Comedian, historian and podcaster Iszi Lawrence is the guest on this week's Conversation Hat Podcast. We chat about places in the world we'd like to visit, technical time travel, discount mangos and how to get high like a Scythian. Apparently they were good at it.
Time travel has always been a far-flung dream for humanity. The idea of travelling to a distant time and experiencing life as someone else seems amazing. So much opportunity, seemingly limitless freedoms. Well, unless you’re a women. History hasn’t been kind to women, and if time travel did emerge as a viable Sunday afternoon activity, we would have to think a lot harder about when in history to visit. Think about it: emerge out of nothingness in front of people? You'll get burnt as a witch, for sure. So, as posited in Episode 14 of The Conversation Hat, what would be the best era to travel to if you’re a women?
Chariots, Boudica and, er, Bronze. Before Christianity got hold of, what was to become, the United Kingdom life wasn't too bad for women. Although societies were largely patriarchal women had freedoms and choices greater than they would enjoy for much of the rest of history.
Societies were ruled by a military hierarchy which included some women. Archaeological evidence suggests that women could often be found on the battlefield, being all baddass, or leading prominent training schools like Scathach - a mythical legend who trained the greatest hero of Irish legend. Scathach’s rival Aife, (also female - less of the in-fighting, please, we have a patriarchy to overthrow here), was also held in high regard. Further digging, (literally), uncovered graves with both items traditionally associated with both genders, calling into question their concept of gender fluidity... That's a whole other blog though...
Goddess Brigid was a shining example of a multi-tasking woman who could have it all. Not only was she the goddess of poetry, arts and crafts, but was also responsible for smithing, medicine, cattle, sacred wells, serpents and the arrival of early Spring. If that's not enough, (it is), she was also the goddess of all things perceived to be relatively high in dimension. Which seems subjective, at best. This includes anything from high-rising flames, hill forts and perceived elevated states of mind e.g., wisdom. OK, so, I have some questions: are we talking height relative to the Goddess or is there a height limit like on a roller-coaster? If the top of a fort gets knocked-off, making it medium-height, does she no longer have dominion over it? Is there a goddess of temporarily shortened things to fill in the gap? Like a work experience demigod or something? The logistics here are mind-boggling - it's almost like they didn't think their religion through. Anyway, I feel as if the male gods in this pantheon weren't pulling their weight.
Now for the real reason we're all here: naughty historical sex, (rather than the un-naughty kind sex our parents had). Greek historian, Cassius Dio, (*hooooly diverrr*), recorded an early Briton's response to slut-shaming:
"We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest"
Savage. It wouldn't quite meet the standards for free-loving of the 1960s, but it seems both the sexes could enjoy sex openly, (chortle, chortle). Another ancient historian noted men would commonly have male lovers, and in some areas year-long trial marriages were commonplace, which could easily be dissolved if the butterflies disappeared. This could be the most progressive British society, at least sex- and relationship-wise, for quite a long time! Women wouldn't have had the same rights as men, and would still be subject to all sorts of injustices but at least they could have swung an axe at the nearest set of misogynistic balls, and prayed to the best multi-tasking goddess around.
Upside: Badass woman in the army Downside: By just being in the Bronze age you would die pretty young
Medieval period - circa 1050
The medieval period is perhaps best known for the great arrow party of 1066, (I'm sure that's what it was called), but the Norman invasion didn't just suck for King Harold - It was also a turning-point for women in England. Before the Norman invasion, women had some rights and the non-formal nature of religion wasn't treading on women to quite the extent it's now known too. However, as the feudal system was established and law was formalised, women lost the few rights they had. Boo, hiss.
For working class women field work became increasingly gendered- everyone knows men would just look ridiculous in those milk maid outfits anyway. In time honoured tradition, there was also a large pay-gap between men and women for this work. A man could earn 6 pence for hay-making, (I have no idea how you make hay), while a woman would only make 4 pence. Not only would women not get paid for their back-breaking labour, they could not marry without parental consent, or own a business, nor could they divorce or inherit property from their parents if they had any living brothers. This could have been a way to persuade women to kill their annoying brothers, taking down the patriarchy one sibling at a time, but I don't think that's the case. On top of everything else, there was a 20% chance of dying from childbirth and a 90% chance that working class women wouldn’t live past 40.
