Biography 26.4 (2003) 725-727
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Women's Oral History reprints a selection of essays on the practice and interpretation of women's oral history that were originally published in the journal Frontiers between 1977 and 2001. The result is a sampler of a quarter century of women's oral history, and a collection that, somewhat necessarily, [End Page 725] chooses breadth of coverage over depth. The volume is organized into three sections: Basic Approaches, which the editors identify as the "why" and "how" of doing women's oral history; Oral History Applications, which covers the uses of oral history in media presentations, teaching, life review, and various forms of writing about women's lives; and Oral History Discoveries and Insights, which contains examples of oral history's significance in recovering "lost segments of women's history" (xi). The contributors to this volume range over many disciplines (history, literary studies, anthropology, linguistics, ethnic studies, American studies, psychology, along with women's studies), while some describe themselves as artists, writers, poets, and activists. The geographic scope of the volume is also far-ranging. Of the essays that focus on the particular experiences of a woman or group of women, the majority are about the United States (although representing a range of racial, ethnic, and class subgroups); two concern England; and one each deals with East Africa and the Middle East. A reader will leave the volume with a sense of the vitality and diversity of women's oral history, both where it has been and its recent manifestations.
Since Frontiers has consistently published women's oral history, this volume provides a fascinating genealogy of the field. Reading the volume straight through, as I did for this review, reveals an evolution of women's oral history. The field had its origins in the ferment of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, and the early years were characterized by a sense of discovery, excitement, and political import. Based on the selections in this volume, it seems that the process of doing oral history captured early practitioners' attention more than the content and meaning of the interviews themselves. By the early 1980s, the field had developed to a point that it was grappling with a range of complexities related to the practice of oral history, the meaning of the material recorded, and the relationship between the interviewee and interviewer at both the level of process and interpretation. Today, we are still working in that often murky terrain, but the most recent essays in this volume show a greater attention to the interpretation of oral history material, even though the practice of oral history is still very much under discussion. These essays also reveal that the theoretical frameworks for analyzing women's oral history are expanding and deepening, as authors draw on frameworks as diverse as social work and post-colonial studies to understand what women say in their oral histories.
While the volume effectively shows the development of women's oral history, it has certain drawbacks. Since all of the essays derive from the pages of one journal, these are not necessarily the best nor the most representative works in women's oral history. For a full sense of where the field has been and [End Page 726] where it is going, readers would have to turn additionally to other volumes, notably Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (eds. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai [New York: Routledge, 1991]), and to the pages of journals such as Oral History Review, the International Journal of Oral History, and as oral history is increasingly "mainstreamed," to other field-specific journals. Also, the reader will not get more than an introduction to any given application of women's oral history. The pieces in the applications section on teaching and media uses of oral history, for example, describe wonderfully creative work, but they do not provide...