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Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years    by Elizabeth Wayland Barber order for
Women's Work
by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Order:  USA  Can
W. W. Norton, 1995 (1994)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Marian Powell

'We women do not need to conjure a history for ourselves ... far from being dull and in need of fanciful paint to make it more interesting, this truth is ... a fascinating tale in itself.'

In recent years, there is a recognition, arising out of the study of early history and prehistory, that there's more to the story than is represented by stone tools and weapons. Our knowledge has been skewed because items like baskets and cloth don't survive the way arrowheads and spearpoints do. Elizabeth Barber, the author of Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years, loves to weave and work with cloth. Some years ago, she began to study ancient textiles. Often what has survived are pictures like the frescoes from Minoan Crete and tomb paintings from the Egyptian pyramids. Barber wasn't as interested in what people wore as in how the cloth was made. One of the most fascinating and valuable parts of the book is her point that the only way to learn how something was made is to try to make it. And once you know how something was made, you can make educated guesses about the society that fabricated it.

This book is actually a good resource for teaching how to do research. It would be valuable to any student who is wondering how to get started on a project where little information is available. However, I enjoyed it just for the myriad of fascinating details. There are dozens of examples, too many to list here. For example, people in Europe once made shirts out of nettles. Treated right, the fabric is soft as linen. Or, for those into Greek mythology, there are several tales, such as Medea's, that involve murder by soaking clothing in dragon's blood. It turns out, there's a dye, realgar, that is red as blood and was nicknamed dragon's blood. It contains arsenic, so someone really could be murdered by dipping cloth in 'dragon's blood'.

Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years is a scholarly effort, but not at all dull. I recommend it to anyone interested either in what women were working on for the last 20,000 years or in collecting these fascinating little tidbits of information.

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