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Why were women written out of history? An interview with Bettany Hughes

29 February 2016
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Bettany Hughes
History Uncovered

As part of our Women in History series for Women’s History Month, we spoke to award-winning historian, author and broadcaster Dr Bettany Hughes about why women were written out of history and what we can do to redress the balance.

Do you think women have featured less in history than men have?

Absolutely, it’s the inconvenient truth that women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history. Clearly something has gone wrong here, the maths just doesn’t work.

Why do you think this is?

To solve that particular problem I think we need to go right back to pre-history. When we go back into the pre-historic world, we see the polar opposite.

If you look at all the figurines made between about 40,000 BC, until around 5,000 BC – a period which really sees the flourishing of the modern mind- at that time around 90% of all these figurines are of women. So women are very present in the archaeological record, but then start to disappear once pre-history turns into history.

Venus von Willendorf, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

Venus von Willendorf, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

What happens?

At the birth of civilised society, you have these very highly productive and sophisticated, settlements, with women having great status; they are high priestesses, they have property rights and own land, they write poetry- but these new civilisations want to expand. So – broadly speaking – when that happens, what you need is muscle power, and society becomes more militarised. The balance of power shifts.

It really is quantum shift in the story of the world, we start to find these powerful warrior gods appearing in the archaeology as well as in epics; The Epic of Gilgamesh; The Iliad and the Odyssey; and this represents a gear change in how we are told the story of humanity.

But why does this shift in society then become an endemic throughout history?

We retain this status quo; we keep what we have by growth and military means; muscle still matters. This becomes a base note in society, where as previously a measure of achievement might have been the physical survival of the community, and of quality of life, it is now expansion and success. Women’s roles remain diminished.

So do women continue to impact history?

Yes. There are brilliantly feisty women from history who have made an impact, and whose stories need to be told. For historians it’s our job to fill in the gaps in history. We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t.

Why do you think that is then, that we know of some women but not others?

A lot of the women that we think of, like Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, one of the reasons their stories have lasted is that they are portrayed as highly sexualised. They are exciting, but the danger of their influence has also become a warped morality tale; we remember them as creatures who draw men towards their beds and towards their death.

Arguably we can be seen to categorise women throughout history

Definitely, often women aren’t allowed to be characters in history, they have to be stereotypes. Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths; she wasn’t that much of a looker. But when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress bathing in milk. Often, even when women have made their mark and they are remembered by history, we are offered a fantasy version of their lives.

So is this why, even now, we don’t acknowledge women’s role in history as much as we do men’s?

I don’t think there are malign forces at work here; it’s just a practical issue. Physically the stories of women have been written out of history, rather than written in. But times are changing; we’re getting more interested in the story of what it means to be human, as opposed to being a man or a woman.

So what can we do to help this change happen?

Whenever I feel sad about how systematically women vanished from history, I take the long view, and say, there has been a problem here for at least 3,500 years, so it’s no surprise that we have some catching up to do! But that in itself is quite empowering, because we know what we are up against.

This is an issue that has very deep roots, and we can see how and why that plays out, and therefore what we can do to start to change things. What we need to do is make sure that collectively we are known as the generation that opened rather than closed minds, and who opened these stories up, and put them back onto the page and into our collective memory.

Dr Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. For more on her work, visit

What impact did women have on English history?

In a survey we commissioned for Women’s History Month (March 2016) we discovered that 40% of people thought that women did not impact history as much as men.

We’re aiming to help change this perception and celebrate Women in History with a series of blogs, articles and profiles of just a few women whose contribution to England’s history you might not have heard about – read more about them here.

Who has inspired you the most? Tell us in the comments or connect with the conversation on Twitter using #WomensHistoryMonth

Please note: the English Heritage digital team moderate comments to this post 

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  1. What about Mary Secole I think she lived in London

  2. Hi Fiona,
    Mary Seacole did indeed live in London – she has a blue plaque at 14 Soho Square in Soho and she’s one of the women we’ve profiled for Women’s History Month. If you’d like to read more about her, here’s a link to her blue plaque page: You can find the other women whose stories we’re sharing this month (and watch a video) on our Women in History page, which is here:
    I hope you find them interesting!

  3. A good example of women being sidelined in history is Gertrude Bell. Everyone has heard of Lawrence of Arabia but very few people have heard of Gertrude. She was pivotal in the post World War One Middle East politics, a much larger and important role than that of Lawrence. There are many other examples of women disappearing from his story and I feel that the only way to empower young girls is to teach her story in schools. I work as a volunteer at Mount Grace Priory where I spread the word on the life of Gertrude.

