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Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe.

Merry E. Wiesner. (New Approaches to European History.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 13 pls. + xii + 264 pp. $14.95.

Merry E. Wiesner's contribution to the "New Approaches to European History" series is an informative and accessible introduction to the history of women and the construction of gender in the early modern period. Drawing on the recent scholarship of social historians and feminists, Wiesner presents to the undergraduate reader "an overview of what we have discovered about women's lives and the role of gender in early modern European society" (6). She begins with an introduction that surveys the development of women's history as a discipline over the past two decades. Her own account of the period 1500-1750 is then prefaced by an initial chapter detailing the predominantly male-constructed social, political, and intellectual institutions which provide the historical framework for her "investigation of the lives of actual women" (21). The central portion of her book organizes women's experience into three sections concerned, in turn, with the body, the mind, and the spirit (the tripartite self of the Western philosophical tradition). These sections are subdivided into chapters on the female life-cycle, women's economic role, literacy and learning, women and the creation of culture, religion, and witchcraft. Wiesner concludes with a chapter on gender and power in which she addresses the relative absence of a formal political role for early modern women, and explores the relation between the categories masculinity/femininity and the socio-political order.

Unifying Wiesner's book is a repeated concern for the systematic gendering of public versus private life within patriarchal ideology. While this is neither a new distinction nor a novel approach, Wiesner employs it tO advantage. Detailing the implications of the consistent definition of the female's participation in culture as domestic, unskilled, amateur, and, therefore, secondary, she registers the evidence of an oppressive gender hierarchy. At the same time, she records the many exceptional women who acquired varying degrees of authority as artists, businesswomen, humanists, patrons, scientists, and religious polemicists. Her account resists final closure, concluding with a series of questions about the complex relation between the period's prescriptive gender identities and the actions of individual women and men.

The usefulness of Wiesner's textbook derives from several features First, the scope of the work is admirably inclusive, ranging from discussions of menstruation (44-46) and female homosexuality (53-56) to the feminine art of embroidery (148-50). This expansiveness is restricted only by the current state of scholarship: thus, the references to Eastern European women of the period or the personal experiences of working-class women are inevitably limited in number. Second, Wiesner's discussion is intelligently informed by recent developments in feminist theory and historical scholarship. The result is a persistent awareness in the text of the problems of recovering women's history and a self-conscious concern for methodology. Third, she achieves in her discussion an effective balance between the necessity of informing her reader of the privileged male discourses (medical, religious, legal, political) and her more distinct project of recovering the often marginalized voices and cultural contributions of early modern women.

In terms of the text's practical advantages, Wiesner's style is accessible without sacrificing her theoretical sophistication. Combined with the clarity of her prose, her tendency to provide twentieth-century analogies to her historical material represents an effective pedagogical response to her intended audience. Extensive bibliographies follow each chapter, and a competent index concludes the work. The only thing that detracts from this excellent text is the repeated occurrence of editorial oversights -- especially regrettable in an undergraduate text.

Overall, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe recommends itself as an undergraduate classroom or reference text, potentially useful across a number of disciplines.
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Author:Metcalfe, Jean LeDrew
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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