Analyzing Primary Sources on Women in World History

Nancy M. Wingfield
A detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting two horsemen in battle A woodblock print of Tomoe Gozen dressed in samurai armor, seated on a horse A image of a kasai velvet textile, woven in a diamond pattern in cream and black A blue, circular icon with an image of a document in the center. Underneath are the words "view document"


Traditionally, historical writing focused on elites and often rendered women invisible unless they were queens or empresses. With the socio-political changes of the late 1960s, historical inquiry expanded to include a focus on race, class, and gender. This literature has begun placing women’s varied experiences worldwide in historical context. This module is meant to introduce different ways to think of about women in the context of world history through a variety of different source types.



All of these women are figures of historical importance in their own right.

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower
Queen Elizabeth I

  • Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra of ancient Egypt
  • Shaman-Queen Himiko, 3rd-century Japan
  • Emperor Koken-Shotoku, Japan’s last reigning female emperor
  • Queen Nzinga, who ruled in precolonial West Africa
  • Queen Elizabeth I of 16th-century England
  • Catherine the Great of 18th-century Russia

The history of women in the world more often includes names like these:

  • Mumtaz Jahan, the wife of 17th-century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan
  • Eva Perón, the wife of 20th-century Argentine president Juan Perón
  • Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong and member of the so-called Gang of Four
  • Yang Guifei, the concubine of an early Tang dynasty emperor

These women reflected the importance of men with whom they were associated: husbands, fathers, sons, or, sometimes, consorts.

These women are all exceptional, in part because there are records that tell us about their lives and in part because they appear in world history textbooks. They all played important roles in economic, diplomatic, and political history and had formal or informal access to power.

Traditionally, historical writing focused on elites and often rendered women invisible unless they were queens or empresses. With the socio-political changes of the late 1960s, historical inquiry expanded to include a focus on race, class, and gender. This literature has begun placing women’s varied experiences worldwide in historical context.


Rethinking History

When studying the lives of women throughout history, it is important to consider the questions that have not been asked: “where are the women?” “how would the inclusion of women’s experiences enrich interpretations of the past?” and "why were the roles women played the subject of limited attention in, or omission from, particular historical discussions?" The traditional invisibility of women in history does not mean that they were absent from pivotal events or did not play important roles in their societies.

Consider, for example, how warfare often has been represented in history books: a narrative of battles and military prowess. The visual record of war—from the narrative on the “Royal Standard” of Ur, through those on vases, wall frescos, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts, to the Bayeaux Tapestries in France—is overwhelmingly one of men fighting men. In many traditional histories, the dates of wars bracket the beginnings and ends of different eras.

As long as historians’ focus remained on fighting, the analysis of war centered on death and heroism, together with military hierarchies and strategies. Questions often raised in connection with war addressed issues of diplomatic, military, and political history. This interpretation of warfare is popularly reflected in the predominantly male figurative statues in memorials throughout North America and Europe. Women are only occasionally found, and those who are depicted are usually shown healing or mourning the dead.

An image of Tomoe Gozen dressed in samurai armor and mounted on a horse
Tomoe Gozen, female samurai

Women were more easily omitted from analysis of the fighting front because, until World War II, when significant numbers of women participated as soldiers in the Soviet Union’s Red Army, they were only rarely found on or near the battlefield. Occasionally mythological figures like the Amazon warriors of Ancient Greece or Tomoe Gozen, the Japanese female samurai, or exceptional real women—such as Joan of Arc, the 15th-century French heroine of the Hundred Years’ War against England—became part of war legend. In rare cases, lesser-known women donned men’s clothing to participate in battle as males. Beyond that, only camp followers, and later nurses, would find places in this history.

What happens, though, when we change the focus? When we consider war as having both a home front and a fighting front? Then the discussion of war expands to include not only women’s varied wartime activities, but also the experiences of families, children, and noncombatant males. This approach permits examination of nonheroic accounts of the male experience of war, differing attitudes toward male and female collaboration and resistance, and postwar social continuity and change.

