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Laura E. Nym Mayhall

Feminism is frequently defined as the collective organization of women on behalf of women. In this respect, feminism serves as a subject of social history. But European feminism, properly understood, engages with intellectual, political, and cultural history as well, for feminism historically has been both political ideology and social movement. The development of feminism coincided with and was part of the global expansion of Europe, the emergence of political liberalism, and the growth of capitalism from the fifteenth century. Feminism, like other systematic critiques and ideologies such as liberalism, has become part of the common discourse of many cultures in the West, but its legacy and inheritance are often confused with contemporary meanings.

While the term "feminism" did not enter usage in Europe until the 1880s, the concept remains useful as a way of thinking about women's power and political authority since the Renaissance. The historians Tjitske Akkerman and Siep Stuurman have identified three criteria for feminist activity: a critique of misogyny and male superiority, a challenge to the putative naturalness of women's oppression, and an awareness of gender solidarity and the desire to speak on behalf of women. Drawing upon these guidelines, we can speak of feminist traditions, or feminisms, but must be careful to define those traditions historically, within the context of their time and with reference to other contemporary ideologies and developments.

We have only to look to the ancient Greeks for evidence of a long history of skirmishing between the sexes. Aristophanes's Lysistrata, after all, makes high comedy of this antagonism, positing a scenario where women uphold their respect for life by withholding sex from their men at war. Yet we would be mistaken to see in such gender solidarity the seeds of a feminist consciousness. The texts of the ancients are useful, however, for establishing the extents and limits of the feminist impulse as forged within the European tradition. Through the adoption by early Christians of selected elements of Greek and Roman culture, and the rediscovery of ancient texts by humanists in the Renaissance, Europeans inherited certain ways of thinking about relations between the sexes, which rooted male superiority in mythology, science, and the law. Only after women had attained levels of education sufficient to leave traces upon the historical record, however, did they register objections to this sexual hierarchy and their subordinate status within it. Modern feminism, therefore, can be traced to the Renaissance, when a few highly educated women protested the deprecation of their sex.


Renaissance feminism produced a set of cultural discourses, participated in by men and women, about women's power and authority. A long tradition of discussion of women's inferiority existed within classical and Christian texts. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued for a duality of human nature, positing the intrinsic superiority of the active masculine principle over the passive feminine. The inferiority of women relative to men underlay medieval theology, philosophy, and medicine. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, however, developments in Europe created conditions within which a number of increasingly educated and articulate women would challenge these cultural assertions of women's inferiority. The Renaissance's celebration of human potential, and the Protestant Reformation's elevation of individual spirituality, gave rise to a feminist consciousness. The development of an urban, educated elite created a constituency for the dissemination of these new ideas.

From the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, in what became known as the querelles des femmes (disputes about women), the educated daughters of humanists, businessmen, and clergy wrote to counter arguments for female inferiority and subordination to men. Christine de Pisan's Livre de la cité des dames (Book of the city of ladies; 1405) marks the first significant contribution of a woman to this debate. While historians disagree about the precise origins of feminism in the early modern period, the aesthetic beauty and analytic rigor of Pizan's text make it an important point of departure for discussions of European feminism. Pisan (c. 1364–1430) argued that the education and training of women, not their natures, made them inferior to men. She argued for women's inborn equality with men, based on women's virtue, a point she illustrated with reference to prominent women from the Bible, fables, and history. Women's subordination, she asserted, resulted not from women's natural inferiority but from men's envy of women's virtue. Only cultural customs and practices perpetuated women's position relative to men's.

A number of European women elaborated upon these arguments, including the French writer Marie de Gournay (1566–1645), the Venetian poet Lucrezia Marinella (1571–1653), and the British playwright Aphra Behn (1640–1689). These early feminists wrote in a variety of genres, each contradicting notions of women's inferiority inherited from classical authors and Christian texts and arguing that women were fully human, not restricted by their natures or biology. This early feminist movement was largely literary and philosophical and did not involve ordinary women in large numbers. However, as historians have shown, an impressive number of feminist texts were produced between 1400 and 1688, with a predominance of texts by Italian authors in the fifteenth century, and from Britain, France, and the German-speaking lands in the sixteenth century. Thus, for over two hundred years, Renaissance feminism generated vibrant debate about the status of women relative to men.


