The History of Feminism Is Political History Perspectives on History (2022)

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

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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

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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.

Notes

1. Northanger Abbey, 1803, chap. 14.

2. In Joan W. Scott's important article in the American 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 to Women, the Family, and Freedom (1983); in my article "Depopulation, Nationalism, and Feminism in Fin-de-Siècle France," in the American 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. Karen Offen, 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.

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7. See, for example, the 20 pathbreaking, comparative studies in Globalizing Feminisms 1789–1945, ed. Karen Offen (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); and Women, 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's Feminism 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 (www.ifrwh.com ) 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).

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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).

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FAQs

What is feminist perspective in political theory? ›

Feminist political theory is an area of philosophy that focuses on understanding and critiquing the way political philosophy is usually construed and on articulating how political theory might be reconstructed in a way that advances feminist concerns.

What is feminist history answer? ›

Feminist history refers to the re-reading of history from a female perspective. It is not the same as the history of feminism, which outlines the origins and evolution of the feministmovement. It also differs from women's history, which focuses on the role of women in historical events...

What is the history of feminism? ›

The first wave of feminism took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emerging out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage.

Why is it important to understand the history of feminism? ›

Feminist history writing has had important consequences for the women's movement as a whole as well. History writing and women's activism are hence interrelated which sustain and feed each other. The understanding of patriarchy, women's agency is based on historical analysis of gender.

What is the impact of feminism on political theory? ›

Feminist thought has made women aware of their rights and the possibility of improving their lives. It has increased their confidence by revealing the politics in their daily lives and encouraging political and social participation.

What is the main focus of feminism? ›

Feminism is a complex set of ideologies and theories, that at its core seeks to achieve equal social, political, and economic rights for women. Although feminism benefits everyone, its aim is to achieve equality for women, because prioritizing those who are most oppressed means freeing everyone else.

What are the 4 types of feminism? ›

Feminism is a political movement; it exists to rectify sexual inequalities, although strategies for social change vary enormously. There are four types of Feminism – Radical, Marxist, Liberal, and Difference.

How does feminism affect society? ›

The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women's suffrage; greater access to education; more equitable pay with men; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the ...

Why is important that see history from a women's perspectives view and herstory? ›

Looking at history from a feminist perspective is needed to archive the lost stories of forgotten women of the past. It grounds the feminist movement and helps to accentuate sidelined experiences in mainstream narratives.

What feminism means? ›

So what does feminism mean to us? Quite simply, feminism is about all genders having equal rights and opportunities. It's about respecting diverse women's experiences, identities, knowledge and strengths, and striving to empower all women to realise their full rights.

Who was the first feminist in the world? ›

In late 14th- and early 15th-century France, the first feminist philosopher, Christine de Pisan, challenged prevailing attitudes toward women with a bold call for female education.

Why is feminism called feminism? ›

The word feminism itself was first coined in 1837 by French philosopher, Charles Fourier (as féminisme). It originally referred to “feminine qualities or character,” but that sense isn't used any more.

What is the conclusion of feminism? ›

Conclusion. True feminism—feminism that seeks to liberate all women—leads inexorably to solidarity politics, solidarity economics, and r/evolution—a global citizens movement, as described by the Great Transition Initiative.

Who created feminism? ›

Mary Wollstonecraft is seen by many as a founder of feminism due to her 1792 book titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argues for women's education. Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist and French philosopher, is credited with having coined the word "féminisme" in 1837.

What are the benefits of feminism? ›

Gender equitable societies are healthier for everyone. As feminism challenges restrictive gender norms, improvements in women's access to health care, reproductive rights, and protection from violence have positive effects on everyone's life expectancy and well-being, especially children.

What is an example of feminism? ›

Belief in or advocacy of women's social, political, and economic rights, especially with regard to equality of the sexes. Feminism is defined as a movement for equal rights for women. The women who fought to have the right to vote, called Suffragettes, are an early example of feminism.

What are the main types of feminism? ›

Three main types of feminism emerged: mainstream/liberal, radical, and cultural.

Why is feminism still important today? ›

Today's feminist movement is more diverse than ever before. Feminism has become more attentive to the wider range of experiences of those oppressed by gender norms and stereotypes, including men, non-binary and trans people.

