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Year : 2009  |  Volume : 7  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 199-208
The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Women In World History - Editor-in-Chief Bonnie G. Smith

MD, Editor, MSM, India

Date of Submission10-Dec-2008
Date of Decision28-Dec-2008
Date of Acceptance29-Dec-2008
Date of Web Publication9-Jul-2009

Correspondence Address:
Ajai R Singh
14, Shiva Kripa, Trimurty Road, Nahur, Mulund [W], Mumbai, 400 080
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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© Oxford University Press, New York. Hardcover; Four volumes; English; 2,752pp; 650 line illus; 8-1/2 x 11; 11.9 x 9.5 x 7.4 inches.

ISBN-13: 9780195148909; ISBN10: 0-19-514890-8. £250.00. $595.00.

INR 41,769. First Published 1 March 2008.

   Introduction Top

This four-volume, hard-bound, elegant-looking, rather expensive set is a comprehensive record of women's history from prehistoric times to the modern day. It summarises and synthesises the social, political, and historical movements that shaped and affected women through the centuries. It does this in the form of entries in history and geography, culture and society, biographies and gender studies, and movements and organisations.

There are nearly 1250 entries and subentries, more than 600 articles along with 650 biographies by 900 scholars (only a sprinkling of them being men, making it a predominantly female bastion of scholarship), representing 50 countries from all over the globe, with more than 1.6 million words and 450 illustrations. An editorial board of scholars in women's and world history, with more than a dozen editors at Oxford University Press, worked to bring into fruition an idea that emerged with the start of the new millennium, in 2000-to survey the history of women in the world-not one country, not one culture, the whole world. That itself speaks for the breadth and sweep of the scholarship that has gone into this mammoth work.

   Some Salient Features Top

Acknowledging in the Introduction [Vol 1, pxix-xxiv] that they stood on the shoulder of giants [Vol 1, pxx] like the Chinese Wanyan Yun Zhu ( Precious Records from the Maiden's Chambers , 1831), the American Lydia Maria Child ( History of the Condition of Women , 1835), the continental Christine de Pizan ( Book of the City of Ladies , 1405), and even some male authors like the French historian of the French Revolution, Jules Michelet ( Femmes de la Revolution , 1854), the work attempts to join women's and world history by looking at an array of viewpoints and perspectives. While world history looks at individual civilisations and cultures, and also charts connections among peoples, the present work has "merged these categories with those important to woman's history" [Vol 1, pxxi] and thus retains a focus true to its title through geographic coverage of topics, comparative coverage and world coverage [Vol 1, pxxii].

Each entry is arranged in alphabetical order, with composite entries gathering together discussions on similar and related topics under one headword. Each article has an attached bibliography and cross entries as end references for further reading.

The last volume [Vol 4] contains a useful 16-page topical outline of entries [Vol 4, p469-484], which shows the breathtaking expanse and reach of this work; an impressive 34-page directory of contributors [Vol 4, p485-518], which so thoughtfully lists their names and the entries they contributed to these volumes; and a painstakingly compiled 174-page comprehensive index-almost a book by itself [Vol 4, p519-692].

The first volume has an extensive [more than 100 pages] chronology [p xxviii-cxxxvii], which lists important events in history as they occurred in various areas-global; sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa and the Middle East; Europe; Central and South Asia; South East Asia; East Asia; Australia, New Zealand, Oceania, and the Polar Regions; the United States and Canada; and Latin America and the Caribbean. I found this a fascinating survey as the salient events all over the world unfolded in the different eras of history in different regions of the world. For a student of comparative history, it can be a exciting journey to undertake-how different were the types of events taking place at the same time in different areas. Even after a brief survey of the columns, one finds a dearth of entries under headings like sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia, signifying that while events of significance were happening at various other places, women in these areas remained immune to major changes.

