European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History

By Karen Offen | Go to book overview

Prologue

History, Memory, and Empowerment

The campaign to end women's subordination to men that we call feminism is an ongoing, recurring, enduring political project, with deep roots in the European past. Feminisms, in the plural, can be documented in many European societies, past and present; in some societies they become a central and recurrent feature of political cultures, of European thought and politics. Feminist thought and action do not stand outside--or on the periphery of--the so-called Western tradition; they are integral to it. 1

That these claims should have to be forcefully stated, that they have not been long acknowledged, reflects the obliteration of an extraordinary struggle, one of continuing importance to women and men today, whether they reside in Europe or far beyond Europe's boundaries. When the history of feminisms is incorporated into the history of European thought and politics, our understanding of the European past--and of its pertinence for our own present and future--is radically altered. Why, then, do we know so little about it? How did this knowledge become lost? Or might it be that we have been denied knowledge of the feminist tradition?

One answer lies in the account we have been handed of "Western thought" and politics, and what and how we have been taught to think Western thought (and politics) is. When reconsidered critically, from the perspective of feminist concerns, and with a whole new archive of recovered knowledge, the past looks different. No longer do we see a long, linear sequence of dynasties, wars, conquests, revolutions, or grand, overarching trends, such as the rise of the bourgeoisie, of capitalism, of the nation-state. No longer do we encounter a seamless history of great ideas generated by the grand old men of Western philosophy. What we encounter is far more intriguing--a long, irregular, but significant series of controversies, of debates, of competing factions, of advances, setbacks, defeats, and occasional victories, and not only of the conventionally ac-

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