Vicki Leon,
Uppity Women of Ancient Times
(Conari, 1999)

Uppity Women of Ancient Times has missed its calling as a coffeetable book. Dazzled by glossy colour photos of friezes, vases, coins and sculptures of ancient women, what reader would be perturbed by the lack of documentation or the laboriously hip prose of the text inside?

It's a shame, really. Vicki Leon's lightweight history is based on such an interesting idea: 200 snapshot biographies of ancient women, all of whom qualify in one way or another as "uppity." Queens, nursemaids, prophetesses, mathematicians and martyrs, spanning several continents and several millennia (about 2500 BC to 500 AD), these women have little but gender and uppityness in common. Expected figures like Dido, Nefertiti and Esther make their appearances amongst lesser known but no less uppity women: Semiramis, credited with inventing the first bifurcated garment (i.e. trousers) in the 9th century; the mysterious woman known only as "J" who penned the opening books of the Old Testament; Locusta, professional poisoner under Emperor Nero; and a whole parade of other equally interesting figures.

Famous or obscure, all 200-plus women in the book are treated with admirable frankness and concision. Soap operas are nothing compared to these two-minute accounts of incest, adultery, treachery, sex and murder. I was pleasantly surprised, given the book's classification in the rather dodgy genre of "women's history," that there was little bias to present these women favourably. Uppity clearly doesn't translate to nice -- but it does make for entertaining stories. The relatively few accounts that are overtly feminist do not indulge in excessive man-bashing: Vashti, for example, is merely called "the cool and gutsy queen who just said 'No!' 2,300 years before Nancy Reagan thought of it."

Be cautioned: all 200-plus pages of Uppity Women of Ancient Times sound like that. Leon's anachronistic, breezy and pointedly non-academic writing verges on the painful at times. Some of the allusions to contemporary people and items are already becoming outdated a mere eight years after publication. (Floppy discs? Do they go in my USB port?) The condescending nicknames and dialogues assigned to historical personages and cringe-inducing puns ("Dudu's son didn't do doo-doo") are enough to make a dead historian roll over in his (or her) grave -- to say nothing of the scanty documentation. The extent to which the text is dumbed down for greater accessibility means that uppity readers will likely turn their noses up at this one.

But if you're willing to overlook the language, the stories can be genuinely interesting and entertaining, and their one to two-page length makes them perfect for fitting in a Sappho or a Cleopatra (VII) while waiting for tea to steep or before going to bed. There's no shortage of compelling material in this broad if superficial overview, and Uppity Women of Ancient Times may well work as a gateway into more in-depth studies of these women.

by Jennifer Mo
5 May 2007

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