Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Gender Transformations

Sylvia Walby
Routledge: London
0 415 12081 0 (pb); 0 415 12080 2 (hb)
£13.99 (pb); £45.00 (hb)
x + 245 pp.

Order this book

This book is made up of previously published and revised papers by Walby, together with a few new ones: together they make a formidable contribution to a number of key debates in gender relations. The first six chapters focus on gender segregation in the labour market and the remaining five, broadly, on women and politics. The linking theme is an exploration of women's collective agency in the context of changing structures of patriarchy. Throughout, the interaction of gender transformation with other dynamics is a major concern.

Inevitably in such a collection there is a certain patchiness. The introductory chapters on the labour market provide a good overview of key debates and outline recent changes in gender relations in employment in the context of globalisation and deregulation, drawing out the inter-relationships between gender and ethnicity. The material here is up to date, well referenced and an extremely useful guide for students. These chapters are followed by some which draw upon empirical studies to ground the debates. Data from the Economic and Social Research Council's Changing Urban and Regional System initiative of the early 1980s, for example, is used to explore labour markets and industrial structures in women's working lives. However, while there has been some updating, these chapters do not sit comfortably alongside the introductory chapters. The final five chapters in the book focus less on the labour market and more on gender politics, citizenship, nationhood, backlash and European integration, reflecting Walby's interests in the 1990s. These latter papers represent a coherent package in themselves.

The idea, in essence, of an edited collection of Walby's published papers is clearly a good one. She has made an astonishing, sustained and influential, if contested, contribution to debates on gender relations over the last ten years and to have these new improved versions of key papers collected together in one place is extremely valuable. The papers range from reviews of debates to theoretical pieces to detailed empirical papers. While it reads more like a collection of papers than a book, it is no less valuable for that.

In a highly accessible style, Walby describes and engages with many current debates, providing a useful map of key issues. She reviews the state of play in theoretical developments and empirical evidence supporting them. In the process, she makes a good job of demolishing some well established positions and well respected writers: for example, Atkinson (on flexibility - admittedly this is a well worn path), Massey (on the spatial reserve army); Castells (on feminism and political science) and Eisentein (on the newness of second wave feminism) are among those whose arguments are found wanting. The criticisms are characteristically forceful but well argued and for the most part convincing.

A few minor quibbles with the book include the failure to specify consistently the geographical base for the tables (in the context of devolution, one feels emboldened to make such complaints), and, unsurprisingly given the structure of the book, there is some repetition. Some of the figures seem quite dated (for example on women in unions). Some methodological concerns one might have about some of the data sources (for example using the Census of Employment for women's employment) are not addressed although elsewhere methodlogical issues are dealt with meticulously.

Overall this book will prove invaluable for students as an updated collection of Walby's papers and a useful contribution to key debates in gender relations. The crucial question to ask of such a book is does the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts? In my view it does.

Teresa Rees
School for Policy Studies
University of Bristol

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998