For me, as an Indian but without academic credentials in history, it was a refreshing survey to undertake, as, chronicled in these pages, I went through a number of events of significance in Indian history and the role of women therein. The same should be applicable for readers of other nationalities as they catch a glimpse of their own histories. I would strongly recommend a serious reader to peruse these 100 pages, which make for pretty easy reading, to get a bird's eye view of world history as related to women.

   Some Entries of Interest Top

Some of the entries that I found especially interesting are (I list them alphabetically):

  1. Vol I [A-C] - Abortion; Art and Architecture [Erotica and Pornography]; Lucille Ball; Simone de Beauvoir; Annie Besant; Bhakti Movement; Charlotte Bronte; Buddhism; Christianity; Cosmetic Surgery; Co-wives; Marie Curie
  2. Vol 2 [D-J] - Dance; Anita Desai; Divorce; Dorothea Dix; Domestic Violence; Dowry; Education; Eroticism; Eunuchs; Family; Feminism; Indira Gandhi; Healing and Medicine; Health; Hinduism; Humanities; International Women's Day and Year; India; Islam
  3. Vol 3 [K-S] -- Laxmibai [Rani of Jhansi]; Maitreyi; Male Chauvinism; Marie-Antionette; Marriage Brokers; Margaret Mead; Matriarchy; Mirabai; Marilyn Monroe; Mother Theresa; Music; Patriarchy; Pornography; Prostitution; Ramayana; Rape; Sati; Sexuality; Sciences; Scientific Revolution
  4. Vol 4 [S-Z] -- Sexual harassment; Sexuality; Single Women; Sita; Social Feminism; Spiritualism; M.S. Subbulakshmi; Suicide; Margaret Thatcher; Transgender/transsexual; United Nations decade for women; Violence; Virginity; Widows and Widowhood; Widow Suicide; Women's Liberation; World Religions; YWCA

I propose to peruse these entries over a period of time. The biographies are especially interesting, most of them unsanitized. And thank God for that. I will come to some of them in the next section.

What the reader must have immediately realised from this brief survey of topics is the vast panorama of entries this encyclopedia contains. And remember I have only touched areas of my interest. There are so many more to cater to varied tastes.

   Some Interesting Biographical and Other Details Top

I will take you through a brief account of some biographies (and a few other entries) I perused. Apart from the profound insight about a person, which is why she features in an encyclopedia anyway, a biographer must not forget to include details of personal life, details which make the person palpably human.

Here are some such I enjoyed perusing. They are roughly listed alphabetically; and pardon the heavy leaning toward Indian women!

Aruna Asaf Ali, the Indian freedom fighter, was a 21-year-old Bengali Hindu when she married a Muslim barrister twice her age, after her father's death-since he was opposed to the match [Vol I, p96-97]. She regarded Indian Independence of 1947 a sham, left the Congress to work with different leftist groups and ultimately won a Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour in India.

Begum Akhtar, or Akhtari Begum, the noted ghazal singer of yester years, married a wealthy barrister who restrained his wife from singing in public, since it was socially frowned upon in those days; upon which she fell ill, and restarted public performances as a method of cure [Vol I, p93-94]. She was as famous for her public performances as her glittering diamond nose-ring.

A woman saint (revered by the Veerashaivites of India), Akka Mahadevi, thought of her body as an instrument through which she expressed her love for the object of her devotion. And she left her husband when he violated a rule she had set before their marriage-he made love to her against her will. After which she wandered around naked, with the logic, "if one is not safe within the home, what is there to fear from the world outside, whether or not one is clothed?" [Vol I, p94-95].

While abortion was prohibited in Hinduism as it prevented a soul from being reborn into the body of an infant, many Hindu authorities did not consider abortion as serious a sin as their Christian counterparts. In fact "Ayurvedic medical texts … contain detailed directions for surgically terminating pregnancies in order to protect the health of the mother…" [Vol I, p 12].