  4. Surely Boudicca and Joan of Arc a important historic women.

  5. There was a marked down turn in the status of women with the invention and spread of the Abrahamic religions. I know that people don’t like to mention this, but it’s very clear, and it continues to this day.

  6. They are indeed Stephen, thanks for commenting

  7. Gertrude Bell is a great example – thanks for highlighting her Kathryn.

  8. As a person with a Major in Classics and Minor in Archaeology I feel you are making some quite bizarre claims here. The fact is that throughout recorded history men have been the leaders of nations, the leading scientists, the greatest warriors. There is no systematic wiping of women from history – the overwhelming male centred interpretation of history we see is a product of the structure of society for thousands of years and men in general being at the for of most human achievement both good and bad

  9. Just wanted to say your sources on Cleopatra’s beauty are out of sync with what was reported at the time. The only references to her not being seductive/beautiful were at least a decade post her death, whereas the former was while she was alive.

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  11. Simplified reasoning

    In the era before mankind crawled out of subsistence/nomad living then the womens role was much more important. However from the point that mankind settled and truly started fighting over the land, then nearly all major impact/decisions has been made by the people involved with the fighting.
    I’e the men

    Using Cleopatra as a example is rather strange, she might have been both a poet and a mathematician, but she is not known for any groundbreaking work in either because it was not her biggest role in history. Many other known figures were also poets, artists and scientists, but are remembered for completely different things. Hitler to take a extreme example will not be primarily remembered as a devoted painter. (In any other way than a darkly comic contrast with what he is known for)

    Cleopatra was also probably the victim of propaganda from the Romans, they (Augustus) had no interest in Cleopatra becoming known as some kind of paradigm. This kind of belittling and reduction of your opponents male or female has been a valid tactic throughout history.

    Some articles say that it is likely that Cleopatra was more of a scientist than a seductress, but she might in fact have been both, perhaps she did in fact woo several roman statesmen on the basis of her intellect rather than beauty. These were after all men who could get any kind of beauty they so desired with the merest whim anyways. But intellect and statesmanship is something they might all have been very attracted too. The Roman woman where after all also known to be quite a powerful force in regards to their political motives at times

    Had Queen Victoria lost Britain I don’t imagine we would remember her as anything more than a reduced cliche either. Since she did not she is remembered as the powerhouse of a figure she was.

    As far as modern media is concerned, where most people truly take their historical knowledge from, then historically movies about Lawrence shooting his way across Arabia was always going to sell far better than a movie about Gertrude Bell talking her way across it.
    This is changing however as movies become a better medium for telling soft stories also, and women themselves has become representative in producing and viewing this media being a prime example of a hithertho ‘unknown’ woman becoming known due to modern media.

    Although women have no doubt been suppressed in large parts of history, I do feel like sometimes bloggers such as this see everything through a tinted lens that sees all suppression as gender motivated.

  12. Ada Lovelace: Programmer
    Bessie Coleman: Aviator
    Marie Curie: Chemist
    ***Women should be celebrated for their competencies and not just their physical attributes.

  13. Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Catherine de’ Medici, Elizabeth I, Anne of Austria, Catherine the Great, Empress Frederick, Maria Theresa, Queen Victoria.

    Ummmm……what about these women?

    Are you seriously arguing that as a society we must convince ourselves that women contributed equally to men? Meaning that women must be elevated to the standards of men irrespective to the truth. There were really really important women. Why must we disgrace their very real contributions by this make believe. Even the partially literate will understand that these proclamations are wrong, and this tarnishes women’s real contributions.

  14. One of my favorite theories that might show women being marginalized was that The Odyssey could have been written by a woman, perhaps the daughter of the original Homer. Most of the Odyssey takes place in domestic scenes, with the adventures being related in dining room tales. While Helen is a seductress in The Iliad, Penelope is one of the clever and honorable characters in in The Odyssey. On the other hand, her suitors, the noble warriors of the type who would have been heroes in The Iliad, are jerks.

  15. Sorry, just to clarify, are we talking about women in history as in how they are portrayed (or not, I suppose) in the context of pop culture or in the context of historical record? I believe it’s the former but the structuring is a bit vague so the post can lend itself to either one.

  16. Queen Elizabeth was the female figure in history that inspired me the most. I first became interested in her when I found out she was a virgo just as I, and when I began to do more research about her I found out that she was a total badass. She inspires me everyday to be a badass woman that don’t need no man.

