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The First Feminists, a short story by Bernardine Evaristo

we were there when you were just becoming human, unaware that we were carrying the futures of countless billions of souls in our yet to be discovered DNA, unaware we would go on reproducing ever-evolving versions of ourselves, that as the reason for the foetus in every mother’s womb, we were the Founding Mothers of the Human Gene Pool

of that we are so proud, we say, when we get together for our annual Founding Mother’s Reunion, it dominates the conversation – the human race is here because of us, we boast, only to ourselves, sadly, because nobody can see us, which is a shame, what with the obsession with ancestry DNA these days, we’d love to present ourselves to the world, in the flesh – sashaying down the runway of time in our glad rags, as weird and wonderful role models from pre-history

we were there when you were just becoming human, although we didn’t know it back then, we didn’t know that humans were beginning to evolve into existence, after the planet’s land mass had floated apart and reformed into continents, after the world had gone into a deep freeze during the ice ages, and ice sheets covered the earth and sea, after mountainous icebergs rose up into the cold, blue landscape, sucking the water of the seas into their peaks and freezing them, draining the waterways, which became hollow basins, exposing the continental shelves hidden several miles below in the underground world of oceans, after the ice melted, and the world re-emerged, and the glacial plains of the Sahara thawed out and burst forth with the green and glorious colours of tropical vegetation and impenetrable rainforest, and became ripe with all the fruits and teeming with all the wildlife

we were the first tribes, the first clans, we were the original trailblazers, after enough of us had developed a maternal instinct towards our offspring, after we stopped walking away from the curious thing that had ejected itself from our bodies, after enough of us learned that the children born out of siblings copulating with each other, and also with their parents, would, in two or three generations, be born with a terrible weakness passed on for generations to come, after we learned to trek and hunt in search of food, and discovered there was more land to be found out there in The Great Unknown, after we became intelligent enough to create fire, a powerful, artificial heat, and to work with bone and stone, after our brains expanded, our arms shortened, our legs lengthened until finally we became fully upright and slowly made progress with The Great Migration of Humankind, and eventually arrived at a location near you - Asia, America, Australasia, the Arctic, Europe, and all over Africa, our homeland, where we all began

it was tough in the early years, we like to remind each other at our decennial Founding Mother’s Reunion, we love indulging in 21st Century social customs like pretending to drink tea and eating biscuits, playacting at being contemporary humans, when we’ve actually been around for mega-annums, in one form or another, and how we laughed at the millennium celebrations just the other day, marking the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century, as if it was such a big deal, our descendants really haven’t lived at all, unlike us

we who risked extinction over and over again from lack of food or water, from too much heat or too much cold, we who risked extinction from the relentless battles, especially when our food sources dried up, or when others came onto the territory we’d claimed as ours, and when our tribal squabbles led to internecine warfare about who was boss, once we discovered the power of power, once we realised that having it meant a better chance of survival, and being in control could be intoxicating

we women were all alpha females back in the day, we had to be to survive, we were so formidable, we’d have it out with anyone who gave us grief, whether male or female, and believe us when we say, you didn’t mess with the Founding Mothers, the First Ladies of Humanity, because we gave as good as we got, we fought back like the beasts we all were, we women didn’t run screaming when we were confronted with human foes and expect men to defend us, we often attacked first, it was in us, we had the primal energy to do combat, we owned our physical strength

the concepts of femininity and masculinity did not exist back in the day, the idea of women behaving in a “‘ladylike”’ fashion took ages to become normalised, we first humans of Planet Earth shat where we were, farted and burped with impunity, modesty was a future concept, we sexed whenever we felt like it, wore no clothes, not even animal skins or tree barks, not at first, and when we menstruated, we left a trail of blood

we women were equal to men, it was only mothering that tethered our ambitions, when it became our sole responsibility because men liked power so much they wanted to keep it all for themselves, but before then, childrearing was shared equally between all of us, shared between our clan, until the males among us began to pack more muscle density and grow taller, and began to assume the upper hand, demanding we stay with the children rather than go hunting for dinner, for our family, for our clan

we women fought back, we never stopped fighting back, sometimes we won and men were forced to live in a matriarchal society, other times men won and we lived in a patriarchy, sometimes neither dominated and we were egalitarian, which was ideal, we were the first communists, but it never lasted long because the human desire to dominate each other prevailed, among us were the first control freaks, dictators, emotional manipulators, domestic abusers – and we women survived it all, we women survived everything pre-civilisation had to throw at us, we were the ultimate survival experts, we survived on nuts and berries, in the early days of human life, could go days without water, we slept rough, lived dangerously, fought wild animals, protected our young