Standard primary sources, such as government documents and newspapers, contain a wealth of material reflecting women’s wartime experiences. These include accounts of civilian rationing and food supplies as well as statistics on birth, death, marriage, and divorce rates. Private sources, ranging from civilian letters to women’s commentaries about life on the home front, in captivity, or in exile, also help us understand wartime in a broader framework. Taking into account class, cultural, gender, and racial aspects of wartime society expands our understanding of the reach of war.

This example of how the history of war changes when we broaden our focus can be applied to any aspect of world history. When we take this broader view, women emerge from the shadows and become active and important players in our analysis of the past.

Considering the place of women in world history does not simply expand our understanding of events, but reshapes that understanding. Therefore, it is important to think about women, and gender more broadly, as more than adding voices to the historical record. By investigating women in world history, we gain a new way to understand social relations at every level—the personal and the political, the local, the national, and even the international.


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.

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?

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.


What kind of source is it?

Different types of sources offer various kinds of information. Official documents rarely contain information about personal and private issues, but they do provide evidence related to larger, more structural issues. For example, legal codes often reflect a society’s ideal vision for itself, whereas court transcripts provide a glimpse into situations of individual behavior considered unacceptable by the society. Personal narratives, in contrast, might offer reflections on larger social issues, but they are usually focused on events as they affect the life of one individual or the lives of several known individuals, rather than a nameless collective.

A black and white photo of Jiang Qing and Mao Zedong
Jiang Qing and Mao Zedong

Careful reading of many kinds of sources can help identify important clues such as the language used, the tone of the source, and motivation of the creator. With visual material, considering the physical form of the source is an important step in analysis.

While many visual or material culture sources do not contain words, scholars analyze them in similar ways. Is the image realistic or figurative? Does it have characteristics that mark it as the product of a particular time or place? Does it draw upon common cultural references or styles? Was it created for a museum or other public use rather than for personal enjoyment?

Similarly, objects of material culture require close reading that considers the form and function of the source. What materials are used to create the object? Was it for everyday use or was it used in religious or social rituals? Is the object decorated? If so, what messages does that decoration convey?

When you first look at a source, you can attempt to identify it by asking some of the questions listed above. If it is a written text, read it, look for information about the author, date, and location to help ascertain the original purpose of the document. If the source is an image, attempt to answer some of the same questions by discovering its location of origin, its material, and its meaning and use at various times. This kind of information will help you decide how to analyze the document in question.


Who created the source and why?

Analyzing sources that pertain to women’s lives and experiences often starts with questions about author or creator and why something was created. Any author, male or female, brings a set of assumptions and values that shape the source. Understanding those assumptions and values is one of the first steps in understanding the source. If an author can be identified, a next step is to learn more about his or her life.

Some sources, such as official documents and newspaper advertisements, do not necessarily have an identifiable author. Nonetheless, they reflect the consensus of a group of creators, such as legislators, diplomats, newspaper owners, and marketing firms. These authors still represent identifiable perspectives that can help explain the sources.


Who is the intended audience?

In addition to identifying the author, identifying the intended audience or audiences is an important part of analyzing any source. Evidence on women in history can fruitfully be divided into “conscious” and “unconscious” sources. “Conscious” sources are materials that have a deliberate subject or audience, such as letters or memoirs. “Unconscious” sources are more ephemeral, items that were made for or by women for daily, personal, or household use. All of these can be studied to learn about the varied experiences of women throughout history.

There is a large difference between public communication—documents created to be read by unknown others—and private creation. Public communication expanded rapidly with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, and later with the growth of the bureaucratic state across the globe beginning in the 19th century. Private materials are often created for the author, perhaps a journal or a painting, or for a specific other, perhaps a letter to a relative or friend.

In each instance, the creator of the material works with a particular audience in mind. The imagined reader—the self, a family member, other women, the general public—influences not only the content of the source, but also the form. Sources are created to persuade, to inspire religious devotion, to encourage “proper” conduct, to facilitate the day-to-day business of an organization, to preserve an account of a particular event or a particular life, or to provide statistical information about a group of persons or a historical phenomenon. In all of these cases, the author’s motivation shapes the content of the source, and subsequently, the evidence it provides about women in world history.


