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 team of essayists makes a significant contribution to rectifying these injustices and establishing a history both by and for women.
Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 47.
Choice. XXX, December, 1992, p. 677.
The Christian Century. CIX, August 12, 1992, p. 752.
New Directions for Women. XXI, July 1992. p. 32.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 19, 1992, p. 12.
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, too: the approach taken by the writers of essays in this volume is “more eclectic and open-ended than might be the case if an Anglo-American team had been organizing the project.” They warn readers that mainstream topics such as “domesticity, heterosexual families and religion, and internal state policies” are more fully treated than are the more controversial topics of “sexual practice and homosexuality, ethnicity and colonialism”—topics of much greater interest to feminist scholars.
Carefully edited by classical scholar Pauline Schmitt Pantel, the essays in this collection stress a pluralistic approach to women’s history. The general editors of the series, Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, note that their focus is on Western women, most of whom are white, but they are not apologetic. In fact, they address the issue of gender head-on, asserting that “[n]either feminism nor the representation of the feminine are universal values.” Hence, anyone looking among the essays in A History of Women in the West for a feminist critique of male-dominated representations of women in classical times is in for some disappointment. The essayists in this volume are historians first, theorists only second (if at all). Most of the work is descriptive rather than political. Even in essays that deal directly with politics, such as Yan Thomas’ “The Division of the Sexes in Roman Law,” little editorial commentary intrudes on the author’s narrative of the way things were in Roman society. The effect is actually salutary; one needs little exhortation to see that women were kept under tight rein by laws that promoted patriarchal domination and prohibited women from taking roles as citizens in the society at large.
Pluralism and interdisciplinary interests, however, are evident throughout volume 1. The essays range from Claudine Leduc’s highly technical sociological analysis of marriage in ancient Greece, based on the different forms of dowry associated with the giving of a woman to her husband, to François Lissarague’s lengthy examination, copiously illustrated, of images of women on Greek pottery and sculpture. A few provide speculations about the impact of various laws and practices on women who were subjected to restrictions not of their own making; others simply let the record speak for itself. The authors working with Pantel examine the images of women in Greek and Roman society, ranging freely between what scholars now classify as myth and more conventional sources of history. They cite the writings of such diverse authors as Homer and Pliny to capture a sense of how women were perceived by others (both male and female) and how they are captured in the literature, art, and political and medical writings of almost twenty centuries. Specialists may already know, but general readers may need to be cautioned, that ancient writers—even those who called themselves historians—were less concerned about the differences between fact and fiction, differences modern historians consider crucial for interpreting the documentary record and preparing an accurate portrait of the past.