"A twitch of a woman's lip causes the fall of a nation. On the one hand she is sickeningly, destructively powerful. One the other hand she is a chattel, a beast, a commodity, she and her sisters are "human incubators."
In the Assyrian empire, which flourished from 1300 BCE, she could be impaled for aborting the child she is carrying. For lesser offenses she could be beaten or disfigured behind closed doors, but if her master wanted to mutilate her permanently—cut off her ears or nose, or tear out her breasts—he had to do it in public; though whether for the sake of example or for the general enjoyment. She could be punished at various times and places for going veiled, or not going veiled. She could be sold, pawned, or prostituted.
In Aristotle's thought, women were "deformed" men. In feudal Japan they were barred from climbing Mount Fuji because they would pollute it, and "unhappily married women were expected to commit suicide." A Buddhist text describes woman as the "emissary of hell." Her oppression is universal, her story cyclical; construed less as a human being than as an animal or force of nature, her place is outside history.
Even when historical records begin, most women have no names. At best they are just "wife of" or "daughter of" some illustrious man. A few stand out—they are famous for being almost erased, like Sappho, or startlingly wicked, like Messalina, or they perpetrate shocking violence on a man, like Jael killing Sisera by putting a nail through his head; or like Ruth the Moabite, they offer a pattern of exemplary gentleness, approved by men. If somehow a woman does manage to impose herself on the culture, her achievements will be appropriated by men or dismissed as freakish, a problem expressed pithily in the seventeenth century by Anne Bradstreet, the New England Puritan poet:
If what I do prove well,
it won't advance,
They'l say its stoln,
or else it was by chance.
In the nineteenth century, women's skulls were measured and their brains were weighed, and found wanting. For the criminologists Lombroso and Ferrero, women were big, vicious children. Through much of recorded history they have been slaves, though in some eras "rhetoric granted them the status of angels." Arguing for women's moral superiority can be a way of keeping them in their place—a way of removing them from the civil space, where power corrupts, to the supposed purity of the private sphere.
The home, French observes, is seen as women's natural territory, but is also "the primary site of female prosecution," the place where she is most unsafe. Sometimes the only power a woman has is to kill herself. In east African traditional societies women committed "cooking pot suicide," poisoning themselves and taking their children with them. Sometimes a woman is more powerful dead than alive. In the China of the Han dynasty, if an unhappy wife killed herself wearing her red bridal dress, she would haunt the husband's family and they would have to move house.
Men who read it might be put off by the depiction of the collective male as brutal psychopath, or puzzled by French's idea that men should "take responsibility for what their sex has done." (How responsible can you be for Sumerian monarchs, Egyptian pharaohs, or Napoleon Bonaparte?)
"Control over a woman is the only form of dominance most men possess, for most men are merely subjects of more powerful men," but she also takes gender oppression to be the fundamental oppression, and "primary, whatever the agenda of a culture."
...Mothering was taken to be innate, an instinctive activity. In cases where mothers violate this instinct, they can be punished and their children taken away. Once the link between coitus and childbirth was understood, men began to regard children as their property. All patri-lineal societies stand condemned: "Naming children for fathers is intrinsically an act of force: it reverses natural mother-right." Sometime before the development of writing, the shift took place from matrilineal to patri-lineal societies, then to patriarchy. The war against women began, the long battle to control their sexuality, which necessitates control of their bodies and minds.
...The European appropriation of North America, highlighting Jesuit testimony to the gentle and egalitarian societies of Native Americans: "Indians never imagined rape until they saw Europeans perform it." If true, this challenges the assumptions to which the rest of her project leads us—assumptions not just about men and women, but about how the strong exert power over the weak. Was Abigail Adams wrong when she said: "Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.... That your sex is naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute"? It was the chosen task of the Church to suppress egalitarianism in Native American society and to teach men to be brutal to their women. The Catholic Church is one of the most effective misogyny machines ever devised.
The 19th Century was "the lowest point in women's history" but also "the most cheering period in female history, the moment the tide began to turn." In the rapidly industrializing West, women's capacities are proclaimed to be exactly what economic need requires them to be at any particular time. Oppression puts on a mask of concern. "The rhetoric of achieved revolution" conceals vast sexual and racial inequalities. Woman is no longer cast as diabolically sexy; now she is asexual, and responsible for regulating men's desire. In her, desire is abnormal; uterine function dominates mental function; too much thinking is bad for reproductive health; and "all exclusively female physical functions were considered inherently pathological."
Feminism is often misunderstood; people think it is about putting women where men are now, but "the ultimate goal of feminism is to change society." The design is to create a cooperative world, a task that will not be achieved in a few generations; to do it we will have to free ourselves from the grip of history, from the assumptions of the societies in which we have grown up. The task is to convince the world that "sexism brings men...emotional and biological loss. Quoting a Buddhist text: Her face resembles that of a saint; her heart is like that of a demon...A woman has no home in the three worlds." She does not exist in the past, present, or future. Her battle is just to become visible; to be accorded full humanity, not to be regarded as some transient natural phenomenon, or an animal created for male use.
-Hilary Mantel (Excerpt: "The War Against Women," The New York Review of Books, 4.30.2009. Image: "The Killers", Starring Ronald Reagan & Angie Dickinson, directed by Donald Siegel, 1964).