The book of the week: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

June Purvis on the mother of all resources

April 10, 2008


The development in the late 1960s of second-wave feminism in the US and Western Europe sparked renewed interest in women's history. As feminists of that time analysed the inequalities and subordination that they felt as women, they often looked to the past. Their foremothers were usually hidden in the dominant malestream narratives or, if visible, represented in sex-stereotypical roles as wives, mothers or mistresses. The task of not only finding women in history, in all their diversity, but also of challenging the ways in which they had been portrayed, led to an explosion of knowledge that makes possible this magisterial book. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, edited by the distinguished historian Bonnie G. Smith, is a powerful testimony to the breadth of this scholarship. A large group of experts in the field contribute nearly 1,250 entries, arranged in alphabetical order, each with a bibliography for further reading.

The encyclopaedia embraces two main types of entries: general thematic essays and biographical profiles of women throughout history who led important lives. The general essays follow the approaches adopted by world histories for describing the past and thus fall into three main categories - geographic, comparative and world coverage. Geographic coverage discusses women's lives in different regions of the world throughout time, such as North Africa since 1500 or Egypt since 1800. Comparative coverage explores women's common experiences in marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, or examines their participation in religions or various economic systems such as agriculture, fishing, industry and service work. Lastly, world coverage centres on women in trading systems, international organisations, cultural exchange and diasporas. As Smith points out in her useful introduction, women have moved around the world by tens of millions, and never more so than in the present day - whether as refugees, migrants or sex workers. These wide-ranging general essays are complemented by separate biographical profiles.

The four volumes offer a plethora of riches, and the beginner could do no better than start with Karen Offen's comprehensive exposition on the history of women. "Women's history encompasses the history of humankind, including men, but approaches it from a woman-centred perspective," she points out. Feminist scholars in Australia, for example, who dared to rewrite their national narrative by putting women and gender at the centre, revealed just how male, white and British the founding story of the Australian nation, as told by earlier male historians, had become. Offen also explores the emergence of "gender history", offering a lucid account of the heated debates about whether a poststructuralist-informed "gender history" offers a more fruitful approach for challenging old assumptions. As she rightly insists, the choice between "women" and "gender" is not really an option since both are interlinked, offering a fruitful variety of approaches.

This point is marked in a number of the thematic essays, including Padma Anagol's fascinating account of the age of consent and child marriage in India. In post-independence India, she suggests, legislators and liberals supported the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1978, which raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 for girls, not from any desire for the advancement of women's welfare but from a commitment to modernity.

While marriage and childbearing have been the lot of most women worldwide, it is salutary to be reminded that single women have been more plentiful than generally assumed, especially in Western European societies. As Amy Froide highlights, modernisation, Westernisation and industrialisation are all linked to increasing numbers of women, especially the well-educated, delaying marriage or never marrying. "Single women have had an important role in women's history, serving as the questioners and pathbreakers of each generation," she asserts.

Indeed, since single women have more free time than wives and mothers, it is not surprising that they form a disproportionate number of professionals, writers, teachers, scientists, missionaries, politicians and activists for women's equality. Yet the sample of biographical profiles of important political women presented here does not fully substantiate this point since it is widows and married women rather than those who chose not to marry who are in the majority.

Corazon Aquino (b 1933), the first female president of the Philippines, fondly remembered for restoring democracy to that country after years of dictatorship, was a widow, as was Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) of Sri Lanka, the world's first woman prime minister. Golda Meir (1898-1978), the first and, at the beginning of the 21st century, the only female prime minister of Israel, was widowed, too, early in her married life. Margaret Thatcher (b 1925), the first woman prime minister in Britain and the first woman to serve in that capacity in a Western industrialised nation, bucked the trend since she was supported by a wealthy husband who backed her ambitions in the Conservative Party as she changed careers from chemist to lawyer to politician.

Such leading female politicians are exceptional figures on the world stage. As these volumes make abundantly clear, the lot of the majority of women has been one of social and economic inequality. Although women's access to schooling has risen in Eastern Asia, Europe and North America, there are persistently high rates of illiteracy in many regions of Asia and Africa. Social, religious, economic and cultural factors condemn too many girls to early entry into paid work and early marriage. And it is shocking to note that some two million girls a year are still considered to be at risk of genital mutilation, a barbaric practice that seeks to control female sexuality. The critical role of Unesco in promoting women's human rights, developing specific programmes for women, organising conferences and supporting gender research has declined in recent years as budget cuts, restructuring and staffing changes have taken their toll. Scholars now speak of Unesco's golden age for women, a time from the 1950s to the 1980s, when all this important work flourished.

The Encyclopedia of Women in World History is a wonderful compendium of information, covering a much wider range of topics than mentioned here - including citizenship, consumption, cosmetic surgery, disease and illness, feminism, gender roles, imperialism and colonialism, leisure, popular culture, prostitution, racism, sports, violence against women and war. Yet there are some strange omissions. The essay on Europe, beginning with pre-Classical times, ends with the Renaissance and the Early Modern period, but omits all the rich research on women in Modern Europe.

Nor is there a separate entry on lesbianism, although there is an entry on the International Lesbian and Gay Association, founded in 1978. Biographical entries on some influential British women, such as Marie Stopes (1881-1958), the campaigner for sexual fulfilment and contraception, are not to be found. And despite the attempt to attract international contributors, the overwhelming majority of the authors are from the US. Even the entry on Britain is written by an American scholar.

Yet these considerations do not detract from the importance of these volumes in successfully joining together women's history and world history. The Oxford Encylopedia of Women in World History is a landmark reference book that should be stocked in every university library.

THE EDITOR

Bonnie G. Smith, who received her PhD from the University of Rochester, New York, is Board of Governors professor of history at Rutgers University, and a past director of the university's Institute for Research on Women.

She has received fellowships and grants from, among others, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Professor Smith is the author of many books and articles on women's, world and European history, including Ladies of the Leisure Class (1981), Confessions of a Concierge (1985), Changing Lives: Women in European History since 1700 (1989), The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (1998), Imperialism (2000) and Europe in the Contemporary World, 1900 to the Present (2007).

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

Editor-in-Chief Bonnie G. Smith

Oxford University Press

Four volumes, 2,752pp, £250.00

ISBN 9780195148909

Published 1 March 2008

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