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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland was an influential and important Irish poet. Boland was active from the mid-twentieth century into the twenty-first century. She is often recognised for her significant contributions to the canon of Irish poetry, particularly as a pioneering female figure.

Below is a summary of Boland's biography and an overview of some of her best-known poems. You will also find an analysis of key themes in Boland's work, some facts about the poet, and a table of quotes.

Eavan Boland: biography

Eavan Boland was born on 24th September 1944 in Dublin. Boland's mother, Frances, was a painter and her father, Frederick, was a diplomat. Boland spent the first few years of her life in Dublin. Because of her father's career, the family moved to London for a period and then to New York. Her experiences in London made Boland acutely aware of her Irish identity and anti-Irish discrimination in Britain. These would go on to be influential topics in Boland's work.

The Boland family returned to Ireland when Eavan Boland was fourteen. She attended secondary school in Killiney, Dublin, from this age onwards. Boland later noted that her time away from Ireland made her feel like somewhat of an outsider as a teenager. She then attended Trinity College Dublin, studying English Literature and Language. In her first year of university, Boland used money from her job as a hotel housekeeper to self-publish her first collection of poetry, 23 Poems (1962). While studying English, Boland noted the severe lack of female authors and poets on the curriculum, particularly from an Irish background. She resolved to change this.

After graduating, Boland held multiple teaching positions. She also worked as a reviewer for The Irish Times. Boland's first complete collection of poetry, New Territory, was published in 1967. This received mixed critical reviews. Two years later, in 1969, Boland married Kevin Casey. The couple would go on to have two daughters.

Boland's next poetry collection, The War Horse, came in 1975. Following this, In Her Own Image (1980) and Night Feed (1982) proved to be two significant collections for Boland. They are noted for their exploration of the subjugated position of Irish women. Boland also explored Irish history and mythology in these collections, which would become defining topics in Boland's poetry.

Next came Outside History in 1990 and In a Time of Violence in 1994. In a Time of Violence reflected Boland's frustration with the lack of inclusivity in the Irish literary canon for women. She felt there had been little progression since she was a university student. In 1996, Boland took up a teaching job at Stanford University, moving to America for a time.

Some of Boland's more recent poetic collections include Against Love Poetry (2001), Domestic Violence (2007), and A Woman Without a Country (2014). Boland passed away from a stroke in 2020 at the age of seventy-five.

Eavan Boland had won multiple awards and honours for her work by her death. She is now regarded as a pioneering figure in twentieth-century Irish literature. Boland discussed issues that were often taboo in Irish society. She also undertook in-depth explorations of Irish history and mythology. Her critics respect Boland for her honesty in depicting the experiences of ordinary Irish women at a time when this was uncommon.

Eavan Boland: poems

We will now take a look at Eavan Boland's significant poems.

Eavan Boland: 'The Famine Road' (1975)

'The Famine Road' is a poem that constructs two concurrent narratives. The first depicts the English imperialist view of Ireland during the Potato Famine and how the Irish population suffered. Boland's second narrative in 'The Famine Road' follows a conversation between a woman and her doctor as she discovers she is infertile. Boland compares the two stories and creates similarities between them. It is an eight-stanza poem with a varying rhyme scheme that appears in Boland's The War Horse collection.

The Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845 to 1849. It was a period of mass starvation and death due to a blight that affected Ireland's important potato crop. The Irish population fell by two million during this time due to death and emigration. Many now believe that the actions of the British government significantly contributed to how severely the Famine impacted Ireland.

Boland situates 'The Famine Road' immediately into history by referencing real historical figures in the poem. The Trevelyan mentioned in the first stanza is Charles Edward Trevelyan, a British government official notorious for his cruelty towards the Irish people during the Famine. Boland emphasises this cruelty throughout 'The Famine Road' in her graphic imagery of the suffering of Irish people. This suffering is seen in the below quote.

Sick, directionless they worked. Fork, stick

were iron years away; after all could

they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck

April hailstones for water and for food? (ll. 11-14)

The title of 'The Famine Road' refers to a real phenomenon during the Irish Famine. Famine roads were roads that British occupiers forced the Irish people to build. These roads usually had no purpose and went nowhere. Irish people were forced to labour on them to earn enough money to buy a small amount of food to survive.

Every second stanza in 'The Famine Road' centres around the story of the woman discovering she is infertile. Her doctor seems callous and uncaring. This parallels the English's treatment of the Irish in Boland's poem. In the final stanza of 'The Famine Road', Boland directly compares famine roads that lead nowhere and this woman who cannot have children. We can see this in the following quote.

Barren, never to know the load

of his child in you, what is your body

now if not a famine road? (ll. 36-38)

Eavan Boland: 'Anorexic' (1980)

'Anorexic' is a poem consisting of fifteen short stanzas. The poem comes from Boland's collection, In Her Own Image. This collection made a distinct effort to capture the female experience, and 'Anorexic' is no different, centring around a female narrator suffering from anorexia and its complications.

Anorexia is an eating disorder. It is characterised by an avoidance of food despite feelings of hunger. Anorexia sufferers have an intense fear of gaining weight and may see themselves as larger than they actually are.

