Review: How the West was won — and lost — by women: A new history revises the record
By Michael Eric Dyson
As I write this, I am sitting in the main library of the University of Washington, reading a copy of Patricia Monaghan’s new book, “How the West was Won but Lost,” to my great surprise, since it’s a history book that purports to present a new account of the world’s expansion into North America and Europe from 1500 to 1700. Having read nearly 400 historical books and many more that are on my list, I never expected to encounter a book in this genre.
However, what I really appreciate about Monaghan’s book is that she has done what no other major account has tried to do: to revise the record of the Western conquest through the analysis of existing primary sources. She has succeeded to the extent that she is able to show that what she is calling the “western” experience of European expansion from 1500 to 1700 is, in fact, just the beginning of a century-long struggle for national sovereignty that is still, in more-than-a-half-century from that date, still being waged.
The book covers more than a century of western expansion but is more than a history of that expansion. Although it is structured in a chronological fashion, it is much more than that.
The West, beginning with the arrival of the Europeans in North America and the arrival of what would end up being the largest empire in world history, is not a single, discrete entity. It is, rather, a collection of very different states and even, as one needs only to look at the map, of nations. Monaghan makes no secret of that fact, but she does so very elegantly and with clarity. She is able to show how these different nations and states joined and competed for power as if they were different “world powers.” She does so, however, without either romanticizing the past or underestimating its complexity.
Monaghan is not arguing for any single world power or even that western expansion came to an end with the fall of Napoleon, but she argues that it did. She gives a very good example of this in a chapter called “A World Apart.” It is a chapter that