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Introduction to the Forum on Women in World History
"The Use of the Case Study Approach to Women in World History"

Timothy May, Guest Forum Editor


     Welcome to this forum devoted to presenting case studies on women in World History. The first question that one might ask is why case studies? Quite simply, while thematic studies are useful to both the scholar and the student, it is the individual that ultimately attracts the student to history. Students like to connect to historical figures, which is why biographies still sell well and most students tend to gravitate to writing about individual figures if given the choice—and in our celebrity crazed culture, they also enjoy the "gossip" about historical figures. Secondly, while thematic and regional studies allow us to create the big picture in our classes, it often leaves it somewhat static. Examining individual figures (male or female) allows the teacher to illustrate certain points whether it is a trend that runs through history, perhaps a watershed moment, or even the exception to the rule. Finally, by looking at case studies of individual figures it is hoped that the reader will be able to take the history presented here and use it in their class room as they see fit.

     The women presented here range across both time and space and illustrate not only the role of women in their respective periods, but also how those roles were often ambiguous and elastic. It is not suggested that each woman presented here is the model of women of their respective time periods, but rather they represent a wide range of possibilities that can be discussed in the classroom and demonstrate that in history generalizations may be useful, but are rarely accurate.

Pre-Modern World

     One could argue that since the Neolithic Agrarian revolution, women have been oppressed in one way or another until the twentieth century. One could still argue that they still are oppressed in one fashion or another in many parts of the world today. Thus it is not surprising that the case studies presented on pre-modern women come from the upper echelons of society. Indeed, as most of the literature of the period is focused on the elites, in many parts of the world we know surprisingly little of the lives of commoners. Patriarchal societies also lead to emphasizing the role of men and thus what we do learn of women is often reactionary as the male authors are perplexed by the appearance of a woman who is atypical to the norms of the society. Such is the case of Olga or Kiev, Shajarr al-Durr of the Mamluk Sultanate, and a number of Mongolian queens.

     Heidi Sherman's article on Olga of Kiev reveals how little we know of the women of Kievan Rus', whether it is among the elite or the commoners. Olga is clearly a remarkable woman, ruling a regional polity while also fending off would-be suitors and avenging the death of her husband, Igor. Yet, what we know of her life is also reminiscent of other tropes. Although Vladimir was the first Rus' ruler to convert to Christianity, his grandmother, Olga, converted first. This is a common feature in many conversions—high ranking women convert first and only gradually do the male elite do so. We see this in Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. Often the new religion is not seen as "manly," but through the efforts of a woman, the religion becomes tolerated and then accepted by the male hierarchy. Olga's vengeance also is a classic motif in many legends across Eurasia. Indeed, her methods of vengeance are also a common feature in Eurasian lore, although the animals vary somewhat. Thus we are left knowing little of what is the real Olga and what is the idealized Olga. Nonetheless, the writers of the often redacted Rus' chronicles provide us with an image of a strong and very astute woman—capable of dealing with Byzantine emperors as well as local warlords, and in many ways, perhaps she was the most adroit ruler of the Kievan period. In the classroom, Olga serves as an excellent topic to discuss problems in working with the sources—these motifs of revenge and conversion, how accurate are they? And why are there certain standardize elements that appear across the society? While it should not be concluded that her biography is entirely false, but students need to consider why certain motifs are used and can parallels be drawn with current figures with their ghost written biographies and concern for historical legacy.

     Paul D. Buell's discussion of Mongolian queens moves beyond the usual suspects such as Sorqoqtani—the mother of Mongke Khan, Hulegu, Kublai Khan, and Ariq-Boke. Indeed, most textbooks that discuss women in the Mongol Empire mention her and perhaps Chinggis Khan's mother Ho'elun and his first wife Borte. To be fair, the sources give them the most space, yet as Buell demonstrates, other Mongolian women exerted considerable influence over the empire. Working primarily with Chinese sources, Buell teases out the details of the lives of Alaqa-Beki, a daughter of Chinggis Khan, and Eregene Qatun, who married into the royal lineage. Part of the difficulty with the Mongolian women is not only that the Confucian, Muslim, and Christian writers tended to write little about the women, but when they did so it was often in a negative light and commenting on behavior that was viewed as scandalous or abnormal for women in their own society, despite being quite normal among steppe cultures. The women who received positive attention, such as Sorqoqtani, did so not only because of their admirable character and importance to the empire, but also because her sons were the patrons of many of writers. Thus, Buell's study is a refreshing alternative to the usual suspects and reveals the lives of women from two different periods of the Mongol Empire. By adding Ergene and Alaqa-Beki to the classroom discussion with the more readily accessible information on Sorqoqtani (whether in a textbook or on the internet), the discussion could examine the status and influence of the Mongolian queens throughout the entire history of the Mongol empire and thus determine if it changed and how.