New ways of discussing the power and authority of women emerged during the Enlightenment movement that swept all of Europe in the late seventeenth century. Discussion of "women's nature" took place within the context of a rationalist, scientific discourse; changing conceptions of political obligation; and the worldwide imperial expansion of Europe. Enlightenment feminism represented a veritable explosion of feminist discourse and a shift in argumentation from early critiques of misogyny to specific proposals for freeing women from men's control. Women participated in Enlightenment feminist discourse in greater numbers as well, as hostesses for intellectual exchange in salons and as authors and readers. The period witnessed dramatic increases in literacy among European women (from 14 to 27 percent in some regions), in the publication of books, periodicals, and tracts by women authors, and in private book ownership.

Revolutions in science and politics and the global expansion of Europe challenged hierarchical assumptions about women's natural inferiority. Applying the French philosopher René Descartes's critique of ordinary experience to social life, the Frenchman François Poulain de la Barre argued in the 1670s for a distinction between the sexed body and the unsexed mind. John Locke's contract theory, which replaced divine authority with that of natural rights, not only limited the power of monarchs, it also established the marital relationship as a voluntary agreement entered into by consenting partners. The expansion of Europe into Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the New World led to comparative analyses of women across cultures and set enlightened Europe on a mission to civilize the rest of the world. An emerging feminism was part of the gospel.

Enlightenment feminists critiqued three aspects of women's subordination, proposing alternatives to existing structures. All three expanded the scope of the Enlightenment's challenge to tradition and to institutions of church and state. First, men and women examined the idea that husbands possessed natural authority over their wives. The English writer Mary Astell, the French jurist Montesquieu, and the French novelists Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni and Jeanne-Marie le Prince de Beaumont argued that male dominion in marriage violated natural law and human equality. Second, debate about women's education emerged in response to the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau's didactic novels of the 1760s,Émile and Julie, in which Rousseau proposed that the ideal education for women prepared them to serve men. Feminist writers such as Charlotte Nordenflycht in Sweden, Mary Astell in England, and Josefa Amar y Borbón in Spain asserted women's intellectual capacity and their unique moral and maternal qualifications for educating citizens. Third, the controversy over women's political authority gave rise to a quantity of prescriptive literature, in every European context, advising women to be virtuous and obedient, and a less prolific but influential set of texts asserting women's capacity for public office, military service, and voting.

Enlightenment feminism bequeathed a complex legacy to subsequent generations. Largely a cultural and political discourse engaging elite women, it nevertheless gave women access to universal notions of justice, equality, and freedom, while simultaneously emphasizing women's difference from men. Never a large-scale social movement, Enlightenment feminism created a discourse among educated men and women that celebrated women's sexual difference while rejecting traditional notions of sexual hierarchy.


The French Revolution marks a turning point in the modern history of European feminism. The Revolution's political theory engaged directly with the power and authority of women, and for the first time, a wide cultural discourse about women's citizenship emerged in France in which women played a large role. The French Revolution was only part of a wave of democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, in the Americas and Europe, in which bourgeois men articulated political grievances that were then extended by some women and men on behalf of women. Nevertheless, the French Revolution left an ambiguous legacy for feminism. The Revolution never fulfilled its promise, for women or men, but women's experience of participation in politics, and the set of rich and controversial texts inherited by the next century, circulated feminist ideas across Europe and indeed around the world.

