Margaret von Klemperer reviews Philippa Gregory’s ‘Normal Women’ — bringing prominence to ordinary women

The book gives women a place in the narrative of history, which is often written by men, only recording the lives of men

27 February 2024 - 12:46 By Margaret von Klemperer
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'Normal Women' is a fascinating, often startling, piece of research that tells untold stories of ordinary women's roles in shaping history.
'Normal Women' is a fascinating, often startling, piece of research that tells untold stories of ordinary women's roles in shaping history.
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Normal Women: 900 Years of Making History
Philippa Gregory
William Collins

For many readers, Philippa Gregory is the major go-to writer of historical fiction, concentrating on the stories of prominent women in British history, and probably best known for her The Other Boleyn Girl, dealing with the life of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary.

But this lengthy non-fiction book is very different: it is the culmination of 10 years of research into the role and state of women in Britain. From the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the present day, bringing to prominence the ordinary women, not just the high-flyers.

Gregory makes the point that most history we see is history written by men, recording the lives of men — women are excluded from the narrative. She makes the point early on that the Bayeux tapestry shows more penises than it does women.

And yet the Norman Conquest was to have a huge and detrimental effect on the lives of women who under Anglo-Saxon rule had more rights than they would enjoy again for centuries. Patriarchy came with the Normans.

Gregory concentrates on women who never made it into the public consciousness. We can read about women who were criminals, prostitutes, farmworkers, ordinary working women — and, of course, the women who, even if they had a job outside the home, were also full-time, unpaid homemakers. That is a role that all too often continues to this day, despite all kinds of advances women may have made.

There were times when things were better for women: the years of the Black Death ironically allowed women into roles they had been unable to access until there was an acute shortage of manpower.

They were even briefly allowed to hear confessions in the church, though it would take until recently for the church to tie itself into knots before finally allowing women to be ordained.

But there was an inevitable backlash — women were blamed for the plague. And there are fascinating insights — when men were accused of bastardy, it was in actual fact an attack on their mothers rather than on their position. And Tyndale’s translation, which made the Bible accessible to the general literate public, demeaned women in a way that has carried down the ages, mistranslating the original to describe women as “the weaker vessel”.

Ultimately, this male perception of “natural” female inferiority would lead none other than Charles Darwin to say that while men were evolving to greater complexity and strength, women were only becoming more fertile. And guess who that suited? Defining women as the weaker sex may not have been a deliberate attempt to oppress women, though it had that effect, but, according to Gregory, it was designed to free men from competition with anyone except other men. Men, she claims, would only win when women were held back.

The reader is taken at a brisk gallop through history, including looking at women during wars — probably far more fought, and fought successfully, than male-dominated history has documented. Normal Women is sometimes an angry book, though Gregory can be sharp and witty, often at the expense of the church, the judiciary, politicians and the medical profession.

However, one problem that does arise is that in giving previously hidden women a name and a voice, the book sometimes becomes a list of people who make a brief appearance in the spotlight, only to disappear again. There are two main strands — how attitudes to women changed at various times, and how women themselves dealt with, and around, those changing attitudes.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Gregory’s research is how the role of women became inextricably bound up in the class war. Courtly love and later the Romantic movement put elite women on a pedestal, and that was something that made life easier for elite men.

The women were seen as pure, almost sexless, confined in their homes and by their uncomfortable clothes, and mainly ornamental. Meanwhile, working class women were seen as raunchy, sexually active, and almost a different species, able to do heavy work, and available, willingly or not, for men who wanted their wives to be kept above the fray — as long as they produced the required male heirs. It divided women and made their struggle for their rights and rightful position more difficult. And, says Gregory, the battle is far from won.

Readers may not agree with everything Gregory claims, but she has produced a fascinating, often startling, piece of research. While it deals with women in Britain, the British imperial project saw to it that the attitudes the book explores have been exported all over the world.

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