Albert Bonniers förlag, 2005. ISBN: 9789100107703
Reviewed by Eivor Martinus in SBR 2007:1
It is a mammoth undertaking, trying to do justice to all those women who have excelled in the arts, sciences or as explorers since Sappho instructed privileged young girls at her Academy in about 500 B.C. There were times when four hundred pages seemed far too short and I would have preferred a more in-depth presentation of some of Burton’s most remarkable geniuses. The book starts hesitantly with a slightly irritating framework: the narrator is having a philosophical conversation in the Socratic vein with some contemporary women. Their contemporary move-ments are interrupted at random and we are given some nuggets of information in no particular chrono-logical order. It soon becomes clear that most of the great women depicted in this book were pioneers in ways that might have led to certain death. They defied their fathers and the society of their day but above all, they often challenged the church which stands out as the single worst enemy of women’s education.
Burton inserts some interesting facts: for instance, 80 percent of the saints canonized in the Middle Ages were men and 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women. Herbalists, midwives, in fact any "wise women" were on dangerous territory and always risked being burnt at the stake, especially if they came from the lower classes.
There was a hopeful period around the twelfth century when women were able to study and write in the convents, a time when convents in fact were much like universities. It was during this period that we find Hildegard of Bingen producing an amazing output of writing, music and treatises on the natural sciences.
A hundred years later the universities started to attract the best brains in Europe (only men, of course) and the language of the intelligentsia became Latin – a language from which women were barred. As a result women started to express themselves through visions, which was the only way of being taken seriously by men. Christine de Pisan, whose book La Cité des dames (1405) has lent its title to this book, found herself widowed with three children, a mother and niece dependent on her at the age of twenty-five. She wrote ballads and essays but it was her book about the city of women that caused the greatest stir.
This situation recurs in several of the women’s lives brought to our attention by Nina Burton. Aphra Behn was forced to earn a living after her husband had died of the plague, and her travels and missions as a spy supplemented her income as a dramatist at a time when women had only recently gained access to the stage.
Women painters, composers, musicians and scientists were not even allowed to study their craft or art. It was only a hundred years ago that women were allowed admission to most European universities, art colleges and music conservatories. Prior to that they had learnt through their brothers or fathers, or become assistants to their male relatives or husbands.
After the dissolution of the monasteries women had no seat of learning left; further, in 1686 Pope Innocent XI issued an edict stating that women were not allowed to play musical instruments – this was considered immodest and hence unsuitable.
Anna Mahler, who had already written over a hundred lieder when she married Gustav Mahler was told by her husband that from then on she had only one profession: to make him happy.
This book should be read by every young woman who is lucky enough to have access to higher education in an age far more equal than the one inhabited by these unfortunate women of genius.