Between 1789 and 1792 in France, changes in the legal status of women and their practice of active citizenship opened new possibilities for women in political life. The Revolution introduced legislation endowing women with legal rights unprecedented in Europe, including the right to own property and sign contracts in their own names. Divorce was also legalized for the first time. The expansion of women's civil identities granted them the standing, in name if not in fact, of citizenship. Women then claimed the rights of citizenship through membership in women's revolutionary clubs, formed in Paris as part of the wider club movement of the Revolution, but which eventually emphasized women's emancipation more specifically. In 1791 women addressed the National Assembly on behalf of women's rights as citizens, and in 1792 some women went so far as to claim the natural right of organizing themselves within armed units of the National Guard. On the streets, before the legislature, and in their own organizations, women challenged the Revolution's designation of women as passive—i.e., nonvoting—citizens and claimed for themselves the perquisites of active citizenship. Encouraged by revolutionary leaders in Paris, for a time women's participation in the momentous events of the Revolution promised them a new status as social and political actors.

The French Revolution was not only a social movement, however; it was also a literary and cultural movement. The Revolution inspired a flood of writing across Europe, in every genre, much of which addressed the relationship of women to civil society. Three texts in particular defined the juridical, political, and social aspects of women's condition into the next century. The marquis de Condorcet argued on strictly legal grounds for the inclusion of women in the political process in On the Admission of Women to the Rights of the City (1790). In The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), the French playwright and monarchist Olympe de Gouges revised the revolutionary manifesto of September 1791 to include women, thereby revealing the implicit exclusion of women from the ostensibly universal language of the early Revolution. The English author Mary Wollstonecraft argued, in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), for the inclusion of women's virtues into social life. All of these texts exemplify the complex legacy of the French Revolution for feminism as women sought to force ostensibly universal definitions of citizenship to include the particularity of women's sexual difference. These texts and others also made analogies between sex and other forms of difference, including race, to demonstrate the reality of the embodiment of rights rather than their purely abstract expression.

Feminist success during the Revolution in appropriating masculine standards and active citizenship was short-lived, however. The fall of the monarchy in August 1792 and the triumph of the radical Jacobins in May 1793 led to the suppression of women's political clubs and social organizations later that year. By 1804, consolidation of French law under the Napoleonic Code legislated women's subordination, revoking civil rights gained earlier. Nonetheless, the French Revolution, by making the status of women a central component of democratic revolutions, by briefly changing women's status before the law, and by allowing women to act as citizens, left a record against which feminist activity would be measured into the next century.


Utopian feminism developed from within three different social movements of early-nineteenth-century Europe: socialism, evangelical revivals, and democratic and nationalist movements. These strands of utopian feminism grew out of male radical movements, and all appropriated language and imagery from these movements on behalf of women's emancipation. The term "utopian" was one used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848) to contrast their own scientific, materialist understanding of socialism with earlier European movements for social justice. "Utopian" in this context thus refers to a range of early-nineteenth-century movements working toward the radical transformation of society. Utopian feminism marked a movement away from the French Revolution's emphasis upon individual and civil rights, to imagining new forms of social organization, of work and family life, of production and reproduction.

Utopian socialist movements in England and France connected women's oppression to economic and political concerns. Groups of men and women following charismatic leaders devoted themselves to the creation of new social orders based on cooperation, love, and peace. In the 1820s and 1830s, groups of Saint-Simonians, Fourierists, and Owenites grew and thrived in England, France, Egypt, and the Americas, with flowerings in Spain and Italy in the 1840s. Women working within these movements theorized connections between women's sexual subordination and the social and economic oppression of class. They drew analogies between bourgeois marriage, prostitution, and slavery, and they implemented innovative cooperative measures for child care and domestic labor.

Utopian socialist feminists focused upon women's difference from men and upon the social and economic consequences of women's sexual subordination. Irish Owenists William Thompson and Anna Doyle Wheeler addressed women's sexual repression in relationship to their lack of political representation. In an 1825 manifesto entitled Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, they argued against the notion that women's interests were subsumed under their husbands', countering that women should have equality of political representation. Thompson and Wheeler argued as well for the collectivization and mechanization of labor to aid women in child care and, ultimately, for the abolition of the wage relation through the eradication of private capital.

