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Russian and West European Women, 1860-1939: Dreams, Struggles, and Nightmares. (Reviews).

Russian and West European Women, 1860-1939: Dreams, Struggles, and Nightmares. By Marcelline J. Hutton (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001. xii plus 468 pp. $80.00/cloth; $32.95/paper).

There is a reason why "Russian" women come first in the title of Marcelline Hutton's new book, for this is her strength--and there is a reason also for the juxtaposition of Russian women with "West European" women, which in this case encompasses British, French, and German women--the "big three" of western and central Europe. Within these categories, the author's inquiry investigates differences of class, nationality, and religion, in addition to gender.

The book is organized around discussions of women's social, educational, economic, and political situations. This set of four concerns characterizes not only Hutton's introduction but also the subsequent chapters in each of the three chronological parts of the book. In a word, this is a highly schematized book. And it contains an abundance of comparative tables and charts, derived from statistical studies, census data for the 1890s, 1920s, and 1930s, and other government documents (emphasizing Russian, German, and British), in addition to extensive notes. The book also contains a truly splendid, if somewhat erratic bibliography which takes up 40 pages and reveals some surprises as well as some unfortunate omissions.

Although the title suggests a more comprehensive coverage, the bulk of the book (eight of the twelve chapters) concerns the 1920s and 1930s, and these eight chapters highlight the situation of women in the USSR, following the 1917 revolution, in comparison with those further to the west. The 1920s and 1930s are, overall, a depressing period in European history, even in the context of the extraordinary Soviet experiment in remaking society and the varied responses to it, and the fact that Hutton's study both avoids discussing World War I and ends in 1939, just on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, does not help to lift the shadow of gloom that hangs over the entire era. "Dreams, Struggles, and Nightmares" is a remarkably apt subtitle. This is not a book about feminism or feminist struggles and victories, but about the plodding, everyday miseries of mostly lower-class women (and their men and families). Victims and misfortune seem to predominate. From the standpoint of classroom use, this relentless focus on female misery and disadvantage could constitute a real problem, as might some of the issues raised below.

Marcelline Hutton describes the book as a "social history" (p. 9), but she also attempts to liven it up by drawing on the materials of "cultural history," especially novels and other literary works. She has also made a valiant attempt to incorporate biographical and autobiographical materials, especially in the Russian case. The author exhibits some tendency to mistake prescriptive literature (or satire) for descriptions of reality, and to misunderstand some terms (such as the French term "angel maker"--faiseuse d'anges--which refers to an abortionist, rather than to persons who do away with children following birth). There are factual mistakes, misspellings, and far too much repetition of the same materials from one chapter to another across the topical grid the author has devised. Having said this, though, I would still recommend this book to teachers who already have some grasp of the subject of comparative European women's history as a resource for lectures, subject to strict patrolling and cross-checking of the extraordinary range of sources Hutton cites. And for those who wish to understand Russian women's history from a comparative perspective, this book can serve as a very useful resource.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Marcelline Hutton's study is precisely its survey-like quality. This happened, and then that happened--but the reader does not always understand why. No questions are posed. Although the author cites a broad range of recent scholarship in compiling her text, she does not build on it to to open new doors, or to offer new insights. How are we supposed to understand the issue of continuity and change over time; how are we supposed to understand the complexities? Even the author's conclusion offers more of a summary than a historical argument. To be sure, there were changes across the time period under consideration--in women's access to government and politics, to educational opportunity and workforce participation, to alternatives to marriage. And certainly, many women demonstrated their resourcefulness and strength. But is this all? Might there not be another, stronger message that today's reader might take away from this book? Where is the struggle? Themes such as that of "the nationalization of women" in the twentieth century, for instance, which is developed so powerfully in volume V of the Georges Duby-Michelle Perrot History of Women in the West, edited by Francoise Thebaud, scarcely receives notice. (1) Although this volume is referenced in Hutton's bibliography, it seems that the extraordinarily rich essays it contains did not make much of an impression. As a result, no dialogue can be established between these two works, which cover much of the same ground in very different ways--and that is a great shame. The facts, even the massive quantities of them assembled by Marcelline Hutton, do not always speak for themselves. I would have found Russian and West European Women far more exhilarating if it had undergone restructuring, another rewrite, and built toward a more forceful, less static interpretation. Women's history in the European context can be passionately interesting, not least in the twentieth century, but this volume hardly conveys that passion. Viewing the past thr ough the interpretative lens of continuity and change is no longer enough to get us to appreciate how truly extraordinary women's history has been during the last 150 years.


(1.) A History of Women in the West: Toward a Cultural Identity in the Twentieth Century, ed. Francoise Thebaud (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). See my review of this volume in the Journal of Women's History, 7:2 (Summer 1995), 145-151.
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Author:Offen, Karen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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