How can we help feminism? ›

8 ways to change the course for women's rights
  1. Raise your voice. ...
  2. Volunteer. ...
  3. Start a fundraiser. ...
  4. Attend marches and protests. ...
  5. Donate to women's movements and organisations. ...
  6. Shop smartly. ...
  7. Challenge events. ...
  8. Become a corporate sponsor.
Apr 16, 2019

What are the biggest issue in feminism? ›

The main issues that third wave feminists are concerned about include: sexual harassment, domestic violence, the pay gap between men and women, eating disorders and body image, sexual and reproductive rights, honour crimes and female genital mutilation.

What is the importance of female perspective? ›

Because women bring a perspective that values not only competition but also collaboration to organizations and teams. Because feminine values are an operating system of a modern, social, open economy. And with women's leadership, we can improve not only society, but business as well.

Why do you think history is called history instead of herstory? ›

The term is a neologism since the word "history"—from the Ancient Greek word ἱστορία, or more directly from its Latin derivate historia, meaning "knowledge obtained by inquiry"— is etymologically unrelated to the possessive pronoun his.

What is history in your own words? ›

History is the study of the past – specifically the people, societies, events and problems of the past – as well as our attempts to understand them. It is a pursuit common to all human societies.

Who is called feminist? ›

A feminist is someone who supports equal rights for women. If your brother objects strongly to women being paid less than men for doing the same job, he's probably a feminist. If you believe that women should have the same political, social, and economic rights as men, you are a feminist.

What is the symbol of feminism? ›

The clenched, raised fist combined with a Venus symbol represents Feminism. It is an iconic symbol of the women's liberation movement.

What is another word for feminist? ›

Feminist Synonyms - WordHippo Thesaurus.
...
What is another word for feminist?
suffragettesuffragist
women's rights activistwomen's libber
campaigner of women's rightsadvocate of feminism

How did feminism change the world? ›

Article content. Feminism has altered a whole culture's ideal version of sexual roles. It has changed the professions, most strikingly medicine and law. It has affected how children are raised, how the law deals with domestic life, how corporations and public institutions are staffed.

When was the term feminism first used? ›

In the mid-1800s the term “feminism” was used to refer to “the qualities of females”, and it was not until after the First International Women's Conference in Paris in 1892 that the term, following the French term féministe, was used regularly in English for a belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on ...

What are the four types of feminist theory? ›

There are four types of Feminism – Radical, Marxist, Liberal, and Difference.

What feminism means? ›

So what does feminism mean to us? Quite simply, feminism is about all genders having equal rights and opportunities. It's about respecting diverse women's experiences, identities, knowledge and strengths, and striving to empower all women to realise their full rights.

What is feminism and its types? ›

Three main types of feminism emerged: mainstream/liberal, radical, and cultural. Mainstream feminism focused on institutional reforms, which meant reducing gender discrimination, giving women access to male-dominated spaces, and promoting equality.

What are the different feminist theories? ›

Among the major feminist theories are liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist/socialist feminism, postmodern/poststructuralist feminism, and multiracial feminism.

Who started feminism? ›

Mary Wollstonecraft is seen by many as a founder of feminism due to her 1792 book titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argues for women's education. Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist and French philosopher, is credited with having coined the word "féminisme" in 1837.

How does feminism affect society? ›

The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women's suffrage; greater access to education; more equitable pay with men; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the ...

Who invented feminism? ›

The word feminism itself was first coined in 1837 by French philosopher, Charles Fourier (as féminisme).

Who is called feminist? ›

A feminist is someone who supports equal rights for women. If your brother objects strongly to women being paid less than men for doing the same job, he's probably a feminist. If you believe that women should have the same political, social, and economic rights as men, you are a feminist.

What is an example of feminism? ›

Belief in or advocacy of women's social, political, and economic rights, especially with regard to equality of the sexes. Feminism is defined as a movement for equal rights for women. The women who fought to have the right to vote, called Suffragettes, are an early example of feminism.

What is the symbol of feminism? ›

The clenched, raised fist combined with a Venus symbol represents Feminism. It is an iconic symbol of the women's liberation movement.

What is modern feminism? ›

Modern feminism influences women to constantly fight against the allegedly suppressive patriarchy that has haunted them since the beginning of time instead of inspiring women to become happy individuals who benefit future generations over seeking revenge for the mistreatment of past ages.

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