Normal Women: Nine Hundred Years of Making History

Image of Normal Women: Nine Hundred Years of Making History
Release Date: 
February 27, 2024
Reviewed by: 

"There is so much information in this book that there is something to entice, annoy, and anger everyone. . . . women today would have much common ground to discuss with women who lived 900 years ago. There is a certain continuity . . ."

Philippa Gregory is best known for her historical novels and less so for her nonfiction books like this one. Normal Women, Gregory's meticulously researched effort, tells the story of the lives of "ordinary women" over 900 years in England. The book's timeline starts in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings, which brought William the Conqueror to power in England and concludes in the mid-1990s. William the Conqueror not only made French the language formal language of England, but also initiated a definitive campaign to replace the rights that women enjoyed in ways that are all too familiar even today.

Gregory does not give a "grand conclusion" because the book "is a report of real events of 900 years in England. . . .." She does, however, give readers an insight into her thinking, "one of the standout ideas for me is the compulsive habit of men, through history, to define the 'Nature of Women.’ This completely imaginary label has served as the starting point for laws about women, ways to control women, provide for women, define appropriate work for women, set standards for permitted treatment of women, and even define those who may call themselves a woman."

Early on England had a subsistence economy and did not use or need coin or precious metals. Women produced goods that were grown locally and exchanged or bartered. But William needed cold, hard cash and, since church law prohibited lending money, encouraged Jewish merchants to come to England to establish money-lending businesses to circumvent the church's restrictions.

This move to a cash economy destroyed the cottage industries that women created, and which were once viewed as an essential part of England's economy. The groundwork had been laid to reduce anything produced in the home as "women's work," which, by definition was unpaid, unimportant, and unnecessary. Women were relegated to the domestic sphere and told their most important role in life was taking care of the children and husband.

Women who showed any creativity, or entrepreneurial aptitude, were deemed unfeminine or hyper-masculine. A true woman would not besmirch her delicate nature by engaging in behavior that contradicted the role created by men for her. Further, Gregory's research makes clear women were held responsible when anything went wrong, like the plague, and women who operated outside the acceptable norms did so because they were witches. Gregory writes, "For thousands of years, males have seen women not as women could be, but only as males want them to be." Sound familiar?

Oddly, though, Gregory also regales readers with 900 years of stories about the successful revolts that women led against Norman lords who usurped age-old common rights and other well-established customs among the common folk.

Rather than empowering women, the new narrative under Norman rule was for women to be soft, gentile, inactive, and deferential with the end goal being marriage and children. educating women was not important and, eventually, women were prohibited from attending universities. Even when they could go to places like Cambridge or Oxford, no woman could be granted a degree.

Rest assured, reading this book will set one's teeth on edge, as reflected by Gregory quoting Virginia Woolf 's opinion of the "ideal" woman, "Whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her."

One area Gregory could have omitted is all references to transgender women. While mentioning transgender has become de rigueur the topic is complex and complicated and including it in this book is an unnecessary distraction that serves no useful purpose.

Most of what Gregory writes about will come as no surprise to women reading the book. What may be surprising is how similar the language used in the 11th century mimics what women continue to hear in the 21st. Throughout the book Gregory serves as a guide in describing how women's contributions were repeatedly denigrated, reduced, ignored, devalued, and eliminated by men for myriad reasons.

According to Gregory's research, and something most women will not find surprising, is that men were afraid of women. This became apparent when the question of women's voting rights arose. Since women outnumber men, the latter saw enfranchising women as a direct threat to men's power and control. Alas, contrary to the fears most commonly expressed by men Gregory points out that "there were more women saying that they were not fit to have it [the vote] than whose who wanted it."

Generations of women have been silenced, eliminated, ignored, and delegitimatized for reasons that defy common sense. When women become successful there is a concerted effort by men to take it away.

Overall, there is so much information in this book that there is something to entice, annoy, and anger everyone. Gregory gives readers new insights into how women's lives evolved over the centuries and how they have remained the same. The laws enacted in the 12th century mimic those that have been passed and continue to be enacted in the 21st. One comes away from the book understanding that women today would have much common ground to discuss with women who lived 900 years ago. There is a certain continuity that is both infuriating and understandable. It's a fight that women continue to pursue today.