The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles

To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, each day this week I will be posting about a book, selected from a variety of fields, that I would recommend to anyone interested in women’s place in the world.

First up, I’m beginning with history and this absolute gem of a book that I think serves as a great starting point for anyone asking ‘why are women treated as second class citizens when they are 50% of the population and mother to all?’

Miles does a phenomenal job of tracing women’s positions in society through the ages, reminding us that there was a time when women lived equitably with men and offering some views about when, how and why we ended up in such a lamentable position. It asserts the significance of women’s contribution to the evolution of the human race, recalls the ‘unsung heroines’ who achieved so much despite their unfavoured status, and ends on a (sort of) positive note by detailing the rise of feminism and an (almost) changing tide.

I read this when I was a teenager and it opened my eyes to many things. For the first time I read about the worship of the Great Goddess/Great Mother, that ‘sacred status of womanhood’ that began as far back as at least 25,000 BC, lasted until around the middle of the 1st century AD, and covered a huge worldwide geographical span. The fact I had reached my teenage years with little appreciation of this significant worldwide phenomenon drove home the point to me that much of history is hidden. It’s good to be alert to historical cover-ups -deliberate or otherwise – from an early age. As Miles says:

In the beginning, as humankind emerged from the darkness of pre-history, God was a woman…The power and centrality of the first woman-God is one of the best-kept secrets of history.

Miles also helped me to recognize that most men do not actually win when the sexes are not treated equally. If a woman is treated harshly for having a sexual appetite – well, that’s less banging for the fellas. If the women in the family are earning less than their male counterparts – well, that’s less dosh for the family unit. If the person who potentially could find the cure for cancer is denied an education – ok, you get the picture. It’s a stitch up from which hardly anyone gains, except the proper top boys.

But for me the greatest gift of this book was the realization that the battle is not over. After reeling from the graphic historical accounts of enforced marriage, child brides, and female genital mutilation, and then acknowledging that these ‘traditions’ still persist (for example, there are an estimated 3 million girls at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year),  I recognized that to say the female battle is won is to have a very Western-centric view of the world. And we haven’t even really solved issues on our own doorstep – as a quick gander at wage differentials, the number of females in prominent positions, and rape conviction rates shows. So I appreciate this book for giving me a nugget of anger that persists twenty years on, whichever progress we have made. It ain’t over sisters and brothers. Stay angry.

PS You can find out more about International Women’s Day at http://www.internationalwomensday.com

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