Georges Duby & Michelle Perrot:
"A History of Women in the West" (1991)

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
"A History of Women in the West" collects chronological essays that aim at depicting the lives and roles of women from ancient times to modern times. A History of Women is sorely lacking among the books of the world, and this one is as close as historians ever got to writing one. Unfortunately it is hardly satisfactory.

Like all books that collect essays from different authors, it suffers from a lack of homogeneity. This looks more like a French "encyclopedia" (made of loosely related essays) than a "history".

The style is frequently vague and tortuous, particularly in the first volume, a fact that makes it very difficult to derive much information for the many pages of a chapter. For example, at the end of the chapter on Greece one does not quite know what Plato and Aristotle said of women. At the end of the chapter on Roman law it one hardly feels familiar with Roman law about women. The authors ramble on and on, piling up details without a clear logic and thus making it difficult to notice, organize and remember the essential facts.

Being a French work, the influence of French philosophy (structuralism, post-modernism and the likes) is strong, and may be annoying for non-French scholars, used to more scientific and less vague language. Be prepared for sentences such as "Women do not exist... what does exist is systems of representations" (in the chapter "The Feudal Order", but there are literally hundreds of sentences like this one).

However, the main problem with the five volumes is their credibility.

First of all, it is maddeningly annoying that it focuses mostly on France, which was certainly an influential country for the last ten centuries, but hardly the only one. The authors (mostly French, presumably) take for granted that the rest of Europe simply mirrored France. (It is also quite annoying that the published has omitted "In the West" and left only "A History of Women" on the cover). Thus at just about every page one has to wonder if their statements apply beyond the borders of France.

The narrow scope of each chapter is, of course, a recipe for seeing the tree and not the forest. Chapter after chapter, statements are made that probably would not be made if the author (clearly a specialist) had a broader view of society.

The authors seem to make a point of providing precious little data to support very strong statements that recur on almost every page. Sometimes the statements border on the grotesque because they specify neither the place nor the time. E.g., the chapter on "Women, work and family" in the Renaissance volume states that "80% of country girls left their parents' home by the age of 12". Where? When? That statement is meaningless if one does not specify to which region or country it applies, and to which year, decade or century it applies. Was it 80% in every single year of the 17th century in every single region of Europe? In the chapter on "Single Women" the author states that "75% of USA female college graduates between 1870 and 1900 did not marry". Does that mean that they remained spinsters for the rest of their lives? Or that they did not marry while in college? Or that they did not marry until their 30s?

There might also be funny mistakes (the chapter "The Body, Appearance and Sexuality" seems to imply that Morpurgo wrote a book on "El Costume de la Donne", which in fact is spelled "El Costume delle Donne" and is anonymous, Salomone Morpurgo being merely the name a 19th century Italian librarian who owned that book).

A useful book, but it requires some patience. A History of Women (and, please, not only Western women and not only French women) has not been written yet.