Types of Sources

There are many different sources one can use to analyze women’s role throughout world history. Explore the links to other World History Commons Methods for more information about using the following kinds of sources.

A valuable source for analyzing modern women’s history is quantitative evidence. It can help locate women within a greater society at the local, regional, national, and even, international level. Statistical data usually contains information about groups of women, categorized by factors such as age, race, location, or economic situation. These often reveal little about individual women’s experiences, but can offer rich information about women’s experiences as a group. This kind of evidence enables us to make transnational comparisons about the lives of women as well as comparisons with men, and can tell us about changes in a wide variety of women’s experiences over time.

Official documents of all types can help locate women in world history. They include government reports, laws, press releases, diplomatic communication, policy statements, declarations of war, treaties, constitutions, pronouncements of organizations, committee hearings, speeches, and court records. They show how societies viewed and treated women as a group, as well as expose women’s everyday lives. Often, piecing different official documents together can provide a clear picture of how different societies viewed women and women’s roles, and shed light on social structure as a whole.

Newspapers, especially dailies and weeklies, contain an enormous amount of information. Reading newspapers from different times and places, historians learn about current events from local, regional, and international perspectives. They also learn what is important to publishers and readers of certain newspapers at a given time. Historical newspapers allow scholars to analyze trends across time or compare coverage of daily events in different newspapers within a city or across the globe.

Religious sources are excellent sites for uncovering the important beliefs and frameworks that have influenced women’s experiences throughout history. Religious systems often provide a comprehensive way to think about aspects of life. Religions can provide information about how particular cultures organize their human relationships, how they make their personal and communal decisions, and how they interact with other societies.

Personal accounts are excellent sources for women’s history. These include travel accounts, diaries, memoirs, letters, and oral histories. These are more common in the last two centuries with the expansion of female literacy—throughout history most women (and men) were illiterate. While documents created for personal reasons often tell us about individual women, some of the attitudes they reflect and the experiences they discuss can be generalized.

The vinyl label for Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."
The vinyl label for Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit"

Literary sources can provide useful information about women of a particular era or place in world history. Novels, short stories, and poetry created by women express their perspectives on a range of social and cultural issues. Although these texts are works of imagination, women have used them to voice their thoughts on a wide range of issues.

Music can provide an important window into the lives of women in world history. Music is best understood as “humanly organized sound” or “the purposeful organization of sound.” Many different types of music can be found in the historical record: music recordings, song lyrics, written music, spontaneous tunes, staged music performances, and music performances in other social settings, such as work situations and domestic life. Asking a few fundamental questions about a culture’s musical system can open up a unique window into the philosophical, religious, and artistic concepts that shape people’s everyday lives. These questions also can help you determine how societies viewed women’s roles and status.

Visual sources offer important evidence about gender in a society. Paintings, murals, sculptures, and mosaics often provide information about the positions of women in a particular society through representations of women, men, sexuality, class, diet, familial relations, religion, daily activities, leisure, and work. Women are also part of the visual record as artists.

Objects of material culture, such as clothing, textiles, cooking utensils, tools, simple machines, jewelry, or religious artifacts supply information on women’s everyday lives. They provide evidence about women’s positions in society, documenting not only their role in the household economy, which is often predominant, but also the social rites of passage in which they participated. Other items tell us about cultural and religious practices, some of which reflect attitudes toward women.

An image of kasai velvet, woven in a diamond pattern in black and cream fibers
Kasai velvet textile, Democratic Republic of the Congo

For more resources on using primary sources related to women in a world history course consult this syllabus developed by Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Primary Sources

The Bayeux Tapestry

A detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting two horsemen in battle

Most likely commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts William the Conqueror’s conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings. Though the exact origins of the tapestry are unclear, it was likely commissioned by Odo in the 1070s at the same time the Bayeux Cathedral itself was commissioned to be built, with the intention of displaying the tapestry at the cathedral’s dedication. The designer of the tapestry is unknown, but it was most likely Anglo-Saxon female needleworkers.

The Bayeux Tapestry tells its story through scenes in a sequential narrative style. Though it was likely constructed in England, the tapestry is from the Norman point-of-view in that William was betrayed and justifiably invaded. As such, though the tapestry gives an account of the period from 1064 to 1066, scholars acknowledge that the work may have functioned more as political propaganda rather than an accurate retelling. Despite the questionable accuracy of the events shown, the Bayeux Tapestry stands as an excellent visual record of medieval armaments and clothing.

Tomoe Gozen

A woodblock print of Tomoe Gozen dressed in samurai armor, seated on a horse

Tomoe Gozen was a Japanese female samurai that lived during the late twelfth century, or late Heian period, in Japan. Tomoe Gozen was known for her skill in archery and swordcraft. The Tale of Heike, a chronicle of the Genpei War, describes her “especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.” Tomoe Gozen served as the first captain to Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the war, though it is uncertain what happened to her following Yoshinaka’s ultimate defeat in 1184.

Tomoe Gozen has since become an almost mythical figure in Japanese history. The accounts of her in the Tale of Heike inspired several subsequent generations of samurai. Tomoe Gozen has since become a strong figure in popular culture and continues to be so in the modern day. She has appeared as herself in many books, movies, video games, and more, as well as inspired other characters who are clearly based on her. As such, Tomoe Gozen’s story has become partially mythologized and she stands as more of a legendary figure rather than a truly historical one.

Kasai Velvet, Democratic Republic of the Congo

A image of a kasai velvet textile, woven in a diamond pattern in cream and black

Despite its name, Kasai velvet, or velours du kasai, is not actually a velvet. Rather, it is embroidery on a finished piece of raffia cloth. Kasai velvet is traditionally woven by Shoowa men of the Kuba ethnic group in the Congo, and the embroidery that gives the cloth its characteristic geometric designs is done by women. This type of textile has been produced by the Kuba for at least 250 years and has been used as clothing, gifts, and currency. Kuba legend tells that the seventeenth century ruler Shyaam a-Mbul a-Ngoong brought the skills of weaving and embroidery from those living in the west. The Kuba have since developed a distinctive set of embroidery motifs and techniques. Kasai velvet is still produced today.

Mandate for Palestine

A blue, circular icon with an image of a document in the center. Underneath are the words "view document"

The Mandate for Palestine was a legal document that established the United Kingdom as a Mandatory in charge of Palestine and Transjordan following its occupation of the territories during World War I and their eventual concession from the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement made in Paris, the Mandate was to provide “administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory [the United Kingdom] until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The document was meant to establish a Jewish “national home” while preserving the rights of other communities and holy places. Palestine remained under British control for thirty years and saw a series of protests, riots, and revolts between the Jewish and Palestinian communities. The British announced the Mandate would end on May 15, 1948; that same day, the Jewish community announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and established the independent State of Israel. Mandatory Palestine was ultimately divided between the new Israel, the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, and the Egyptian All-Palestine Protectorate in the Gaza Strip. Tensions continue in the region between communities, and in recent years there has been an outpouring of support for Palestinians in Israel, much of which has taken place on social media and in the international arena.

“Big Business Banishes the Flapper"

A newspaper article titled big business banishes the flapper. On the left is a woman dressed as a flapper, and on the right is a woman dressed modestly in black.

The “flapper” craze overtook the western world in the early 1920s and was spearheaded by young women intent on bucking cultural norms of the time. An icon of the Roaring Twenties, flapper culture was aesthetically embodied in short skirts, bobbed hair, and heavier makeup. Flappers were criticized for drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes in public, their freer attitude toward sexual relations, and the predilection for jazz music. The flapper subculture arose during a period of social and political turbulence, as well as increased cultural exchange across the Atlantic, following the close of World War I.

In reaction to this flapper movement, many businesses in the west, especially in the United States, began to crack down on and regulate the dress and behavior of young female employees. Rules spread pertaining to the length, color, and patterns, of dresses and even which store clothing was bought from. Many conservatives in the west saw flapper girls as hedonistic, flippant, reckless, and unintelligent.

Census of England, 1891

A page of the 1891 census, showing columns filled with handwritten names, ages, and other census information.

The census of the United Kingdom was the tenth census and was taken on April 5, 1891. Starting in 1841, first and surnames were taken of every member of the household, along with age, sex, occupation, and where individuals were born. By the tenth census, questions had expanded to Employer, Employed, or Neither Employer or Employed. In addition, information on population density in industrial cities was taken in the form of a question asking how many rooms a family occupied in a dwelling. The 1891 census was the first in which female census takers were employed, though many female specific questions involving marriage, number of children to a specific marriage, and children still living or dead were added to the following census in 1901. The growing industrial society in the United Kingdom and its territories are reflected in what information appears in these censuses, as more specific questions regarding type of industry or labor gradually appear around the turn of the century.

Laws of Manu

The cover of a Hindi copy of the Laws of Manu

The Manu-smriti, or Laws of Manu, are of the most authoritative codes of Hinduism in India, dating back to approximately 100 C.E.. Traditionally, the Manu-smriti was given by Manu, the first man and lawgiver, and are a commentary on the legal and social systems of India, including the caste system. The Manu-smriti is a blend of both religious and secular law, and deals with topics such as the sacraments and study of the Vedas (the sacred texts of Hinduism), the behavior of wives and women, and the laws of kings, among other subjects. As one of the most influential texts in India, the Manu-smriti served as the basis for the legal system established by the British Raj, though British officials interpreted the Manu-smriti solely as a legal text rather than a commentary on morals and law. The Manu-smriti shaped Hindu society and culture, and continues to be both appraised and criticized for its lasting effect on India today.

Excerpts from the Hadith by A’isha

Excerpts from the Hadith by A’isha
Hadith are reports about what the Prophet Muhammad said or thought. They provide Muslims with a sense of how Muhammad applied the guidelines of the Koran to daily life. They are based on the memories and stories of those who knew the Prophet and were recorded a few generations after his death. Women in the Prophet’s family are acknowledged as legitimate authors of these religious texts, and they provide a glimpse into the roles that Muslim women played in the early Islamic period. This source is a part of the Analyzing Religious Texts methods module.

Excerpt from Travels in Africa

Document icon
Imperialism is one of the most pertinent topics in relation to travel and exploration. By the end of the 19th century, the spread of European imperialism had made many areas of the world “safe” for women travelers. As a result the volume of women’s writing increased significantly, so there is a wide range of texts to choose from. One such example is Mary Kingsley, who traveled to West Africa in 1893 and 1895, and to compare it to male versions of earlier African exploration, such as the works of H.M. Stanley or J. H. Speke.The masculine tradition of travel writing was considered to reflect public and professional concerns, whereas the feminine tradition was considered to fall into the private and personal sphere. Mary Kingsley’s work belies this stereotype. She allied herself with the masculine tradition of producing scientific research, yet she was well aware of social expectations. Kingsley’s negative attitude toward British colonization and sympathy for the peoples of West Africa are amply demonstrated. This highlights the approach of many 19th-century travelers who were not opposed to imperialism or colonization, but were critical of the abuses engendered by the system. In this excerpt Kingsley describes an encounter with a herd of elephants. Students can be guided to note her attention to detail and what might be called the female gaze. How does the passage demonstrate a particularly female gaze, as opposed to a male gaze? This source is a part of the Women's Travel Writing teaching module.

Yamamoto Shunshō’s The Tale of Genji

A woodblock print from a scene in the Tale of Genji depicting a women looking down at a man from a balcony. Black ink on cream background.

Largely considered the first novel, The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting during the early eleventh century. The  Tale of Genji is a unique depiction of court life during Heian period Japan, as it follows the story of the fictional Hikaru Genji and his romantic life within aristocratic society. Though the scholarly language of the time was Chinese, Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji in Japanese, which was more often the literary language used by women. The Tale of Genji is believed to have been written in installments or chapter-by-chapter for other ladies in court.

The Tale of Genji was originally written in a highly complex and archaic court language, and was therefore difficult to read without specialized study even a century after its completion. However, in the early Edo period (1615-1868), it became more widely accessible thanks to texts of the entire story, digests, and handbook-style synopses. Yamamoto Shunshō designed one of the earliest mass-produced illustration of The Tale of Genji with woodblock prints. Yamamoto Shunshō’s work is twenty-four woodblock-printed volumes of ink on paper, and though Genji was not translated into modern Japanese until the early twentieth century, it has remained a staple work in the Japanese literary canon.

"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday (1939)

The label on a vinyl copy of Strange Fruit. Circular label is red with Commodore: classics in swing at the top and the title Strange Fruit.

Based on a poem by Abel Meeropol published in January 1937, “Strange Fruit” was a song protesting the lynching of African Americans and was recorded by African American jazz singer Billie Holiday in 1939. The song’s haunting lyrics compare lynching victims to the fruit of trees in lines such as “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Holiday was first introduced to “Strange Fruit” while performing at Café Society in New York. Though she feared retaliation, Holiday approached her label, Columbia, about recording the song. Columbia, however, refused due to concerns of the reaction in the South. Holiday eventually recorded “Strange Fruit” with Commodore Records and distributed through Vocalion Records.

Since called “a declaration” and “the beginning of the civil rights movement,” Billie Holiday continued regularly singing “Strange Fruit” for twenty years. The 1939 recording eventually sold one million copies and became one of Holiday’s biggest hits. In 1999, Time magazine designated “Strange Fruit” as Best Song of the Century, and it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2002. “Strange Fruit” has been covered by many notable singers including Nina Simone (1965), Siouxsie and the Banshees (1987), and René Marie (2001), among others. “Strange Fruit” continues to be a political anthem of anti-racism in the United States.

The Love Letter by Jan Vermeer

A detail of the Love Letter, showing two women. One holds a letter while the other stands next to her.

Painted in the last phase of his career, Dutch artist Jan Vermeer’s The Love Letter is a work of oil on canvas that depicts a wealthy woman holding a love letter, seemingly just delivered to her by the maid servant at her side. The foreground of the painting creates the impression of viewing a private scene from a side room. Aside from the title, Vermeer included other details that signify love. The wealthy woman in the painting is holding a cittern, an instrument that was a common symbol of love, and behind the two figures is a painting of a ship on a stormy sea, which was another popular analogy for lovers. Vermeer’s work serves as a glimpse of not only female clothing and social status, but of the interiors of Dutch upper-class homes in the seventeenth century. The Love Letter is currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Quilted bedcover of Elisabeth Chapman

An image of Elisabeth Chapman's quilted bedcover. The quilt is pieced together using multiple patterned fabrics.

This quilted bed cover was likely made for the marriage of John and Elisabeth Chapman on September 19, 1829. With dimensions of approximately six feet by five feet, the bed cover features a block printed panel at the center that commemorates Wellington’s victory at Vittoria, the last battle of the Peninsula War in 1813. Central panels such as these were common in the early nineteenth century, as they allowed the quilter to work outward until the desired dimensions were achieved. Underneath this panel is a hand-stitched epitaph with the names of John and Elisabeth Chapman, as well as the date of their marriage and verses of poetry for husband and wife. This quilt was likely worked on for many years but never finished, as it includes papers dating back to the 1790s and the tacking stitches (temporary stitches) were never removed. The quilt is made up of block-printed cottons in a pattern known as “jockey’s cap,” and receipts for local merchants point to the fabrics being sources near Rochester, Kent, England. Though family history says that the papers visible on the reverse side of the quilt were the love letters of John and Elisabeth, closer examination done by the Victoria and Albert Museum has found that they are actually ledger books, children’s copy books, newspapers, and receipts.

Sample Analysis

Case Study: Prostitution

We can learn a great deal about women’s history from studying women in a particular situation. Discussion of prostitution, a topic that has long excited widespread interest, incorporates ethnographic, historical, philosophical, medical, religious, and sociological elements and can tell us much about different societies’ attitudes toward women. Popular attitudes toward prostitution also provide information on a particular society’s beliefs about race, class, gender, and age, as well as eugenics and hygiene, not to mention gender difference in marriage. The variety of sources described here can be employed as a model for students interested in other women’s history topics.

A portrait of Henri II's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, by Francois Clouet
Diane de Poitiers, portrait by Francois Clouet

Courtesans, or upper-class prostitutes, are among the women often mentioned in traditional histories, from the hetaerae of Ancient Greece, through the Byzantine Empress Theodora, to Diane de Poitiers, the 16th-century mistress of Henri II, King of France. Courtesans have been the subject of Japanese woodcuts, “Pictures of the Floating World,” dating from the Edo Period, and of European portrait painters.

Some, like the Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, the mistresses of French King Louis XV during the mid-18th century, came to wield significant power. These women, however, represent only a small percentage of prostitutes, many of whom lived—and still live—in poverty.

Both men and women have been employed as sexual laborers throughout history. When Western governments began attempting to regulate prostitution during the 19th century, however, their policies concentrated on the sexual behaviors of women. Journalists, moral crusaders, and politicians discussed prostitution in newspapers, periodicals, parliament, and public speeches or discussions. Novels reflected contemporary female stereotypes associated with prostitution (the “weaker” morals of women or the “dirtiness” of women from certain ethnic groups, often immigrants). Physicians, sociologists, and other specialists sought to explain its causes. Reflecting the growth of prostitution as a global concern, beginning in the late 19th century, countries throughout the world began signing international treaties banning the transportation of women for illicit purposes, which was known as the “white slave trade.”

An ink painting of a woman standing in a white kimono
Miyagawa Chōshun,

Standing Prostitute in White Kimono,

early 18th century

European states, as well as some cities in East Asia (but not the United States), that regulated prostitution kept a close eye on “registered” prostitutes, who constituted a small percentage of sex laborers. Most sex laborers worked clandestinely, sometimes only temporarily.

Governments passed laws meant to control the behavior of prostitutes. Officials tracked their health with compulsory medical examinations designed to detect venereal diseases. “Morals” police monitored their behavior and movements, and arrested them for a variety of violations, sometimes resulting in court cases. All of these documents (laws, court records, police records, and health exams) provide a rich source basis for the study of prostitution.

In an era before antibiotics, venereal disease was the main cause of concern about the health of prostitutes. Because registered prostitutes might have as many as 20 clients a day, they risked great exposure to venereal disease (and other infectious diseases) and at the same time exposed many people to it. Indeed, by the time a registered prostitute was discovered to have a venereal disease, she might already have infected numerous clients, who might pass the disease along to a spouse or other partners.

In addition to local, regional, and state governmental documentation of the behavior of individual prostitutes, there are also the numerous publications by social organizations concerned with the issue of prostitution. Although many male and female bourgeois social reformers sought to eliminate prostitution altogether, their approaches were often very different, in part because of contrasting attitudes toward venereal diseases. For example, many reforming middle-class women’s groups in the United States asserted that the very regulation of prostitution discriminated against women and helped force them into a lifetime of prostitution; once labeled as prostitutes, their possibility of finding “respectable” employment was limited.

These varied materials reflect differing class, cultural, religious, and social perspectives on prostitution, especially in the modern, Western world. They tell us what observers thought about prostitution and how their attitudes changed over time. Until recently, there were few personal accounts by prostitutes to provide clues about their varying motivations or their attitudes toward the governments, organizations, or individuals that sought to regulate the practice or abolish prostitution. Oral histories as well as the anthropological and sociological studies that document the lives of prostitutes, many of them from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and almost all of them poor, have begun filling this gap.


Nancy M. Wingfield has published widely on the cultural history of Habsburg Central Europe. She was the editor of Creating the Other: Nationalism and Ethnic Enmity in Habsburg Central Europe (2003) and co-editor with Maria Bucur of Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Habsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present (2001). She was co-editor of Gender and World War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe, also co-edited with Maria Bucur in 2006, among many other works.

How to Cite This Source

"Analyzing Primary Sources on Women in World History," in World History Commons, [accessed July 23, 2024]