Ammaiyar Karaikal, one of the earliest Tamil Nayanmar (devotee of Lord Shiva), had to suffer the curious fate of her husband running away from her when he got convinced she was a goddess (because she performed some miracle), preferring to marry the daughter of a local merchant in the kingdom of Pandya [Vol I, p102]. A genuine problem there-how does one cohabit with a goddess! That some time later he returned and asked for forgiveness is another matter. The smart guy-making the best of both worlds!

Annie Besant's unhappiness in marriage to an evangelical minister and reaction to motherhood made her question the divinity of Christ, upon which she was asked to either seek Holy Communion or leave her home. She preferred the latter [Vol I, p217-218] and left home with one of her daughters. She was the first lady to publicly endorse contraception. She was tried for "obscene publication" as she published a pamphlet on birth control authored by Charles Knowlton ( The Fruits of Philosophy , 1877); and she also had to lose custody of her daughter for publishing another work, this time her own ( The Law of Population , 1878). One feisty lady. She ultimately gave up her social and political activism, having come in contact with the Theosophical Society, and got seriously drawn to Hindu beliefs and culture. She also published a translation of the Bhagavad Gita . Again drawn to politics, she agitated for India's independence, and became the first woman president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. Her close relationships with Charles Bradlaugh earlier and George Bernard Shaw later, as also a brief relationship with the socialists Herbert Burrows and Edward Aveling needed a mention. Her role in arranging for grooming the child J. Krishnamurti as a future vehicle for a "world teacher," "Future Buddha," or "incarnate vessel of Christ" with the Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater, who first identified him thus, is an omission worthy of repair.

Simone de Beauvoir (p209-210), the lifelong companion of Jean-Paul Sartre (the two never married, or had children), declared herself an atheist early in life, and was determined to become a philosopher, much against her bourgeois parents' wish. A reluctant feminist, if ever there was one, she was the first writer to systematically distinguish between sex and gender, thinking of the latter as a cultural construction, in her celebrated book The Second Sex , famous for the dictum, "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

The remarkably brief biography of the charismatic Indira Gandhi, who features on the cover but is not done full justice to in the biography (Vol 2, p345). She had a troubled marriage with Feroze Gandhi, and faced allegations of affairs with men, probably fuelled by those johnnies to prop their political ambitions. Prime Minister of India for four terms, but denying that her role as PM had anything to do with being a woman; called the "only man in a cabinet of old women"; projected as a role model by the women's movement in the West, but a supporter of motherly nurturing roles for a woman, and therefore hardly a feminist in the strict sense of the term, finally assassinated by her own guards. This biography does scant justice to this charismatic leader, and needs to be revised, adding at least a couple of paragraphs.

Margaret Mead [Vol 3, p202], described as 20th century's most important woman scientist, one of its most important women and "mother to the world," had extraordinary productivity, observational skills and intelligence; she made the best of "her collaborative professional partnerships with two of her three husbands" [p202]; and astutely chose anthropology as her field when it was getting founded as a professional discipline; and its field work methodology required female scientists, as most traditional societies were wary of allowing male scientists as "participant observers" into women's day-to-day activities.

Kate Millet [Vol 3, p240-241], who wrote Sexual Politics (1970) often considered by many a feminist manifesto, divorced her Japanese sculptor husband and came out a lesbian. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to be committed to a series of mental institutions, emerging from them with the help of lawyers and writing her work The Loony Bin (1990), finally deciding to discontinue medication because of what she considered long-term undesirable effects.

Mirabai's [Vol 3, p241] principled struggle to refuse consummation of her marital relationship, since she considered she was "wedded" to Lord Krishna; she was for Mahatma Gandhi an example of the foremost satyagrahi in Indian History.

Marilyn Monroe [Vol 3, p271] was the one who made "the dumb blonde" image a success, and was also an early example of the magnetic attraction Hollywood babes/aspirants have for baseball/soccer players; her short marriages, starting from one at age 16 and culminating in the one with playwright Arthur Miller dubbed as "The Egghead and the Hourglass." Starting with a troubled childhood spent away from a mentally unstable mother in orphanage and foster homes, and a tempestuous youth with brief marriages, finally ending a stormy life with an overdose at age 36.