The only two viable options available to women were marriage, or to become a nun. Although by today's standards, the life of a nun sounds harsh and isolated, it was a sure-fire way of escaping marriage and childbirth, which some women just did not want. The relationship between women and the church was a complicated one. On one hand, they could escape marriage and even become an Abbesses, with control of monasteries and the monks inhabiting them, (#monkpun), but on the other hand they were participating in the establishment that was actively putting women down. The place of women in society was determined by the Bible, which consistently emphasised men's authority over women.
Upside: Option of becoming a Nun and actually pursuing things you were interested in Downside: The Church ruined most women's good time
Victorian Era - 1800’s
Having Queen Victoria as England's regent, you’d have thought life for women would have been improved. Pfft, logic.
Feminist ideas had started to spread across the educated middle classes, but this hadn’t affected society. Women were thought to belong in the house with the term The Household General used in 1861 to describe how a woman should run the house. Hopefully wives foced their husbands to 100 push-ups if they were late for dinner. Men were the head of the house, and his wife along with her property and wealth effectively became his upon marriage. This idea of property meant that marital rape wasn’t considered to exist, and the first law protecting women from domestic violence wasn't implemented until 1853. This law stated the force a husband was allowed to use against his spouse. Just for a sense of scale, Sudan passed it's first animal cruelty law in 1824. I mean, that's great for animals in Sudan and everything, but just puts the status of English women into perspective. Not only could married life be a nightmare, but the law also made it almost impossible for women to divorce their husbands. Prior to 1839 children were automatically given to the husband, no matter the reason for divorce. From 1839 women stood a chance of gaining custody, provided they were known to have impeccable moral character. God knows what "impeccable moral character" meant in those days. Education for upper/middle class women was also limited to gentle, non offensive subjects such as history, geography and literature ensuring that they could charm dinner guests, without having the information to challenge or insult them. I’m sure some women could still use geography to put some men in their place during dinner. Doctors during this time thought that too much education could make woman's ovaries shrivel, making them infertile. Maths is bad, but it's not that bad. I wonder if there's any correlation between maths skills and infertility?
For working class women life would be much worse as they were still expected to take care of the home whilst living in a one-room slums and top-up their husbands wage by working as well. The average weekly factory wage for men was 25s 9d, but for women was only be as much as 18s 8d.
The lowest class of women in Victorian England was the prostitute. Men were expected to have several sexual partners and use prostitutes. At the same time women were expected to maintain their innocence and purity as paramount importance. Double standard much? This meant that there was a strange acceptance about the existence of prostitution as a hated, but necessary part of society. The discovery of STD’s meant that women thought to be prostitutes, or even just "unclean", were subject to an examination under the Contagious Diseases Prevention Act of 1864. This was only applicable to women, and was carried-out by male officers, greatly increasing the risk of abuse.
Upside: Women could attend University , proviced they embrace their shriveled ovaries Downside: in general you'll be treated worse than a dog from Sudan
The roaring 20's swept in following World War I, and was a time for the upper classes to spend extravagantly and enjoy their innate fabulousness, whilst the rest of society struggled, and resented the hell out of them. Work wise, things had improved slightly for women during the war as the shortage of men meant women were employed in traditional male industries. This gave women a level of independence and for some, their own money for the very first time. The dreaded wage gap was always looming over women in these areas with employers not believing women could directly replace a man.
However, as men came back from war women were expected to head straight back to the home leaving behind their new-found independence. Many women had worked in hospitals during the war but afterwards were rejected on grounds of modesty. In fairness, women are famous for passing-out when faced with an ill man’s penis. This sudden rejection of women was also carried through by The National Association of Schoolmasters who campaigned against female teachers.
In 1924, The London County Council made its stance against women explicit when it changed its contracts to include that women must "resign on marriage". Many women would return to the home or domestic work. Not everything was doom and gloom though- the Sex Discrimination Act 1919 made it easier for women to go to University. Women over 30 were given the vote in 1918, which extended to 21-year-old's 1928. Baby steps, but it gradually helped increase the influence women had over society- which could only be a good thing!
Upside: The chance to vote and engage in some serious fox trotting Downside: Men suddenly realised they could be replaced and panicked
So, which era appeals to you the most? Did our guest get it right in the first place by wanting to be a Viking?