- Revisiting Monarchy:Women and the Prospects for Power
"Queens," Robert Bucholz and Carole Levin note, "are much in fashion these days" (xiii).1 Since historians started looking for women specifically and explicitly, queens have been high on the scholarly agenda. Early excavations did much to correct mistakes and restore some previously under-regarded queens to view.2 As knowledge of individual queens and the particularities of queenship accumulated, scholars situated female monarchs in terms of gender ideology and understandings of the operations of power. The variety of approaches included recuperating previously disparaged queens, re-examining "successful" queens in more critical terms, and widening the perspective to explore broader notions of political and cultural influence of both queens regnant and consort.3 All of these trends—from locating queens in the historical record to more theoretical considerations—are apparent in the works under review. Scholars continue to extend the fashion for queens in two significant ways: globalization has [End Page 160] encouraged comparative examinations and queens are increasingly seen as part of the larger female populace at the heart of monarchy.4 More than exceptional figures, queens are often understood as an entry point into the gendered world of the palace, with all its connections to power, production, and politics.
Queens matter in the story Trudy Jacobsen tells about Cambodia, albeit largely as a pivot point in a story of marginalization of women more generally. Jacobsen surveys almost two thousand years of history, beginning with mythological and epigraphic remains of elite women in a matrilocal, partially matrilineal society. Successive waves of circumscription mark the history of Cambodian women in Jacobsen's view, with indigenous tendencies toward limiting women magnified by repeated external interventions. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Thai, Vietnamese, and then French colonial impositions produced a dynamic in which visions of "traditional" Cambodian womanhood came to dominate public perceptions of women and gender.5 The loss of independence to Thailand and the use of a Cambodian queen, Ang Mei, as a figurehead by the Vietnamese magnified negative associations between women in power—especially queens—and national identity that emerged in the seventeenth century (123-25). When Ang Duong (1848-1863) took up the throne during the interval of independence between the Vietnamese and French occupations, highly misogynous Cpbab (Buddhist codes of conduct) paved the way for further legal and cultural restrictions on women. Ang Duong eliminated female inheritance in the royal family, instituted harsh marriage laws, and encouraged conservative Buddhist beliefs (118-125). Jacobsen argues that this moment of disempowerment solidified the image of "traditional" women in Cambodia.
French colonial officials, beginning in 1863, "reformed" Cambodian culture in ways that did little to help women and much to limit their prospects. Changes to the royal household, palace culture, and education in the name of "civilization" eliminated career paths for women and inadvertently bolstered the tendency of elites to construct Cambodian identity as distinct from French influence around the notions of the "traditional" Cambodian woman (154-172). The persistence of the lesser value of women in the twentieth century—few women have held public office and those who have were almost always married to important men; marriage laws were slanted against women; access...