What is Women's History?

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Putting women back in the record? Rewriting the past? Ghetto history? Gender analysis? What is women's history? Eight historians answer...


It is perhaps a salutary exercise in the midst of writing a book whose scope is as breathtakingly wide as Women in European Society 1500-1800 to define what one is about. For me, a history of women implies a triple commitment. The first and most obvious is to discern women's past role and situation – in this instance to locate them in the social, economic, religious, political and psychological monde immobile of traditional society. The second is to give the history of the period a 'gender dimension': less grandly, to suggest relevant areas or issues in the period under review where the attitudes or position of women, differentiated perhaps by class or national group, influenced the course of events, and hence to make clear that to write history without reference to gender is to distort the vision. Thirdly, women did not live in society in isolation. Indeed, much of the evidence about them in the period which my book covers, given differential literacy rates, was compiled or invented by men and rests on male assumptions. In examining some of these, we are looking not merely at how men conceived 'the sex' but also themselves. At this point, the history of women becomes the history of mentalities.

When Peter Laslett reviewed Scott and Tilly, Women, Work and Family (R.W. Holt, 1978), he pointed out, very pertinently, that there was no simple, single record of a past woman to represent all women; that experience varied according to class, area and time. That said, heaped upon Western European woman in this period was a common, weighty, ideological heritage to which Judaic philosophy (Eve as evil, woman as the greater sinner, unclean during the menstrual phase, unworthy of full participation in religious life), Christian doctrine, Greek science and philosophy, Roman law and the traditions of violent agrarian societies where physical strength was at a premium, had each made a contribution. The result was a gloomy view of woman as a defective being, the 'botched male' of the Greek tradition whose main characteristics were her traditionality (the Greek for uterus and hysteria being virtually the same), lust (before the second half of the eighteenth century it was held that woman's physical composition made her more demanding of sex than men), obsession with luxurious apparel and her own fair form and garrulity. Such were her most conspicuous attributes. Such a person's only hope was firm governance by husband or father. How was such a view modified or redressed? Was it by the Reformation, the Enlightenment which threw out notions of a God-ordained society, by literary traditions acknowledging a femme forte, by increasing female literacy which allowed some women to seize the pen in their own defence, by a growing consciousness amongst eighteenth-century male novelists that increasingly they were dependent on a female audience, or by theological revisionism in recognising the growing feminisation of religion? Where and for what reason did the voice of ripost become more than a whimper? How much of this legacy was left and where by 1800? How did women live with this burden upon them?     

The gap between theory and practice can be great. Ideas need to be tested against the practicalities of existence (modified by area and class) for women in traditional societies. Demography and family history have both been growth areas in recent years. The first has provided an excellent factual framework: how many married, at what age, to whom, for how long and with what issue? The second has endowed us with a confused and inadequate set of hypotheses about the qualitative aspects of marriage and parenthood, creating a 'black-legend' of women in traditional societies as affectionless, zombie-like child-beaters. The...
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