6.1 Women and the Written Word

Women and the Written Word

This is the first episode of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists, and most of the series will be about women in one way or another changed the art of the novel or possibly the world. But there’s a big gaping hole between the invention of writing and anyone of any gender writing a novel.

Also new to this series is that I am experimenting with placing the full transcript here, with the pictures and sources embedded. Please feel free to let me know what you think!

Anything I do not specifically reference below is from History of Writing, by Steven Roger Fischer.

Full Transcript

Roughly 85% of the world’s adults can read and write.(1) That’s a percentage that would have astonished people of previous centuries, and yet to me it seems sadly low.

Even so, it has taken a very long time to get to this sadly low number. I often find archaeological dates to be curiously and wildly contradictory, but I believe the earliest indications of intentional markings that may have a meaning were found in Bitzingsleben, Germany, and date to around 400,000 years ago. The bone has two groups of tally marks that might be a very early sort of writing. Or it might be art. Or it might be a calendar. Or it might be something we haven’t thought of.

This kind of marking becomes more common in later years, and you may have this mental image of a cave man, dressed in skimpy yet pungent animal skins, clutching a flint knife, and occasionally pausing to beat his hairy chest and grunt.

However there are quite a few things wrong with that image, not the least of which is the unconscious bias. I can best dispel it by way of a social media post I’ve seen a couple of times, so you know it’s true. Or maybe that’s not the best way to find truth, but anyway, here’s the story.

There’s an anthropology professor lecturing her students about a prehistoric bone with 28 notches in it. “This,” she says, “has traditionally. been viewed as man’s first attempt at a calendar. However what man really needs to know when 28 days have passed? I would suggest that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

At this point, you can practically hear the feminists whooping it up in the background.

My initial encounter with this story was unattributed, which adds to my skepticism, but the most recent time it did have a name attached: Sandi Toskvig, the British writer and presenter, which is a significant improvement, but even so I was asking: Who is this professor? What’s the name of the bone? Don’t you think the moon and its cycles were of some interest to early man? Did women of that time menstruate at the same rate as our modern, well-fed population? I could go on.

I tried to answer these questions. My best guess is that the bone is the Lebombo bone. It’s the fibula of a baboon that met its end in about 35,000 BCE. It was found in the Lebombo Mountains between South Africa and Swaziland, and it has 29 clear and regular notches.(2) Maybe it’s a woman’s days between periods. Maybe it’s a man’s count of the nights he stared at the moon. Maybe it’s a woman’s count of the nights she stared at the moon. There really just is no way to know.

My point here is that most of the very early writing has no authorship attached. Our mental image of an excessively male author is certainly possible. But it is just as possible that the earliest attempts at writing were done by someone excessively female.

Either way, notches on a stick are hardly a complete writing system. For that we have to skip thousands of years and thousands of miles to ancient Sumeria.

The earliest clay tablets we’ve found is from around 3300 BCE. They’re receipts, which is hardly inspiring, but there is no doubt that the need to keep the accounts straight was the major motivation behind writing’s invention. Some of it is all very logical and straightforward. If you’re buying 3 sheep, you can draw a sheep with a tally of 3 next to it and everybody’s clear.

But verbs are harder than concrete nouns, and abstract nouns are harder still. There’s a lot of ambiguity, not to mention 1500 or so symbols to learn.

Sumeria’s great invention was not only to use this vast array of symbols, but to phoneticize them with the rebus principle. So, for example, if I wanted to write the sentence, “l saw you.” I would first draw a picture of a human eye, with the pupil, iris, lashes and all that, because it sounds like the pronoun I. Then I’d draw a picture of a handsaw because it sounds like the past tense of the verb “to see” and then I’d draw a female sheep or ewe, because it sounds like the pronoun “you.” And there you have it: a sentence that would be quite hard to convey through pictures based on meaning is instead conveyed through symbols based on sound.

This system greatly expanded writing’s possibilities while simultaneously shrinking the number of symbols you had to learn.

Throughout this development, we have no authors, so we can’t say whether any women geniuses lay behind the breakthrough, but we can say that the very first attributed author in world history was a woman. Her name was Enheduanna, the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad, during the 24th century BCE. She was appointed high priestess of the goddess of Nanna in the city of Ur. A number of hymns are attributed to her:

Image Source: By Daderot – Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

This clay tablet includes Enheduanna’s poem Inanna and Ebih.

