Rewriting 900 Years of History—with Ordinary Women at the Center
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Rewriting 900 Years of History—with Ordinary Women at the Center

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Rewriting 900 Years of History—with Ordinary Women at the Center

Philippa Gregory is one of the world’s foremost historical novelists. Her books include The Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen, and most recently Dawnlands. A recognized authority on women’s history, she graduated from the University of Sussex and completed her Ph.D. in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Edinburgh, where she is a Regent and was made Alumna of the Year in 2009. She is a fellow of the Universities of Sussex and Cardiff and an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck University of London.

Below, Philippa shares five key insights from her new book, Normal Women: Nine Hundred Years of Making History. Listen to the audio version—read by Philippa herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. There are more penises than women in the Bayeux tapestry of 1066.

There are 93 penises embroidered or woven into the pictorial record of the Norman Invasion of England. In 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by a Norman Lord to celebrate their victory but significantly woven and embroidered probably by English women. The tapestry shows the violence and the degradation of women following the Norman invasion.

There are about five women depicted, most of them in the margins of the tapestry, not part of the main record of the invasion. They are all suffering violence or unwanted non-consensual touching. There are women escaping rape, violence, and one woman is trying to get out of a burning house holding her son’s hand. The women who were embroidering and weaving the tapestry were very clear about what the Norman invasion meant to women.

2. Change in a law alone doesn’t make a deep difference to the lives of women unless it changes society’s awareness of what a crime is and what it is not.

A law must also be reinforced by rigorous policing, which itself comes from societal changes. For instance, the change in the view of rape as increasingly unacceptable, even in domestic circumstances, even between husbands and wives. It is very clear in the law, but women of today know that domestic rapes are not always prosecuted. They’re not pursued by the police, and they’re not prosecuted in England as they should be, even now, centuries after the law made it illegal. Of course we have to campaign for equality under the law, but it makes no difference unless we change people’s awareness as to what matters.

3. It’s not enough to change the minds of women.

We have done a great deal in our society in making women more aware of their rights to be free of violence and free of sexual assault, but we haven’t got that message through to all the people who need to learn it. That is why women who face violence face most of it in their homes, not by some stranger down the alleyway. As a society, we are reluctant to take domestic violence and domestic sexual abuse seriously.

4. The history of women who didn’t want the vote is barely recorded.

There are two reasons for this. One reason is the cliche that history loves a winner. In women’s history, we are right to celebrate the wins we have because, in total, there aren’t many of them. The other reason is that the idea of women not wanting a vote is alien to modern thinking. Feminists and most of today’s women historians are, by their very nature, feminists. Therefore, it’s very difficult to get your mind around the mindset of these women. It’s very difficult to celebrate them as heroines speaking out because they’re saying the very opposite of what we want to hear.

Women against the vote organized themselves into the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908. They were the dominant group, the biggest group speaking about women’s votes, far outnumbering the now-famous Women’s Suffrage and Political Union, formed by Emily Pankhurst.

“It’s very difficult to celebrate them as heroines speaking out because they’re saying the very opposite of what we want to hear.”

Anti-suffrage women looked like they were certain to win, saying that women should not have the right to vote. The reason that they argued this is that they genuinely believed that a woman’s place was in the home and that her influence should be on domestic matters where she spent the most time. They campaigned for things that affected women in the home, which included slavery and anti-slavery. That also included, for instance, the campaign against the prosecution of women who had contagious diseases. All these issues, the anti-suffragette women regarded as domestic. These issues were inside their domestic sphere, and they, therefore, could speak on them.

What they didn’t want to do was to get involved in party politics, House of Commons parliamentary politics, and voting. They thought that the government covered the running of the country—the making of wars and the running of the empire. They thought those things should only be controlled by educated, experienced, and powerful people.

Women eventually got the vote purely as an act of logic and numbers. After the First World War, there was a feeling in the country and in political parties that men who had been conscripted and sent to their deaths had to be rewarded with the right to vote for their government. Additionally, it made no sense at all if you said that a working man could have the vote at 21, but his employer (perhaps a duchess) would never have it. It was that lack of logic that led to women in England getting the vote, despite the fact that at the turn of the century, a huge majority of women did not want to vote.

5. In the early 1990s, the Church of England conceded that women could be vicars.

Throughout women’s history, there’s always been a sense that women don’t have a spiritual life that equals the spiritual life of men. Women are regarded as more physical or earthy. There was a time when women were regarded as sexier and more prone to temptation. Then, there was a time when women’s spirituality was recognized. This was considerably late in the church’s history, which recognizes Mary, the mother of God, as a model to women.

“This image of women has played a part in preventing women from being acknowledged as spiritual leaders.”

Still, the old image of Eve runs alongside this as gossipy, sinful, sexy, difficult, argumentative, and volatile. All of these things have kind of constellated around the idea of what women are like. This image of women has played a part in preventing women from being acknowledged as spiritual leaders. It has also played a part in a whole definition of women’s nature, which suggests that women are lightweight and not serious.

This is a very powerful thread, which women sometimes feel even now. The decision to allow women to be vicars went on for years. It started in the 1900s and finally reached a conclusion in England in 1994 when the Church of England ordained women. Now we have women bishops, but still, we have parishes that can refuse a woman vicar on the basis only that they don’t want a woman representing God on the chancellor steps of the church.

The point of is not whether women are ordained or not, though that’s important as a sign of equality. The important thing is the sign of equality within the state church that finally recognizes that women have equal souls in the sight of God.

To listen to the audio version read by author Philippa Gregory, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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