  17. Great suggestions Lila, and we agree! If you’re interested in reading more, we’re featuring Ada Lovelace and another pioneering aviator (Amy Johnson) and scientists on our Women in History page – you can check it out here:

  18. That’s really interesting, thanks for your comment Guy.

  19. Thanks for commenting Aya!

  20. Thanks for your very thoughtful comment Omar.

  21. Hi Jordon,
    Thanks for commenting – those fantastic women you mention did indeed have a great impact on history. Although we are profiling some famous queens, for Women’s History Month we’re focusing on sharing a wider range of stories and contributions from women in a range of different fields who the public might not have heard of, including scientists and social campaigners. We hope you enjoy reading about them!
    Best wishes,

  22. Hi Alex,
    We’re talking about a bit of both really. We undertook a survey which found that 40% of the people we asked believed that women had less of an impact on history than men, so we’re hoping this makes people consider the reasons why women’s achievements have been less documented, and are less widely represented, than men’s.
    Thanks for commenting,

  23. Thanks for commenting Richard – You’re right, that’s how history has been written up until this point. We agree with Bettany though, it’s time to start changing this narrative so that it’s more balanced to the achievements of both men and women. We’ve profiled 14 women who have been pioneers in one way or another – here’s a link if you’re interested in finding out more:

  24. Shirley Nolan based the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Appeal at Westminster Hospital in London and their work continues. She’s always been a hero to me, if there isn’t a plaque to her I think there should be.

  25. Thanks for commenting Janice, she sounds like a remarkable woman without a doubt. Before a candidate can be considered for a blue plaque at least 20 years must have passed since their death, so if you’re interested in pursuing a nomination in a few years time, here’s everything you need to know:

  26. Hmm…you claim that women held an elevated status prior to 3500 years ago, citing the prevalence of female figurines as evidence. Yet, did you notice that the very figurine you show above is ridiculously sexualized? (Bear in mind that for most of recorded history, buxom women were considered most sexy.) Notice how the breasts and belly are reasonably realistic, yet they didn’t even bother to give her a face — or, for that matter, arms!

    I don’t think those figurines signified an elevation of women at all; rather, I think they were the caveman version of Playboy magazine.

  27. Maybe it’s because the bulk of history focus is on war fare, which was mainly men, the women stayed mainly at home raising the next generation of soldiers, not really sexist, just the way it was.

  28. The role of women in recorded history reflect all sorts of social biases, some of which are mentioned here, and there have recently been some initiatives to try to overcome this. An example is on wikipedia where an initiative to improve the quality and coverage of biographies of women scientists has been undertaken (see ). I’m sure the projects achievements could be mirrored with the articles of other women in history. As one of the most visited web sites in the world (particularly by children) the way in which women individually and collectively are recorded within the online encyclopedia is important for future generations, and, unlike most reference sources, anyone can make a difference.

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  31. “In a survey we commissioned for Women’s History Month (March 2016) we discovered that 40% of people thought that women did not impact history as much as men.”

    I would argue that if you define history as the “top-down” story of politics, war, even art and music, then these public-domain activities were male dominated. Therefore in this historiography – like it or not – women did impact on history less then men.

  32. I’d like to make a case for Aethelflaed, First Lady of the Mercians. She was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, she established many towns from Runcorn to Warwick, refortified Gloucester, defeated the Vikings at Chester, Derby and Leicester and would have added York had she not died two weeks before she was due to accept their surrender. She retrieved the relics of St Oswald from deep inside the Danelaw and she raised her illegitimate nephew, Aethelstan, to be the first true King of England.

    Unfortunately, her achievements have been marginalised by the Wessex-centric Anglo Saxon Chronicles in favour of her younger brother, Edward the Elder.

  33. Thanks for commenting Ben, Aethelflaed sounds like a fascinating woman.

  34. I have been fascinated by Lady Anne Clifford since my first visit to Skipton Castle in 1989. She accomplished so much in the North after the age of 50, rebuilding the castles she finally inherited

  35. I would like Matilda, William First’s wife included, she was well read, intelligent and had many attributes William lacked, her influence and support surely came to play to secure William the throne and guided him after.

  36. Hi DJ, thanks for your comment. If you’re on twitter, you might like to follow @Matilda_1066 – she’s one of the characters who is tweeting the events of 1066 as the year progresses.

