A taste of his-tory and hers

Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe

May 25, 2007

Annette Timm and Joshua Sanborn maintain that students often find gender themes presented inside history courses "confusing or unpersuasive", or worse, students are suspicious that they are being indoctrinated with a "feminist agenda". As a result, relating the relationship between gender and political and social history is left out of much teaching. This ambitious study is an attempt to tell the story of sexual difference in the frame of the development of modern Europe. How were ideas around gender influenced by social and political changes and how did they influence change themselves?

Such a venture is fraught with the impossibility of covering comprehensive ground and of synthesising complex and much debated ideas. Given that, the authors construct a narrative that begins with the Enlightenment and the examination of man's place within it and loops to the present: "Most now agree that men and women should be equal."

The path is quite a feat and the authors cover an immense geographical, ideological and chronological area with dexterity. Recurring themes such as the separate public and private spheres (urbanisation, imperialism), violence (masculine and national), homosexuality, the politics of reproduction (evolution theory, eugenics and birth control), sexual freedom and the welfare state are explored in a chronological narrative that identifies key events alongside iconic thinkers. This makes it a very readable book, although sometimes more in the fashion of an exquisite tasting menu than a substantial meal.

For example, it seems reasonable to have a strong focus on the impact of the two major wars in the 20th century. But the rationale for the hugely changing social position of women over this period is necessarily explained through an examination of the growth of nationalism and military masculinity rather than through an exploration of female activism as a driver for the ultimate breakdown of the spheres (feminists such as Butler, Fawcett and Pankhurst in Britain can be afforded only the briefest of mentions). This is not to say that the influence of female thinkers from Wollstonecraft to de Beauvoir is not recognised, as well as many more marginal movements (such as the utopian Saint-Simonians).

A thought-provoking final chapter on the sexual revolution pulls together ideas around biological and social difference, tracing, via Foucault, the freedoms won in the 1960s back to the 19th-century idea that "sexual desires are a core aspect of individual identity". How the state controls but finally enhances that individual identity is offered as a good-news story, but one that remains unresolved.

The authors are careful not to assimilate: differences across eastern and western Europe are highlighted. When they focus on detailed examples, readability can come at the expense of balance, but overall the study's comparative material is enriching.

This narrative is not only built on the ideas of leading European thinkers but also on the work of many scholars who have researched aspects of this vast terrain. The fecundity of ideas, events and literature in this study may mean that some students will remain confused. But for those who want to pursue this important aspect of European history further, this is a good place to start.

Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe: A History from the French Revolution to the Present Day. First Edition

Author - Annette F. Timm and Joshua A. Sanborn
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 244
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 9781845 203566 and 5203573

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