Publication Date

May 1, 2011


Political, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Is “real solemn history” constituted of “the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page…and hardly any women at all,” as Jane Austen once characterized it in her novel, Northanger Abbey?1 Two hundred years ago, that succinct delineation of political history (and allusion to the absence of women from it) was tellingly true. Today, notwithstanding a few skeptics, the answer to that question can be, “No longer only that.”

Once viewed as “social history,” and more recently studied through the lens of cultural history, the history of feminism is, in fact, political history, or it is (to put it another way) a more expansive history of politics that incorporates women and analyzes gender politics. It foregrounds women’s concerns, perspectives, and efforts to be recognized as integral members of their respective societies. Feminist claims are primarily political claims for change in specific settings; they erupt frequently in times of political unrest. Thus, the history of feminism is a gendered narrative of political history that goes well beyond the adding and stirring in of an occasional queen, a comment on “new woman” fashion, or a photograph of a demonstration for the right to vote. It necessarily expands the very meaning of “political” and of what constitutes “politics.”

Thanks to some 40 years of feminist historical scholarship, the “new” political history is truly “universal” insofar as it can fully embrace the centrality to human societies of the relationships between women and men, including the challenges to male authority in families along with the long-entrenched “male breadwinner” syndrome—all in a framework of developing nation-states and transnational communities. It encompasses efforts to achieve wholesale reform of secular and religious marriage laws, especially concerning women’s access to property rights and the possibility for divorce.

The history of feminism as political history necessarily embraces women’s ongoing quests for educational equity, economic opportunity, civil rights, and political inclusion. It also includes controversies over women’s claims to mobility, to control their own bodies and—very importantly—their fertility, and even their critiques of harmful patterns of male sexual behavior. Historians of feminism have argued that, historically speaking, “the personal is political,” a slogan that authorizes the wholesale rethinking of the “old” history, including the history of politics, and turns it inside out.

In this rethinking of “politics,” historians of feminism highlight the struggle to rebalance the equations of power between the sexes in many diverse human societies by reclaiming publicly expressed criticism of male dominated gender relations as well as political organization and action directed to achieving their goals. In the Western world, such a struggle began in tandem with challenges to kingly rule, which almost immediately also provoked challenges to male dominance in families. The struggle was engendered in the context of a heightened awareness of relations between governors and governed—the “governed” in this case being women who were then embedded in and constrained by male-dominated familial structures. The history of feminism recaptures the gendered critique of the meanings and capaciousness (acquired over centuries) of fundamental concepts in political theory such as democracy, representation, nationality, and citizenship, a critique that gained momentum with the rise of print culture and literacy. It incorporates the gendered critique of concepts such as “rights,” “liberty,” “equality,” and “justice,” all of which came to the fore during the formation of modern nation-states and market economies. Women and a few important male feminist allies took up this language to campaign for acknowledgement of women’s rights within the societies in which they lived and to claim their empowerment, their access to authority, and their inclusion in decisionmaking at every level.

As in the “old” political history, the history of feminism as a “new” political history deals with “real issues” in “real time.” It is “objective” in its attention to dates, sequences of events, names, places, and power struggles; but by interpreting the issues far more broadly and inclusively, it changes our understanding of their significance, thus exposing the biases embedded in the seemingly gender-blind earlier accounts. It also encompasses the history of antifeminism (that is, both the covert and the articulated resistance to women’s emancipation), with which it remains in constant dialogue. It reexamines gender politics ranging from the realm of intimate personal relations to international and transnational women’s organizations and activism, to women’s opposition to war and their promotion of peace. In this scenario, gender is indeed “a useful category of analysis” and does provide “a primary way of signifying relationships of power.”2 But gender also specifically highlights the inequalities in the balance of power that have historically characterized the relationships between women and men. This makes gender a primary category of analysis, which allows us to throw the spotlight on the “sexual politics” (to use Kate Millet’s term) that lie at the heart of, and are inextricable from, human consciousness and human sociopolitical organization.

