The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1996, Volume 42, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Women in the Life of Southern California: An Anthology Compiled from Southern California Quarterly.

Edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1996. Photographs. Illustrations. Contributors. Index. xx + 431 pages.

Reviewed by Nancy J. Taniguchi, Associate Professor of History, California State University, Stanislaus.

As might be expected in a collected anthology of eighteen articles originally published over some three decades (1962 to 1991), the works in Women in the Life of Southern California are decidedly mixed. They exhibit a variety of approaches, writing styles, lengths, even geographical definitions of “southern California,” which includes, in certain instances, southern Kern County or brief contact with the southland and an extended career in Maine. Nonetheless, two aspects of this work lend a sort of cohesiveness. First, all articles are indisputably centered on women, overlooking neither Hispanic forbears nor immigrant European transplants, although American-born white women of the middle and upper classes predominate. Secondly, they are chronologically ordered, giving the illusion of following the region’s development through time.

The majority of the articles, short biographies of atypical women from the second half of the nineteenth century, offer fascinating insights into individual actions and legacies on the Pacific Coast. In her “Introduction,” historian Iris Engstrand attempts to add some balance to this rather homogeneous group through her historical background sketch. The two opening essays, by Gloria Miranda on Spanish and Mexican marriage patterns and on child-rearing practices, offer a statistical approach which contrasts sharply with the predominant form. Likewise, the two concluding essays, on Helen Gahagan Douglas by Colleen M. O’Connor and on women philanthropists by Gloria Ricci Lothrop, move beyond the book’s nineteenth century and turn-of-the-century focus and give a few glimpses into “modern” women’s lives.

If one were to read this book simply to learn the history of women in Southern California, much of it could be seen as dated, since no explanatory footnotes offering updated information are included. For example, a reference to “the inaccuracy of figures concerning the Indian group,” (penned in 1978) overlooks much fine research done more recently by Robert H. Jackson and Albert Hurtado, among others. Such examples abound, and the reader is forced to seek explanation in the dates and full citations of original publication in the “Contributors” list at the back of the book. This useful exercise could also lead interested readers to the articles’ footnotes, which have not been reprinted here. (Only the “Introduction” is footnoted.)

On the other hand, this book can be viewed in another way: as an indication of the development of women’s history. As previously mentioned, a full variety of approaches abound, from hagiographic biographies to statistical studies to stories of “notables,” ordinary women, “contributors,” women’s clubs and myriad other female achievements. Virtually a full methodological range is illustrated, and the interested historian could, with a little effort, correlate date of publication with developments in the field of women’s history. Another strength of this book is the number of fine photographs, the sources for which are credited at the end of the text. A biographical sketch of each author and a credible index round out the work.

Because so little on the history of women in Southern California has been published in a single place, this book has attempted to fill a noticeable void. In all likelihood, however, it will appeal more to the general reader interested in “snapshots” of female life in Southern California than to the serious historian.