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European Feminisms, 1700-1950

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Feminism was and is among the broadest and most radical political movements of modern times – it concerns itself with a group, women, which makes up more than one half of the human race and with a form of oppression, patriarchy, which is certainly among the oldest and the most widespread. But in spite of its historical importance this movement has received so little attention in the mainstream of historical research that one can almost speak of an erasure of the feminist past. The “new” feminists of the 1970s were so unaware of this history that they believed that they had to reinvent feminism. A generation of scholars, resolved that the feminist movement must never again slip into oblivion, has reconstructed many aspects of its history. Without this research, the broad and synthetic work that Karen Offen presents to us would not have been possible. But Karen Offen, a well-known historian of France and the editor of several valuable collections of documents on women’s history, is in many ways critical of this body of research. Historians, she charges, have too often evaluated feminists of past generations by present-day standards, and have criticized or rejected these feminists because they did not conform to today’s feminist orthodoxies. Karen Offen, by contrast, places feminist movements in their historical context, which in this volume is the history of Europe from 1700 to about 1950. And, though she admits that many feminists made mistakes, her purpose is chiefly to praise these courageous women and men who, often against crushing opposition, identified, protested, and struggled against the subordination of women in all its varied manifestations. “They deserve,” she writes, “not only to be recognized and remembered, but applauded and celebrated (16).” Offen actually writes, not about “feminism” but about “feminisms” – a very wide concept which includes conservative, liberal, socialist, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, pacifist, and many other movements. And this is a truly path-breaking work. Most works on the history of feminism have confined themselves to a single national culture, and even the anthologies that have dealt with European women’s history have focused chiefly on the European “great powers” – Britain, France, Germany, Italy. Offen’s work includes these countries but also the many other European nations – for example, Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Switzerland – which are hardly ever included in English-language histories. The research for this book is amazingly broad, including a variety of sources in several languages. And all these diverse histories are integrated into a flowing historical narrative, which is both clear and readable. This international view of European feminism permits many comparative perspectives, which also challenge prevailing views of national feminist movements. For example, the German women’s movement, seen in the shadow of National Socialism and the Holocaust, has often been accused of authoritarian and conservative tendencies – but in fact, the German movement before the First World War was one of Europe’s most progressive. Karen Offen indicates in her title that her focus is on political rather than social history. Thus she does not tell us much about which women were attracted to feminism, and about how this feminist constituency differed in the various countries. This and many other questions remain to be explored. And because she generally rejects the differentiation between “socialist” and “bourgeois” (or middle-class) feminism, class differences among feminists are somewhat underestimated here. Karen Offen has given us an international context in which to explore such questions. Karen Offen believes that this story is relevant not only to scholars but to all readers. The history of feminism can not only instruct but also empower us. “We have an obligation,” she states in her concluding chapter, “not only to contemplate this newly rediscovered history ourselves but to assure its transmission, to the best of our ability, to our daughters and sons, to our grandchildren and to their posterity (394).” This rich and informative work renews our commitment to this important task. – Ann T. Allen

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