Sunday, March 19, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Who Cooked the Last Supper? by Rosalind Miles

March is Women's History Month so I'm interrupting the normal romance book reviews to highlight a title devoted to women's history. The romance community (writers and readers) is predominately women. Ladies, if you aren't versed in your history, then there's no better time than now to expand your reading horizons and become better informed.

4.5 Stars*
This is another instance where I espouse that words speak louder than numbers so it’s what the reviews says that carries more weight than the star rating.  (See my editorial post Make Your Words Count for more details.)
That being said I’m going to tackle this review a little differently, but hopefully this format will be most helpful.

Who should read this book? Everyone! And especially the ones who think this book does not pertain to them.

Genre:  Non-fiction/World History/ Women’s History/Gender Studies

What does this book cover? This book is organized into 4 sections with 3 chapters each. 

Part one (“In the Beginning”) covers “the first women”—detailing prehistoric women’s roles and importance; “the great goddess”—discussing early women centric beliefs; and “the rise of the Phallus”—discussing sexuality and setting the stage for the overthrown of female rights, bloodlines, and worship.
Part two (“The Fall of Woman”) covers “God the father”—documenting how the organization of monotheist religions established unequal balances of power; “the sins of the Mothers”—exposing the abuses inflicted upon women because of their bodies; and “a little learning”—exploring how the development of literacy offered escapes as well as further suppression of women.
Part three (“Dominion and Domination”) covers “women’s work” —exposing the myth that women not only did less “work” than men but also the difficulty and unpleasantness of much of her manual labor; “revolution, the great engine” —looking at distinctly different types of revolutions yet how they both failed to usurp the status quo; and “the rod of empire” —exposing how imperialism further served to oppress and abuse women and extend the patriarchy.
Part four (“Turning the Tide”) covers “the rights of women” —discussing the modern developments that continues to oppress women and the beginnings of the women’s movement; ”the body politic” —discussing the role of contraception; and “daughters of time” —further detailing the advancement of contraception as well as the strides of the second wave of the women’s movement.
Religion—readers who are unwilling to see past the inherent misogyny in major world religions will have issues with this. My advice to readers—keep an open mind and check your own affiliations at the door.

Abuse—physical, psychological, sexual; you name it, it’s documented here. Violence including rape, genital mutilation, female infanticide, and murder.  Oh and some ridiculous contraception ideas. It’s not pretty, but it’s women’s history without all the whitewashing. My advice to readers—bring tissues and don’t eat lunch first.

Controversies:  At times, does the author belittle and reduce the importance men played in not just history but the advancement of the human race? Absolutely, but isn’t that what traditional history has done to women? Until an edition of world history where the sexes are presented equally becomes the mainstream text, readers are going to have to accept that as long as sexism exists a universal human history is out of reach.

Historical Accuracy: I am not a historian so I can’t comment on the complete accuracy of every incident and historical event referenced in this text.  However, I think an objective historian would agree (and many have) that a vast number of history texts out there aren’t accurate either, whether through omissions, hero-making, and/or outright misrepresentations. It’s interesting though how those texts were accepted for so long, yet let a women offer up a book on history that proposes that it was the female of the species who had the greatest role in the continuation of the human race, and so much of her credibility and the credibility of the text is called into question.

It is also interesting disturbing how some readers see bias in this work but not the work of the male dominated texts on the market and utilized in the public school systems. That alone says a lot about the extent that sexism is so subconsciously rooted in society. We’ve somehow been trained to accept HIStory but not hers.  And this is a large problem which I believe the text addresses.  History has been shaped and documented through various fields of study where women were not only ignored and dismissed but consciously omitted by men in favor of a pro-male view where man is more important to the survival of human kind than women. Accepted history texts lack the incorporation of women’s role, if not their very existence, throughout places in history.   Once you accept that women and their story have been suppressed, one must pose the next logical question of why. Miles attempts to answer this.

Shortcomings: There are certainly places in the text where sources and exact time periods could be clearer in a wider context and background, as well as a fuller picture of the examples would be beneficial.  The author assumes the reader has a developed formal education and prior knowledge of people, incidents, and events in history.

There are admittedly also places where Miles’s word choice might be going for effect but at the same time distorts her claims. For example, a good editor might have recommended that she substitute “only” with “largely” when referring to Jackie O and Lady Di’s fame and accomplishments via their “royal” men.  Were their life’s accomplishments solely tied to their husbands? No. But would they be the historical icons they are had they not married those men in the first place? Nope.

In another instance, replacing “no” with “minimal” when asserting men’s function and significance under Goddess culture might be help avoid the obvious contradiction that comes a few paragraphs/pages later.

How I felt reading this book:   Some chapters made me feel proud to be a woman and inspired to work towards advancing equality. Some chapters made me angry—the injustices, the abuses—it’s a gut-wrenching history pill to swallow.  Some chapters l was holding back the tears. This isn’t a light read nor should the subject matter be taken lightly, but it is important to understand.

Is this a feminist text?  By definition (cited here from Merriam-Webster dictionary) and largely from a scholarly theorist perspective feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes as well as organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” This book offer theories (along with and backed by research from various fields of study) of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes so in that frame of reference it’s a feminist text. But bear in mind that over the years the term feminism has taken on a variety of negative connotations (often the work of its opposition in an attempt to discredit it), but I’m not going to give recognition to those distortions.

Why this text is still relevant:
The lack of a women’s history or women studies discipline in general education curriculums have left a large crux of 21st century women and men uninformed and misinformed.  And though originally published in 1988, and thus the last nearly thirty years are not included, this book not only documents women’s struggles through the ages, but also points to issues still at the forefront today.

Women and men living in 2017 should possess a basic understanding of how history has swayed backwards and forward through slow transitions and difficult strides towards equality. We can’t assume that because it’s been won, that it can’t be taken away.

From the very beginning of time, women weren’t affronted with inequality; instead they descended to it.  Many rights that were won in the 20th century were given freely in earlier civilizations. Women’s equality has not historically been a linear progression, but more a series of setbacks and advances as societal conditions change.  

Women’s oppression, while universal and unrelenting for millenniums, varies widely by class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. There is no one answer to fix all ills.  
Bottom Line /Hard Truths: If you are looking for a fluff piece highlighting well known women through the ages, this is not one of them.  This text looks at historical trends and attempts to offer viable explanations (through what little evidence and unbiased scholarship there is on certain time frames) as to not just what women were doing while men were getting all the credit, but why they were omitted in the first place. And I suspect that might be what some readers struggle with—the idea that it became a conscious effort to suppress women’s voices and women’s contributions. It’s mind boggling really that one can acknowledge women’s absence from traditional text but still refuse to admit there is a long standing patriarchal bias that made it that way in the first place. It’s as if some readers want to know what’s missing but don’t want to face the disturbing realities of its absence.

How I got this book/Why I read this book/My background:  I ordered this book (paperback edition) from Amazon after browsing several books on the subject for consideration for my kids’ educational studies.  I read it first and made a chapter by chapter study guide for our lessons. I have a background in English literature with a concentration in women’s literature and feminist criticism so the general subject matter wasn’t previously unfamiliar, but I still found the details moving and the overall thesis an enlightening and essential read.  


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