52 Weeks of Women – December
‘2 Weeks of women is a weekly series of posts allowing us to rediscover the important role that women have played in history. To find out a little more about what we are doing or why visit Introducing 52 Weeks of Women.
To continue our series, this month we bring you Empress Wu Zetian, Hildegard of Bingen, Henrietta Dugdale, and Amanda Foreman. We hope that each post will prompt you to read more, and if you do we’d love you to share what you find out! Likewise, if you know of any women who you think should be included in our series, let us know.
First a consort to one emperor, then to his son, Wu Zetian rose to become the main companion of the ruler of china in the 7th century. she ruled equally with Emperor Gaozong, and worked to root out corruption amongst the nobility and to help the commoners.
Upon the death of the emperor, she continued to rule first as a regent and then as empress in her own right. Now this story isn’t for the feint hearted. She rearranged the dynastic order during a 3 year ‘reign of terror’ as empresses, then declared herself emperor.
Depending upon who you believe (and there are very few impartial sources) she was either the greatest political and military leader, not only providing territorial expansion but working for the good of the people or a cold hearted ruthless power hungry tyrant who had no compunction taking the lives of not just troublesome couriers and officials but even her own children when the political need arose.
Given the contradictions in this story Empress Wu is far from the traditional model of what a good woman should be. She was a complex women in an ‘interesting time’, which helps explain why the makers of Game of Thrones is in the planning to make a series about her. Our series does not seek to judge our women as sinners or saints, admire her or loathe her, she was definitely a formidable woman and must be recognised in history.
You can lean more about Empress Wu Zetian here:
Described by some as the most significant woman of her time, she was quite prepared to take on not just the local monks but none less than Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for his support of three antipopes. was 12th century German nun, writer, preacher and visionary.
While her visions, preaching, leadership and musical composition are all extraordinary, my particular interest lies in the contribution she made to science. Her extensive scientific and medical writings are historically significant. They document medieval medicine and pharmacology, giving us real insight into the knowledge base of medieval Europe. Without Hildegard our understanding of that time would be all the poorer, because the healers of the time were predominantly women and not they rarely wrote in Latin.
While her scientific views were derived from the Greek traditions, there are researchers looking through her medical texts to see if they can rediscover effective historical remedies. Possibly most eye-opening to our stereotypical medieval nun is her descriptions of sexuality and procreation (Fordham university post below has more on this), but she has a generally position view of sex and is able to describe the pleasure from the point of view of a woman, in her writings may contain the first description of a female orgasm. In a world where a queen would have her head chopped off for producing a girl instead of a boy, she offered that it was the man who was responsible for the child’s sex, though her thoughts on the personality of the child being based on the amount of love held between the parents is perhaps a little less supported by modern scientific fact.
To learn more about this amazing woman visit:
When I started 52 Weeks of Women, I did a preliminary selection of women across time, across cultures, across pursuits. Henrietta Dugdale popped up as one of the more important early Australian feminists and suffragettes, an obvious inclusion. However my first notes on her were fairly insipid.
Pioneering advocate for the rights of Australian women, she formed the first Australian Women’s suffrage society in Melbourne 1895. ‘Women’s anger was compounded by the fact that those who inflicted violence upon women had a share in making the laws while their victims did not’.
However, going back to revisit her this month I am hit between the eyes, and she spoke to me as clearly as if she was alive today. In the past 2 months we have reawakened a frustration, an ire, an anger and an unwillingness to yield of be silenced.
I bring you the words direct from Henrietta herself.
‘Some there are who say “If we permit women to go beyond her sphere, domestic duties will be neglected.” In plainer language, “If we acknowledge woman is human, we shall not get so much work out of her”.
‘It should always be the aim of woman to rise from the degrading position assigned her in the age of bestial ignorance and brute power.’
Henrietta dedicated her book ‘A Few Hours Off In A Far Off Age’ to politician and chief justice George Higinbotham ‘in earnest admiration for the brave attacks made by that gentleman upon what has been, during all known ages, the greatest obstacle to human advancement, the most irrational, fiercest and most powerful of our world’s monsters—the only devil—MALE IGNORANCE’.
‘You will see – provided you have a grain of common sense – that I attack principles, not individuals. I have no desire to hurt quadruped or biped; not even those who have injured me past world-healing’.
‘I write not for myself. Man’s tyrannical laws are powerless to wound me. My suffering has been borne. No alteration of laws could now benefit me; but there are thousands enduring the pain I have experienced through man’s injustice, and thousands to follow, until there be just legislation. For those – for the progress of all human kind – I strive, and will continue to do so while power be left me to speak or hold my pen.’
One of Henrietta’s most powerful pieces of writing is her book ‘A Few Hours in a Far-off Age’. Which is a short novel set thousands of years in the future where men and women share equal rights and power. It is particularly powerful to see piece of utopian fiction written by a woman in 1883, a time before half our population were able to vote, before the horror of 2 world wars, before the sexual liberation or the internet. How far we have come? How far we have yet to go? You can read the book for yourself see the link to the state library below.
Learn more about Henrietta here
Amanda Foreman’s is a British/American biographer and historian whose series the Ascent of Woman (Netflix 2016) was the inspiration for this series. Over the Christmas period, do yourself a favour and make a date with this 4 part series. You can access it on Netflix, even if you are not a current subscriber you can sign up for a free trial which should give you access to this amazing series.
‘And to those who think that women haven’t played an active role in history (and that) ours is just a mindless narrative of oppression, I want to throw down the gauntlet.
Because 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’. Amanda Foreman The Ascent of Women
Watch out for her upcoming book The World Made by Women in 2018.
To delve into Amanda Foreman’s work you can visit the following links and why not follow her on Twitter.