Here is an excerpt of one:

Queen of all given powers

unveiled clear light

unfailing woman wearing brilliance

cherished in heaven and earth

chosen, sanctified in heaven


grand in your adornments

crowned with your beloved goodness

rightfully you are High Priestess

your hands seize the seven fixed powers

my queen of fundamental forces

guardian of essential cosmic sources

you lift up the elements

bind them to your hands

gather in powers

press them to your breast

vicious dragon you spew

venom poisons the land

like the storm god you howl

grain wilts on the ground

swollen flood rushing down the mountain

you are Inanna

supreme in heaven and earth…

(https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2001/03/06_poems.html, taken from Enheduanna. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. United States: University of Texas Press, 2000.)

If you are thinking that it’s a long way from here to Jane Austen, I agree with you.

One of the reasons we’ve got a long way to go is because Sumerian as a language was ideal for this type of writing. It’s mostly monosyllabic and has lots of homophones. Many languages aren’t and don’t. So when other people saw the idea of writing and tried to copy it, it didn’t always work so well for them.

Some of those people who picked it up were Egyptians, and someone in Egypt eventually thought of the alphabet, where a symbol stood for a phoneme or single sound like b, p, t, or s, rather than a whole syllable or word.

The Egyptians used this great innovation mainly for graffiti, preferring their other writing systems (and they had several) for the real writing. Either way, I have looked for an Egyptian woman to be Enheduanna’s counterpart, and I’ve drawn a blank. There is some limited evidence of women as doctors and even as vizier, but I just couldn’t put my hands on one who wrote anything I could quote to you. If you know of what I am missing, please send me a message.

But do remember that most Egyptian texts are anonymous, such as the famous Book of the Dead, or the famous Story of Sinuhe, whose author is the Shakespeare of ancient Egypt. And some texts are falsely attributed to great men of the past. Some of the true authors may have been women. It wouldn’t be the last time a woman wrote under a man’s name.

The Egyptians may not have thought much of their alphabet idea. But their Semitic vassals did. And the idea flowed back east toward Sumeria where it doomed the older, more traditional forms.

It also took on new characteristics as new languages faced new difficulties. The Egyptians hadn’t bothered with vowels. Old Persian added them for the first time in the 1st millennium BCE, which was important for clarity in some but not all languages. By the time the alphabet wound its way through the Phoenicians and into Greek it needed a full set of vowels and functioned just like our modern alphabet.

One of the earliest surviving Greek documents is by a woman named Artemisia, who lived in the 300s BCE. The curse of Artemisia is an appeal to the gods to punish her former partner for denying their dead child of the proper funeral rites.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

She is, understandably, distressed; and writes

“While the cry for help lies here, may he and what is his be destroyed evilly on land and on sea by Oserapis and the gods who sit in Poserapis. . . .While the appeal lies here, may the father of the young girl receive no favours at all from the gods. If anyone removes this document or wrongs Artemisia, the god will inflict punishment on him.”

Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook, edited by Jane Rowlandson, Roger S. Bagnall, p. 63

One scholar wrote that this curse “is not the work of a professional scribe, but the writing of an uneducated woman who uses [rounded and unjoined] letters because she can form no others… such letters were commonly before her eyes in public places, while she had probably seldom seen a book.”(3)

I myself am not sure you can call a woman of this period uneducated if she could write at all, and I do notice that that critic was writing in 1899, which might explain the patronizing tone, but the point is that by the time Artemisia was writing, writing had been invented. We form our letters differently, but the fundamental concept of the system was fully developed.

But what about other places in the world? With different writing systems?

India had an early set of symbols that may have been a complete writing system, but it died out and is still undeciphered. Writing was reintroduced to India a 1000 years later through contact with the Sumerians.

And then there is China. Writing appeared in China about 1400 BC. It is wildly different from anything Sumeria came up with, so the Chinese are often given credit for inventing writing the 2nd time in world history. But it doesn’t show the long period of development we see in Sumeria, leading some scholars to think there was some borrowing involved. Like maybe someone explained the concept to them, but not the mechanics of how it worked. (This has happened in more recent times.) You will not be surprised to hear that it’s mostly Western scholars saying “You totally stole the idea” and it’s mostly Chinese scholars saying, “No, no! We invented it!” I’ll let you make your own decision on that.

Chinese writing made use of the rebus principle as Sumeria did, and they did have a phonetic component, but they never developed in alphabet, and to this day the symbols are tied to meaning on the word level, not on a phoneme level. Many Westerners are surprised that China didn’t simplify down to 26 letters and save themselves the trouble of learning 1000s of characters, but there are answers to that. Like Sumerian, Chinese was monosyllabic and had many homophones. They didn’t need an alphabet to convey their language the way the multi-syllabic languages without homophones did. And anyway the evidence is overwhelming that efficiency is not and never has been the primary factor in shaping a writing system. Just look at English spelling. Tradition, formality, and status are far more important. Chinese writing was not just functional, it was art. Calligraphy has always been highly valued in the Far East.

