Who was the woman who ‘started it all’ – the first woman you wrote about in the book?
We have no idea! We started with the question ‘What is history? What does it mean to write a history of the world?’ We found a helpful definition in J.M. Roberts/Odd Arne Westad’s The History of the World. A ‘history of the world’ focuses on events, thoughts, technical inventions, scientific revolutions, religious movements etc. that have shaped the world and turned it into the place it is today. Or, to put it in the author’s words: it ‘reflects on what has created the world we live in today’.
Of course, this definition is only a more or less helpful crutch, a rough orientation to work with. However, there are women who did change the world. Also, we decided to use some women and their stories like a looking glass. Take the journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland and their race around the world: it shows how change in the late 19th century was driven by both imperialism and the Industrial Revolution. It was due to the imperialistic British rule that these young women could travel on safe routes through Asia. And it was the Industrial Revolution (and Jules Vernes’ novel Around the World in Eighty Days) that had inspired the race, with the invention of trains and steamboats that had made traveling so much faster and easier. So the race itself is an image for how much the pace of change was accelerating by that time. This includes other aspects of modernisation, like the newspapers, the telegraph and photography, which allowed the public in the United States to follow Bly’s and Bisland’s journey almost in real time – a possibility that didn’t exist before the invention of newspapers.
Or take Theodora, the Byzantine Empress. A circus dancer from an impoverished family, an outcast of Byzantine society, married the heir apparent and became Empress. Not before doing penance for her sins, thereby proving that Christianity allows people to completely turn over their lives. This is something that would have been absolutely impossible in Ancient Roman times. How can you demonstrate better how much Christianity changed the Ancient Roman World? So, at first, it was this kind of women’s stories we were looking for.
In recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of books that collect biographies of women in history together for different audiences, such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Brazen, Bad Girls Throughout History, etc. Where you inspired by these books? Or did the concept evolve separately?
Actually, with our book things happened the other way around. We were inspired by E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, which was written in the 1930s. It had become quite popular again, and we read it together with our friends and to our children. And then it struck us: for some children this is their first history book; they learn a lot from it. But there are (almost) no women in it. We wanted to change this, we wanted to provide a book that can function both as a ‘first history book’ and include women. This meant that, on one hand, we had to tell all the usual stuff - from Ancient Egypt to the French Revolution, and from the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuangdi to the Digital Revolution. On the other hand, we had to include women, and, even more important, gender as one of the main leitmotifs of this story, next to others such as religion, technology, economy, politics, ideas, etc.
We were already working on our book when collections of women’s biographies became popular (Bad Girls appeared six months earlier, Rebel Girls appeared at the same time as our book’s publication in Germany, and Brazen a year later). Nevertheless it is great that there are so many books published on women in history and there should be, for so many obvious reasons. They are all part of a huge project the historian Gerda Lerner called ‘The majority finds its past.’
As a history of the world, the scope of the book is incredibly vast. How did you decide what to include?
Although we are very aware of the fact that historians and philosophers have, in a way, discarded the idea of so called ‘master narratives’, we think that young readers should also know about them. A ‘master narrative’ is, in short, what comes to mind when you think of a certain period of time or event.
For example, if I say, ‘French Revolution’ then you say, ‘Storming of the Bastille, Robespierre, Reign of Terror’. It means that there is some kind of a common agreement on certain key facts, saying that in our example these events were crucial for the French Revolution. We can, and we should, keep reviewing and reconsidering these narratives. We should continuously rewrite the stories they contain - but they won’t disappear. They are part of our cultural memory, and, more importantly, they themselves contributed to shaping the world. Look at the so called ‘European values’ we are discussing at the moment, and you’re back with the French Revolution (and, of course, the Age of Enlightenment that lead to it). And no, this is not something that only affects Europeans. The French Revolution heavily shook up things in many regions of the world, in Haiti and the United States for example, and today there are Chinese dissidents being imprisoned because they are fighting for the same values.
The old narratives are still alive, but they don’t include women. When we think of the Renaissance, we think of humanism, philosophy, art. But we should also think: this is when the writer Christine de Pizan initiated the public debate about gender. When we think of the French Revolution, we should think: people fought for liberté, égalité, and fraternité, but why didn’t they fight for women? Or did they? Who did? We should know Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft as well as we know Danton and Robespierre.