Evangelical revivals in Europe, both Protestant and Catholic, produced other groupings of utopian feminists. Religious dissenters formed breakaway groups in which men and women developed social and political critiques of women's roles in modern society. These included the Radical Utilitarians in London, Quaker prayer meetings in the United States and Britain, charity organizations in Holland and Switzerland, and Free Protestants and German Catholics in the German-speaking lands. Members of these groups considered new modes of social organization, giving women leadership roles in their communities. Women sat on councils, edited journals, circulated petitions, and worked for adult education. Radical Utilitarians in Britain went so far as to argue for the inclusion of female suffrage on the Chartist platform of demands in the 1840s. Involvement of these evangelical organizations in the international antislavery movement imbued their rhetoric with a vocabulary with which they could discuss domestic relationships; analogies between women's condition and that of chattel slaves frequently characterized their critique of women's position in society. Feminists in subsequent organizations would claim the movement of women on behalf of the abolition of slavery as an important precursor to later feminist activity.

A final grouping of utopian feminists grew out of the democratic and nationalist movements flourishing during the 1848 revolutions in Europe. Working- and middle-class women in the German-speaking lands, in Poland, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, formed political clubs and mobilized around a variety of issues, including the abolition of serfdom and the future emancipation of their nation-states. Women also played a central role in the radical democratic Chartist movement in England. While much of this feminist activity was stimulated by concern for the deplorable social conditions arising out of early industrialization, its focus was upon democratic issues and bridging social distance between women of the middle and working classes. The failure of the 1848 revolutions to effect real, democratic change signaled the collapse of these feminists' attempts at social and political transformation.


By 1850, what contemporaries called "the woman question" had entered mainstream political debate and shaped a range of social and political questions. From the growing political assertiveness of the middle class and the end of cross-class political coalitions after the revolutions of 1848 emerged a feminist movement at midcentury with largely liberal, evangelical Protestant, middle-class proponents and goals. The mid-nineteenth-century movement was the first mass organization of feminism as a social movement, mobilizing thousands of women across Europe in a number of different causes. These middle-class women organized on behalf of women's rights, attacked the subordinate legal status of women, and challenged women's exclusion from higher education and professional employment. They mounted moral reform campaigns against prostitution and felt empowered to speak for other women, exploiting growing European empires abroad for professional development in fields like teaching and medicine.

Liberal feminists across Europe engaged in a variety of efforts at expanding the civil status of women. Reform of the divorce laws and of laws regarding married women's property and custody of children figured prominently in the midcentury movement. Feminists viewed education as a central component of elevating women's status and made the secondary education of girls, and then the university education of young women, a priority of their activism. Educational reform and a demographic situation of "surplus" women at midcentury led to widening expectations of and demands for women's professional opportunities. The period between 1850 and 1920 witnessed a flowering of suffrage campaigns, beginning in Norway in the 1830s, France in the 1840s, and Britain and Sweden in the 1850s. By the turn of the century, European women participated actively in political life at the local level and pressed for inclusion at the national level.

Feminists mobilized also in the realm of social reform, with women's philanthropic work bridging the gap between feminism and bourgeois society. The diagnosis of prostitution as a social problem in the 1860s and 1870s prompted liberal evangelical Protestants in England and Switzerland, and Catholics and freethinkers in Paris, to form the International Abolitionist Federation in Geneva in 1877 for the eradication of prostitution. Feminists mounted numerous social purity campaigns across Europe, urging an end to the sexual victimization of women and the adoption of a universal and strict moral code among men and women.

Feminists combined these political and moral imperatives in campaigns that simultaneously expanded the roles of middle-class European women in colonial contexts and engaged them as imperial actors. Arguing for the right and obligation of women's participation in the imperial nation, feminists in Germany, Britain, and France sought positions as doctors and teachers in Europe's Asian and African colonies. British feminists based arguments for women's suffrage on the assertion of white women's responsibilities to their less advantaged sisters and brothers of color.

The textual production of liberal feminism exceeded the output of earlier periods. The feminist press, important throughout the nineteenth century for circulating ideas and creating community, flourished in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Britain from the 1860s. Important feminist theorists of this period included the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose Subjection of Women (1869) analyzed the marital relationship as potentially analogous to both slavery and tyranny and urged the enfranchisement of women as remedy. The French dramatist Ernest Legouvé argued in Histoire morale des femmes (The moral history of women; 1849) for the protection of separate but equal spheres in family and social life and for reforms in education and the law on the grounds of women's maternal function.