The narrator of 'Anorexic' writes in the first person. This woman shows that she is attempting to gain control by limiting what she eats so severely. Boland brings in religion by using the word 'heretic' in the first stanza of her poem.

A heretic is a person who acts against generally accepted social norms. It is frequently used to refer to people who go against the beliefs of a particular religion.

The narrator sees her body as something shameful that must be controlled. She controls her weight by refusing to eat. Boland also connects the punishment she is enacting on her body with a sense of righteous justice, as if her body were a heretic deserving torture or execution. Ireland in the 1980s was a deeply Catholic country and women's bodies were often shamed in the name of religion. Boland is referencing this here.

A significant thing to note about 'Anorexic' is its honest tone. Boland uses explicit and blunt language to describe the struggles of one suffering from an eating disorder. At the time of publishing in 1980, such topics would have been extremely taboo in Irish society. These were also topics that impacted women as there was much social pressure on them to look a certain way. Boland's honest addressing of the pain of anorexia can be seen in the quote below.

I vomited

her hungers.

Now the bitch is burning.

I am starved and curveless.

I am skin and bone.

She has learned her lesson. (ll. 13-18)

Eavan Boland

Let's now move on to look at some common themes found in Eavan Boland's work.

Eavan Boland: Ireland

As an Irish writer, it is unsurprising that Ireland is important in Eavan Boland's poetry. Boland particularly focuses on Irish history as well as modern Irish society and all its flaws.

Boland incorporates many elements of Irish history and mythology in her poetry. This is clear in 'The Famine Road'. Boland accurately and brutally depicts the suffering inflicted on Irish people during the Famine in this poem. She uses vivid imagery to get this across. She also parallels this with the much more modern problem of a (presumably Irish) woman discovering she is infertile. Boland, therefore, links the Ireland of the past to present Ireland.

The poem 'The Emigrant Irish' (1990) deals with the common Irish issue of emigration. Irish emigration was a particularly severe issue in the twentieth century. Boland deals with the complicated topic of identity for one who has left their home country. She also addresses the hardship of emigration, as we can see below.

Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.

Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering

in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World. (ll. 11-13)

In her poetry, Boland addresses issues of Irish history and often brings the mistreatment of Irish people to the forefront. However, she also details the problems of modern Irish society at her time of writing.

Eavan Boland: women

As a young student studying literature, Eavan Boland noted the lack of women in the literary canon, particularly the Irish literary canon. As a female writer, she resolved to change this. She decided to write poetry that focused on women and their issues, instead of treating them as objects of male desire, as was common in male poetry.

In representing the female experience, Boland often discussed taboos and controversial topics when she was writing and publishing. 'Anorexic' involves detailed depictions of the realities of eating disorders. Although not exclusively, these disorders often particularly impacted women as there was strong social pressure for women to look a certain way when Boland was writing. These would not have been commonly discussed topics at the time but Eavan Boland writes on them in a brutally honest manner. She explains anorexia from the perspective of one suffering through it, helping readers to understand the disorder.

'Woman in Kitchen' (1982) addresses women's issues in 1980s Ireland. It depicts a housewife and the oppression she feels from being trapped in this position. All this woman has for company are her household appliances, and she feels that even they have more purpose than she does. Boland also repeats the word 'white' multiple times in 'Woman in Kitchen', building the sense of an oppressive atmosphere.

Boland concludes this poem by relating the overly white kitchen to a 'mortuary'. This is not a space where this woman is comfortable. Boland uses quite an unsettling tone in portraying a housewife simply in her kitchen. This challenged the idea that women should remain in the domestic space.

From your reading of Eavan Boland, can you think of other poems that address women's issues?

Eavan Boland: facts

Let's have a look at some facts about Eavan Boland!

  • Eavan Boland was the youngest of five children.

  • Boland's husband, Kevin Casey, was a novelist.

  • W.B. Yeats was Boland's first literary hero. She began reading his work as a way to feel more connected to Ireland after returning from New York as a teenager.

  • Boland used Sylvia Plath's work as inspiration to help her write about womanhood in her poetry.

  • On St. Patrick's Day 2016, then-President Barack Obama quoted lines from Eavan Boland's poem 'On a Thirtieth Anniversary' (2001) in his speech from the White House.

Eavan Boland: quotes

Now we will consider some important quotes from Boland's work.

QuoteLocationExplanation
'these Irish, give them no coins at all; their bonesneed toil, their characters no less.''The Famine Road', ll. 2-3Boland is showing here the callous attitude of the British occupiers towards the Irish. They saw them as inferior. She is engaging in an honest portrayal of Irish history.
'White surfaces retract. Whitesideboards light the white of walls.Cups wink white in their saucers.The light of day bleaches as it fallson cups and sideboards.''Woman in Kitchen', ll. 7-11In this quote, Boland uses repetition to show the oppressive nature of life as a housewife in 1980s Ireland. Everything around this woman seems overwhelming and intense.
'Only a little more,only a few more dayssinless, foodless.''Anorexic', ll. 28-30Boland's narrator shows in this quote that she associates eating with sinning. Boland is tying eating disorders in with religion here. She is honestly writing about how many anorexics view food and eating. This kind of honesty was uncommon when 'Anorexic' was published.
'Like oil lamps, we put them out the back —of our houses, of our minds.''The Emigrant Irish', ll. 1-2The opening lines of 'The Emigrant Irish' set a precedent for the rest of the poem. It references how painful it can be for loved ones to emigrate. Those left behind may try not to think about them to avoid this pain. The use of the pronoun 'we' by Boland suggests how many Irish households are in this situation.

