Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Accidental Heroine

I have become something of a fan of the British TV historian Bettany Hughes.

I first came across her in a Channel 4 series called The Spartans. At one point in the series she described Spartan women’s role in the construction of Spartan militarism. Women had a powerful role in encouraging men to fight, and in publicly shaming those who did not show sufficient courage or ability. Among several examples, Hughes tells of a Spartan mother berating her son for cowardice. Standing in the middle of a crowded street, she screams at him, “What’s wrong? Do you want to crawl back inside my belly?” This caught my attention for reasons I will discuss below.

Hughes has also made another excellent series called ‘The seven ages of Britain’. In one episode about Britain in the medieval period, she was discussing the influence of the church on peasant life. She visited a medieval church, whose walls are covered with murals intended to illustrate moral lessons to the illiterate population. Of all the murals in the church, she decided to focus on the one which taught the female populace not to gossip.

Her interpretation of this was an orthodox modern feminist view. With a haughty look she told us, “The church did not want women to use their visits to church as an excuse to gather together to exchange ideas, or – worst of all – to exchange gossip about their men”.

Why would men object to women gossiping about them? Because they know that it will harm them. It is intended to harm them. How dare we object to women harming us? They should have a God-given right to do that if they so wish.

I wonder how Ms Hughes would like it. If she discovered that her husband sat in the pub with his friends and discussed her shortcomings, her sexual preferences, her physical flaws, I wonder if she would feel angry about that. She would not be normal if she did not feel that her trust and privacy had been violated, and that her husband had betrayed her and harmed her socially. She would probably end the relationship, but, in a small community, her ability to form new ones might be severely damaged by his actions.

Ms Hughes thinks that women should have the right to harm men’s reputations and privacy any time they like, but not vice versa. This right of women’s, furthermore, should be utterly unassailable.

In fact, the church was aware that gossip had a corrosive effect on society generally; it was not just men who were likely to be damaged by it - this is just Hughes' modern interpretation. In reality, the church spoke out against anti-social behaviour of all kinds. Hughes mentioned in passing the church’s condemnation of young men drinking and gambling too much, but she didn’t question it. No doubt she thinks the church was right in this regard, and that male viewers everywhere should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. On the question of female anti-social behaviour on the other hand, the church should keep its mouth shut.

In another episode in the same series, she explained that in the early modern period, the criminal law in England did not apply to women. They simply could not be arrested for crimes. This was a revelation to me. It is something that feminists don’t seem to want to talk about very much. She recounts the tale of how a mob of seamen’s wives in Essex stormed aboard a foreign ship in port and overpowered its crew, safe in the knowledge that the crew was unlikely to attack them, and that the law could do nothing. She seemed to be very pleased with this exercise of girl power, but again, my ears pricked up.

Hughes seems to be a very capable historian. Looking at her website, she only really seems to be interested in writing about women. She comes across at times as a haughty feminist who is attempting to make her male audience feel ashamed, and to imbue her female viewers with a sense of gloating moral superiority. The history documentary as revolution.

Why do I describe myself as a fan? Well, her work is undeniably interesting, but more curious than that, if she is a feminist, then she seems deeply naive; she obviously hasn’t thought through the ideological significance of what she says. The kind of evidence that she is presenting openly contradicts much of orthodox feminist dogma, and she doesn’t seem to have realized that.

The standard feminist line on war, for example, is that war is one of the bad things that men do to women. Women are the principal victims of war. Wars only happen because men like fighting. War is an essentially male institution, which women want nothing to do with, have no part in, but merely suffer from. Here is Hughes presenting evidence that from ancient times, women were up to their necks in the incitement of organized male violence. In fact, women’s role in the incitement of male violence should not come as a surprise to anyone; it just seems surprising because feminists have been denying it for the last forty years. Indeed, it has never ceased, and continued right through both world wars, most notably with the Order of the White Feather in World War I.

Similarly, the standard feminist account of women’s position under the law is that they were systematically disadvantaged, and only disadvantaged. Yet Hughes reveals that English women were completely exempt from criminal responsibility. As a feminist, how can she explain this?

Hughes seems to have inadvertently let the mask slip in a cheap attempt to emotionally manipulate her audience. I however, do not sit on my sofa cringing in shame; instead I recognize her as a useful source in the (actually pathetically easy) attempt to debunk feminist mythology.

The world simply is not the way that feminists say it is, and what is more, it just never has been. Hughes’ documentaries provide valuable evidence which backs up this contention.


JimmyGiro said...


Although you did have me worried with the title at first, this only served to heighten the sense of catharsis at the conclusion.

You are right about her arrogant style; which is all the more laughable, as she only got a second class degree, in an age where girlies are routinely given firsts just for spelling oestrogen.

Anonymous said...

Some of the things you have suggested correspond with some beliefs I have had for a long time. With out much evidence I have always believed traditionally men where subject to the sever and harsh law and judgement of society and women to the lesser rule of their husbands. Feminist when they complain of women being under the control of their husbands should reflect that men where subject to the infinitely harsher laws of society.

I have also come to think of wars as being female. If one wants an explanation of war look at those who don't fight them not at those who do. An image I have in my mind is that of the marching men being cheered off to war by crowds of ecstatic women. We must have all seen such images.

For my part I can not see feminist as the enemy, rather it is female instinct and character which seeks to destroy me.

jbgood said...

It seems like Hughes is just the usual blinkered feminist who is selective in what evidence of female superiority, male oppression or gender equality she allows into her conscious mind. as seen in the following quote.

andy : if the sparatan women were so tough fit and able to 'run with the best of the boys' were they ever employed in battle?
luttrel psalter : given the shortage of man power isnt it surprising the spartan women didnt fight?

Bettany Hughes : Indeed, excellent question and to be honest a bit of a conundrum. The period we are looking at is Classical Greece and by this time there was clearly a prevailing consensus that women shouldn't be fighters, which is probably why you get the development of the Amazonian myth of these females fiends who are doing something completely unnatural, but also women were truly prized in their ability to produce future Spartans. Testament to this is in the fact that by and large it was said that Spartan men were honoured with a named headstone if they died in battle and women had a named headstone if they died in childbirth.

rebecca : I am interested in the mention of state instituted infanticide in Sparta - the programme implied that it was male children that were selectively culled, but did not expand on the topic - can you shed any light?

Bettany Hughes : Again it's a slightly vexed question. There isn't any direct documentary evidence that it was just the boys who were subject to infanticide but it does seem very likely that it was mainly them.

No evidence of female oppression in this ancient "patriarchal" (whatever that means) society methinks!

Coffee Catholic said...

"Why would men object to women gossiping about them? Because they know that it will harm them..."

Gossip harms everyone!! This is why I've always wondered why husband/boyfriend bashing is magically acceptable amongst women while other gossip is considered bad??

I live like a total recluse these days because I just can't stand being amongst my own gender. All the husband/boyfriend trashing makes me so sick! And then there's the gossip about everyone else as well...

In Proverbs 31 it says, "Her husband's heart trusts in her."

I LIVE by that golden gem! If I have anything negative to say about my man, I tell it to GOD ... or my man.

How can Erlend trust me if he has doubts about my discretion regarding HIM? And WHY would I want to bash and trash the very person I claim that I love?? How low can you get?? No thanks, I'm not going to trash my man. I love having his trust! And I love *him*.