     Most students' understanding of the status of Muslim women is colored by both rhetoric and reality as shown on television. Yet, while much ado is made about hijabs, less attention is given to the women themselves. Granted, few women in the medieval Islamic world were in positions of overt power, but wives and mothers often influenced events behind the veil, as it were. Nonetheless, Amalia Levanoni's work on Shajar al-Durr displays how much power a woman could yield, but also that gender had little impact on the perils that came with the power. Shajar al-Durr's role in the Seventh Crusade of King Louis IX is often overlooked and usually in discussions of the Mamluk Sultanate she receives a paragraph or two—a bit odd for such a dynamic figure as well as being a bit of an oddity in Islamic history. Indeed, her story is a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to happen as it contains all of the basic ingredients in intrigue, sex, and violence. As such, classroom discussions could revolve around not only her role as high-powered female in a male dominated society, but also the role of sex (as ultimately it played a major role in her rise and decline—although she was not always directly involved), and the court intrigue—all features that can one can draw parallels with modern politics and government.

The Modern World

     Moving into the modern age, Eliza Martin introduces Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Readers will find her article useful in a number of ways. For one, we see a woman running a South Carolinian plantation in what was typical a male dominated world. Pinckney is certainly more convincing in this role than Scarlett ever was in Gone with the Wind. Furthermore, Professor Eliza Martin magnificently weaves a narrative of Pinckney's life with daily life on an indigo plantation along with the indigo trade in the greater scheme of Atlantic and World history. By carefully tying the West Indies, Great Britain, and the North American colonies together students and instructors benefit from this study of colonial relations as well as a vivid discussion of indigo production—a nice change from the standards of cotton and sugar. Indeed, classroom discussions could revolve around the status of women in the colonies and whether Pinckney was a typical member of the plantation gentry or was she an aberration? With the rich details that Martin provides on the Atlantic economy, students could discuss the differences of the indigo, tobacco, or sugar production and trade and how did each crop impact the Atlantic world.

     Moving further south, Nicola Foote presents an article on Manuela Saenz and her role in South America's struggle for independence from Spain. This study on Manuela Saenz, a fascinating figure on multiple levels, offers instructors an opportunity to infuse their discussion of revolution with perspectives of gender—not only what the revolution could mean, but also the role of women in revolutions. Saenz is an excellent figure as she not only rubbed elbows with Simon Bolivar (quite literally) but engaged in various levels of the revolution and also the fall out of the revolution.

     The forum ends by moving to Europe. The first figure, presented by Professor Jessica Davidson, is Pilar Primo de Rivera, one of the most important women in modern Spanish history. As the head of the Seccion Femenina, she was arguably the most important woman during Franco's regime and thus one of the most notable fascists in world history as well.           Davidson's work discusses the goals of the Seccion Femenina and how Pilar Primo de Rivera molded adhered to the goals of Franco's government, but also molded it as she saw fit. Indeed, she was instrumental to the institution's survival even as other fascist organizations lost influence. With a woman who remained influential in Spanish political life for forty years, instructors have a model that they can refer to for various episodes of twentieth century. By including Pilar Primo de Rivera in the readings or a lecture on fascism, it opens the door to move beyond Hitler and Mussolini and engage in a deeper discussion of why people were attracted to it—why and how did Pilar become so important to the movement in Spain? The discussion could then move to organizations similar to the Seccion Femenina in Germany and Italy. One could then extend the conversation or lecture to totalitarianism and compare and contrast organizations that focused on women in other states such as Stalinist Soviet Union or even non-totalitarian countries and discuss why these did or did not form. The opportunities are virtually endless.

     The final entry for this form is Anneke Ribberink's study of two female heads of state in the late twentieth century: Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. This study offers a nice comparison of two women who led their respective states and their rise to power. Judging from American students I have taught, it is easy for them to assume that all western European countries have similar values and views as the United States. This of course reveals a vast amount of ignorance concerning the variations in culture and views of Western countries. Indeed, for most students, Norway is as esoteric to them as Tibet or perhaps even more so. As such Ribberink's work allows instructors to demonstrate the differences between Europe states in the late cold war era and also discuss how these variations affected their relations. Finally, this article offers an opportunity for class discussions on views on not only Brundtland and Thatcher, but also of women in politics and the challenges they faced and continue to face as more women have become nationally elected leaders, and how views on a female state leader has changed since the 1980s.

     In conclusion, it is hoped that these case studies will enrich the lectures and discussions on world history. Some of the women presented here maybe familiar and others less so, but they are windows into their respective time periods and offer opportunities to add to the discussion of the status or role of women in world history. For some instructors, like myself, our knowledge of women's history is limited, usually to their particular area of expertise and thus having a wider range of personalities to discuss and use as examples allows us to move away from generalizations and add a "face" or a story that will even keep that freshman-with-the-baseball-cap-pulled-over-his-eyes intrigued. At the high school level, I suspect that many male students lack the interest in a focus on women in history (or do they just lose it when they arrive at college?) and a case study approach offers more detail and the realization that everyone's history is tied together. Female students (at least from my experience) will also appreciate a more frequent addition of "great women" to the list of "great men". Finally, this list is obviously not a panacea, nor was it ever intended to be, but for those of us less well-versed in women's history it is hoped that these case studies will be found useful for class room use.

Timothy May is Head of the Department of History at North Georgia College & State University. He can be reached at


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