-914: creating the history of a 'global' women's movement

The tendency of women agitators to conceptualize their activities as part of a large transnational, or even global, movement significantly increased around the turn of the century (1880-914). Following the first international women’s congress in Paris in 1878, members of organizations like the International Council of Women (1888) and the International Alliance of Women (1904; originally International Woman Suffrage Association) created and promoted a ‘feminist internationalist’ collective consciousness.10 One, perhaps surprising, vehicle for this was their self-historicization.

During this period, a wave of movement histories appeared, which took the shape of transnational overviews and were interconnected through citations and the authors’ personal networks. In the following, we survey six; three reference works, which claimed scientific validity; and three more programmatic, partisan suffragist histories. We discuss these in their respective ideological contexts, but ultimately show that they promoted the idea of a unified transnational women’s movement through similar exclusions of stories from non-white and underprivileged women. Moreover, both types of histories employed two central narratives which were instrumental to this exclusion.

Reference works

Theodore Stanton’s The Woman Question in Europe (1884), Helene Lange and Gertrud Baumer’s Geschichte der Frauen in den Kulturländern (1901) and Käthe Schir-macher’s Féminisme aux Etats-Unis, en France, dans la Grande Bretagne, en Suède et en Russie (1898) were presented as reliable reference works which could serve as information sources for readers who were, as Lange and Bäumer worried, too busy to study their movement’s history individually.11 A closer look, however, reveals the underlying operations of exclusion by which they achieved semblances of transnational coherence. The ideas of transnational coherence these volumes presented were legitimated and authorized by various formal and compositional strategies: their contributors were authoritative scholarly or veteran voices, they presented statistical information, and/or they directed readers to further readings.

Theodore Stanton, famous American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s son, published The Woman Question in Europe in 1884. Mainly intended for American audiences,12 it contains a collection of contributions on the history of the women’s movement in various European countries, written by prominent movement actors such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and accompanied by an introduction by well-known Anglo-Irish reformist author Frances Power Cobbe. The eminent activist standing of all the contributors within the women’s movement is emphasized not only in the introduction, but also in a lengthy biographical note opening each chapter.

The Woman Question in Europe shows a tension between the desire to conceptualize the women’s movement as transnational and multi-vocal, and the suffrage-organizational need to keep tight control over the definition of women’s progress, defined as an outgrowth of Western liberal progress. In her introduction, Frances Cobbe suggests that women’s political awakening should be seen on a global scale, characterizing it as a ‘uniform impetus’ which ‘has taken place within living memory among the women of almost every race on the globe [and] has stirred an entire sex, even half the human race.’ She posits that political franchise is the single ‘crown and completion of the progress,’ discerning the same shape in the mobilization of each national context.13 Cobbe’s narrowing of the impulse to think globally to a specific white Western narrative is especially apparent when she suggests that feminists should not ally themselves with what she considers ‘experiments fraught with difficulty and danger;’ the extension of suffrage to men of‘alien races,’ supposedly untrained in civil liberty.14

This reterritorialization can be observed throughout the collection. Stanton groups his chapters in an ‘ethnological order,’13 beginning with England and ending with a single chapter on the ‘Orient.’ This last chapter is itself again ‘hierarchically’ divided; Athens-educated, fiercely Greek-nationalist contributor Kalliope Kehaya distinguishes between Greek women in Greece, Christian Greek women under a ‘foreign yoke,’ and ‘Oriental’ women, including Ottomans and Jews. 6 Whereas Europe is presented as increasingly rich in liberal women activists, Oriental women are presented as not just irrelevant to this history, but to history in general: ‘I shall say but little concerning these latter races, for their women are in a state of lamentable inactivity which offers almost nothing worthy of record.’17 The Woman Question in Europe claims to describe a universal movement that ‘unites’ all women. However, it does so by using imperialistic and racialized categories of civic, political, and economic progress as emanating from Europe. Its ambition to make the women’s movement universal was based on the exclusion of women’s experiences that did not conform to this model.

Helene Lange and Gertrud Bäumer’s Geschichte der Frauen in den Kulturländern was published in 1901, as the first part of a four-volume Handbuch der Frauenbewegung.

The editors collected contributions detailing the history of the movement in 15 European countries, as well as Russia and the US. They professed the hope that, by providing a handbook, they could unite women’s individual efforts into a larger movement:

So many work industriously on little tasks, without connecting these to the grand goal, which they too help achieve, and some stand at the rudder without having a compass, exploring opportunities for development, where they haven’t learned, from the history of the movement, its developmental laws.18

They explain that they privileged coherence over detail since they wanted their readers to grasp the broader developmental narrative: ‘The expanded propaganda is more prone to lead one astray, than to orient her.’19 This coherent narrative aimed to demonstrate that the women’s movement was not a simple side-effect of economic progress, but originated in women’s rising awareness, which the editors, with a Whiggish perception of history, deemed inevitable.20 The political context the authors imagined for their book becomes clear from remarks about the hope they feel that their arguments will support moderate, but persistent work toward making all women aware of their position, over ‘noisy agitation.’21 Lange and Baumer belonged to the more moderate women’s movement in Germany and were in their writing and publishing keenly aware of the socialist and radical competition.22

Käthe Schirmacher’s comparative study, Féminisme aux États-Unis, en France [etc.] (1898) sought to portray the women’s movement as a phenomenon that could be sociologically explained. Schirmacher argued that different degrees of feminist mobilization could be explained by societal difference, looking at population, economic strengths, and political differences. Her introduction stressed the importance of factual and statistical accuracy, as well as detailed contextual-ization, over reading pleasure.23

Though making the universalist argument that ‘feminism is an international movement which is [...] born from the same intellectual, moral and economic causes,’24 Schirmacher stressed the diversity of the feminist impulse in each European country by ending her chapters with a note on the specific praiseworthy characteristics of women’s mobilization in that country. This way, she conceptualized national differences as a source of inspiration for a unified cause.23 However, this generous view of difference is limited to Western middle-class traditions. Schirmacher is not interested in working classes, contending that, with the exception of France, no socialist feminism exists.26 Nor do non-Western contexts pique her interest; she presents Russia as a victim of ‘certain Oriental influences’ to explain its supposed developmental lag.27

Schirmacher had visited the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, at which various ‘congresses’ and ‘parliaments’ gathered representatives and visitors from all over the world.28 She had spoken at the World’s Congress of Representative Women, at which Anna Cooper also spoke. Yet aside from a statistic on African American women’s literacy rates,29 her analysis does not mention Black or Asian women, and her explanatory schemes are not interested in non-Western contexts. It is apparent that these ‘reference works’ of international feminism, which ostensibly aimed to facilitate, for their readers, a more objective and scholarly engagement with the past, encouraged major blindnesses.

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