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Netflix Review: ‘The Ascent of Woman’ — Making Women Part of the Narrative

In the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander’s wife Eliza begs him, “Let me be a part of the narrative.” This heartbreaking scene has to do with their marriage and his obsessive work on behalf of the new country he’s helping to build. But, it can also be interpreted as a broader plea. In the American Revolution, as in France’s and later Russia’s, women worked alongside their husbands to attain independence, only to find that when the dust settled, they were back where they started. One patriarchy had simply been replaced by another.

This is one of the many powerful themes you’ll find in The Ascent of Woman, Dr. Amanda Foreman’s illuminating documentary mini-series, available now on Netflix.

Originally created for BBC2, The Ascent of Woman goes back 10,000 years to trace women’s roles inside — and sometimes, outside — society. “In this series,” Foreman explains in the first episode, “I want to retell the story of civilization with men and women side by side for the first time.”

We’re in good hands on the journey. Oxford-, Columbia-, and Sarah Lawrence-educated Foreman is an accomplished historian and writer. She has a bi-weekly column, “Historically Speaking,” in The Wall Street Journal, and also contributes to The Sunday Times and Smithsonian Magazine.  Foreman has authored two award-winning bestsellers, A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided, and the earlier Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which inspired a movie starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Her new book, The Ascent of Woman: A History of Women from the Apple to the Pill, a companion to the documentary, will be published later this year.

In The Ascent of Woman, Foreman makes two seemingly counter arguments. On the one hand, she is able to demonstrate historic linkage between diverse laws and societies. For example, the full-face veil that we equate with today’s Muslim extremists traces back across a variety of cultures, 2000 years before Islam. Seemingly unrelated customs we now see as oppressive and misogynist, like foot-binding and female genital mutilation, were carried out by women themselves, making it difficult for outsiders to criticize the practice. Countless inequalities (the right to vote, to divorce, to own property) show up in surprisingly similar forms, centuries and continents apart.

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These recurring traditions might lead you to think that there is something inherently natural (biologically or psychologically) about women’s second-place status. But, Foreman makes it a point to uncover man-made economic and political circumstances that led up to them. She’s quick to argue that yesterday’s societies created the inequities — and today’s societies can correct them. In fact, the series makes a compelling case that the way a society treats its women is indicative of not only its overall fairness, but also its economic success. “At stake,” Foreman insists, “Are the goals of autonomy, authority and agency for all.”

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  • Millicent Accardi May 24, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Yes, Making Women Part of the Narrative! But also, making women part of the story beyond victims or wives or partners. Any hour on any channel features women in movies who are victims, in fact MOST crime shows feature women as victims. Imagine what Netflix and cable would be like if nude men’s bodies were littering the hillside or street in every serial killer episode?