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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Women's History

The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner (Oxford University Press) (Paperback) A major historical assessment of by a leading historian and pioneer in Women's Studies, The Creation of Patriarchy is a radical reconceptualization of the history of Western civilization that makes gender central to its analysis. The author argues that male dominance over women is the product of historical development and is not "natural" or biological and hence unchangeable. Therefore patriarchy as a system of organizing society can be ended by historical process.

Lerner focuses on the contradiction between women's central role in creating society and their marginality in the meaning-giving process of interpretation and explanation. This fascinating paradox leads her to an exploration of nearly 2,600 years of human history and into the cultures of the ancient Near East, notably the Mesopotamian and ancient Hebrew societies, from whence the major gender metaphors of Western civilization are largely derived. Using historical, literary, archeological, and artistic evidence, Lerner traces the development of the leading ideas, symbols and metaphors by which patriarchal gender relations were incorporated into Western civilization.

The book abounds with brilliant--and controversial--insights. Lerner propounds a startling new theory of class, showing the different ways in which class is structured for and experienced by men and women. She locates the origins of slavery in the earlier practice of "exchanging women" in marriage among tribes and shows that women of conquered tribes were the first slaves. In addition, the book contends that the exclusion of women from the role of mediator with the Divine--the dethroning of the fertility goddess and priestesses and the conceptualizing of men and women as essentially different creatures in Greek philosophy--represented the decisive turning points in the way gender is symbolized in Western civilization.

The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy by Gerda Lerner (Oxford University Press)  Is the second volume in her work is a densely researched, accessible and engrossing conclusion to Lerner's two-volume study Women in History. In The Creation of the Patriarchy (1986), she traced the slippery progress of women in ancient Near Eastern societies into a subordinate position but the Sisyphean journey back is no less painful. Analyzing European, American and African American history, Lerner begins with the ways in which women sought "self-authorization": as mystics, speaking with the voice of God; as mothers, educators and nurturers of future generations, or as creators. Lerner then moves on to show how self-authorization combined with education and female networks helped foster feminist consciousness. This is no linear tale, however. As Lerner notes, men's contributions became the common heritage while "women's creations sank soundlessly into the sea, leaving barely a ripple, and succeeding generations of women were left to cover the same ground others had already covered before them." Lerner, Robinson-Edwards professor of history emerita at the University of Wisconsin, helped pioneer the study of women and history and remains preeminent in the field.

The Creation of Patriarchy, the first book in her two-volume magnum opus Women and History (1986) received wide review attention and much acclaim, winning the prestigious Joan Kelly Prize of the American Historical Association for the best work on Women's History that year. Ms hailed the book for providing "a grand historical framework that was impossible even to imagine before the enlightenment about women's place in the world provided by her earlier work and that of other feminist scholars." New Directions for Women said it "may well be the most important work in feminist theory to appear in our generation."

Patriarchy traced the development of the ideas, symbols, and metaphors by which men institutionalized their domination of women. Now, in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, the eagerly awaited concluding volume of Women and History, Lerner documents the twelve-hundred-year struggle of women to free their minds from patriarchal thought, to create Women's History, and to achieve a feminist consciousness. In a richly documented narrative filled with inspiring portraits of women, Lerner ranges from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, tracing several important ways by which women strove for autonomy and equality. One of the most remarkable sections examines over twelve hundred years of feminist Bible criticism. Since objections to women's thinking, teaching, and speaking in public were based on biblical authority--most notably, passages from Genesis and the writings of St. Paul--women returned again and again to these texts, in an attempt to subvert patriarchal dominance and establish their equality with men. This survey of biblical criticism allows Lerner to illustrate her most important insight--the discontinuity of women's history. She describes how women's history was not passed on from generation to generation, forcing women in effect to reinvent the wheel over and over again. In a series of fascinating portraits of individual women who resisted patriarchal indoctrination, Lerner discusses women mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and later Protestant mystics, and brings to life the many women of great literary talent, from Christine de Pisan to Louise Labe to Emily Dickinson, who simply bypassed patriarchal thought and created alternate worlds for themselves.

Documenting the 1,200 year struggle of women to free their minds from patriarchal thought, create a women's history, and achieve a feminist consciousness, this brilliant work charts new ground for feminist theory, the history of ideas, and the development of women's place in our intellectual tradition. 

Boundaries of Her Body: A Troubling History of Women's Rights in America by Debran Rowland (Sphinx Publishing Inc) amazing and comprehensive in outlook, it describes the evolution and current status of women's legal rights in the U.S. It is a legal history, describing the major legal decisions that have generated and defined women's rights. The book describes these legal decisions in easy to understand language that does not oversimplify or condescend to the reader. It also puts these decisions in a social context, by discussing many of the societal events in which these legal decisions were made.

Probably single best authority from which to begin or continue the study of women's rights is The Boundaries of Her Body. Ms. Rowland fills each page with rich history, thought-provoking analogies, and the most original points of view ever printed in any women's studies work. There are more than one's share of end-note referencing, which eliminates the frustration of not knowing where a piece of information comes from. This masterpiece is both the beginning from which one can continue learning about the developments (or lack thereof) in women's rights in America, and the culmination of so many well-articulated works and facts tied together in a way not seen until now. You will be brought through the journey that women have made since coming to America, and you will be forced to ponder why even the latest developments in the law work against the burgeoning woman. Be prepared to grapple with the contradictions that adolescent females must face in an already confusing time in their life and the violence from which few women are protected in the name of the law. The theme, in the words of the author, is "A debate over what a woman is, what a woman ought to be, and what a woman should, therefore be allowed to do." Get absorbed in this debate as Ms. Rowland so passionately does.
Through detailed insight and the use of many actual court cases, The Boundaries of Her Body reveals the realities of the biology of a woman and how it has controlled her legal rights.

Reproductive and abortion rights, privacy issues, medical advances and bodily integrity are not the only topics that are tackled. Property ownership, domestic abuse, and employment discrimination are also addressed and dismantled with legislative evidence to help the reader understand her rights and how they have progressed (or regressed).

While women have come a long way and the strides they have made seem clear, Debran Rowland first explains a more obscure form of discrimination and analyzes the recent developments in reproductive law and the rights of women today. She makes those connections between the law and the societal position that women hold on a front that is the most prominent, and yet rarely discussed—the biological one.

Finally, Ms. Rowland draws political conclusions between the law she explains and the position of women. These political conclusions discuss the future steps women can take to strengthen their positions, as well as powerfully forecast lawmakers’ use of a woman’s biology against her by narrowing, broadening, dulling and sharpening the rights of women beyond the point of confusion. Overall, this important book is worth reading by anyone who cares human rights and the history of Women’s rights in America.

In this masterful treatise, legal journalist Rowland analyzes how women's rights have, and have not, evolved since the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 (though the bulk of the book covers just the 20th century). From time immemorial, women were perceived as having the singular mission of bearing and raising children, says Rowland, who documents the consequences of this view: until the late 19th century, women's rights derived from husbands, fathers and sons. It was believed that their biology made women incapable of thinking rationally—hence they could not own property, vote or work as many hours or for as much pay as men. Nor could they have sex not aimed at procreation without social and legal opprobrium. Rowland documents how a legal "zone of privacy" granted men as far back as the 1620s didn't accrue to women until 1965, when the Supreme Court legalized contraception. Drawing on legal and historical sources as well as the Bible, the journals of Meriwether Lewis and Lolita, Rowland`covers every imaginable aspect of women's legal lives, up to the present day. This massive and remarkable history is well written in smart yet accessible language and is thus the perfect book for the classroom as well as the family room. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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