Review: A History of Their Own, by Anderson & Zinsser

In A History of Their Own Volume I, authors Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser serve up a richly detailed history of the lives of women in Europe, from the ninth to seventeenth centuries.  Traditional history texts structure the narrative around events central to the development and accomplishments of men (the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, etc.)  In their research, Anderson and Zinsser discovered that women were affected by very different forces, and organize their narrative accordingly.  Then they set out to explain:

Why had laws, economic systems, religion, and politics excluded European women from the most valued areas and activities of life? How had cultural attitudes evolved which defined women as innately inferior and placed them in a subordinate relationship to men? (p. xiv)

Volume I provides an in-depth analysis of women in several walks of life:  women of the fields, churches, castles and manors, and walled towns.  In each case, the authors show how over the centuries women gained power, and were subsequently subordinated to men.  Sometimes this occurred as the side effect of some technological advancement that changed the role of women.  In other cases their loss of power was the result of deeply held beliefs regarding woman’s physical inferiority.  In all cases, gender was the single greatest factor affecting the lives of women.

Anderson and Zinsser present a compelling thesis, meticulously researched.  At times I felt there was almost too much detail, with so many facts and examples that I wanted to say, “all right already!  I get it!”  And with so many stories of oppression, this book can be rather depressing.  And yet it’s important for women to understand their history, and this is a very good way to learn it.


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