"NEW WOMEN," 1890–1918

By the late nineteenth century, the expanding political activism of working- and middle-class women, an increase in the number of women who never married, and a marked decline in the European birthrate fostered cultural anxiety about women's changing roles. New conceptions of women emerged, along with bolder feminist critiques of marriage and women's role within the family. Feminists organized nationally and internationally on behalf of women's political rights in suffrage movements across Europe and the white settler colonies, in defense of women's economic opportunities in socialist organizations, and in support of their sisters at home and abroad. Some national variations continued in the strengths and arguments of feminist movements, for example between countries of Protestant and those of Catholic traditions.

The "New Woman" figured largely as a literary type in the fiction of the 1890s and served as a vehicle for discussing changing expectations about women. At the heart of the "New Woman" controversy raged a debate about marriage, begun in 1879 with A Doll's House, the Swedish playwright Henrik Ibsen's shocking portrayal of the spiritual and moral vacuum at the heart of bourgeois marriage. Ibsen's critique was reiterated by the English suffragist Cicely Hamilton, whose 1909 Marriage as a Trade argued that marriage differed from prostitution only in the social approval attached to its status. Concern about the fate of bourgeois marriage was linked to anxieties about the falling birthrate. Since the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1871, European nations had understood military preparedness as a function of the available conscripts. Contemporaries pointed to declining birthrates among bourgeois families, falling most precipitously in France, from twenty-six per thousand in 1870 to twelve per thousand in 1918. Feminists joined the state in proposing maternal endowment as a way to solve the population problem. Feminists in Britain, France, and Italy walked a difficult line as they sought to improve conditions for mothers, protect children, attain state recognition for female work and values, and challenge the exclusive power of fathers over women and children.

While discussion of issues like sexuality and reproduction became more pointed in the feminist and mainstream press, women's political activism itself took more extreme forms. Suffrage militancy, most pronounced in Great Britain but emulated around the world, included violence against property and various forms of passive resistance, such as resistance to registration by the census and to payment of taxes. Inspired by August Bebel's best-selling text, Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and socialism; 1879), which argued that women's oppression, like class oppression, was rooted in historical circumstance and hence could be overcome, working- and lower-middle-class feminists in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia mobilized in ever larger numbers in socialist organizations. And middle-class women throughout Europe discovered new opportunities to act on behalf of the public good through the philanthropic work they pursued in secular and religious organizations. Women's work on behalf of other women and children gave them valuable managerial experience and created ambiguous zones between home and public life, zones later filled by the activities of welfare states.

The late nineteenth century produced unprecedented international feminist cooperation. The formation of transnational feminist organizations was spurred by the continuing expansion of Europe into Africa and the Indian subcontinent and by the desire of European women to speak for women of color. European feminists, however, cast their efforts in universalist language as the creation of a global sisterhood. To name but the largest of these organizations, feminists organized to gain women's rights around the world in the International Council of Women (1888) and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1904), and in opposition to war in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1915). Many of these organizations expanded beyond their original mandates in the years following World War I, gradually becoming more inclusive and less hierarchical.


In the years following World Wars I and II, feminism in Europe was framed within the context of maternity as women struggled to reconcile their roles as wives and mothers with a desire for political and economic independence. Women negotiated the meanings of motherhood against a backdrop of tremendous loss and anxiety—about the continuation of democracy after World War I, and the future of Europe after World War II. The loss of life experienced by European nations during the World War I gave impetus to postwar concern about the birthrate, while the emerging disciplines of psychology and sexology encouraged the development of heterosexual companionate marriage. Feminists continued their campaigns to expand the democratic franchise to include women. Historians have seen this period as one of relative decline for feminist activity, but the quantity of research demonstrates the extent to which feminist organizations and institutions were maintained and developed.

In the period between the wars, feminists across Europe argued that women's economic dependence upon men contributed to women's lack of employment opportunities and the devaluation in status of women's unwaged labor in the home. Campaigns for both equal employment opportunities and family endowment benefits for mothers and children emerged from this analysis. Much feminist activity of the interwar years was devoted to fighting new restrictions on married women's work and to expanding the range of possibilities for women's professional development. A major shift in marital relations became apparent with the success of Marie Stopes's 1918 best-seller, Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties, which sold 200,000 copies in its first two weeks, and a million by 1939. Stopes set as a goal the births of only happy, healthy, and desired children. She viewed birth control as a means to improve maternal health and advocated contraceptive use only for married women. Stopes opened numerous birth control clinics in Britain. Similar work was done in France after World War II by the Association Maternité Heureuse (Happy motherhood association), which led the fight to reform a 1920 law banning contraception. Feminists in these years approached the question of contraception as a women's health issue rather than a question of rights. Companionate marriage, mutually pleasurable sexual relations, and controlled fertility, while becoming part of feminist thinking for the first time, were not beliefs widely held by feminists, and would not become so until the years following World War II.

The most influential feminist text published during these years was Simone de Beauvoir's Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex ; 1949). Beauvoir took on women's oppression within the private sphere, critiquing the limitations of marriage, the family, and housework in women's lives. The influence of The Second Sex, however, was felt only in the generation of women coming of age during the next phase of feminism, the women's liberation movement. Far more characteristic of the period was Women's Two Roles (1956), an attempt by Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein to reconcile women's waged work and familial responsibilities.


The resurgence of feminist activity around the world in the late 1960s is frequently referred to as "second wave feminism," implicitly connecting late-twentieth-century feminism with earlier campaigns for women's political rights, most notably for the suffrage. The women's liberation movement, however, grew from the specific historical circumstances of Europe after World War II. Stagnation of male wages and European commitment to fair competition for men and women in the workforce made waged labor for women increasingly desirable and, indeed, in many cases imperative. The development of a contraceptive pill gave women control over their fertility and meant that for the first time in human history, women could decide to have sexual relations without unwanted pregnancies. The women's liberation movement was part of a number of protest movements known as the "New Left," which emerged in the period of affluence characteristic of European nations after 1960. Women active in organizations of students, trade unionists, and antiwar activists experienced great frustration with men's inability to recognize women's sexual oppression as an issue.

The women's liberation movement utilized consciousness-raising as a means of educating women about the political dimensions of their own experiences. "The personal is political," the movement's slogan, exemplified feminists' attempt to raise awareness of the political significance of issues traditionally deemed outside of politics, such as sexuality and reproduction. Feminists fought for access to contraception and abortion, against the sexual victimization of women, and for an end to discrimination against lesbians in the arenas of employment, health care, and child custody. Ecofeminism explicitly linked women's condition to that of the earth, with large numbers of women belonging to and supporting the Green Party in Germany and protesting the United States' cruise missile installation at Greenham Common in England.

By 1980, feminism had entered mainstream European culture and had become a familiar concept in most countries. In the 1980s more than half a million women in West Germany, France, and Italy marched in favor of abortion rights. The United Nations declared the years from 1975 to 1985 the decade of women, sponsoring conferences in Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi, where the public visibility of women's issues and networks of activists brought women's condition before the world. And in Germany by the end of the decade, abortion rights became a significant issue in negotiations over national unification.

This phase of feminist activity implemented forms of protest used by other New Left movements, including spontaneous demonstrations. More organized campaigns, such as the "Reclaim the Night" marches in England and West Germany in 1977 and Italy in 1978, drew attention to the effect of violence against women upon their personal freedom. Feminists also engaged in acts of civil disobedience, as in the 1972 open letter to the French press signed by three hundred women, attesting to their procurement of illegal abortions. The women's liberation movement largely sought change peacefully, with notable exceptions like the Italian group Rivolta Femminile, which argued that feminism and pacifism were not synonymous. Like other feminist movements before it, the women's liberation movement produced its own journals, magazines, books, and celebrities. And like earlier movements, this phase of feminism generated not only critiques of women's oppression but also alternative ways of analyzing the world. The creation of entirely new fields of inquiry, like women's studies in the university curriculum, is perhaps its most lasting legacy.

