From the dawn of civilization, 5,000 years ago in ancient Sumerian city-states — modern-day southern Iraq — women have consistently been written out of our history. In this earliest polytheistic society, scholars chart a steady decline in the status of female deities, along with the loss of female social power in these first cities on Earth.
By 500 B.C. in ancient Greece, the city of Athens invented democracy — but only for men. The city and its government was essentially a boys’ club. Men partied at their intellectual gatherings known as symposia, while their wives stayed home in restrictive female quarters called the gynaeceum.
However, we know of at least one ancient Greek female poet, Sappho of Lesbos. Her writings show us why men throughout the ages have worked so hard to suppress the female voice. She turned the tables on the epic poetry of Homer’s Iliad.
In the great bard’s story, Paris, son of the king of Troy, kidnapped Helen, wife of Sparta’s king, because of her beauty. The decade-long Trojan War ensued. For Sappho, Helen freely left her husband, running off with Paris to live with her chosen lover. Of course, Homer’s original version of male dominance prevailed.
About the time Sappho’s poetry was receding into obscurity, Jesus of Nazareth preached a radical message of salvation, offering women equal access to heaven. Mary Magdalene occasionally accompanied Jesus during his ministry, perhaps even providing financial support. Having been the first witness to discover the Savior’s empty tomb, she earned the epithet “apostle to the apostles.”
In Christianity’s first two centuries, women played vital roles in sustaining the message. They often hosted the earliest gatherings of the faithful in their homes. They would select readings from the expanding number of texts explaining the Jesus’ message. One selection may have been the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, written in her name in the second century.
Growth in Christian identity was accompanied by organized structural development. Men came to dominate the structure. If Christian institutions were to replace the crumbling Roman Empire in Europe by 500 A.D., they would have to mimic the dominant cultural attitudes of the day. Historians use the mimetic theory to investigate these developments.
In the medieval civilization that predominated until at least 1500 A.D., women suffered social suppression comparable to any previous historical epoch. Sappho’s legacy practically disappeared. One intact poem exists today, with portions of some others. Society equated inquisitive women — such as Mary Magdalene must have been — with a prostitution. Men had banned the Gospel written in her name centuries earlier.
With onset of modernity, the long struggle for women to take their rightful place in history received new energy. Male-dominated institutions persistently rebuffed women’s efforts. In 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected women the right to become lawyers, ruling that “the law of the creator” assigned them to “the domestic sphere.”
Overcoming such entrenched chauvinistic attitudes means that still today women must fight for their autonomy to write themselves into history. The New York Times obituary section recently launched an initiative called the Overlooked Project after editors recognize too many deserving women had been left out of history in our newspaper of record.(tncms-inline)8ef1425b-da5d-4129-a1d8-81f9ed872ad4(/tncms-inline)