Few national academies of sciences elected women until before the end of World War II [Vol 3, p660]. And do we not know that even the prestigious Royal Society of London did not elect a woman till 1945, and the celebrated Academie des Sciences in France "never elected its most famous female scientist, Marie Curie, to membership and waited till 1962 to elect its first female fellow [ibid]?

Gloria Steinem [Vol 4, p156-157], the fiery feminist who was an undercover Playboy bunny and went on to establish Ms in 1971-the first progressive commercial magazine for women, and by a completely woman-run organization-was feisty enough to associate with lesbian feminist Kate Millet oblivious of the veiled barbs of critics, and finally surprised everyone by marrying at the age of 66.

The combative Margaret Thatcher [Vol 4, p226-227], the first woman British PM, who held her post for a decade, despised unionists, socialists, and feminists (and the biographer's discomfiture while writing her biography is obvious). She switched careers from chemist to lawyer to politician mainly due to the support of her husband, Denis Thatcher, a man of some means who stood rock solid behind her despite the nasty barbs of critics and cartoonists around. A comparative study of the three contemporary head strong lady PMs-Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir-would have been a fascinating addition.

Mother Teresa [Vol 3, p278-279] was probably most influenced by her mother who emphasized charitable giving and service despite the financial difficulties that befell the family after her father's untimely death, perhaps due to poisoning by his political opponents. The train ride on 10 September 1946, which is called "Inspiration Day" by the Missionaries of Charity, is fittingly chronicled. The simplicity and austerity of her personal life and those of her co-workers was as remarkable as was her association with officials of corrupt and tyrannical governments, and her opposition to abortion.

I loved the human touch in all these biographies. Saints. Sinners. Achievers. Fighters. But human.

   Scope for Improvement Top

Now for some possible improvements:

