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Book Review


Three "Classics" of Gender History: Foundations for Developing and Enhancing World History Courses

Smith, Bonnie, (ed). Women's History in Global Perspective, vols. 1-3. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005). 976 pp, $64.00.

Stearns, Peter. Gender in World History, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006). 180 pp, $28.95.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Gender in History. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001). 256 pp, $41.95.



     Organizing a course that does not represent an outline of who, what, when, and where is a challenge faced by many who teach World History. Moving beyond major events and major players is daunting, but most of us attempt to take our students beyond the basics of political and economic history giving them the opportunity to understand as many of the historical agents as possible. In a recent review of gender in four of the most popular World History textbooks used in both universities and AP courses, Sharon Cohen found that each of the four textbooks included a reasonable amount of information on women and questions of gender from a global perspective.1 While textbooks are expanding upon social, economic, and political roles of men and women, a number of helpful monographs and collections of essays are available to those who hope to take the subject of gender even further. Three such books are: Gender in World History by Peter Stearns, Gender in History by Merry Wiesner-Hanks, and Women's History in Global Perspective, edited by Bonnie Smith. Smith's multi-volume work is the newest of these books published in 2005; Stearns' and Wiesner-Hanks' books have already found places in many libraries and classrooms. Used separately, each of these books provides readers with well-rounded coverage of issues related to gender history and women's history, but taken together this collection of "must-haves" forms a valuable foundation for students, researchers, and instructors in courses on world history, women's history, or gender history.

     Peter Stearns' Gender in World History is a chronologically organized monograph. Instead of relying on a textbook method of moving through major political or economic events, Stearns chooses a variety of themes related to contact to launch historical analysis. For example, in "Early Contacts: Influences from Ccultural Diversity," Stearns explores Hellenic and Hellenistic societies and the connections made by the people of each society with others in Asia and Africa. Chinese influence on other East Asian societies during the Song and Tang dynasties and the effects of Marxism and feminism in Africa and China are the foci of later chapters. From a teaching perspective, the strength of these and other chapters is twofold. First is Stearns' use of case studies to demonstrate similarities and differences between particular societies. The chapter on Marxism and feminism provides two primary regions for discussion, Africa and China, asking students to examine broad issues and apply them in meaningful ways to those locations. Second is his examination of the results of contact. The author approaches not only the moments and types of contact, but he includes extremely useful conclusions about the long-term effects of contact. This approach fits neatly into what most instructors hope to accomplish within a world history course: making comparisons and establishing connections. Any of the chapters could easily be used by AP or university students as the center of discussion on gender and cultural contact in a particular period. Further, as found through a quick internet search, some graduate instructors are also incorporating the book into courses on world history and gender.

      In Gender in History, Merry Wiesner-Hanks employs a topical approach. Chapters focus on specific themes such as family, religion, education, and sexuality; each investigating chronologically (roughly) a wide variety of geographical locations. In fact, one of the strengths of her book is the wide range of societies she examines in each chapter. For example, in her chapter on economic life (chapter 3), readers are treated to a nearly seamless chronological trajectory beginning with early foragers, moving on to agricultural societies on every continent, concluding with an examination of the development of capitalism and its resulting development of multi-national corporations. A further strength is her command of the literature related to gender; few (if any) recent works have escaped her gaze. For university students or scholars, Wiesner-Hanks' well-developed bibliographic essays that follow each chapter are important points of access to further study on the myriad of points raised in those chapters. Further, these bibliographies are helpful for teachers who wish to find out more about a particular topic, culture, or period. As an example, chapter three's bibliography has a paragraph on general questions related to economic life, then successive paragraphs developed along continental lines with their focus primarily on women's work. She begins her book with a caution to readers that her work might leave readers "feel[ing] angry, depressed, or defensive," (18). Certainly many may leave the book having these responses about the plight of women globally and historically, but anyone reading the work can be glad that the stories are being told.

      Bonnie Smith, editor of the multi-volume Women's History in Global Perspective, has assembled an authoritative collection of historians writing on a wide range of topics and geographical locations. Published by the American Historical Society, the books were the brainchild of the Association's Committee on Women Historians. The goal of the committee was to create a collection of essays that could be used by teachers in a variety of academic situations; that goal was certainly accomplished. The articles in the first volume are primarily global in focus and theoretical in nature exploring topics such as women and their involvement in Western religions (Julia Clancy-Smith, v.1: 92), gender construction and its relationship to work (Alice Kessler-Harris, v.1: 145), the relationship of gender and the development of nations (Mrinalini Sinha, v.1: 229), and an exploration of the development of feminism (Susan Kent, v.1: 275). The essays in volumes two and three are, in general, more regionally focused; but volume two does include an ambitious global essay on women in ancient societies written by Sarah Shaver Hughes and Brady Hughes (v.2: 9). Other chapters in the final two volumes are: "Women and Gender in Southeast Asia" (Barbara Ramusack, v.2: 101); "Women and Gender in Latin America," (Ann Twinam, v.2: 187); "Women and Gender in the History of Sub-Saharan Africa, (Cheryl Johson-Odim, v.3: 9); "Women in the Middle East since the Rise of Islam," (Nikki Keddie, v.3: 68) and "Russia and the Soviet Union," (Barbara Engel, v.3: 145). Also included are two overviews of North America and two of Europe.

