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Book Review


Meade, Teresa A. and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (ed). A Companion to Gender History. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 688 pp, $41.95.



     Although world history and gender history emerged as robust fields of study at about the same time, many world history teachers still feel uncomfortable using gender as a theme in their courses. This volume, with thirty-two essays, serves to help teachers and researchers in world history construct a gendered approach. Certainly, if we accept that gender is "a culturally constructed, historically changing, and often unstable system of differences," (p. 2) then gender is an essential tool in our approach to understanding the past.

     The editors' stated purpose is to "contribute to the history of women, to study their interaction with men in a gendered world, and to posit notions of the role of gender in shaping human interaction over thousands of years."(p. 2) Many essays seek to correct imbalances in early analyses of the lives of women, explore relations between males and females, and find interconnections between socially acceptable male and female identities. The editors acknowledge, however, that most contributors failed to avoid the binary issues that the cultural construct of gender often presents. Therefore, many of the essays deal with women as a universally-agreed upon group of females, and the essays that address masculinity tend to use a modern definition of maleness.

     There are two types of essays in the volume that many teachers will find useful. The first section offers ten thematic essays that cross time and space to present grand views of gender issues especially as they intersect with other historical approaches. The rest of the essays are organized chronologically into five time periods and within each time period offer specialized analyses of gender issues in different regions of the world: the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and North America. Thus, what most world history teachers lack in clear, well-reasoned arguments about changes and continuities in the lives of women and sometimes family relationships awaits them in this volume. The historian who wrote each essay also provides valuable bibliographies for further reading.

     How else can world history teachers use this book? They can broaden their knowledge of social history especially with regard to how the state affects gender relations and social structures. For example, Judith Tucker discusses the contradictory efforts of modernizing reformers in the Ottoman Empire who "extended period of a mother's custody after a divorce" (p. 401) but then reduced child support from the five years it was under classical Islamic law to a year or less. Barbara Clements points out that the concept of the New Soviet Woman in the 1930s who "sustained a comfortable home and aided her family in adapting to the modern communist economy" (p. 560) sounds very much like the middle class Victorian wife whose role was to help create the modern family as the nurturer of model citizens.

     One could take a single time period presented in one section to compare and contrast the societies evident in different parts of the world. The nineteenth century demonstrates clearly how the world history teacher could compare the mostly unsuccessful efforts of women in Korean anti-Japanese colonial groups, the French Revolution, Indian independence movements, and the North and South American revolutions to use their active support for the revolutions to gain greater political voices afterwards. Likewise, the essays show how across the world in the twentieth century "state authoritarianism and domestic patriarchy were mutually reinforcing," (p. 580) as Susan K. Besse points out for Latin America. In addition, this volume enables the world history teacher to trace changes and continuities in gender relations and gender definitions across one region from the classical era to the 21st century.

     I must confess that the thirty-two essays are so rich that I could only taste a bit at a time. One must have time to ingest the full content and interpretations available. I expect to use this book as an essential tool to broadening my use of gender as an analytical tool and know that the bibliographies will lead me to even further knowledge.



Sharon Cohen
Springbrook High School


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