Journal of World History 15.1 (2004) 85-87
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Gender in History. By Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. Pp. ix + 246. $29.95 (paper).
Gender in History provides a brief and helpful overview of women's historical experience in the major civilizations of the past.Working topically, author Merry Wiesner-Hanks, an accomplished historian of early modern Europe, arranges her material in discrete sections on the family, economic activity, laws, religion, politics, education and culture, and sexuality. Treatment begins with ancient civilizations in China, India, and the Middle East, and tends to emphasize European women about whom there is so much material in Western languages. Wiesner-Hanks defines gender along the lines set by Joan Scott, and while there is some attention to masculinity, the book focuses mostly on the experience, activities, and status of women. In this regard, the work is helpful for teachers seeking to integrate material on women into their world history courses. For instance, the specific places of women in Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, and Christian religions receives clear and detailed treatment. A copious bibliography adds to the volume's usefulness.
"The title of this book would have made little sense to me when I chose to be a history major some three decades ago" (p. 1), Wiesner-Hanks begins, and indeed this efficient synthesis testifies to the vast amount of research accomplished over the course of those decades by scholars of women's history. Perusing that vast material yields the conclusion in every chapter that whatever the society almost every aspect —from family to political and cultural life—was gendered, although generally in different ways except for the pervasive special value and privileges given to men and the lesser value attached to women. Wiesner-Hanks also outlines the ways in which women, from ancient times to the present, have resisted the degrading conditions assigned [End Page 85] them, creating ad hoc opportunities for activity and decision-making. She points to societies in which some women had considerable power, such as the Khasi and the Hausa.Women in such groups have criticized the homogenizing tendencies of modernity, which threatened or threaten their uniquely important roles. Finally, the book consistently describes "parallel structures" whether in the area of social rules or household roles that allowed for women more consistently to work outside legal and other constraints. Fearful at the outset that the book might be too depressing,Wiesner-Hanks has devised a strategy for alleviating the bleakest side of teaching and studying gender history—that of confronting persistent inequality.
Another challenge in teaching about gender globally is to avoid slipping into series of generalizations in which no people appear and which become so vast as to be meaningless (not to mention boring). Wiesner-Hanks provides many generalizations arranged chronologically and across continents, but she enlivens the work with memorable stories and individual portraits economically done. The queen mother system in Africa, for instance, becomes vivid in the life of Queen Aminatu of Zazzau. For an instance of the "one-sex" model we are given the thought from later Vedic literature that all fetuses are men until evil spirits change some of them into women. The embeddedness of women's political rule in family structures in countries such as India and Pakistan centers on Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi.
One standard topic covered in most of the chapters is women, imperialism, and colonization; however the only form of empire considered is the recent European variety, with other imperial systems and their effects on gender missing. There are several judgments that might be reevaluated. Wiesner-Hanks portrays the low esteem of The Take of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu until our "contemporary taste" made it valued—a judgment that flies in the face of centuries of women's and men's re-imagining of Genji both in prose and illustration. The voluminous writing and works of art by Chinese women were more highly valued than Wiesner-Hanks allows; the important work of Dorothy Ko and Susan Mann provides a good corrective and engaging reading. ManyWesterners—fromDurer toDebussyor from Catherine the...