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Book Review


Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Gender in History: Global Perspectives. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. iix+234. $31.06 (paper).


     Merry Wiesner-Hanks' second edition of Gender in History: Global Perspectives does not disappoint the reader expecting an overview of women's history. This wonderful little volume packs an impressive amount of research into its 227 pages. Wiesner-Hanks' text seeks to explore patterns and trends in women's history within a global structure. At first glance, this monumental task seems almost overwhelming, but Wiesner-Hanks successfully applies her extensive knowledge and investigative skills to create a book that appeals to undergraduate students taking their first world history course as well as those enrolled in specialized women's history classes. For teachers of Advanced Placement courses in high school settings, this text makes excellent addition to an ancillary reading list for students who too often receive a seriously abbreviated version of women's roles in world history.

     In the introductory pages, Wiesner-Hanks reviews some of the recent scholarship on current definitions and ideas of gender. She argues that in the past historians have interpreted the word in political terms since the modern field of women's history originated in the widespread social movements of the 1970s. However, Wiesner-Hanks argues that the term gender can no longer represent just the biological differences between the sexes, but must also encompass concepts involving transgender, gay, and lesbian people. This acknowledgement of new ways to define old words makes the reader aware of the differing viewpoints of what it means to be classified as a member of a particular sex. By carefully selecting the word gender for use in the book's title, Wiesner-Hanks focuses on what it means to be defined as female in various world cultures and across time periods.

     Wiesner-Hanks notes in the introduction that she carefully considered the best framework to organize her writing. Even though the book's title alludes to a geographical arrangement, Wiesner-Hanks opted to use an overall thematic approach and divided the chapters into topics such as religion, family, education, economics, and politics. Advanced Placement teachers will notice the similarity to familiar classroom analytical tools that help instruct high school students in comprehending primary source documents, thereby increasing the usefulness of this book in those venues. In a work of this scope, organizing the information into units that are systematic, comprehensible, and interesting becomes quite challenging. Wiesner-Hanks rises to the occasion admirably by combining chronological change-over-time periodization with larger geographical patterns in some chapters. For instance, the family life section begins by analyzing women's roles within Egypt and Mesopotamia from 4000 BCE to 600 BCE and concludes with a discussion of the modern post-Industrial Revolution world. Other parts, like the essay on education subdivide the material into specific historical periods such as the classical period, the Renaissance, and modernity. This particular arrangement serves the purpose of this chapter well, but the material does seem to emphasize Western viewpoints more than the scanty examination of women's education in Asia or Africa.

     Within the chapter on family life, Wiesner-Hanks describes women's roles inside the family structure. She suggests that defining family often entailed involving complicated kin-group networks and extended families made more complex with adoption, divorce, multiple wives, and remarriage particularly in the case of widowhood. Marriage, Wiesner-Hanks argues, also meant careful arrangements along racial lines especially in the colonial world. Latin America experienced both religious and racial ideologies that shaped social understanding of women's status. According to Wiesner-Hanks, church and colonial powers recognized over forty different castes each with its own specific identification requirements. Mixed ancestry and a high illegitimate birthrate further entangled family ties making marriage and inheritance an intricate business. Wiesner-Hanks states that similarly elaborate racial identity schemes developed elsewhere in the colonial world. However, unlike those relationships in Latin America significantly fewer numbers of mixed marriages took place in North America due to an increased prevalence of miscegenation laws. Regardless of the motivation behind restrictive regulations—most often religious or racial fears—women who became involved in such relationships (voluntarily or not) suffered more often from direct and negative legal ramifications and social ostracism than men throughout most societies.

     Each chapter in this book illustrates common themes found in women's lives in world history. For the undergraduate enrolled in a world civilizations survey course or the student looking for a place to begin researching women's history, Wiesner-Hanks' clear and concise writing offers a succinct summary of the major ideas found in more wieldy texts. Instead of providing the usual litany of footnotes or a lengthy bibliographic listing at the end of the book, Wiesner-Hanks supplies a well-researched reading list at the end of each chapter. The entries represent a variety of classic works on women's history as well as more recent, cutting-edge scholarship thereby providing a well-rounded viewpoint for the researcher. As a result of such careful attention to research, Wiesner-Hanks' work deserves a place on bookshelves of historians of both world and gender history.

Marjorie Hunter earned her PhD in Heritage Studies from Arkansas State University. She teaches AP World History at West Memphis High School in West Memphis, Arkansas. She instructs World History courses at Arkansas State University as adjunct faculty and can be contacted at


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