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The Fortitude of Our Foremothers : A HISTORY OF THEIR OWN by Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser (Harper & Row: $25; 640 pp.)

May 01, 1988|Anne K. Mellor | Mellor teaches English and women's studies at UCLA and has just completed a book on Mary Shelley

Do European women have history of their own? In what ways have their lives changed over the last 2,500 years? In this first half of a two-volume survey of European women since 500 BC, Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser argue compellingly that throughout the recorded history of Europe, women's lives have been shaped more by their gender than by any other factor, whether class, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. A European woman has been defined as a man's woman: Her class, status, and social roles have been determined by her father, brothers, husband, or sons. And her labor has been valued as inferior to that of a man. Since biblical times, women have consistently earned only one-half to two-thirds of what men earn.

After summarizing the, by now, familiar story of female subordination embodied in both classical and Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and practices, Anderson and Zinsser draw attention to alternative traditions that empower women: Beliefs in female deities, the Fates, Fortuna; fertility rituals celebrating Mother Earth; myths of female warriors, whether Amazons or the historical Boudicca; outstanding female rulers such as Cleopatra or Galla Placidia; early examples of wealthy and highly educated women such as Hyparchia and Hypatia; the Christian female martyrs.

Despite the existence of such exceptional women, Anderson and Zinsser argue that European women's history has been primarily shaped by place of residence, whether countryside or town, and by the status of their men-folk, whether peasant, merchant, or aristocrat. They therefore divide their account into four sections: women of the fields, women of the churches, women of the castles and manors, and women of the walled towns.

By far the most compelling story told in this book is of the lives of peasant women, then and now. With no significant changes between 1000 BC and AD 1950, peasant women in Europe have tilled the fields, gardened, provided the major portion of the family diet, woven all the family's clothes, borne, cared for and disciplined the children, gathered the medicinal herbs and presided over the healing of the sick and wounded, and sustained the ritual practices of marriage, childbirth, death, and daily worship. Rarely has the range, complexity, and arduousness of peasant women's lives over time been so richly recorded.

Women's roles in the church have changed more radically. At times of religious fervor, whether in the earliest years of Christianity, during the plague years of the 12th and 13th centuries, or at the heights of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, women achieved particular prominence as visionaries, prophets, martyrs, theologians, and even, in the case of Joan of Arc, military leaders. But as the church consolidated and institutionalized its control, especially during periods of economic or political instability, the domination of the male hierarchy increased. The theological and political independence of such powerful medieval abbesses as Hrotsvit of Gandersheim or Hildegard of Bingen, who worshiped a female god, was rendered impossible in later years by the cloistering and then the closing of the convents during the Reformation. The witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which more than 100,000 women were executed, further undermined female religious authority.

Noblewomen functioned, as Anderson and Zinsser detail, as both active participants and pawns in the political struggles and alliances of their families. But even the most powerful women, such as Elinor of Aquitaine and Marie de France, could survive only so long as they served the interests of their male relatives.

Interestingly, the most independent women were those who lived in the walled towns. As lower-class domestic servants or prostitutes, they were paid far higher wages than peasant women could earn; as middle-class guilds-women, they had access to profitable crafts work and selling rights at markets, especially in the textile trades; as upper-class wives of the leading merchants, they lived far more comfortable lives than the noblewomen of the castles and manors. But by the 16th Century, townswomen had been forced out of the most lucrative trades, which they formerly dominated, those of medicine and the decorative arts. Even widows with independent incomes who functioned as capitalist entrepreneurs did not set up mercantile dynasties in their own right, but rather willed their family businesses to their sons.

Anderson and Zinsser believe that the nadir of European women's lives came in the 19th Century, with the industrial revolution. Given the pervasive misogyny of Western culture before 1800, which finds its most positive image of woman in the long-suffering obedience of Patient Griselda, it is hard to see how women's lives could get markedly worse. Their second volume should prove as informative as the first.

We might have hoped that Anderson and Zinssesr would pay more attention to the differences that culture made in women's lives--Roman women were far more powerful than their Greek and Hebrew counterparts, for instance--as well as to the political causes of the changes that did occur in their lives (specific dynastic and religious wars, the growth of prostitution as a consequence of the development of the modern army). But this is a richly textured account of what women did in Europe before 1800, an account that leaves me overwhelmed with admiration for our foremothers' ability to survive with dignity in the face of natural disasters, wars, plagues, and personal denigration.

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