And Chinese women were part of this. The oldest collection of Chinese poetry is the Shījīng or Classic of Poetry. It has 305 poems from the 11th to 7th century BCE. The authors are, unsurprisingly, unattributed. But many of them appear to either be women, or at least they are written from the perspective of a woman.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is not the Classic of Poetry itself, but an early discussion of it. The characters are quite different than modern Chinese.

The first named female poet of China is Lady Xŭ Mù. She might even be the first named poet of any gender, but I’m finding that hard to verify. At any rate, she lived in the 7th century BCE in the Wei kingdom, which is now in Henan province. She married Duke Mù of the neighboring kingdom, which was not her choice. Her poem “Bamboo Pole” is about homesickness

With a long and slender bamboo

I fished by the shores of Qi;

Can’t help thinking of the river

And the land so far from me.

On the left, the fountain gushes,

On the right, the river flows,

Far away the girl has travelled.

From parents, brothers, and home.

This poem is referenced in many places, but this particular transaltion is available here

After her marriage, her home Kingdom of Wei was attacked. Her poem “Fountain” is about seeing the refugees from her homeland arrive. Her husband refused to help and her poem “Speeding Away” is about leaving without permission to take supplies to the Wei people. Eventually, with her help, the Wei Kingdom was saved, and she is remembered as a hero.(4)

The only other place that can lay a claim to inventing a complete system of writing is Meso-America. In America the very earliest texts are from about 700 BC, and that’s well before the most literate society (the Maya) got going. As in China, the writing seems to spring forth without much protracted development. While that seems strange, they do still get credit for inventing it because how could it possibly be borrowed? However, some have pointed out that there are some curious parallels between Chinese and Meso-American writing. And if Spanish ships in the 1500s could regularly cross the Pacific, who’s to say that just one Chinese ship might not have done so centuries earlier. There is absolutely no proof of this, but it’s an interesting theory because if so, and if the Chinese borrowed the idea earlier, then writing has really only ever been invented once in all of human history. And even if the theory’s not correct, you’re looking at twice or maybe three times. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about it, no matter how obvious it might seem to us.

I looked for a female Meso-American writer. But as in every other culture the early works are unattributed. And there aren’t that many works anyway because the Spanish were very efficient at destroying them. If anyone knows of someone I should have mentioned here, please send me a message.

None of the early women I talked about today were writing novels. Men weren’t either. Some of that is about cost. Papyrus was expensive. Clay tablets were unwieldy. Few could afford to write long texts. Then copying and distributing and preserving long texts was also laborious.

Mass literacy required paper, which was invented by the Chinese. Europeans didn’t figure it out until the 1400s. Paper was cheap compared to any of the other options. And then there’s printing. The Chinese invented movable type too, but it’s less of an advantage in a writing system with so many characters. They had a substantial publishing industry using block printing. But in an alphabetic writing system, the advantages of movable type were huge, just 26 compartments in your printer’s box for the lowercase letters, plus the 26 more for the capitals, plus a handful of other symbols for punctuation, numbers, and the like, and you can print absolutely anything you’ve got to say. So when Gutenberg invented it for the second time in world history, but first in European, and he had paper to print it on, it was absolutely transformational.

The importance of printing in human history is comparable to that of the wheel or fire. The rest of modern history simply couldn’t have happened without it.

Of all the novelists I am about to share with you, only one managed to write such a thing before the invention of printing, and she wasn’t before paper. Her story next week.

But I will close out today with a thought written by an Egyptian scribe 4000 years ago: “A man has perished and his body has become earth. All his relatives have crumbled to dust. It is writing that makes him remembered.” (5)

My major source for today was A History of Writing by Steven Roger Fischer. As usual there will be a link and pictures on the website and pictures at herhalfofhistory.com. A good way to support the show is to recommend it to a friend. Another way is to give it a rating or review. Spotify now does ratings! That’s new. But the absolute best thing you can do is simply to come back next week to hear about Murasaki Shikibu, who may (or may not) be the world’s first novelist. Thanks!


(1) https://ourworldindata.org/literacy

(2) McCarthy, D. P. “71.35 Stonehenge and π.” The Mathematical Gazette 71, no. 458 (1987): 293–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3617048.

(3) Palaeography of Greek Papyri, Oxford, 1899, 57, quoted on http://www.bricecjones.com/blog/the-curse-of-artemisia-online

(4) All information on Xu Mu is from Notable Women of China, edited by Barbara Peterson, 2015.

(5) Fischer, 356

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