  1. Barring a few, living women's biographies have been omitted for no plausible reason. Why should history deal only with the dead? The living are making history, and deserve mention too.
  2. The editor acknowledges that the biographies included are selective rather than exhaustive, giving weightage to geographical areas and sampling throughout history. This representative sampling can be corrected with due weightage to important women's biographies irrespective of geographic/historical boundaries. Of course, pragmatic considerations may weigh with editors to be more representative, and publishers with an eye for the market will nod in approval. The number of entries of women from India is impressive, and gratifying for an Indian. However, how much it means in the global context is a question mark. But it does satisfy regional interests and, to that extent, increases appeal across geographic boundaries. And what I speak about India would be equally applicable to other nationalities. How to balance geographic appeal with global significance is a task for the next edition, and a formidable task at that.
  3. In the otherwise eminently readable entry on Science [Vol 3, p657-664] and Scientific Revolution (Vol 665-666), there is mention of female scientists and professionalism, as also of females in Economics, Sociology, Ethnology and Anthropology, Psychology, etc., but there is no mention of women in the medical sciences. The next edition could incorporate this, for do we not know that women form a sizeable force in medicine and paramedical professions.
  4. Medicine as an entry is a surprising omission; but then I realized that it has been clubbed as "Healing and Medicine" in Vol 2, p430-440. A separate entry at Medicine, or one redirecting to Healing and Medicine would be in order in the next edition.
  5. Similarly, an entry on Kasturba Gandhi, the wife of Mahatma Gandhi, who agreed with many of his ideas but held her own at times, would be a welcome addition.
  6. The biography of M.S. Subbulakshmi [Vol 4, p166-167] is a sanitized version. It would help if it was mentioned what coming from the devadasi tradition involved, as also the fact that she moved into the house of her would-be husband and mentor T. Sadashivam when his wife was alive, in 1936, and married him only in 1940, after her death in 1939, probably from depression and bitterness. And while she was cohabiting with him, she fell in love with a well-known musician of that time, G.N. Balasubramaniam, while both acted in Shakuntala, and she wrote a number of love letters to him. Which is not to detract from the greatness she achieved in music later, and her many charming qualities, and the great support her husband offered all through her illustrious musical career, and her life. Which is also not to offer titillation, but to place facts as they are, and prevent deification.
  7. While the write up on Ramayana [Vol 3, p568-570] is interesting and welcome, the omission of a parallel text Mahabharata is shocking. Mention in passing under Hinduism [Vol 2, p455] and Literature: Fiction and Poetry [Vol 3, p118] is not adequate at all. The characters of Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, even Satyavati and Madri, need elaboration. The next edition must take care of this.
  8. There is no write up on orgasm. The entry at Vol 3, p393 says "See Sexuality," and at the entry "Sexuality" [Vol 4, p6-26], there is hardly any mention of orgasm, let alone treatment in any detail. In fact, the Index does not have even an entry there. An omission to be urgently repaired, in the book as much as in most women's lives.
  9. The illustrations are all black and white. Some in colour would have added to the aesthetics and appeal. I know it increases costs in an already expensive set, but maybe the next edition can do it with profits made here.
  10. The language at times tends to be opaque, which is but understandable with the numerous authors writing in. But some editing in that direction would be advisable in the next edition.
  11. Some entries would do with better editing too. For example, the entry "Humanities" contains fascinating material, but it is mainly related to gender. Maybe the entry should have been "Gender in the Humanities" [Vol 2, p502-506].
  12. The entry on India [Vol 2, p548-558] is well written, but the political leanings of the writer seem to influence her scholarship. She sweeps away the viewpoints of right wing political parties by saying they may not be secular or progressive or in women's best interest, but they command a large following and are socially and politically vocal on women's issues [p552]. It may have helped if she had mentioned what is it they have to say rather than brushing aside their opinion. Similarly, statements on issues of women's health and promoting safe motherhood like "government policies are in direct conflict with women's interests; for example, on the issue of reproductive choice and rights versus forcible contraception and new reproductive technologies" (p555-556). And the topic just ends there, leaving the reader gasping for meaning. What has the Indian government not done on the issue of reproductive choice, how does it support forcible contraception [?], and whether it supports or rejects new reproductive technologies should have been elaborated. The next edition can look into these and other such anomalies.

   In Closing Top

All this is not to detract from the merit of the writings, and the total work itself. It is a vast body of global scholarship made available to discerning readers and researchers all over the world. It has largely succeeded in its mission to chronicle women's history down the ages. Being a reference book of a high standard, it will have an enduring effect in the field of women's history in particular, and the field of women's studies in general. Large libraries with a serious readership can hardly avoid stocking this work, if they can afford the cost. And they should, at least for works of this excellence.

   Rating Top

If I have to rate it, it's four and a half star [see note below]. I hold back half a star just because at places the feminist activism seems to prevail over the scholarship. The next edition will hopefully remedy this.

   The Editor Top

Bonnie G. Smith, PhD, is Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey. She is the author of many books and articles on history dealing with women, Europe and the world, including The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Paperback, 2000) ; Global Feminism Since1947: A Survey of Issues and Controversies (PB 2000); Gendering Disability ; The Medieval and Early Modern World; Ladies of the Leisure Class:The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (PB 1981); Confessions of a Concierge (1985); Changing Lives: Women in European History since 1700 (PB, 1988); Europe in the Contemporary World, 1900 to the Present (2007); Women's History in Global Perspective, Volume 1, 2, and 3 (University Of Illinois Press, PB 2005); (co-editor with Nicholas Adams) History and the Texture of Modern Life : Selected Essays (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); (editor) Global Feminisms Since

1945 (Routledge, 2000); Imperialism: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press, 2000); (co-author with Lynn Hunt, Thomas R Martin, and Barbara H. Rosenwein) The Making of the West: A Concise History (Bedford St. Martin's, 2002).


Rating: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** V. Good; ***** Excellent


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