New Narratives on Women’s History
Bloomsbury Academic £125/£24.99 each
Though written more for the academic than the lay reader, this ambitious series traces the lives and experiences of women through history.
It is one of feminism’s greatest achievements that, along with changing the present, it has also had such a powerful impact on the past. Like a pointillist painting, the last 50 years of historical scholarship has added thousands of dots to the canvas of western history, allowing us to stand back and view an epic image where, though men still dominate the action, the lives and experiences of women are now revealed in sharper, richer colours, textures and shapes.
Enter a six-volume series, A Cultural History of Women, stretching from antiquity to the modern day. Culture is the key word here, because it allows historians access to a much wider palate, highlighting – to quote the introduction to the first volume – ‘a crucial set of counter narratives to the … representations of woman so frequently found in … text and visual images produced by male elites’.
To make any sense of history over such a vast timescale demands some thematic cohesion and the series’ editors have alighted on a set of topics, or lenses, through which to view the last 2,000 years: chapters on life cycle, bodies and sexuality, religion, medicine and disease, power, public and private, artistic representations and so on.
Some groupings work better than others. The themes of the body, religion and medicine all show the ways in which political power, belief and science have consistently left their mark on the female form; the constant fear of voracious female sexual appetite, the binary vision of the mother or the whore and, on a more subtle level, the way in which women’s sexual pleasure was acceptable, even encouraged, as long as our understanding of biology denied them an equal role in creation, only to be rigorously downgraded during Victorian times. This long historical journey plays out through the six volumes like a meandering, but absorbing, relay race towards the finish line and our obsession with the modern female orgasm well and truly disconnected from procreation.
Although the content here is never less than interesting, the style is often alienating, at least to the unwary general reader. With a few notable exceptions, we are in the land of discourse and feminist theory, which, though it has played a major part in the status of women’s history, is not the easiest way to enter and bring alive the past. There are times when the magpie collection of sources and statistics threaten to overwhelm the narrative or when it feels as if one is reading a rehashed conference paper rather than a chapter in a joined up book. The problem is most acute in the last volume. Ironically, this is a period of history with too much source material rather than too little, which may explain why the writers have gone for a more ‘niche ’ approach. The life cycle chapter concentrates on birth and maternity in Australia, the body on the orgasm and religion on the rise of the individual female spiritual journey, with barely a nod to the devastating challenges of Islamic fundamentalism.
Of course, no history as broad as this can contain everything. Nor can it hope to deliver one ‘truth’. While this series will no doubt find its place on university shelves, it seems a missed opportunity not to have set its sights on a wider, more popular audience.