300 hundred years. What this programmed showed me is that women have been playing a major role in shaping the history of the world for thousands of years, both inside and out of the home, but their story wasn’t being told. If the majority of women have been restricted to the home, the stories of these women has never been written down, their achievements weren’t considered worthy of being recorded. Those that did succeed in the wider world have often had their stories lost, hidden or stolen. What this series starts to do is to shine a light on all the women that have made a mark on history and it also highlights the fact that the history we are taught in schools is very much a select history that is told from a male viewpoint.
This is why most of the Unconventional Mentors that I feature in this project are women. The male point of view and male voices are everywhere. Pick any point in the history of the world and you are guaranteed to find a male voice. If you want to know what women were doing and thinking at the same time, you would have to dig a little deeper and may not find any record at all. I want to make a contribution to the voices of women being put front and centre of the conversation.
“There has never been a better time to be born a woman. There are more female heads of government , and more women leading organisations and running businesses than at any other time in history. Yet, in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy the same legal rights as men”
Back to Amanda Foreman, she is a best selling author, columnist TV presenter and historian. In 1998 she wrote the bestselling book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire which was turned into a film staring Keira Knightley. I came to know her through her documentary The Ascent of Woman and I’m excited to say that her next book, The World Made by Women is due out later this year. She divides her time between London and New York and has 5 children. I don’t know how she fits all of her work in.
I really love Amanda’s style in The Ascent of Woman. This documentary isn’t just a factual account of all the women who have been left out of history, it is a very personal project as can be seen from the passion that Amanda gives to her delivery. There is the slightest hint of exasperation in her tone in episode 2 when she is talking about the way that men have treated women for centuries, mostly I suspect because it still continues today. The most moving moment is when she is in Japan and she gets to see Murasaki Shikibu’s inkwell. Murasaki Shikibu was an author born in 978 AD who was thought to have written the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Amanda describes the moment of seeing this inkwell as the most moving experience of her life, and she is in awe at the significance it holds both in women’s history, but also in the history of writing.
“Part of what it meant to be civilised, also meant the regulation and control of women, which varied according to the worlds in which they lived.”
I believe the title, The Ascent of Woman, is a play on words of the 1973 documentary The Ascent of Man, which was a 13-part tv series presented by Jacob Bronowski. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I am guessing that the word man was used here to mean all people, but in reality, probably only concentrated on the men and their achievements. It is a shame that the Ascent of Woman wasn’t a 13-part series, as one of my only criticisms of it is that some elements of the women featured was too brief, but how do you cram 10,000 years of history into four 1-hour programmes without cutting people out? Interestingly, The Ascent of Women does mention quite a few men in the four episodes. This not only gives it some context for the history that we already know, but more importantly highlights the attitudes of the men who didn’t want women to succeed. I came away from watching the programmes wondering why men hate women so much? One of the most depressing things about the whole series was that any time a story of women having equality and freedom was mentioned it was often followed by the news that women’s rights in the period that followed often reverted back to what they were before, or worse were even more restrictive. This is a timely reminder that the hard-won rights of women today are not necessarily secure, you only have to look at how abortion laws are changing in America to see that today.
The reason I am featuring Dr Amanda Foreman this week is that a few weeks ago she announced that the whole series of The Ascent of Woman was available on her Vimeo channel, so I have been able to watch it again, and it was just as powerful the second time round. You can find all four episodes here.
Mentor advice: Challenge the status quo
The advice that I take from Dr Amanda Foreman is to challenge the status quo. History has always been told from a male view point and until women are able to take up positions of power and influence to change the world and influence the story that is being told this will stay the same. The Ascent of Woman even being commissioned shows that we are making progress in changing this narrative, but we still have a long way to go. In academia, women make up about 25% of all professors, although even more worrying is the huge lack of racial diversity in that group, with 84% of the workforce being white and there being just 25 black female professors across the whole UK in all subjects.
In my work life, a phrase that I often hear is “but we’ve always done it that way” and it is the most frustrating phrase. Just because something has always been done the same way, doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do now. That doesn’t mean that the way we have always done something is wrong, but it fails to acknowledge that things change, technology, people, social norms all change and in our work, we need to change with the times. I always try to ask myself, am I doing this piece of work because it is the right solution to the problem I am trying to solve or is it because I have always done it this way? Is there a better way to approach this problem?