Socialist Worker

The Ascent of Woman—looking at pre-history helps us understand oppression

The BBC’s new series The Ascent of Woman popularises the idea that women’s oppression hasn’t always existed—but it can’t explain why, writes Sarah Bates

Issue No. 2469

Alexandra Kollontai (portrait) was a leading figure in the Russian Revolution

Alexandra Kollontai (portrait) was a leading figure in the Russian Revolution (Pic: BBC/Silver River)


Dr Amanda Foreman’s new BBC series chronicles the history of women from pre-class society to the present day.

The series begins with the bold claim that in the West “There has never been a better time to be born a woman. 

“Yet in many parts of the world” it’s a different story. 

This could fall into the trap that women “have it all” because a few have made it to top ruling class jobs. 

Yet Foreman’s starting point is basically correct. Women’s oppression has existed for a long time. But to understand it we need to look at how society is organised, rather than biology. 

Foreman takes us on a journey through the archaeological finds of the Turkish village Catalhoyuk.

To her surprise, there are no signs of a nuclear family or different social classes at all. 

Early humans organised society along egalitarian lines unrecognizable from today. 

Mass 

It’s brilliant that someone is bringing the radical assertion that oppression hasn’t always existed to a mass audience.

However, The Ascent of Woman’s general framework is problematic. For Forman, the position of women depends on how strong patriarchy and oppressive ideas are within societies. 

But women’s oppression flows from class society—which precisely did not exist in Catalhoyuk. 

Later episodes appear to cover the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the mass of working class women and men were united in fighting for liberation.  

It will be interesting to see how Forman can rely on patriarchy to explain women’s position during that time.

The programme also focuses on the “achievements” of individual woman, such as emperors and generals. Yet she does next to nothing to analyse the lives of the mass of ordinary women. 

While there’s a lot to disagree with, it does show that ideas around gender have radically changed throughout history. 

The Ascent of Woman is a noble attempt at putting women’s lives back in the history pages. It presents women as the subjects that shape the societies they live in. 

The Ascent of Woman
Dr Amanda Foreman 
BBC Two
9pm, Sunday 

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