Normal Women

For whose who don’t know, Phillipa Gregory is one of the most successful writers of historical fiction in the UK. She specializes mainly in mediaeval and Tudor times, but her novel about the slave trade, A Respectable Trade, is memorialized on a plaque in Bristol Docks and was, for a long time, the city’s only public memorial to that shameful part of its history. I think Marvin Rees has done something about that now, but I am a bit out of date.

Anyway, Gregory’s historical fiction is very good, and writing good historical fiction requires good research. Normal Women is her first non-fiction book. Given that it got featured on Prof. Suzannah Lipscombe’s Not Just the Tudors podcast, it comes well recommended by a top flight historian. And that’s good, because what Gregory attempts is something that most historians would blanche at.

Normal Women sets out to tell the history of women in Britain over the course of 900 years, so roughly from the Norman Conquest until now. Even for a 650 page book, that’s massively ambitious. It means that it is impossible to cover any individual story in anything like the sort of detail that a normal history book would.

What Gregory does instead is pick a bunch of themes that are important to women’s lives, and follow those through a succession of historical periods. The amount of space spent on each period tends to increase as we get closer to the present day because of the much greater amount of historical evidence available. Some of the themes covered include women’s roles in politics, religion and war. She looks at marriage and sex work; at women’s roles in the slave trade, and the fight for women’s rights. Along the way there is a magnificent amount of feminist snark.

One of my favourite themes in the book is the question of the nature of women. Most people don’t realise how radically this has changed over the centuries. In mediaeval times women were believed to be sexually insatiable, but by the end of the Victorian era we’d become timid creatures who had to be coaxed into having sex. Mediaeval people also followed the ancient Greeks in believing that women were imperfectly-formed men, and that therefore they might naturally transform into men given the right stimulus (such as overly enthusiastic physical exercise). I was particularly struck by a quotation from the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas in which Jesus says of his mother, Mary:

I, myself, shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Pleasingly, Gregory also spends a lot of time looking at sex and sexuality. Despite that fact that, for most of her period, men believed that sex between women was impossible because no penis was involved, Gregory has unearthed a wealth of examples of women at least being very fond of each other and providing loving companionship.

My favourite parts of the book are the various snarky comments. Here are a few examples:

The idea of ‘women’s work’ was invented to identify work so disagreeable or badly paid that men did not want it.

John Locke – one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment – advised women that lifting heavy objects ‘belongs not to their sex’ and ‘endangered their health’, blind to the world around him filled with labouring women working alongside men.

Gregory also pokes fun at the Bayeaux Tapestry, which famously contains 93 depictions of penises and only 5 of women. To be fair, however, most of the penises belong to horses, not to humans. It is possible that the women who would have sewn the thing were just having fun putting dick pics into their work to annoy Bishop Odo.

And there is this magnificent denunciation of the Church of England’s 1966 report into the question of the ordination of women:

It’s an extraordinarily complete summary of the reasons men have given over nine centuries of English history (and longer) to keep women from authority, from wealth and from interesting work. It was the last stand of patriarchy on the last hill. Women were not the spiritual equals of men in the eyes of God nor in the view of his church. They could not be priests. They never had been priests – it was not natural. It would ruin the priest business if women were to do it. Women and men are the opposite of each other and cannot do the same work. Women could not be both priest and mother and wife – it would ruin the home, and not even women want this. And finally, women do their own feminine work so beautifully that this work should be improved and extended, and they should do nothing else.

Much of this, of course, is claimed to be fundamental feminist belief by the anti-trans lobby.

Which brings us back to the trans issue. Firstly we should note that the idea of their being only two sexes is by no means universal. Gregory cites the Elizabethan legal expert, Sir Edward Coke, as claiming that humans came in three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite.

The idea of assigning sex at birth falls victim to the Gregory snark:

Doctors made snap decisions based on the appearance of infant genitals, almost always naming a baby with a small penis as a girl, since it was thought better to be a girl with what looked like a large clitoris than to be a boy with what looked like a small penis. On this simple male vanity, many lives were wrecked.

Gregory’s narrative is very inclusive when it comes to trans women. I was delighted to see the likes of Eleanor Rykener, Charlotte de Beaumont, Roberta Cowell and April Ashley being accepted unquestioningly as women. Even better, there is an apparent example of a trans couple. A legal case from June 1602 reports that a couple named Rose Davies and John Littlewood were arrested for both dressing as the opposite sex.

Sadly, attitudes to trans men in the book are much less inclusive. Gregory seems to have been taken in by the anti-trans narrative that trans men are ‘really’ women who think that becoming men is the only possible route to female emancipation. Including trans men as women broadens her definition of women yet further, but those she co-opts into femininity might not be very happy about it.

What worried me most about the book, however, was the errors. There’s not a lot of history that I can claim to be an expert on, but trans history is my thing. Gregory’s coverage of trans people contains a number of basic errors. Michael Dillon did not become the heir to a baronetcy on officially changing his gender: he had an older brother. Roberta Cowell was not the first person to undergo male-to-female genital surgery: Lili Elbe and others did so much earlier. And the section on de Beaumont is taken mainly from the mythology that grew up around her rather than historical fact.

This, I’m afraid, is a consequence of trying to cover far too much in one book. And if things that I know about are wrong, how many errors are there that I’m not qualified enough to spot?

Sad. But the snark is still great. And the general theme that views on the nature of women and the role of women in society have changed radically – and not always for the better – over the past nine centuries is very much valid.

book cover
Title: Normal Women
By: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: William Collins
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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