European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History

By Karen Offen | Go to book overview

10
Feminist Dilemmas in Postwar National Political Cultures

England, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Germany

In the wake of the war trauma and casualties, and with the end of the massive temporary mobilization of women as workers and volunteers for the war effort, debates on the woman question continued to occupy a central place in European political and cultural life. In the postwar reframing of feminist demands, a growing schism developed between those who would insist on women's absolute rights as individuals and those who emphasized women's responsibilities to society as mothers or as workers. In national contexts, were women "persons in their own right," or were they mere cogs--female cogs--in the societal machinery? What should be the relation between women, the family, and freedom in European nation-states? How would feminists frame their answers to these questions, as opponents sought to reduce women to mere breeding machines, to confine them to "separate spheres," or to treat them as a reserve army of labor, turning the tables on feminists' earlier encompassing claims to "mother" all society even as they demanded their rights as individuals?

Feminists throughout Europe debated these issues intensely in the postwar period. Several facts remained paramount: adult women outnumbered adult men in virtually every European country that had participated in the recent World War, and birthrates had continued to decline. Moreover, as political democratization proceeded on a seemingly irresistible course, government leaders had become extremely interested in the size, strength, and well-being of the populations under their control, though they were often reluctant to spend undue amounts of money on measures designed to alleviate perceived shortfalls in these areas. These facts provide a key to understanding how the relationship between women's employment, motherhood, and politics unfolded in the newly emergent nations of Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, and how

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