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  38. I wish us we women would be less fanciful when considering our place in history. It’s true modernity has brought true equality to contributions of the sexes but let’s be real: we occupy .5% (and I suspect that’s a made up number) of history because men built the world and women played very minor roles in that process because we weren’t very adept in the capacities needed for the building of modern society through antiquity. If it weren’t for women there’d be no children, it’s true, but if it weren’t for men there’d be no society to improve upon. It was a man’s world, and thank goodness it was because if it wasn’t we’d still be living in caves. Now, and for a long while, the world belongs to both of us (men and women) and boundaries shatter daily. But for the love of St. Peter, we women were largely unimportant beyond the role of reproduction for the 99% of human history. We’re definitely on the upswing now, but for goodness sake, let’s be honest with ourselves.

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  40. Trying to write a university essay on Sophia Ripley, but there seems to be nothing written on her! Anything I find is online or off-handedly mentioned in a book or article about someone else. The only book I have found about her specifically has been completely impossible to get via ebook or in print in less than 3 weeks (I live in the UK, and all copies would ship from the US). It’s very frustrating, because she was a very intelligent woman, and was very active in the transcendental movement and was co-founder of a commune (along with her husband, which is perhaps why she was written out of history)! So I am feeling this very strongly at the moment. Such an annoying habit of historians.

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  43. It is only recently that historians of science, technology and of art are beginning to discover the role women have played in this fields of human endeavour since many centuries. Today information can be found via internet and via Facebook – and we can be sure much more will come to surface in the future. And one important aspect still has to be tackled: what / who / which organisations are behind this systematic bias?

  44. As a grad student doing research on my thesis on aristocratic British women and marriage (16th-19th centuries), this article reflects my views. I chose aristocratic women because there are more useful primary sources from that class, but I wanted to show this history from the perspective of women.

  45. I have tried to record some history of inspirational women including Bettany’s own story . Oxford is a small city but is connected to the whole world. I am privileged to interview amazing women achievers from 5 continents. The 30 life stories in Oxford Castaways 3 launched tomorrow include those of the queens of storytelling Kim Pickin & Tish Francis who direct The Story Museum (Oxford) and Annie Sloan the paint lady who grew an international business from 1 shop in Oxford and Yasmin Robson the descendant of indentured labour who became an astrophysicist, Georgina Ferry the biographer of the only English (Oxford) Woman to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Castaways include Bettany Hughes, Sharmi Chakrabharti, Peggy Seeger and Fiona Carnarvon. Last month one of the Oxtopians ( my island is called Oxtopia ) broke a stained glass ceiling. Rev Charlotte Bannister Parker became the first woman in 1000 years to be vicar in charge of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. There are less well known but equally inspirational castaways like courageous under cover video journalist Zoe Brougton, and a force of life transformation for disadvantaged children in Oxfordshire through Exit 7 and in Kenya through the Nasio Trust, Nancy Hunt. See for yourself. All proceeds to Sobell House

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  47. Grainne O’Malley notorious pirate who had peace talks with Queen Elizabeth the First regarding the execution of her sons. Epic anglo-irish legend with a lot of myths and superstition. Piracy, magick and the beginnings of British intelligence agencies. Grainne Mhaol was definitely written out of history. Her legacy is mostly spoken in folk tradition in Irish public houses.

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  49. To those replying with “What about [name of woman]?” It’s not as if the author doesn’t know about them or has forgotten them. But they’re still part of the 0.5%. And that’s the point.

    I love the sentence “We’re getting more interested in the story of what it means to be human, as opposed to being a man or a woman.” It’s something I hope we can communicate better to our children. They’re growing up with Wonder Woman and Rey as well as Harry Potter and Captain America – I think they stand a chance.

  50. Thanks for your comment Jenny, we’re glad you enjoyed this blog.

  51. Tessa L. Kelso (new to Los Angeles in the late nineteenth century) inspired me the most in her naturally executive self-image when women weren’t seen as fitting into executive positions. She inspires me in her speaking strength to power. Even when women didn’t have the vote, Kelso used the courts as her force. Kelso had boundless energy and used that energy to make society more aware and more just.

  52. Hello! I discovered Bettany Hughes article through the NY Times Gender Letter. I was so interested to read her interview and to see all the fascinating posts, about women in history, on your site. As an older feminist I would like to point out that my generation tried to amend the historical gender bias. We coined the term “Herstory”. I daresay you know this but I wanted to say it because it is dispiriting to see how often, throughout history, women have tried and tried again and again, to find a place, to deal with harassment and misogyny, Then, something happens (patriarchal forces?) and their initiatives get swept away after which, a new generation says “We are doing something about this now.” And older feminists, such as myself, think “Hang on, weren’t we doing that in the late 60s and 70s?

    Kind wishes
    Helen Lindstrom