Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Bonnie G. Smith's "Women in World History"

Bonnie G. Smith is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. She has written widely on women and gender history and her most recent publications include The Making of the West (2013), Women's Studies: The Basics (2013) and The Gender of History (2012).

Smith applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Women in World History: 1450 to the Present, and reported the following:
Page 99 works fairly well for Women in World History. That page features conquests by the Spanish and Portuguese in the so-called new world of the 16th century, especially noting the attacks on local people’s beliefs in gender complementarity. A “religious police state” of priestly and scriptural domination replaced somewhat more balanced gender interactions. The book as a whole weaves patterns of gender hierarchy and gender complementarity throughout. Women’s inventive responses to the domination are alluded to on page 99 and these interventions thread their detailed way through the book. Women across the globe devised, invented, poeticized, schemed, and, yes, assassinated.

Also on page 99, the Manchu conquerors of China (1644) slash away at the Ming regime’s political and social order. There’s lots of bloodshed and violence, a good deal of it inflicted on women—again a revisionist theme of the book. Women don’t sit peacefully at home rocking the cradle in wartime. The massive bloodshed in history includes female as well as male blood.

The workings of culture—foreign and domestic—is another thread in the book. Conquest, as with the Iberians, focuses on physical mastery but also needs to impose cultural mastery. Page 100 finishes the story by describing the ways in which the Manchus worked to change Chinese culture. Page 100 rounds out page 99 by showing how drastically the Manchus, like conquerors down to the present, did impose their way of life on women as well as men. Following James Patterson’s dictum, I’ll leave readers in suspense as to what and how they did it.

How does page 99 differ from the rest of the book? It presents no individual women’s voices, their works of fiction and the arts, their own exercise of power at the top of the political heap, their exuberance, fortitude, and despair as humans. These infuse the book’s journey through women’s global past. To date, scholars and journalists write history as forged from an array of men’s deeds and thoughts—all taken as uniquely fascinating. Page 99 is only a sliver of Women in World History’s competing vision: a rich, complicated, surprising, and diverse narrative of women’s pasts across the globe.
Learn more about Women in World History at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue