The curiosity about the psychology of women is nothing new, it has always existed. Oftentimes, during the history of psychology, it has been men who have asked, studied and tried to answer the questions, oftentimes in ways that have received plenty of critisicm from female researchers. It seems that women's minds have not lended themselves all that well to scientific inquiry designed by and for males. Thus, women in psychology have for a long time contributed to the field with their own theories and studies, some of which have been overlooked by general textbooks and reference works. The first chapter of this handbook comprises a short but powerful summary of the historical development of the psychology of women without omitting the not so well known parts.
The rest of the book, 21 chapters written by approximately 50 contributors of quite different backgrounds, is concerned with questions directly related to women's lives. "Topics of primary interest to women and questions that women want answered have received far less attention than topics of primary interest to men and questions about women that men want answered" writes the authors of chapter 4, "Feminist Perspectives on Research Methods", a fact to which Psychology of Women does not adhere. To open up a handbook of such magnitude as this one and not find the contents structured according to the traditional blueprint (where certain topics are considered central whereas others become parenthetical) is inspiring, at least to me. Because structure, too, is contents.
As most of us are aware, the plural form of 'woman' is notoriously difficult to handle. To generalize about 'women' almost inevitably leads to protests and objections, which was why I felt both intrigued by and skeptical about the title of this book. The question "what are women?" is, however, constantly present and discussed throughout the 750 pages, and it needs to be -- it is a complex question without easy answers. The authors of Psychology of Women write with great sensitivity about women as a group, without ever losing track of the philosophical themes underlying their argumentation. Before beginning to read, I felt that "I want to know about the topic of this book, but what can really be said about it?" The texts are, however, grounded in the assumption that ""women" are not a monolithic group but rather reflect a rich diversity of experience shaped by contextual factors, including age, sociodemographic and geographic locations, relationship status and configuration, and the political milieu", as expressed in chapter 15, a text on "Diverse Women's Sexualities". This perspective is heeded to throughout the book with a rarely seen consistency.
Interesting, important, illuminating and impressively informative, Psychology of Women is a great work of reference for anyone who wants to develop their understanding of the human mind. Despite the complexities of its topic, it is not a difficult or tiresome read. Quite the opposite, it is a delightfully thought-provoking experience. The narration is erudite and smooth, which makes me realize that there need be no conflict between the personal and the universal. This handbook is a classic, yet fresh, problematizing, yet revealing. I think it deserves to be greeted with curiosity, questions and further inquiry into its themes.
© 2008 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, recently graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works in a psychiatric health care center in Volda, Western Norway.