Long Story Short: This book is a good primer for someone who has never encountered the kinds of writings about how women were unfit for public life, but it lacks context and it does not stretch far enough into the present day.
Why I Chose This Book: I was browsing the Prometheus catalog (a good source for books about skepticism) and the cover art caught my eye. I’ve encountered a lot of people online who really have no idea just how formally and officially prejudice against women has been constructed in academic and cultural spheres or for how long, and thought it would fit in well with the purpose of this blog.
The Book’s Strengths: This book is all primary sources. The editor has collected essays about the place and purpose of women from basically American and British sources, across a good stretch of decades, from men and women authors, and presents a pretty thorough picture of how ideas about women’s supposed limitations informed public opinions and policies. People like to think they know how badly women have been maligned, and these selections are most likely worse than the average reader suspects. It definitely sets the stage for what feminists have been so angry about and have been fighting about, and taken as a group it can shed light on how such arbitrary and ideological notions about Why Women X can seem so much like nature and logical consequences.
The Book’s Weaknesses: That the book is all primary sources, save a paragraph’s worth of introduction before each selection, is a problem, I think. Anyone who’s had even a basic exposure to the historical feminist movement (particularly in the 19th Century) already knows all the main arguments, and would find this book repetitious, but also already knows the historical movements against which these arguments were put forth. These people can fill in the details, somewhat, but the book would very much have benefited from an editor’s or author’s viewpoint about the significance of each author. For example, I remember reading about how Emerson and Thoreau so pointedly created a movement of “self-reliance” that excluded women, and how women like Margaret Fuller (and other advocates of women’s rights) wrote in response to such schools of thought to claim the rights of women to occupy those philosophical spaces and to defend the women who were unable to, because they were too busy taking care of the self-reliant men’s households and menus–not because they were feeble-minded or too fragile to face society. (Thoreau, at Walden, was visited frequently by his mother and sisters, who helped him clean his house and brought his food, and took care of his domestic needs afterwards which gave him time to write all those wonderful things.) I don’t mean to get into this whole thing about it, but discussions about women’s roles were very specific according to easily traceable historical movements, and the arguments on both sides make so much more sense when you have a feel for what people are afraid of and what they are worried about losing when they work so hard to define gender roles.
Without this context, the book becomes quickly tedious and repetitious. Plus, there’s no way really to judge for yourself–as a person, perhaps, with no other exposure to feminist history than this book–if a given essay was written by a crackpot or was completely in line with contemporary thought. Had you approached this book as your introduction to the whole feminism thing, and were reading it skeptically, there’s little to convince you (short of the editor’s introduction saying so) that history wasn’t mined for the most egregious examples and that these weren’t all just crackpot authors that no one even at the time took seriously. It’s too easy to write off if you are of a mind to just dismiss the complaints of feminists. I personally have read enough before opening this book to be able to judge it, and I know the editor isn’t doing that, but if you are just going on the editor’s word and my assurances, well… it’s not a very strong case on its own.
The biggest weakness, however–and this one really baffles me, and it’s a pretty huge deal–is the lack of any writings after 1979. 1979! The book was published in 2006. 2006! A quarter of a century of arguments about a woman’s place is omitted and I have no idea why. I honestly cannot imagine what purpose it serves to stop in 1979. Because, you know, feminism didn’t solve all those problems in 1980. There were two complete decades of popular media and scientists continuing to justify the subjugation of women in all kinds of official sounding ways. I mean, Phyllis Schlafly and Susan Faludi are just two names that jump immediately into my head (and they were prolific), and there was Dr. Laura and Hillary Clinton and all that in the 1990s. I appreciate that you have to set your endpoint somewhere or else your book will never get done, and you do need a certain amount of time to pass before you can fully assess a piece of writing for its historical or social significance, but this just seems lazy. Or else deliberately misleading (but that’s veering off into conspiracyville, I know). Or else I don’t know what, but if there was some kind of publisher’s page limit driving this decision there was plenty in the book that could have been cut to make room.
Glaring oversight is glaring. Because Poof All Your Troubles Are Over in This Modern Age hasn’t happened yet. Scientists and politicians and personalities are still spewing crap about what’s appropriate for women to do and why.
What Should Have Happened: The book should have extended the historical period under examination as far into the present day as possible, and I think the editor should have maybe been an author, and presented heavily excerpted primary sources amidst a background of analysis and information.
Short Story Shorter: Skip it. I’ve never read this book I am linking to on the history of feminism that was the first to come up in a search on Amazon–Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings by Miriam Schneir–but I can guarantee you that you’ll learn more about the subject from it than from this one. Although the cover art isn’t nearly as good.