This well-written textbook draws on a wide range of secondary sources to offer a general survey of the interactions between gender and power in social, political, economic and cultural circles in Britain, from the early modern period to the 1990s. It is organised chronologically and explores shifting boundaries not only between cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity, but also between classes, regions, races and religions.
In fascinating early chapters, Susan Kingsley Kent discusses how women were defined in terms of their relative status to men, an idea that became entrenched in the "separate spheres" ideology of the 18th century that located men within the public world of work and politics, and women as wives and mothers within the private realm of home and family. Even if such a separation was not always reflected in daily life, the economic upheavals created by the onset of industrialisation helped to make this ideology powerful by the mid-19th century.
The women's movement that developed from the 1850s had to fight against such stereotyping which deprived women of access to universities and the professions as well as citizenship rights. Yet many of the gains evaporated when, after the turmoil created by the Great War, there was a redrawing of traditional gender roles. It was not until after the second world war that working wives and mothers became a recognised feature of the labour force, and not until the 1960s that gay rights were forced into the political arena and controversially shackled under Thatcherism.
Inevitably in a broad-sweep book of this nature some chapters are weaker than others. The section on the women's suffrage campaign, for example, is drawn largely from Kent's own book, first published in 1987, and contains no reference to that mass of post-1987 material.
Nevertheless, this book is a stylish read, an engaging synthesis that will be of use to both students and general readers alike.
June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.
Gender and Power in Briatin, 1640-1990. First Edition
Author - Susan Kingsley Kent
ISBN - 0 415 14741 7 and 14742 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 364