Many historians now think of feminism’s history as political history.3 In European history, for example, new, integrated, and interdisciplinary narratives of the past have shown how a long tradition of feminist thought and activism developed in constant dialogue with the older, more established subjects of political and intellectual history—from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to the world wars and the breakup of empires.4

Without perceiving the history of feminism as part and parcel of political history, none of us, whether we are researchers, students, or general readers, would realize that from the very beginning of the French Revolution, feminists had challenged the claims made for the “universality” of the Rights of “Man,” that far from evicting women from “politics” into a strictly “private” or “domestic” sphere in 1793, the French revolutionaries actually mandated a new, quasipublic role for women as mother-educators of new generations of citizens, which in other settings became that of “promulgators of a national mother‑tongue.” We could overlook the fact that 19th-century progressives of both sexes, and in virtually every aspiring nation, considered this new role to be the “key to the construction of successful self-governing societies.”5 We might miss the parallel development of and relationships between the mixed-sex campaigns to end black slavery, to emancipate women, to combat government-regulated prostitution, and to end the traffic in women and children, as well as the close though troubled links to the development of socialism and working-class politics (that is, to questions of race and class). We could misunderstand the differential impact on women of laws against association and laws curbing freedom of the press and the imbrication of feminist initiatives with experiments in societal reorganization, as well as efforts to maintain social order and control. We will certainly miss the significance of the Swedish feminist Ellen Key’s prediction in 1904, “The struggle that woman is now carrying on is far more far-reaching than any other; and if no diversion occurs, it will finally surpass in fanaticism any war of religion or race.”6

Finally, we would remain oblivious of the fact that a unifying proposition for fascists of all stripes (Italian, German, Spanish, and so on) in their opposition to the dramatic experiment in altering the sociopolitical relations of the sexes, was their leadership’s fundamental conviction that women should not participate in governmental affairs, except insofar as these exclusively concerned other women; population growth came first. Thus, the “women question” was at the center of state-building concerns, and political figures from Talleyrand and Napoleon to Mussolini and Hitler disagreed fundamentally with the demands of feminists (men and women alike) and did everything in their power to smother their campaigns.

Nowadays feminist historians are writing accounts of the history of feminism in virtually every organized society around the globe.7 These accounts demonstrate that the history of feminism is a wholly gendered political history entangled with network formation (both religious and secular), state-building, national aspirations, and the communications and transportation revolutions of modern times. In these accounts, too, emancipatory changes in the status of women (legal, educational, economic, cultural) are recognized as a prerequisite for building strong nation-states. They likewise demonstrate how feminist women (and men) begin to organize transnationally to bring pressure on nation-states and religious institutions to develop more woman-friendly practices.

Examples include Nancy Hewitt’s re-reading of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention for women’s rights not only in the context of national politics in the United States, but also with an eye to the concurrent European revolutions; Rochelle Ruthchild’s radically revisionist account of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that restores feminist activism to the center; Susan Zimmermann’s problematizing of efforts by international feminist organizations to establish “national” groups within the multinational, multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire; Marilyn Boxer’s analysis of the historically problematic notion of “bourgeois feminism” promoted by socialists during the Second International, and its adverse political consequences not only for feminism and socialism, but for historiography itself; Anne Summers’ account of the international campaigns against the sexual double-standard; the revisionist accounts by Barbara Molony and Louise Edwards of feminist agitation for women’s suffrage in Japan and in China; Ellen Carol DuBois’s analysis of the international feminist organizations’ campaigns to pressure the League of Nations on married women’s nationality laws; Angela Woollacott’s comparative look at the development of Commonwealth and Pan-Pacific feminist organizations; and Ellen Fleischmann’s magisterial survey of the development of women’s movements in four emerging Middle Eastern societies as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. All these essays contribute to an expanded, “new” and more capacious political history, as do a flurry of theme issues of journals and edited books (see the sidebar for a short list of these).

The sources for studying the history of feminism are abundant and growing. Libraries and archives around the world have yielded—and are still yielding—tremendous treasures, both manuscript and printed materials, to document the intricate connection between feminist campaigns and political history. The story is different, though, in every country. In Europe, archives carted off by the Nazis and subsequently by the Russians during the 1940s are being repatriated to their countries of origin, and researchers are finding rich material in these recovered records. Old repositories too are proving to be treasure troves. The League of Nations archives in Geneva, for example, is yielding considerable new material about international feminist campaigns.

What are the challenges in this regard that history teachers encounter, both at the secondary and collegiate levels? Teachers at all levels inevitably face problems of selectivity—what to incorporate and what to leave out when teaching any course. We need to encourage them (and ourselves too, for that matter), therefore, to accommodate the “new,” integrated, and exciting dimension of political history. Both girls and boys, both young women and young men should have access to this expanded knowledge base.

