What is Gender History?

November 4, 2010

Author: Sonya O. Rose

Edition: First

Publisher: Polity Press

Pages: 208

Price: £45.00 and £13.99

ISBN 9780745646145 and 6152

There is a view of the history of gender relations that suggests that nothing much happened before the 19th century, and that since then the history of gender relations in the West has been one of constant progress towards liberalisation and the civic equality of women and men. It is a view that is unhelpful to our understanding of both the past and the present.

Such a view is not reproduced in Sonya Rose's brief answer to the question of what "gender history" may be. Her answer pays tribute to the work of various feminist historians in recovering the "lost" worlds of women, and at the same time acknowledges the contribution made by Joan Scott in suggesting ways in which she (as Rose puts it) "queried how gender worked to distinguish masculine from feminine". This crucial intervention allowed subsequent historians to consider the ways in which gender and power are related and how the "history" of women and men is constructed through complex dynamics of meaning. The discussion of Scott's work in the first chapter of the book creates a valuable framework for the subsequent chapters on aspects of the body, sexuality, and different and emerging forms of historical knowledge.

One of the assertions made about undergraduate students in today's academy is that they have little or no knowledge or understanding of history and what they have is confined to highly specific historical periods. One of the most attractive features of this excellent, highly readable book is that it communicates a sense of the chronology of the past. It does this without presenting a view of the past in which one thing led to another, but by suggesting that there are both connections and discontinuities between historical periods. At the same time, Rose even-handedly points out some of the difficulties of gender history: in her final chapter she addresses ways in which a concentration on gender can detract from other forms of interpersonal relationships, for example within the family and in the workplace.

This book is recommended for two reasons. The first is that it gives a coherent and comprehensive account of recent work on the subject of gender and history. As such, it sets out clearly debates and the context of debates. But the second reason is, in pedagogic terms, just as important: Rose's book brings alive important questions about our past, and not least demonstrates how a better understanding of history (and in this case we have to assume one that is gendered) is crucial to our view of the present.

Who is it for? First- or second-year undergraduates across the social sciences and humanities.

Presentation: Clear and very readable.

Would you recommend it? Yes, enthusiastically.

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