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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 203-205

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Book Review

Women in Ancient Societies

Women's Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide. Edited by BELLA VIVANTE. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999. Pp. xvii + 389. $59.95 (cloth).

Many histories of women in ancient societies have appeared over the past thirty years, reflecting revisionary forces in historical studies and the growing refusal to see women as merely peripheral to "event based" history. Editions featuring titles such as Women in Ancient Societies and Women in Antiquity have appeared, but these have, for the main, concentrated on women in ancient Europe, occasionally venturing as far as Egypt and Jerusalem. It has been left to specialized works on particular cultures to cover areas such as the Americas and Africa. Even the 1992 History of Women of Duby and Perrot commences with the disclaimer, "[w]hat we have written is a history of white women" (Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, "Writing the History of Women," in A History of Women, vol. 1, ed. Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot [Cambridge 1992], p. xviii.). Bella Vivante's collection of women's histories is therefore particularly welcome.

In the introduction to the volume a comparative function for the collection is given: "[t]he range and similarity of the roles presented here provide a solid foundation for comparing women's roles across several cultures" (p. xi). Indeed, this proves to be one of the most useful and stimulating elements of this volume, partly because all of the contributors address topics such as status, religion, goddesses, work, political power, and the family. For those who teach or have an interest in the history of women in specific cultures, this is a convenient text from which to glean information about diverse cultures, and it is humbling in the stereotypes that it unravels. Interpretations of ancient cultures which represent women as inactive or powerless condition contemporary roles, and the political significance of women's history is emphasized here. Gruber, writing on the Levant, draws attention to the fact that "various peoples and societies still invoke Hebrew Scripture as an authority both for suppressing women within the home and for curtailing their activities outside the home" (p. 148)--a reading of the Biblical sources that he exposes as fallacious. For those of us who [End Page 203] assume that Chinese footbinding is an ancient tradition, Chapter 1 is a salutary lesson: This practice did not begin until the tenth century C.E., while in the twelfth century B.C.E. elite women performed roles as political and military leaders. This chapter in particular is careful to stress that modern Western ideas of emancipation cannot be applied inflexibly to other cultural forms. Instead, specific, historically situated assessments are necessary: Kinney points out that yielding and accepting are positive qualities in Taoism, and vital to a wise leader, rather than automatic signs of passivity.

Although many of the chapters cover comparable topics and include similar subheadings, such as "literary images" and "family life," there is little about the book that warrants calling it A Reference Guide. Each chapter generally follows chronological order, and is best read as a single entity, rather than dipped into. The timelines which precede every chapter are invaluable for situating the reader, and the maps provide a similar function as a guide to the reader who is unfamiliar with the area under discussion. Inexplicably, however, there is no map of India, while Map 2 ("China: The Warring States Period," p. 5) does not seem to have much relevance to the historical events discussed in the chapter. This problem seems to be a result of culling maps from other books.

Sources are problematic for most of the cultures under investigation here: For many, we have lost large amounts of written and other materials, while most of the contributors are right to point out that the texts that survive must be treated with caution. Often they are largely male-authored (Egypt, Greece, Rome); they may have accumulated from a long tradition (the Levant) and so be unrepresentative of a...