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Journal of Women's History 11.1 (1999) 193-202
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History through the Lens of Gender
Susan B. Whitney
Dena Goodman. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. xii + 338 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8014-2968-4 (cl); 0-8014-8174-0 (pb).
Shannon McSheffrey. Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. xi + 253 pp.; ill.; maps. ISBN 0-8122-3310-7 (cl); 0-8122-1549-4 (pb).
Siân Reynolds. France between the Wars: Gender and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1996. xii + 280 pp. ISBN 0-415-12736-X (cl); 0-415-12737-8 (pb).
Steve J. Stern. The Secret History of Gender: Women, Men, and Power in Late Colonial Mexico. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. xiii + 478 pp.; maps. ISBN 0-8078-2217-5 (cl); 0-8078-4643-0 (pb).
Although women's historians have investigated the social organization of differences between the sexes since the late 1960s, it has been slightly more than a decade since Joan Wallach Scott challenged historians to make gender a central category of analysis. In her widely cited "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," Scott mapped out a working definition of gender, suggested ways to approach gender theoretically, and laid out some of the ways she thought an analysis of gender could transform the writing of history. 1 In the intervening decade, there has been considerable debate among women's historians over the desirability of employing gender as a primary category of analysis and the best theoretical approach to both gender analysis and women's history. 2 On both sides of the debate, some have taken gender analysis to imply a certain "postmodern" theoretical approach. 3 Although the debates have involved numerous points of disagreement, they often center around the political implications of a shift from women to gender as the subject of feminist history. As these discussions took place at conferences and in the pages of academic journals, however, historians of both sexes, different intellectual generations, and a range of theoretical positions produced increasing [End Page 193] numbers of studies that made gender a central category of historical analysis. As we reach the end of the 1990s, there is a critical mass of such studies (including sophisticated textbooks written for women's history courses), and books that purport to employ gender analysis often garner major prizes in women's history. 4
But what does it mean to make gender a category of historical analysis? Because the books under review represent four examples of recent historical work that use gender as a central lens through which to approach history, they provide an opportunity to consider this question. What is most striking about these books taken together are their diverse approaches. Although the authors share the conviction that gender allows a rethinking of major historical questions, including the ways politics, power relations, religion, and cultural life should be analyzed and understood, they demonstrate pointedly different approaches to the meaning of gender, the project of gendered historical analysis, and the practice of history itself.
Diversity of approach is central to Siân Reynolds's eclectic and highly satisfying France between the Wars. Part exposition of new research, part historiographical meditation on the factors involved in the production of history on interwar France, and part alternative survey, it uses gender to challenge historians from France—both "traditional" and women's historians—to rethink the narratives they have produced on this period. For Reynolds, attention to gender does not prescribe a specific focus of research or a particular theoretical approach but instead creates possibilities for new feminist readings of history.
After providing a clear introductory tour through the tangled debates over gender's relationship to feminist history, Reynolds neither defines gender nor takes a position in these debates; instead, she acknowledges her debt to what she terms the many "'noisy conversations'" (13), and notes her appreciation of Scott's formulation of the links between gender and the need for...