Eavan Boland - Key takeaways

  • Eavan Boland was an Irish poet active in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
  • Boland was known for her focus on Irish identity and history and on women's issues in her work.
  • Two important poems by Boland are 'The Famine Road' (1975) and 'Anorexic' (1980).
  • Two key themes in Boland's work are Ireland and women.
  • Eavan Boland passed away from a stroke in 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions about Eavan Boland

Boland is known for being a poet that particularly focused on Irish history and the issues of women in her work.

Boland has two children.

Yes, Boland was Catholic.

Boland was born on 24th September 1944.

Yes, Boland often gave women a voice in her poetry.

Final Eavan Boland Quiz

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When was Eavan Boland born?

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24th September 1944.

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What are two important poems by Boland?

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'The Famine Road' and 'Anorexic'.

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What are two key themes in Boland's work?

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Answer

Ireland and women.

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Where did Boland attend university?

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Trinity College Dublin.

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Who was Boland's first literary hero?

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W.B. Yeats.

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What word does Boland repeat in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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'White'.

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What were famine roads?

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They were roads that went nowhere that Irish people were forced to build for money during the Famine.

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What does the modern narrative in 'The Famine Road' revolve around?

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A woman being told by her doctor that she is infertile.

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What did Boland notice about the literary canon while in university?

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Its lack of female writers.

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Why would the poem 'Anorexic' have been controversial when Boland published it?

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Because eating disorders were taboo and not discussed at this time.

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When was 'Woman in Kitchen' written?

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1982.

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What are two key themes in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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Isolation and movement.

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What poetic form is 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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Free verse.

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Why does 'Woman in Kitchen' have no set metre or rhyme scheme?

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Because it is in free verse.

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What two poetic devices does Boland use in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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Repetition and enjambment.

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What word is repeated multiple times in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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'White'.

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What are two important images in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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Kitchen appliances and the mortuary.

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What kind of tone does 'Woman in Kitchen' have?

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Oppressive, overbearing, and intense.

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What kind of verbs are used to depict the woman in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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Still and passive verbs.

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What is Boland using 'Woman in Kitchen' to criticise?

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The status of women in 1980s Ireland.

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When was 'The Famine Road' written?

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1975.

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What form is 'The Famine Road' in?

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Free verse.

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What are two key themes in 'The Famine Road'?

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Prejudice and gender.

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What two poetic devices does Boland use in 'The Famine Road'?

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Caesura and analogy.

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What does Boland suggest by comparing a famine road and an infertile woman?

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That both lack purpose.

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How can the tone of 'The Famine Road' be described?

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Pessimistic, sad, despondent.

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What can the tones of Trevelyan, Jones, and the doctor be described as?

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Arrogant.

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What form do the stanzas relating to the storyline of the infertile woman take?

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Tercets.

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What does much of the imagery in 'The Famine Road' revolve around?

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Suffering bodies.

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Can you remember the definition of a caesura?

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It is a break in a line of poetry usually marked by punctuation.

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When was A Woman Without a Country published?

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2014.

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What are two key themes in the A Woman Without a Country collection?

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Female legacy and Irish history.

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Other than the title poem, can you name two other poems from the collection?

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'Art of Empire' and 'Talking to My Daughter Late at Night'.

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What poetic device can be identified in 'Talking to My Daughter Late at Night'?

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Enjambment.

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What time period is the poem 'A Woman Without a Country' set during?

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The Irish Famine.

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When was Eavan Boland born?

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1944.

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Why was creating a female poetic legacy important for Boland?

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Because she saw the literary canon as lacking it.

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Who is it thought 'Art of Empire' was based on?

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Boland's grandmother.

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What does 'Art of Empire' show as being forced on people by imperialism?

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Silence.

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What poetic device is found in the poem 'A Woman Without a Country'?

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Metaphor.

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What was Boland's first self-published poetry collection called?

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23 Poems.

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What collection does 'The Famine Road' appear in?

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The War Horse collection.

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What phrase does Boland use to bring the topic of religion into her poem 'Anorexic'?

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'Heretic'.

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What kind of atmosphere does Boland create in 'Woman in Kitchen'?

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An oppressive atmosphere.

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What other poet did Boland use as inspiration for her writing on womanhood?

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Sylvia Plath.

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What university did Eavan Boland attend?

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Trinity College Dublin

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How many sections is the collection split into?

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Four.

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In 'A Woman Without a Country', what do the words 'rags' and 'bony' emphasise?

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Poverty and starvation.

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How many stanzas does 'Art of Empire' contain?

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Six.

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What two themes are mixed in 'Art of Empire'?

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Gender and history.

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