Where to begin?
I'll first say I'm using the word history instead of herstory throughout this post, for two reasons: 1) because that is the word Estelle Freedman uses in the book I'm reviewing; and 2) because that is just the word, and history wasn't really derived from the words "his story." Fake etymologies bug me. (Yes, I understand the social importance inherent in the statement of herstory, but to use it over and over again as if it were a word instead of a statement sounds silly to me. So I'm sorry if I turned off any radical feminists out there, but I hope you'll read my review anyway because it was a really good book. And sorry I got stuck on this tangent, of course we can argue about herstory later. I'd like to hear your opinions.)
I'll start the actual review by saying this book is a great general resource to have on hand, whether you're just getting to know the intricacies of women's studies, or whether you're a seasoned scholar. Freedman's writing is clear, and easy to follow. There are no involved explanations of theory or feminist philosophy. Everything is pretty blunt, actually. There are feminist undertones, of course, but there is no sense of urgency or adamancy to make you feel uncomfortable with the subject matter. Her tone is authoritative, but her voice definitely gives away her profession (she is a professor at Stanford). She writes just as though she were giving an important lecture. Her style is informative, but not invasive. And even though I now believe this was meant to be used as a text book rather than...well, I don't really know what I expected...it was actually pleasant for me to read. I can honestly say I was not bored.
However: this book is not formatted in a chronological sequence of events. I assume this is because Freedman covers most of the globe in her work, and if she'd attempted to put everything in order, she would have wound up with way more than 397 pages (paperback), plus she'd really risk boring everyone. The book is instead divided into sections that are all cornerstones of feminist(s) philosophy -- even though, I'll reiterate, it doesn't expound on very much of the theories themselves. These are sections like: The Politics of Work and Family (including separate spheres, the rise of capitalism and industrialization, wage labor, and motherhood); The Politics of Health and Sexuality (including reproduction, gender and identity, and violence); and Feminist Visions and Strategies (including modern-day politics and the realm of creativity). There are notes of the politics here, but I feel the book is written so that even a woman who is uncomfortable referring to herself as a feminist could be interested. Freedman did a much better job making this work inclusive than say, Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks.
The one negative I'll discuss is the absence of personal histories. Because Freedman covers so much global history, I felt like she didn't have enough space for individual perspective, something I know is growing in importance for the U.S. movement. Much of the book was statement/fact (reminiscent of my gradeschool textbooks), although she did not often directly cite her sources. Similarly, the rare quotations were often only attributed to their speakers rather than their speakers and their contexts. In some instances endnotes or appendices were included, but every so often I would wonder where she got her info. Several times I found myself curious about where I could find more information on certain topics, wishing she'd disclosed her resources in a particular paragraph rather than at the end of the book. Sometimes the personal stories she did include were vague. I think if she'd focused on only U.S. history, she might have been able to go more in-depth. But of course, the very definition of feminism, not to mention its history, should include a global perspective, so I think her approach was the correct one to take; and Freedman did make it easy to see how progress in one country could affect the progress in another. I think the interdependence of the movement in different countries has made it hard to write such a comprehensive history. Ms. Freedman's is the only one of its kind I could find. I do applaud her for taking on such an in-depth project -- and for pulling through well enough to give us such an excellent resource of feminist history.
NEXT UP: The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening and The Struggle, by L. J. Smith. (I decided to go two at a time...I think it will be easier on all you anti-vamps out there. ;) )