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Joan of Arc

Women’s History Month: Women Throughout the Ages

March 07, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
FindingDulcinea journeys through history, looking at the role of women and how they were portrayed in various cultures, including ancient Egypt, Greece, China, Western Europe and the New World.

A 3D Timeline

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An installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," is a fanciful but poignant examination of the social, political and cultural contributions of more than 1,000 women and feminist archetypes. The work is constructed as a triangular-shaped table with 39 complete, handcrafted place settings, each representing a single person or archetype. An additional 999 names are inscribed into the floor; cloth hangings and collages further illuminate the legacy of these women.

Women in Ancient Civilization

Women’s rights and societal roles have varied throughout history and within each culture. For example, the women of ancient Egypt apparently possessed approximately the same economic and legal rights as men. According to the Peter Piccione, a professor at Northwestern University, women were often seen as heroes in Egyptian culture. In fact, “Women functioned as leaders, e.g., kings, dowager queens and regents, even as usurpers of rightful heir.” Women could own and manage property, and could conduct their own legal matters.

It was a different story in ancient Greece. Greek goddesses held significant power, but their mortal female worshippers played a more retiring role, and were, on the whole, not well regarded by men.

Fordham University hosts "The Lot of the Hellenic Woman, c. 700-300 BCE," which highlights a variety of opinions on women from well-known Greek writers such as Plutarch, Euripides, and Hesiod. The context of each piece varies from tragedy to sonnet to a shocking analysis of the so-called "types" of woman by Semonides, who amusingly claims, "The woman like mud is ignorant of everything, both good and bad; her only accomplishment is eating."

Apparently women in China were held in equally abysmal esteem: an ancient Chinese poem begins, "How sad it is to be a woman!! / Nothing on earth is held so cheap." In addition, the author’s sentiments refer to a long-held Chinese tradition of favoring male children that still holds true today—often with tragic consequences.

Women of the Western World

Women in the Western world began to publicly question inequality as early as the 14th century. The writer Christine de Pizan's protofeminist writings condemned negative portrayals of women in literature. She was appalled by the misogynist works of many of her contemporaries, particularly those by clerical leaders. De Pizan produced 41 published pieces she became the first female professional writer in Europe. Read an excerpt from her book, "The Treasure of the City of Ladies," entitled "How young women ought to conduct themselves towards their elders."

One of the most famous Western women is Joan of Arc, a French peasant turned military leader who campaigned to save the region of Orleans from the British. She was eventually burned to death for her efforts. Today, Joan of Arc, who was later named a saint, represents a monumental figure in Christian and women's history.

Another influential female figure in Europe was Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth's reign has been viewed as a milestone in women's history and is chronicled through many of her writings. One of her most impressive works is the "Response to a Parliamentary Delegation on her Marriage, 1559," in which the queen sets out the terms of her "marriage with God."

Queen Elizabeth's reign was regarded as a golden age
in England; her rule began on November 17, 1558, and lasted 45 years.

Women of the New World

American Indian women have been obscured, misrepresented and finally, glorified by history. At the heart of a culture that is both integrated into and threatened by Western culture, these women are skilled workers, mothers, and wives, upholding practices and traditions that would otherwise be completely alien to our country's legacy.

Two "famous" American Indian women come to mind: Pocahontas, the Powhatan peacemaker who united Jamestown settlers with the natives who had preceded them; and Sacagawea, a peacemaking Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition, saved their lives many times and helped negotiate trades with American Indian tribes.
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