      For those who teach world history, uses for Smith's three books are limitless. The volumes are helpful in expanding understanding of the agency of women around the globe. Moreover, the essays support teaching of various courses ranging from broad or regional surveys to those more specifically focused on women and/or gender. As an example, in the first volume's opening essay "Theory and Practice of Women's History and Gender History in Global Perspective," Margaret Strobel and Marjorie Bingham address basic topics such as definitions (11) and integration of questions of gender into the world history survey (18), but they also include an insightful chronology of women's history that would also have a place in a global course on women's history (26). These nuts-and-bolts are complemented by four appendices providing ideas to support four different methodological approaches to teaching world history: world studies, comparative history, thematic history, and history through biography (35-47). Continued focus on teachers is apparent in every essay in the collection. Authors provide enough background information for novices in particular fields to feel "secure," but veterans, too, will gain new insights. As an example of its classroom focus, Judith Bennett's chapter on medieval women includes as section entitled "Real people and abstract topics in the classroom," (v2: 167). Bennett suggests a strategy which employs the examination of notables, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and her unusual series of marriages and Hildegard of Bingen's quiet convent life to provide interesting learning opportunities on the lives of real, albeit reasonably well-born, women. Adding to this strategy, of course, would be an examination of primary sources related to both women. Every chapter contains extensive historiographic references, exhaustive notes, and many contain detailed bibliographies and suggested websites as well.

      The books by Stearns, Wiesner-Hanks, and Smith provide a wealth of information that teachers will find crucial to expanding their own knowledge as well as that of their students. An illustration of how these books could be used together might prove beneficial to someone beginning to teach a course for the first time or for someone attempting to add to or revise an existing course. Stearns' book, Gender in World History, might serve as the most likely candidate of the three books for use in a World History survey course because of the book's chronological approach coupled with the use of case studies. For a lecture or lectures on the Modern Middle East, one might consider assigning, as a starting point, Chapter 12, "Contact and Retract: the Middle East in theTwentieth Century." In this chapter, the author explores issues most students are sure to be interested in including sections on veiling and gender and terrorism; also included is a section on Turkey. To prepare for a classroom discussion of Stearns' chapter, teachers might first turn to Wiesner-Hanks' chapter on religion which contains a lengthy section on Islam (with a discussion of veiling) (132-37), but throughout the book she also includes extensive discussions on Islam and education (184-86), numerous references to Islam and family relationships, and various examinations of the faith and its ideas about labor. Moving to the volumes edited by Smith, educators would undoubtedly find volume one's chapter entitled "Exemplary Women and Sacred Journeys: Women and Gender in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from Late Antiquity to the Eve of Modernity" to be a good starting point. "Women in the Middle East Since the Rise of Islam," in volume three, is regionally focused; but it also contains observations on intercultural connections and Western thoughts on Muslim women. Other chapters contain helpful sections on the importance of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Medieval Europe. Teachers reading these chapters and sections in Gender and History and Women's History are sure to feel more grounded and prepared to answer almost any question a student might pose. Any number of primary documents found in prominent documents texts would round out this examination of gender in the Middle East in the twentieth century. Educators, too, might use their examination of veiling a means to launch discussions on other physical limitations placed on women such as veiling in ancient Greece, footbinding in China, or the practice of sati in some regions of India. Each of these topics is covered in all three of the titles reviewed. Further, because of extensive notes and detailed bibliographies, Wiesner-Hanks and the authors in Smith's collection have provided teachers with a plethora of resources on virtually every topic related to the historical study of women and gender.

      While this relatively short review of three dynamic books barely does them justice, it is the hope of this reviewer that readers will recognize these books as accessible resources that will enhance the knowledge of our students enabling them to understand that as Joan Scott so importantly argued, "gender is a useful category of historical analysis."2

Biographical Note: Kathy Callahan received her Ph.D. from Marquette University and teaches World and European history at University of Wisconsin – Stout in Menomonie. While her research interest is women and crime in London, she has recently developed an obsession with the history of China.



Kathy Callahan, Ph.D
University of Wisconsin



1   Sharon Cohen, "Gender in World History Textbooks," World History Connected, 3:2,, accessed February 26, 2007.

2   Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," American Historical Review, 91 (Dec. 1986); 1053-75.


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