Book Review: Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe by Merry E. Weisner

Merry E. Weisner presents a very interesting subject for any reader interested in the history of gender and women affairs in Europe, this is one subject that historians have not explored thoroughly, leaving it mainly to feminists and other women writers. The author captures the imagination of a reader with a succinct account of the plight of women in early modern European society and how it has influenced the perceptions of modern society towards not only women but also the relationship between both genders in general. The book gives a great summary of the history of women in Europe going back about three and a half centuries while at the same time generating a discussion based on the body, soul and mind of a woman.

Quite evidently the author seeks to define the modern woman and her role in society by drawing important lessons from history. She highlights the plight of women throughout the ages up to contemporary times by drawing from a considerable depth of feminist literature about women in Europe mainly between the years 1450 and 1800. This period of women history is then related to the contemporary situation of the female gender in terms of issues as far ranging as education, literature, science, war, family and art. This is historical analysis of a woman with an examination of men’s ideas and legislations with regard to women. In doing so she looks at the works of many writers including prominent philosophers like Aristotle and Galen and examines biblical scriptures very closely; the general conclusion she draws is that the writings of these people influenced later Christian thought profoundly. The author then turns to the ways that early modern thinkers used earlier themes, the Renaissance debate about the nature and the worth of women and how the Roman law negatively affected women’s social status.

The author shares the conviction of many prominent feminists that gender (distinct from sex) is a very fundamental category of historical analysis and inquiry and cannot be regarded otherwise. Thus, the greatest part of this book devotes itself to the body, the mind and the spirit of a woman. Concerning the body, the author has dedicated chapters on the female life cycle and the economic roles of women; about the mind, she has discussed literacy and learning and the creation of culture as far as the woman is concerned; and finally as concerns the spirit she has focused her attention to religion, including protestant faith, Reformation and Catholic reform, and witchcraft.
This is a book that eloquently gets its point to the reader and achieves its purpose of creating a greater understanding of women and their prominent role in today’s society, especially in Europe. It is a book that I would recommend for the modern gender historian or any other person with interest in women affairs.