What does the source tell us about society?

Investigating women in world history through the use of primary sources requires careful attention to particular historical contexts. Women’s lives have varied dramatically based on geography, religion, level of education, socioeconomic position, marital status, race, and historic time period.

Women have subscribed to many different political, social, cultural, or economic agendas, and these must be taken into consideration to understand women through primary sources. It is important to consider the factors that have rendered women in particular times and places different from women who lived in other situations. How have men and women used the language of gender—defining men’s roles as inherently “masculine” and women’s roles as inherently “feminine”—to structure society? When we look at these roles over time and across cultures, we see that the categories can vary dramatically. For example, British, male colonial officials in Nigeria misunderstood an uprising of women in Southeastern Nigeria in 1929. The officials were interpreting the women’s actions based on how they thought British women would act. [See Analyzing Evidence: Court Records]

Carefully considering the specific experiences of women in particular times and places and the symbolic roles women have played in history, historians begin their analysis of primary sources by asking a few basic questions, all of which help place the source in historical context.

In a sense, all of the following questions are about social relations. It is also important to step back from the specifics of individual sources to consider how they contribute to a larger understanding of a society.

How does this source fit into what we already know about a situation? Does the evidence contained in this source suggest that we need to revise our understanding about women’s experience of an event or a place or a time period? How does this source compare and contrast with the information we have about women in similar social situations? How does the information contained in this source shed light on the ways that a society imagines itself and its interaction with those outside that society? How does this new information change what we know about the hierarchies of power within and among societies?

Kasai Textile

Textile production, for example, reflects the availability of products, including cotton, linen, and wool, as well as trading patterns, and sophistication in the production of the cloth itself. Textiles also provide information about female clothing as it relates to the age and economic and social status of the wearer, or its social function—whether or not is was used for cultural-religious ceremonies, or general use.