The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

Read: 6 June, 2014

Genghis Khan is frequently portrayed as a savage barbarian, the enemy of culture. Yet according to Weatherford, he gave power to his wives and daughters, and he installed a system of laws that were often quite progressive. In Weatherford’s narrative, it was the great Khan’s sons who initiated the Mongolian version of the “War on Women,” excising the mentions of their sisters’ deeds from the historical record, removing them from power, and collapsing the empire Genghis Khan had built. That is, until Manduhai saved it some 2-3 hundred years later.

I had already heard of Khutulun, the Wrestler Princess, but not have Manduhai, nor of the other ruling princesses and queens Weatherford mentions. I found their history extremely interesting, and I was glad to read a more nuanced account of Genghis Khan, as well. That being said, the Princesses Good / Princes Evil motif tried my patience.

I have also heard from someone who read Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that the princesses and queens who are so important and central to the history of the Mongol empire, are barely mentioned at all. I can’t confirm as I haven’t read it, but it just makes me angry that he would perpetuate the distinction between History and History With Women In It, even when those women take on masculine roles.

Same for his dismissive attitude toward those women who don’t cut quite an impressive figure as the hugely pregnant Manduhai riding into battle. For example, he describes the women of one period as “operat[ing] behind the scenes, making alliances, promoting heirs, fighting with co-wives and mothers-in-law, and pursuing the life of court ladies, who seemed so important to the political life of the moment but had minimal lasting significance on the rise and fall of empires” (p.126). As if putting someone on the throne could be dismissed as having “minimal lasting significance.”

The sense I got was that women were central and important when they ruled directly and rode into battle. Essentially, the influence of women matters only insomuch as it takes place within spheres that are so often considered masculine. This casual dismissal of “women’s work” irked me.

Still, it was an enjoyable and very readable book, and it was refreshing to see women discussed in relation to the Mongolian Empire (other than Borte). I wish that it could have been presented as more of a history with less opinion injection, but I haven’t seen another book that covers the same ground. I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.

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