Globalizing Feminisms, 1789-1945

May 20, 2010

Over the past two decades, historians of women's history have shown an increasing interest in the multiplicity of "feminisms" that have emerged globally. This fascinating collection brings together for the first time a diverse range of these scholarly contributions to form a thought-provoking volume that focuses on women's activism worldwide.

In the introduction, Karen Offen explains that the selected articles all focus on comparative developments in more than one national context (or in one national context across time), raise questions about transitional feminist organising, and challenge and transform our understanding of historical issues that had formerly been addressed from male-centred, purely national perspectives.

The unifying theme of the rich material presented here is women's campaigns for citizenship in male-dominated societies that regarded the female sex as inferior beings. The struggle for the vote was never seen as an end in itself, but as a means for wider social reforms that would end women's subordinate role and bring them equality, generally.

The essays span the period from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 until the end of the Second World War, and discuss feminist campaigns not just in the US and Britain, but also in Japan, France, Sweden, India, Australasia, the Middle East, Latin America, Russia and China. Each of the book's four sections starts with a brisk summary of each essay. Readers will find surprises throughout, as the comparative material throws up new lines of debate.

For several decades, historians of feminism have focused on secular and socialist settings, often assuming that feminism could not flourish in the patriarchal environment of organised religions. Yet, as a number of essays relate, certain Christian beliefs common to both Catholics and Protestants, such as the equality of souls, fired some feminists to campaign for a better world for women and children.

Included in this book is Sandra Stanley Holton's finely argued piece on the transatlantic friendships fostered in the late 19th century by the American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton on her visits to England to see her daughter Harriot, who had married an Englishman, and Quaker friends who were anti-slavery.

The radical-feminist current nurtured through these contacts led to the formation in 1889 of the Women's Franchise League, a short-lived organisation that went against the grain of mainstream suffragism by campaigning not only for property and suffrage rights for English wives, but also for rights over their own bodies. Yet although Holton stresses the link between this 19th-century radicalism and the militancy of early 20th-century women's movements, there is no chapter on British militant suffragettes. This is disappointing, especially since the suffragettes maintained links with Indian, Australian and American feminists, among others.

Marilyn Boxer's critique of "bourgeois feminism" should be read by everyone who believes that socialism and feminism have always marched side by side. The rift between the two can be found early in the history of Marxist socialism, particularly in the 1889 declaration by Clara Zetkin that socialists should focus on the class struggle and not collaborate with "bourgeois feminists". This dictum reverberated around the world, even into the 21st century, bolstered by the arguments of New Left and feminist scholars including Boxer herself. Yet "bourgeois feminism" is an elusive term that depends on an idea of class that has been substantially reworked in recent years. A powerful argument is made for the creation of new women-centred histories of feminism that are no longer encumbered by such problematic frameworks.

Globalizing Feminisms is a landmark book. Informative, stimulating and challenging, it reveals how the history of feminisms worldwide is integral to modernity.

Globalizing Feminisms, 1789-1945

Edited by Karen Offen. Routledge, 472pp, £85.00 and £25.99. ISBN 9780415778671 and 8688. Published 14 December 2009

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