The women's liberation movement generated a number of texts analyzing the sexual and psychological dimensions of women's oppression and emancipation. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970) explored male supremacy in European and American literature. In Woman's Estate (1971), Juliet Mitchell continued the tradition of linking women's subordination to other forms of oppression, such as class. Feminists also grappled with the oppression of race, particularly within feminism itself. The 1981 essay by the black British feminist Hazel Carby, "White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood," challenged the implicit whiteness of feminist theory. French and Italian feminists, in particular, celebrated women's sexual difference in texts such as Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (This sex which is not one; 1977), by the French philosopher and linguist Luce Irigaray.


Opponents and proponents of contemporary feminism alike frequently characterize the 1980s and 1990s as postfeminist. With the institutionalization of women's studies in universities, attainment of voting rights for European women, reform of divorce and marriage laws, and the integration of feminist activists into mainstream politics, many people believe that feminism has reached the end of its trajectory as a protest movement. Yet many men and women claiming to be feminists would see in the term "post-feminism" a less sanguine assessment of feminism's accomplishments. Many feminists profess disillusionment with the gains women have made, pointing to the double burden of waged and household labor borne by most women of the working and middle classes. Women's roles in families, they argue, remain largely unchanged, with few men willingly accepting equal domestic responsibilities. Feminists also claim dissatisfaction with women's gains in the political sphere, pointing to the relatively small number of female representatives in the political process at both local and national levels in every European country. Finally, tensions exist between feminists in first- and third-world countries over cultural practices such as clitoridectomy and veiling, leading to a disavowal by many of the notion of a global sisterhood, for European feminists a unifying conceit since the mid-nineteenth century.

Yet perhaps the measure of feminism's accomplishments should be the extent to which it has become part of common public discourse. While many women claim not to be feminists, they simultaneously assert their right to the independence, equal rights, and sexual pleasure feminists have claimed for themselves over preceding generations. If the history of feminism can instruct us as to its future, then we can predict that a tension will remain always within feminism between women's sexual difference and their desire for equality, and feminism will reinvent itself continually in relationship to contemporary ideologies, current issues, and national concerns.

See alsoThe Family and the State; Sexual "Revolutions" (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


Primary Works

Bell, Susan Groag, and Karen M. Offen, eds. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents. 2 vols. Stanford, Calif., 1983.

Bono, Paola, and Sandra Kemp, eds. Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader. Oxford, 1991.

Gordon, Felicia, and Máire Cross. Early French Feminisms, 1830–1940: A Passion for Liberty. Brookfield, Vt., and Cheltenham, U.K., 1996.

Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, and Steven C. Hause, eds. Feminisms of the Belle Epoque: A Historical and Literary Anthology. Lincoln, Nebr., 1994.

Secondary Works

Akkerman, Tjitske, and Siep Stuurman, eds. Perspectives on Feminist Political Thought in European History: From the Middle Ages to the Present. London, 1998.

Bridenthal, Renate, Susan Mosher Stuard, and Merry E. Weisner, eds. Becoming Visible: Women in European History. 3d ed. New York, 1998.

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Daley, Caroline, and Melanie Nolan, eds. Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives. New York, 1994.

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Frevert, Ute. Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation. Translated by Stuart McKinnon-Evans. Oxford, 1989.

Herzog, Deborah. Intimacy and Exclusion: Religious Politics in Pre-Revolutionary Baden. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

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Kaplan, Gisela. Contemporary Western European Feminism. New York, 1992.

Koven, Seth, and Sonya Michel, eds. Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States. New York, 1993.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Anna Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington, Ind., 1991.

Moses, Clare Goldberg. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany, N.Y., 1984.

Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 1700–1950: A Political History. Stanford, Calif., 1999.

Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France, and the United States, 1780–1860. London, 1984.

Riley, Denise. Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History. Basingstoke, U.K., 1987.

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Sinha, Mrinalini, Donna J. Guy, and Angela Woollacott, eds. Gender and History 10, no. 3 (1998). Special issue: "Feminisms and Internationalism."

Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. New York, 1983.

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