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Journal of Women's History 13.4 (2002) 200-209

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Book Review

So Many Worlds, So Much To Do:
Historical Specificity and Gender Politics

Vivien Hart

Jo Freeman. A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. xii + 352 pp. ISBN 0-8476-9804-1 (cl).

Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt. Gendered Compromises: Political Cultures and the State in Chile, 1920-1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiv + 346 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8078-2567-0 (cl); 0-8078-4881-6 (pb).

Aili Mari Tripp. Women and Politics in Uganda. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. xxvii + 277 pp; ill. ISBN 0-299-16480-2 (cl); 0-299-16484-5 (pb).

Diane Urquhart. Women in Ulster Politics 1890-1940: A History Not Yet Told. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2000. 276 pp. ISBN 0-7165-2627-1 (cl).

Can there be such a thing as a woman-friendly state? Not one of these four studies of women and the state offers assurance of such a happy outcome, although each reports women's progress in gaining access to and recognition from states that were once the exclusive creation and possession of men. Still, none recounts any fundamental change in the organization of the state that can be attributed to women. In no case has a redistribution of power to women from men approached equity. Where women have succeeded in changing the agenda of politics, they have not necessarily seen outcomes going their way nor controlled the implementation of public policies that deeply affect their lives.

There are no grounds for simple optimism here, then. But might that fact make this set of case studies paradoxically useful? Women enter the twenty-first century without determinate answers to old questions. Are states inherently oppressive, patriarchal, or constructed on impervious male principles, and what is the way ahead? In disparate polities and at moments of opportunity over the last century, women struggled, experimented, encountered immovable obstacles, sometimes inched, and occasionally leaped forward. The lessons of this experience may be among their valuable legacies. It would be easy to push comparisons too far, given the differences of time, place and development that frame these narratives. [End Page 200] But the challenge is to explore the possibility of learning from women's experiences in diverse circumstances. If these four case studies illuminate the construction of politics by gendered action as well as the construction of gender by political action, disentangle the criteria defining "success" for women in politics, or identify the circumstances which have most mitigated the maleness of states, then their value for women confronting nation-states in the present will be more than academic.

Differences in subject matter and approach are considerable. Diane Urquhart's account of women in Northern Ireland from 1890 to 1940 and Jo Freeman's of "party women" in the United States to 1970 reveal women's slow entry into partisan politics in two developed, industrial, northern democracies. Their principals are pragmatic women who understood the control wielded by parties over the agenda, elections, and offices of states, and chose to enter, not to change the system. Karin Rosemblatt and Aili Mari Tripp, by contrast, write about southern nations in eras of state- building and economic modernization. Karin Rosemblatt captures a gendered discourse in the culture and policy agenda of a new political formation, the Chilean popular front of the mid-twentieth-century. She foregrounds gender difference and women's familial role as the core of women's political struggles. Tripp traces women's activism in Uganda since independence in 1962, in circumstances varying from the violent regime of Idi Amin to relative stability since 1986 under Museveni's National Resistance Movement. Tripp assesses the possibility and importance of "associational autonomy" for women's organizations in civil society, through and despite the upheavals of the Ugandan state.

These authors track an interactive relationship between women and the state, and document women planning, directing, and benefiting from change. Initially women everywhere were objects as far as the state was...


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