‘The Ascent of Woman’: Historian Amanda Foreman Addresses Lack of Representation in Women’s History

Foreman urges students to make a difference in their community through concrete action.

Citing the existence of Women’s History Month as evidence, biographer and historian Amanda Foreman claimed that women’s history has often been treated as a narrative independent from mainstream history. During her presentation last Friday, Foreman emphasized that women’s history fits into the larger narrative of human development, and that it therefore should not be trivialized.

“[There is] the sense that women’s history is relatively blank and that it’s empty. The way it’s taught sometimes, or [the way it] has been traditionally taught [is] as a kind of silo that is separate from real history. My message is no; it is not separate from real history. It is part of history, and proper women’s history is about filling in the blanks, not about creating a separate narrative,” said Foreman in an interview with The Phillipian.

The Brace Center for Gender Studies invited Foreman to give a presentation on campus. Foreman’s presentation focused on her four-part documentary, “The Ascent of Woman,” which focuses on the history of women over the past 10,000 years. Foreman highlighted the different experiences of women in history, such as powerful female leaders who were left out from the mainstream account.

Flavida Vidal, Instructor in English and Director of the Brace Center, said, “The documentary touches on a bunch of other important issues about the presence of women in the narrative that we call history, or the absence of women, or how some of them have managed to become important. But even those are women that we normally don’t hear about, and then when you dig into the information in the historical record you find that they were actually very important.”

In her presentation, Foreman also tackled the subject of patriarchal speech codes, or social and legal obligations that prevented women from free speech. According to Foreman, the idea of an egalitarian society ended shortly, despite the fact that the first human settlement, Catalhöyük, held egalitarian beliefs.

“You don’t need to be shamed into silence because the freedom to write and speak isn’t a loan or a gift. It is a fundamental pillar of what it actually means to be a woman, let alone to be human. The historical silencing of women isn’t just some kind of sad story from the past; it’s a living narrative that has power today and it affects how women act as individuals toward one another,” said Foreman in her presentation.

Alex Schimmer ’22, an audience member, felt inspired by Foreman’s dedication to her work as a historian and as an educator.

Schimmer said, “I feel like you definitely get an element of the passion in [Foreman’s] voice when she talked about that. She knew so much about the topic, she was very clearly very involved in this. This is what she wanted to work on, [to]teach the youth about.”

Aside from providing historical context to the current oppression of women, Foreman further discussed the implications of oppressive constructs that are rooted in history. She urged students to tackle modern gender inequality and to concentrate on attaining three main goals: agency, authority, and autonomy.

“You need to know your history because once you have access to your past, the past I’ve just shown you that’s our real past, then you have access to your true self, the self that you deserve, that is your birthright. Then you have your story to tell and you have a voice to say it out loud. Go out there and be loud,” said Foreman in her presentation.

With women’s role in both history and the modern world in mind, Foreman urged the need for action over words. While she considered demonstrative activism such as hashtag movements and annual marches important, Foreman emphasized concrete action as the utmost priority.

Foreman said in an interview with The Phillipian, “It’s incredibly easy to be and to proclaim and say, ‘I am good, I am virtuous. I am wearing the right clothes. I am wearing the right clothes, I am  wearing the right hat, I am wearing the right badge, whatever it is. I’m sending out the right hashtag.’ Whereas actually, you want to do. Go out there into the community and genuinely make a difference. Do that and you will make real change.”

According to Vidal, Johanna Lane, Writer in Residence, first suggested bringing Foreman to campus. After watching “The Ascent of Woman,” Vidal recognized its relation to the syllabus of the course History-100 and reached out to her colleagues in the Department of History. During her visit, Foreman also attended one of the History-100 sections taught by Hijoo Son, Instructor in History.

“Dr. Foreman, who was blown away by the classroom and the kids’ questions and my students’ observations and their responses to her question: ‘What comes first: the hand or the brain? Is it the hand that helped the brain or is it the brain that helped the hand make things?’ That’s how she started my class. Equally, students were very impressed by her talk and they were able to have a review of episode one [of the documentary] because that was their homework. It was a real nice beginning [to the term],” said Son.

Sophia Gudinas ’22, another audience member, went to the presentation at the recommendation of her history teacher. After the presentation, Gudinas was inspired by the passion with which Foreman delivered her presentation and drew connections from the presentation to her history course.

“In our history class, we’re also working on comparing our Strayer textbook with Dr. Foreman’s series. It’s interesting because [our history textbook] didn’t really focus as much on women, but when you hear Dr. Foreman, you have this whole new perspective and it’s very informative,” said Gudinas.

Editor’s Note: Lindsey Chan is an Associate Arts Editor for The Phillipian.