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

624Biographer and historian Dr. Amanda Foreman’s four-part documentary series, The Ascent of Woman

The Ascent of Woman is organized into four thematic and chronological parts. In the first, titled “Civilization,” Foreman visits Turkey, Siberia and Greece to examine how the status of women declined as urban settlements rose. In Catalhöyük, one of the world’s earliest known societies, it’s believed that the sexes were equal. Men, women and children lived together in communal harmony and worshipped a fertile goddess, flanked by leopards. It’s a sharp contrast to Mesopotamia, where the first laws were recorded, dramatically limiting not just women’s rights but their very participation in society. A law from 2,400 BC stipulates that “If a woman speaks out of turn, then her teeth will be smashed by a brick.” Even ancient Greece, which we tend to romanticize, severely limited the role of its women unless they were slaves or prostitutes.

In the second episode, “Separation,” Foreman explains how the idea of two “separate spheres” developed through the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism and Shintoism. Building on the concept of Yin (the female) and Yang (the male), there were strict definitions of feminine virtue. Women were segregated to the “Nei,” the domestic sphere, while only men could inhabit the “Wai,” the world of politics and business.

Power,” the third part, focuses on individual women who managed to rise to power — either directly or indirectly — from within the limits of their home, palace, convent or even harem. Foreman visits Istanbul, Germany, London, Paris and Delhi, exploring the stories of Empress Theodore of Byzantium, Nur Jahan of Mughal, Hildegard of Bingen, and others. She is joined by celebrated actress Fiona Shaw who infuses a speech by Elizabeth I with contemporary light and meaning. “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too!”

In the final episode, “Revolution,” Foreman takes us to Europe and the United States, to see how women have participated in — and fared after —some of modern history’s most important and globally game-changing uprisings. Examples range from French Revolution martyr Olympe De Gouge and Bolshevik radical Alexandra Kollonti, to women’s rights activists Millicent Fawcett and Maraget Sanger, to current African leaders Lindiwe Mazibuko and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucuka. Foreman insists, “I think radical change is happening to women right now. It is by no means universal and in some parts of the globe it’s not even going in the same direction. Nevertheless, it’s a wholly new kind of revolution: it’s an uprising without bloodshed, in which women are challenging the status quo, through awareness, through dialogue and through education.”

When The Ascent of Woman aired on BBC2, it was met with enthusiastic critical reception. The Telegraph described it as “Powerful, inspiring and important.” And, The New Statesman asserted that it was  “Wonderfully even-handed.” The work is thorough and thoughtful, and deeply moving. An idea or two (or twelve) will certainly stay with you. Perhaps more importantly, you will be encouraged and challenged to learn more.

Nevertheless, watching The Ascent of Woman, I found myself frustrated. Not by the documentary itself, which is wonderful, but by the need for it. It’s the same way I feel about the proposed (and perpetually stalled) National Women’s History Museum in Washington DC. Our history isn’t separate from men’s; it didn’t run on its own in some parallel place somehow. Women lived and died (and as Foreman reminds us, often shaped their societies) alongside men. It’s just that when the time came to write it down, women’s stories simply weren’t included.

What can we do then? If, like Foreman, you’re an author and historian, you can research and write about it. For most of us, it’s a matter of bearing witness, which we can do by supporting work like The Ascent of Woman. Through this groundbreaking series, 10,000 years of women are finally becoming part of the narrative.


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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?