When we think of the Protestant Reformation, we think of Luther and the situation in Germany with its small principalities. We think of Wyclif and Henry III. We think of the conflict between Spain and the Netherlands. When we started looking for women, our picture of the Protestant Reformation changed in an amazing way – women who had committed themselves to the Protestant cause established a well-functioning network across Europe. They took care of Protestant refugees, collaborated between Italy, France, England and Germany, spread Protestant ideas, and founded schools and hospitals. It is very likely that the history of France and England would have turned out differently if it hadn’t been for Marguerite de Navarre, her daughter Jeanne d’Albret, Anne Boleyn, who spent part of her childhood at Marguerite’s court, and her daughter Elizabeth, who by the age of 11 translated Marguerite’s poem ‘The Mirror of the Sinful Soul’.
With that in mind, which story was the hardest to decide to take out?
We didn’t have the time and the funding to dig deeper into the history of Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. We regretted that from the very beginning and still do so.
Naturally the history of the world includes complex stories and potentially conflicting narratives. How did you approach some of the complexities in the book?
We tried to make very clear that history is not ‘the truth about the past’, but a huge bundle of narratives – stories. We keep pointing out throughout the book that things might have happened the way we are telling it, but they also might not have. Our book begins with the German word: vielleicht. Maybe. Perhaps. We don’t know for certain.
Gombrich was constantly rewriting and editing A Little History of the World until his death. Were there any women you learnt about after finishing the book that made you go, ‘Dammit, I wish I’d been able to put her in there!’?
Many! But fortunately there are many other books collecting all of their stories. Again - we would have rather included a few more ideas (women we could have included endlessly). There are a lot of things we learned from writing the book, for example: misogyny is misanthropy (as is racism, homophobia, and so on), in a way that is not always obvious. For hundreds or even thousands of years people have ascribed certain qualities to women: allegedly they are more deeply connected to their bodies, more emotional (see: ‘hysterical’), more connected to nature, whereas men are rational, smart, reasonable, and so on. These attributions run very deeply in our thinking, and they turn out to be a problem both for women and men; because every attribute on the male side of the equation has been viewed as superior (rationality and reason over emotion, culture over nature, abstract thinking over physical...). One thing that follows from this is, to put it bluntly: Men treat women violently, but often they also treat their own bodies and feelings violently, which has turned into something we now understand to be ‘toxic masculinity.’
It is interesting that, for example, the people who were shipped as slaves to America were described as more emotional, less rational, and being more connected to their bodies, nature and so on. So, within these attributions nature always seems inferior to human reasoning. That in itself is a bold statement.
There is such a huge variety of characters in the book. But if you could only pick one as your favourite, who would it be?
Christine de Pizan. She started the public discussion about gender, raising many of the questions we are still debating almost 600 years later! She did something completely new. In addition to that, she did it in a way that was only about to emerge as ‘typical Renaissance thinking’. She confidently used ‘I’, not pointing to God as origin of her thoughts but to herself.
Writing a history of women seems to come hand-in-hand with a history of misogyny. Was there any point in the book that you got too angry to continue?
Human beings are capable of adapting extremely quickly to new situations. It is surprising how fast people got used to modernisation in almost any area of life, be it new religious and scientific ideas, technologies... We accepted the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, that God may not exist – or at least didn’t create the world the way it is told in the Bible; we got used to travelling in cars and to having children via IVF. But after 600 or even 2,000 years of debate (depending on where you set the starting point) we still have to fight for women’s rights, their dignity, their history. The longer we are dealing with our book, the more this is a mystery to us.
How did you decide who wrote what? Did you have areas of history that you each knew more about, or was it totally collaborative?
We started with the somewhat romantic idea that we could take turns writing each chapter – you do Egypt, I do Ancient India, you do Greece, me China, and so on. We ended up with one of us writing the whole book, but we shared the research and discussed everything intensely. There were many reasons for this. Firstly, like many women, we had to split our time between our career and our children, and it depends on so many individual and personal circumstances as to how this balancing act turns out. Additionally, we had to make money for a living (writing doesn’t pay). Besides that, there were other reasons, too. Doing a huge project like this together is an adventure. At some point we decided that it is important to get the book done in the best way circumstances allowed us to do it.
What would be the most important message for people to take away from the book?
We don’t know. We don’t want to teach anyone anything. Instead we thought: what happens if we do something that is not often done within the academic system – drawing the big picture, not regarding the trouble you get yourselves into, all the massive flaws and faults you cannot avoid doing because of the vast scope of the whole thing?
We also tried to make it clear that misogyny is not only something men do to women. There have always been men who strongly supported women, beginning from some of the fathers of the church, Muhammad the prophet (in contrast to what most people think today!)..., it would be a long list. Many strong women had fathers and/or husbands who deeply admired, loved and supported them, like Christine de Pizan and Murasaki Shikibu, the woman who in the 11th century wrote the first Japanese novel. When we talk about misogyny, we find men and women on both sides of the equation.
By Kerstin Lücker and Ute Daenschel