As for the current state and future prospects for the field of political history, it seems clear that the number of researchers interested in the history of feminism as integral to a “new” expanded political history is growing every year, and not solely in the United States.8 That women’s rights are human rights is now a well-established truth. International women’s organizations and their political interventions at the League of Nations and, since 1945, at the United Nations, provide a whole new area of transnational historical research on the history of feminisms that cries out for incorporation into an expanded notion of a “political” world history.9


1. Northanger Abbey, 1803, chap. 14.

2. In Joan W. Scott’s important article in theAmerican Historical Review (December 1986, pages 1053–1075); republished in her book, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

3. While many have articulated the idea, I like to think that I was among the first to do so, in the following articles: with Susan Groag Bell, in the introduction toWomen, the Family, and Freedom (1983); in my article “Depopulation, Nationalism, and Feminism in Fin-de-Siècle France,” in theAmerican Historical Review (1984); and in my essay on 19th-century feminism in the second edition of Renate Bridenthal, et al. ed., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987).

4. See, for example, my own book, European Feminisms 1700–1950: A Political History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), in which gender politics informs and is integrated into a new account of European history.

5. , European Feminisms, preface, xiv.

6. Ellen Key,Love and Marriage, transl. Arthur G. Chater (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911), p. 214; originally published in Swedish as Lifslinjer af Ellen Key, 1904.

7. See, for example, the 20 pathbreaking, comparative studies in Globalizing Feminisms 1789–1945, ed. (London: Routledge, 2010). This book, intended for classroom use, also contains a detailed chronology on international feminism and an extensive supplemental bibliography.

8. Scholars are making similar claims for the necessity of incorporating women’s political theorizing and feminist arguments into the history of political theory and intellectual history. See, for example, Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition, ed. Hilda L. Smith (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Siep Stuurman,François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); andWomen, Gender and Enlightenment, ed. Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), the expressed purpose of which is to bring together scholarship on the history of feminism and that of the Enlightenment. Also, on one leading feminist political theorist, Virginia Sapiro, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Another example is Ann Taylor Allen’sFeminism and Motherhood in Western Europe, 1890–1970: The Maternal Dilemma (Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

9. One has only to look at the newsletters and programs for the conferences of the International Federation for Research in Women’s History ( ) to be impressed by the growth in such topics as well as the increasing number of publications in various languages by scholars of both sexes.

The History of Feminism

A short list of thematic issues and anthologies

Allen, Ann Taylor, Anne Cova, & June Purvis, eds. Special issue: “International Feminisms,” Women’s History Review, 19:4 (September 2010).

Blom, Ida, Karen Hagemann, & Catherine Hall, eds.Gendered Nations: Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Cano, Gabriela. “Revolución, feminismo y ciudadanía en México (1915–1940,” in Historia de las mujeres en Occidente, ed. Georges Duby y Michelle Perrot (Madrid: Taurus, 1993), vol. 10.

DuBois, Ellen Carol, & Katie Oliviero, eds. Special issue: “Circling the Globe: International Feminism Reconsidered, 1920 to 1975,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 32, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2009).

Fauré, Christine, ed.Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women. New York & London: Routledge, 2003.

Gubin, Éliane, Catherine Jacques, Florence Rochefort, Brigitte Studer, Françoise Thébaud, Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, eds.Le Siècle des féminismes. Paris: Les Éditions de l’Atelier, 2004.

Haan, Francisca de, et al., eds. Special issue: “Women’s Movements and Feminisms,” Aspasia: International Handbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women’s and Gender History, vol. 1 (2007);
Hagemann, Karen, Sonya Michel, & Gunilla Budde, eds.Civil Society and Gender Justice: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (New York: Berghahn, 2008).

Hewitt, Nancy A., ed. 2010.No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

Offen, Karen, ed.Globalizing Feminisms 1789–1945 (London: Routledge, 2010).
Paletschek, Sylvia, & Bianka Pietrow-Ennker, “Women’s Emancipation Movements in Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century: Conclusions,” in Women’s Emancipation Movements in the 19th Century, ed. Paletschek & Pietrow-Ennker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

Saurer, Edith, Margareth Lanzinger, Elisabeth Frysak, eds.Women’s Movements: Networks and Debates in Post-communist Countries in the 19th and 20th Centuries. L’Homme, Schriften 13. (Cologne/Weimar/Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2006).

Schöck-Quinteros, Eva, Anja Schüler, Annika Wilmers, Kerstin Wolff, eds. Politische Netzwerkerinnen: Internationale Zusammenarbeit von Frauen 1830–1960, vol 10 in Schriften des Hedwig Hintze-Instituts Bremen (Berlin, Trafo Verlag, 2007).

Karen Offen, a historian who received her PhD from Stanford University, is an independent scholar affiliated as a senior scholar with the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She has published extensively on the history of modern Europe, with particular reference to women's history.

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