Ruth Watts's scholarly Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England explores the influence of this dissenting religious sect between 1760-1860 and their contribution to female emancipation. Drawn from the middle class and artisans, the Unitarians denied the doctrine of original sin and believed that humanity was best understood by reason, experience and experiment.
The cornerstone of Unitarian belief was their education philosophy, which suggested that differences between people were not innate but based on upbringing and background. Consequently, they stressed the need for women to be well educated. A number of leading women were either born into the movement or drawn to it, such as Harriet Martineau, sociologist and feminist, and Mary Carpenter, a children's social reformer. Watts's analysis of the intersection of class, religion and gender is searching, careful and measured. What would enrich her study more is some comparative, cross-denominational analysis, especially with other dissenters such as the Quakers.
Paula Bartley's Votes for Women 1860-1928 is a volume in the Access to History series, designed for examination students, as well as the general reader. Bartley skilfully synthesises relevant publications, drawing out key themes and controversies. Chapters are clearly structured, with useful subheadings and resource-based questions. One minor quibble is that references to reprinted memoirs from the women's movement, such as Emmeline Pankhurst's ghost-written apologia for militancy, My Own Story , published in 1914, are listed only with reprint dates.
The third edition of Deidre Beddoe's practical guide to researching women's lives, Discovering Women's History , is very welcome. This book is aimed at students but would serve a wider community. Many chapters have been revised and updated. What is missing is a sense of the contested nature of women's history. For example, while Beddoe discusses the importance of oral history, little attention is paid to factors that shape such accounts and how "experience" is interpreted.
All three books reviewed here illustrate the richness and diversity of women's history and show that the supposed dividing line between women's history and gender history is more imaginary than real.
June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.
Discovering Women's History: Discovering Women's History
Author - Deidre Beddoe
ISBN - 0 582 31148 9
Publisher - Longman
Price - £12.99
Pages - 200