A History of Women in the West, Volume I (Magill Book Reviews)
The first installment in a projected five-volume series on women’s history, A HISTORY OF WOMEN IN THE WEST, VOL. I is an encyclopedic survey of the lives of women in Greek and Roman society. Eschewing radical feminist trends, the authors of these essays focus on issues of domesticity, family life, religion, and state policies regarding women. Using an interdisciplinary approach, they range between myth and history to capture the essence of women’s lives in a time when the documentary record was constructed almost exclusively by men. Scant evidence coupled with the distorted perspective offered by exclusively male views leads these essayists to speculate often, but they ground their conjecture in fact whenever possible and seldom stray far from their immediate focus. Several writers spend considerable effort in debunking theories that have distorted the image of women, including ideas popular with modern feminists, such as nineteenth century anthropologist Jacob Bachofen’s theory of matriarchy.
Though they are not overtly political in their analysis, the authors never lose sight of the fact that women were not equals in ancient society; confined to their homes or assigned duties as helpmates or servants, they were systematically excluded from full participation in public life. As a result, women’s history has been ignored and their contributions minimized or discredited. The wide-ranging scholarship and the balanced approach taken by Pantel and her...
(The entire section is 285 words.)
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A History of Women in the West, Volume I (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Distinguished historian Michael Howard has observed that the “first lesson that historians are entitled to teach is an austere one: Not to generalize from false premises based on inadequate evidence. The second is not more comforting: The past is a foreign country; there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language and understood its assumptions.” Such advice has been more disregarded than heeded by many modern theorists, whose penchant for seeing patterns in the intricate carpet of the historical record has led them to make intriguing but sometimes wrongheaded pronouncements about the meaning of past events.
Therefore, it will not be surprising if many contemporary scholars, especially feminists, greet the volumes of A History of Women in the West with mixed emotions. The five collections of essays by distinguished European and American historians are committed to writing the history of women as it actually was, not as theorists wished it had been. According to scholars Natalie Zemon Davis and Joan Wallach Scott, whose brief introductory note to volume 1 is provocatively titled “A New Kind of History,” the first group of essays is a kind of encyclopedia, surveying the lives of women in classical times and the attitudes toward women held by men, whose portraits of women form almost the only source modern historians have for determining what those lives were like. These authors offer an appropriate cautionary note,...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)