European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History

By Karen Offen | Go to book overview

PART III
The Twentieth Century

"In the past," argues the sociologist Gisela Kaplan, "social questions, including women's liberation, have always disappeared from the political agenda when major political events seemed to demand a nation's complete attention." 1 "Disappeared" may put the case too mildly, and "social questions" hardly captures the political import of the issues raised by feminists. It would seem more accurate to label women's emancipation a "political" rather than a "social" question, and to substitute the term "erased" for "disappeared." These substitute terms better describe what happened (at least temporarily) to feminist claims under conditions in which women, even voting women, still wielded little formal political power and where feminist views remained unwelcome. This has been the case in European societies well into the twentieth century, the era of war, revolution and backlash par excellence.

The guns of August 1914 signaled the end of one turbulent era and the beginning of another, an era in which the politics of nation-state building and international rivalries at once acknowledged and began to threaten the possibilities for success of European feminism in myriad and unforeseeable ways. It almost seemed as if those who controlled the guns were attempting to dynamite closed the fissures in the crust of patriarchal institutions that feminists had succeeded during the previous decades in forcing open so wide. Could it be that one of the unspoken objectives of this war was to dam off, even to quench, the dangerous, molten outpouring of feminist aspirations that had so captured the attention of Europeans, and indeed, of the world?

What more compelling political event could there be than war? The new, highly mechanized and increasingly technological modern warfare of the twentieth century, a warfare that requisitions massive national resources in the service of armed might, has repeatedly and powerfully served--perhaps far more than earlier wars--to reposition the sexes by refocusing all eyes on male endeavor and male valor in the service of the nation-in-arms. Feminists were well aware of its implications for relations between the sexes. Two British antiwar suffragists summed up

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