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A Woman in History: Eileen Power, 1889-1940…
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A Woman in History: Eileen Power, 1889-1940

by Maxine Berg

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Anyone who's studied medieval history, and particularly anyone who's studied medieval economic or women's history, will have come across the name Eileen Power. For all that she died almost 75 years ago, her works—particularly Medieval People and Medieval Nunneries—are still prominent on suggested reading lists for postgrads starting out in those fields. Maxine Berg's biography performs a dual task. First, she seeks to remind us of the importance of Power's scholarship and career: despite a straitened childhood spent in the shadow of a con-artist father and the restraints imposed by her gender, Power became chair of economic history at the LSE, a respected author and broadcaster, first woman to give the Ford Lectures, and the first woman to hold the Kahn Fellowship, amongst a host of other achievements. Second, Berg makes the case that this doesn't make Power exceptional, that she was in fact one of a number of academic women of her generation who made serious contributions to the profession and to (medieval) history but whose contributions have largely been forgotten and marginalised while their male contemporaries are lauded as "founding fathers" of the field. In Power's case, that process of historical erasure was sped up by the fact that she died tragically early from a heart attack at the age of 51, when likely some of her major works had still to be written. She's not seen as the head of a historical "lineage" in the way that, say, Marc Bloch is.

The prose in A Woman in History is at times a little lumpy and repetitive and could have benefited from a stronger editorial hand, and I could have done with less continual emphasis on Power's beauty, grace and dress sense. There's a difference between the biographer analysing how a woman's physical attractiveness might have helped or hindered her success in the academia of the 1920s and 30s, and the biographer seeming to regard those attributes as notable virtues in their own right. Still, I think this is an important biography and one which should be read by all postgrads who seek to understand the history of their own field. ( )
  siriaeve | Mar 9, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521568528, Paperback)

This book is a fascinating biography of Eileen Power, a major British historian who once ranked in fame alongside Tawney, Trevelyan and Toynbee. Using letters, diaries and reminiscences, Maxine Berg recreates the life of this charismatic personality, describing, for the first time, Power's remarkable intellectual and scholarly achievements at a time when she was acting very much outside the female role. Power's ability, coupled with her vivid personality, made her history compelling reading and listening to a generation of students.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:48 -0400)

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