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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 124-126

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Book Review

Gender and History in Western Europe

Gender and History in Western Europe. Edited by Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent. London: Arnold, 1998. Pp. ix + 388. $70 (cloth); $32.99 (paper).

For those who teach the history of the world, the advent of women's history has brought a whole new critical perspective on the meaning of the past. Assumptions about the universality of men's experiences, the ways in which we think of epochs and their significance, and the primacy of the mind over the body have all been debated. As a teacher seeking to introduce this critical perspective to students, many of whom have read little about issues of gender, I eagerly seized Gender and History in Western Europe, edited by Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent. Here in a single volume are some key texts. The book begins with a thoughtful introduction reviewing the development of women's history and the more recent field of gender studies. The readings are organized into six sections: theory and method, the body and sexuality, separate spheres, religion, politics, and work. The editors have provided useful introductory comment for each section, and an index assists with cross-referencing.

Several of the essays reprinted are already famous and have a place in the canon of debate over feminist history and its goals. Of these, Joan Scott's "Gender," arguing that the meaning of gender was constructed through discourse, is the best known and has been very influential. [End Page 124] It is good to have both Scott's 1986 essay and Lyndal Roper's important challenge from her introduction to Oedipus and the Devil (1994). Roper makes a powerful plea for the importance of body and the psyche.

The editors have chosen to concentrate on gender rather than women's history, although they acknowledge that their choice would not be accepted by all. There is a logic to their decision, in that they want to include some of the more recent critical approaches to masculinity. However, since the authors of the studies of masculinity represented in their collection share a feminist perspective, the volume as a whole demonstrates that feminist scholarship, rather than the less threatening "gender" area, is offering a lead. Leonore Davidoff's fascinating contribution to our understanding of the gendered nature of nineteenth-century discussions of concepts of reason in the disciplines of history and sociology bears witness to the value of feminism's critical edge.

The omission of race as a section seems unfortunate, for whatever historians say about the history of western Europe since 1500, they should be conscious of race as well as gender. Certainly much of the feminist theoretical debates at present concerns how we should understand the relationship between race and gender.

The decision to edit the contributions is, to my mind, unfortunate. Disconcertingly, the editors refer to the contents as a collection of "path-breaking articles," but some of the anthologized pieces have been taken from books and reshaped. Phyllis Mack's original wording, which referred to "this chapter," becomes "this essay" (p. 214). The footnotes have been reduced, on the grounds that students are unlikely to need references to manuscript sources (p. vii), yet teachers may well hope that their students will learn about the archives on which much historical research depends. Students may also be confused by the dating of the reprints: Catherine Hall's important study of Victorian domestic ideology was originally printed in 1979, although the Polity Press edition from which the reprint is taken appeared in 1992. Teachers may have some explaining to do about the sense of evolving debates in feminist history. Some comments about the contributors would have been helpful to readers.

We will probably all have quibbles over Shoemaker and Vincent's selection of readings, but they are certainly all worthy of anthologizing. More troubling is the editors' grouping of the essays into sections. Four essays are dignified with the rubric "Theory and Method," yet most of the essays in the volume contribute to debates...