luckily for the human race, dinosaurs died out 64 million years before we emerged, we could not have co-existed on the same planet, our small communities roaming the plains on two legs would have ended up as their hors d’oeuvres, eaten live, eaten raw

we were the world’s first female leaders, the first feminists, the badass bitches of evolution, whose names will never be remembered because we had no names, we were anonymous, we will never be recognised as individuals for our incredible global achievements in ensuring the continuation of the human race, although we lived long before egos became part of being human, we do want to be remembered for what we achieved, and we are saddened that we have been reduced to a few fossils and the imaginations of archaeologists who haven’t really got a clue about our lives, how we lived, the different ways in which we died - death by disease, before herbs, incantations, health and safety regulations, and medicine, and death by murder, death by tribal warfare, and death by religious sacrifice, once we started to worship deities –- animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, once we became intelligent enough to want to make sense of the world we lived in and imagined supreme, all knowing beings who could help us in times of crisis

for the longest time we mated without love, we did not know the meaning of it, although in time we evolved to have feelings for each other, the modern-day concept of love still amuses us, all the songs sung about it when companionship and compatibility are more important, we all agree on that, love is a feeling but if the human race is to survive then we all have to get along

it might seem odd telling you all this now when it was eons ago, but our lives were important to us and we have been so overlooked, so misunderstood, and we are the only ones who know it, sometimes at our Founding Mothers Reunion, after we’ve had a few gin and tonics and feel relaxed and comforted by our company, we all fall silent and return to our pre-language selves, to a time when we humans were hyper-sensitive to each other, when we sensed more than we thought, when that was enough, when our first sounds were inarticulate grunts, it took an age for words to come into being and many hundreds of thousands of years for us to create language, to join the words up into sentences, and many more for writing to be invented

imagine a world where there are no words to describe your fellow human beings, no words for animals, to describe the trees, the forest, the sea, a child, imagine a world where there was no word for the concept of family, now we know all the words in all the languages, thousands of them, we have so much knowledge stored in our infinite memory banks, we are knowledge and because we take the long view, we worry about what the future holds, we look up into the exploding stars from a society we never imagined and wonder aloud – what will the human race become? how will we evolve?

we discuss our fears that the human race will annihilate itself before too long, dehydrate the planet so that it once more dies of thirst, all plant and animal life withered in the heat, we worry that cannibalism will return, which is what happens when starving people have to resort to desperate measures, we worry about the appearance of new diseases that science cannot control, we worry that humans will detonate themselves into inexistence with the last great wars of this civilisation, perhaps there’ll be a global Armageddon of megalomaniacal warlords who are capable of human eradication, of planetary destruction, we worry that hackers encoded encryptions will one day collapse the cybers-structures without which this society cannot function – the internet virus that finally closed the world down – the civilisation you are looking for is no longer available

we worry that everything we fought for might one day no longer be here, except for us, hovering in the air, a ghostly presence neither seen, heard or felt by modern human beings who have lost their extra sensory perception, and we will feel so sad that our endeavours over millions of years might one day come to an end, and then we decide to cheer ourselves up by wallowing in nostalgia, because we are happiest in the past, when we were younger, more truly alive and everything was new

we remember a time before the internet, before computers, before laws
before cars, aeroplanes, bicycles, penny farthings and horse-drawn carriages
before factories, before politics, before royalty, before money, before houses
before agriculture, before the idea of work, before marriage, before enslavement
before the formation of countries, governments, before leisure and social lives
before cooked food, before sophisticated cognitive reasoning, before science
before pollution, before manufacture, education, dancing, poetry
before we could plan ahead, could think outside of ourselves
before we were able to tell our own stories
before our songs were sung
we were there
we were there
we were there

Bernardine Evaristo is a writer and literary activist. Her “fusion fiction” Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize 2019. Her writing explores the African diaspora through novels, poetry, verse fiction and essays. She is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and Vice Chair of the Royal Society of Literature.

If you liked this piece, Bernardine recommends you try and get a copy of Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey and 38 Minutes and 10 Seconds by Elif Shafak.

Literally is WePresent’s slowly expanding library of written commissions by some of the best writers in the world. The hand-drawn typography on this page was created by Merle Michaelis

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