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on 19 June 2010
On the first page, we learn that women are the true humans and men are, according to some authority, a biological afterthought. Apparently 'the creation of a male requires the branching off of the divergent "Y" chromosome, seen by some as a genetic error, a "deformed and broken X"'. Now a chromosome is just a molecule. To describe it in emotive terms of errors, deformity and brokenness is, shall we say, tendentious...and as if that has any relevance to human society anyway. Nevertheless, we are further told here that '[t]he woman's egg, several hundred times bigger than the sperm that fertilises it, carries all the genetic messages the child will ever receive'. Anyone with school biology will thereby recognise that the author's grasp of human reproduction lags behind her polemical purpose. But obviously, this is rhetorical tone-setting intended to advertise the kind of book we are in for...a one-sided tract designed to prove that men are inferior, puny, contemptible, indeed sub-human, while women are the epitome of loveliness and perfection, and where it's at as far as the human race is concerned.
You would never guess from this book that any man has ever loved a woman, still less that any woman has ever loved a man. Any suggestion of co-operation and complementarity between the genders is entirely absent. The two sexes are apparently engaged in a bitter struggle for supremacy, where men always fight dirty and, by their evil tricks, have too long cheated women of their original and rightful place as mistresses of the universe. Social institutions are seen here as having been fiendishly constructed and manipulated by men to trap, enslave and humiliate women. It is apparently inconceivable that such social institutions, while perhaps not ideal for either gender, have developed spontaneously to meet the basic needs of both...i.e. needs for sustenance, companionship, family-raising, physical security...let alone that they have done so in a moderately satisfactory way.
Men are here depicted as absolute savages who regard women as mere objects and receptacles for their semen. Women, on the other hand, are all wonderful human beings. There is a kind of schizophrenia running throughout the book. Male achievements are to be contemned as just further examples of men's selfishness and failure to pull their weight on the domestic front. Yet female achievements, of exactly similar nature, are to be celebrated as examples of spunky women overcoming prejudice and disadvantage to strike a blow for the sisterhood. So a diatribe against, say, men's putative 'rage to dominate, downgrade and destroy' is accompanied by a litany of female war-leaders who are held up as role models. Another kind of schizophrenia involves the author's pursuit of two seemingly contradictory themes. On the one hand, women are presented as the human race's real achievers, stronger and more able than men, who have done everything men ever did, in every field, while also having the babies and doing far more than their fair share of the housework. On the other hand, women are presented as perennial victims, whom men somehow effortlessly marginalise and control. But these themes are not really contradictory. The victim theme underpins and validates the high-achiever theme, explaining why women's overachievement appears as underachievement in the traditional history books, whose male authors so callously and thoughtlessly dealt with male concerns and saw the world through male eyes.
It is often those who are most vocal in condemning perversion who actually harbour the biggest perversions. Similarly women who condemn men for thinking with their penises often seem themselves to have an obsession with male genitalia. Here the author waves around the charmless word 'phallocracy'. This renders men's possession of a fleshy appendage as the chief, possibly the sole, factor in their supposed pre-eminence, thus obscuring the notion that it might have anything to do with other male qualities, perhaps concerning character, temperament or ability to form particular types of relationship with fellow men. It also places the whole burden for allegedly phallocratic social structure on men. That female behaviour patterns might contribute to so-called phallocracy is rendered inadmissible and unexplorable.
The author's basic thesis is this. Among early humans, women ruled ok. The evidence is the ancient goddess cult and ethnographic data showing that women's work supplies the majority of calories consumed in food-collecting societies. Of course, men still boorishly threw their weight about and were annoyingly unappreciative of women's qualities, but on the whole things were relatively good. This happy situation was perturbed by the arrival of 'patriarchy'. The entire male gender somehow banded together and set about oppressing women with a passion. Society resolved itself into two definite layers: men on top, women very much on the bottom. We all know this story, how men used their greater physical strength to keep women in their place, preventing them from writing Shakespeare's plays, painting Da Vinci's paintings, composing Mozart's symphonies, or discovering Newton's gravity, which they obviously otherwise would have done. The situation is only now beginning to ameliorate as a new breed of women force men to accept a reinvention of society along female-empowering lines, albeit that there is still a long way to go.
There are so many unexamined assumptions here...That only women have to overcome prejudice and opposition (tell that to Van Gogh, or to Cantor, whose set theory is now recognised as the basis of all mathematics but who died in a madhouse after it was rejected by his 19th century contemporaries, or to Mozart, buried in a pauper's grave). That only women suffer because of their gender (tell that to the male slaves whose life expectancy was measured in weeks in the ancient Greek silver mines, or to the countless adolescent boys conscripted to fight in wars they did not start or even believe in). That women are the only people written out of history (tell that to the anonymous soldiers and peasants who made possible the achievements of the heroes we read about in the history books; the deeper fallacy is that the lives of exceptional men are fair measures of the lives of ordinary men). That men as a class act against women as a class (I think of a 19th century photograph of a Chinese lady being carried in a litter by two ill-dressed, underfed male servants; in what sense is she the victim of their oppression?). That power in society depends on physical dominance (few rulers or military leaders, men or women, are physically stronger than those they command; if physical strength were all that mattered, elephants would dominate).
There is also industrial-scale cherry-picking of facts in the interests of painting a relentless picture of women's subjection to men's barbarity. To make a point about women's perceived disposability in medieval times, the author quotes an episode from the sixth century chronicler 'Geoffrey [sic] of Tours', in which the female lover of a lecherous priest is burned alive while he is spared. It would presumably come as a surprise to the author that Gregory of Tours is not exactly regarded by historians as a writer of reportage, and that there is a huge academic literature on his agendas and narrative techniques. In "Those terrible middle ages! Debunking the myths", the historian Régine Pernoud argued that the middle ages were actually a high point in women's rights. She is not necessarily correct, but there is obviously a debate there. However, source criticism and ambiguities of interpretation are niceties easily overlooked when one approaches one's material with a chip on one's shoulder.
I could go on, but readers of this review will know by now how I feel. So let me end by saying that this is nevertheless a book worth having if you are interested in perspectives that challenge the woman-free history we tend to imbibe at school and in the media. The author has collated a lot of interesting and thought-provoking facts, and presents them in a well-organised thematic way. If you are a woman, you will also be able to take a warm bath in your own prejudices and chauvinisms. If you are a man, you will have to steel yourself against the unrelieved misandry. Whatever sex you are, you should be aware this is partisan rather than a thoughtful attempt to write a 'women's history of the world', and you are also probably well advised not to place any great reliance on the author's specific information without first checking either the original sources or more nuanced historical works.