Is The History Of Women A History Of Hate?

Is it possible to write the history of women? That's the question implicit in Hilary Mantel's review of Marilyn French's four-volume From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women.

In French's view, the answer is yes, and that history is a long, long catalogue of oppression and injustice. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Mantel summarizes:

In Aristotle's thought, French says, women were "deformed" men. In feudal Japan they were barred from climbing Mount Fuji because they would pollute it, and "unhappily married women were expected to commit suicide." A Buddhist text describes woman as the "emissary of hell." Her oppression is universal, her story cyclical; construed less as a human being than as an animal or force of nature, her place is outside history.

Historically, women haven't been able to get a break — "if somehow a woman does manage to impose herself on the culture, her achievements will be appropriated by men or dismissed as freakish" and (here Mantel quotes French directly) "no revolutionary struggle, no matter how vocal its commitment to sexual equality, actually achieved it." If we take French at her word, the history of women is essentially a history of abuse at the hands of men.

But Mantel doesn't take French at her word. She notes that From Eve to Dawn is rife with contradictions — French sets up the Catholic Church as "one of the most effective misogyny machines ever devised" and then says it "exalted nurture and valued the contributions of women." She says that "feminism has changed the discourse," but also that "even intellectual men write about history and literature as if feminism had never occurred." More damningly, French refers to "men's deep and unacknowledged hatred of women" but fails to get to the roots of this hatred or even prove that it exists.

Could French have done a better job? Can anyone — even in four volumes — cover the vast history of half the human race without slipping up occasionally? And is any project as general as a history of women bound to have an overgeneralized villain — in this case, men?

Don't get us wrong — a lot of women's suffering throughout history can be traced back pretty directly to dudes. But did men really bar women from Mt. Fuji, deny them the right to vote, and ignore their contributions to history and literature simply because they hate us? Or is every instance of oppression precipitated by a unique set of circumstances, circumstances which may include hate? A book that addressed all these circumstances would have to be a history of men as well as a history of women — a history, really, of everyone.

The War Against Women
[New York Review of Books]