An Amateur Historian’s Linguistic Annoyance

I’m watching a documentary on the Etruscans. Yes I’m a nerd, this is established. I’m irritated with the historian/archaeology presenters.

First, a thirty-second background on Etruscans because I usually assume I’m the only ancient history weirdo in the room. Please ignore the next two paragraphs if you’re already all well-versed in Etruscan history, or medium-versed, or even know the name…in fact, feel free to comment with corrections if I’ve gotten any details wrong.

Etruscans were the big-time civilization in Italy prior to Rome. They were extremely wealthy, extremely cosmopolitan, and it appears they were extremely egalitarian when it came to men and women. Greeks didn’t like Etruscan women because they ate with their husbands (GASP…like equals, like a date where the dude actually wanted to spend time with his wife and hear what she had to say? What the fuck, Etruria?), they read, wrote, rode horses, they had their own names (OMFG, they weren’t just named after their daddy-owners like Roman women, waiting to be passed off to their husband-owners?), they were treated as equals in parenting (as seen in funerary monuments identifying the dead as “son of” or “daughter of” BOTH parents’ names), and they had the gall to be both athletic and sexual.

Etruria (now Tuscany) was eventually conquered by Rome and much of their art/customs were assimilated into Roman society…the ones they found useful, anyway. Similarly, Etruscan families were eventually assimilated into Roman society. The loss of female standing and cycle back to male-dominated society when the Etruscans were all Borg’d into Rome isn’t what makes me irked. Over thousands of years and the rise and fall of tribes and civilizations there seems to be cycles of one sex dominating the other with periods of equality popping up here and there. That equality is never perfect and always relative to the surrounding nations, just as it is today.

All of these tidbits are presented in the documentary by historians and archaeologists who’ve studied and made assumptions/conclusions/maybe guesses about Etruscan society as a whole based on the evidence at hand.

This is not what irritates me about the otherwise awesomely fascinating documentary.

It’s annoying as hell to talk about women’s rights as GIVEN TO THEM by the men of the society. When a PhD or respected historian uses phrases like “Etruscan women were ALLOWED more freedom than Greek or Roman women” (emphasis is mine) the base assumption is that women don’t and didn’t have that power to begin with. If there is little evidence other than the facts archaeology and surrounding literature provides (reading, writing, eating, names, etc) why must the scholars make the sexist assumption that women were GIVEN these things?

Maybe they set up their society that way from the beginning. Maybe that society valued both men and women as (again, gasp) people. Maybe women allowed men the power they had.

My point is, there’s no way to know, and these sorts of ingrained assumptions are really terrible in innocuous ways. It’s easy to take away rights from someone if you are brought around to sincere believe that you GIFTED them those rights from the beginning, not that they inherently have rights to respect, earning and keeping their own stuff, their very personhood. Why is it so damn hard to think that people thousands of years ago might have actually valued all citizens* in their society and built their customs and laws to reflect that value?

I sincerely wish more scholars would take a step back and consider their words and basic biases before presenting conclusions. After all, science (yay science!) has now proven some of those male Viking warrior burials were actually female: undeniably female skeletons with war wounds, buried with war grave goods, assumed to be male only because the evidence said “warrior”. Assuming more egalitarian ancient societies were only more equal because the males in charge “allowed” the women freedom and rights is a disservice to that society as a whole. It’s important to examine and discard biases and just present the damn facts: women had more power in Etruscan society than Greek or Roman women had. Period.

Perpetuating historical sexism when it actually isn’t proven only perpetuates modern day sexism.

*Yes, Etruscans kept slaves, just as many ancient cultures did. Slavery is a different treatise altogether, because if I am for agency and personhood I am for it in every case, which means slavery is both a related and different topic to feminism in historical accounts. Ultimately, just like many other cultures, I think they sucked for keeping slaves. THIS post, however, is about how historians can easily STILL say women were “GIVEN” their basic rights by the men, even when science hasn’t provided proof either way.

One thought on “An Amateur Historian’s Linguistic Annoyance

  1. Ugh, we really need to recognize the power that language has. A poor choice of words (or a great choice for that matter) can have such a profound and far-reaching impact. I think this is a perfect example. Perpetuating your own inherent biases through under the veil of scholarship is both irresponsible and annoying as hell.


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