Women in the History of Europe

1.4 Women’s Politics: The Feminist Movement

Every word has its history and "feminism" is no exception. One often finds references to late nineteenth-century definitions in some dictionaries. The Oxford Dictionary speaks of feminism as equivalent to femininity, as in the state of being feminine. Nevertheless, this concept, originating in France, even though from the 1890s, is a term which is identified with the political movement for women’s rights. In Spain, the Royal Academy Dictionary defines feminism as a "social doctrine which allows women the abilities and rights previously reserved for men." [No reference] All of us as European women recognise the feminist movement. Still, our political or geographic differences have generated diverse experiences which are impossible to summarise here. We will try to outline the principle ideas of theory and collective action, giving as examples those we find particularly interesting.

The historical foundations of feminism as a collective movement can be found in the first half of the nineteenth century, but its starting point was really during the last third of the eighteenth century. It is then that a theoretical formulation was joined to a political organisation which made it possible to actively oppose law and opinion. Over the last few years feminism has gathered together a constellation of women opposed to "masculine tyranny." Adrienne Rich coined the term "action feminists" to describe all those women in all societies and cultures who have opposed male hegemony. [No reference in bibliography.]

But together with them there have been other women whom feminism has defined not as predecessors but as feminist worthies. In am referring to that group of women, almost all enlightened, educated and from the upper classes, who throughout the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries wrote and used their intellectual weapons to oppose the profoundly misogynist current which had, since the Middle Ages, ridiculed women even more insultingly than in previous centuries. This confrontation became known as the Woman Question. Women who were involved in this, defending us, were in general the antecedents of what Virginia Woolf called "the daughters of educated men." [No reference in bibliopgraphy.] These were women who struggled with fathers and brothers who allowed them access to a knowledge which was still useless in a society which closed all doors to them. This was a discussion which was, above all, the response of determined women to works published by men which had furiously attacked women and/or marriage. Above all, these early feminist maintained that the sexes were historically and culturally constructed and determined, that is to say, that it was not Nature which had made women inferior. They focused on what today we would call gender. We could cite many, and the list grows every day, but it is enough to have as examples Christine de Pisan, Mary Astell, Mary de Gournay or Joespha Amar. [References??]

Nevertheless, at the beginning these women - wives, daughters and sisters of clergymen, merchants or aristocrats - did not make a movement. Women begin to express a collective voice during the French Revolution. It is a this juncture that women, who had always participated actively in subsistence riots, who, without abandoning their participation in direct action against scarcity or lack of food, began also to demand the recognition of their political rights, as their peers had been doing. Pre-revolutionary petitions collected women’s demands about access to education, the elimination of discriminatory laws and they even demanded the right to representation in the Estates General.

These first collective declarations in favour of women’s political rights influenced those formulated by the women’s Republican clubs of the revolutionary period. These women were stirred by the political discourse of the French Revolution which was based on the universal paradigm of natural political equality. Nevertheless, during the revolution, the National Assembly denied women access to political sovereignty. In fact it specifically excluded women from a supposedly universal right. One revolutionary, Olympe de Gouges, published a Declaration of the Rights of Women (1791) in which she demanded the exclusion of women from political representation and insisted on women’s citizenship. In fact, her Declaration mimicked Rousseau’s Social Contract and the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789. She was influenced by natural justice thinkers and by philosophers who believed in the social contract and who pushed forward many progressive programs for women. Their great contribution was recognising that women’s legal existence was integral to the sovereign nation, recognising the equality of their rights with those of men, and demanding the vote as a way of expressing membership in the nation. [None of these titles in bibliography.]

On the other side of the English Channel, the English were also going down the path of political and philosophical debate. Within the framework of the eighteenth-century tradition of political radicalism, Mary Wollstonecraft personifies, as no one else, the political and personal demands of feminism. Wollstonecraft focused her discussion and her argument on the constrictions on women’s lives and the imbalance between the sexes, which were not due to biological differences but to education and to women’s socialisation. She denied that women were inferior to men in ability and established the fact that it was the influence of a social order defined by men which stopped them from freely expressing their abilities. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1793) was a key work for the later feminist movement. [Not in bibliography.]

After the revolutionary period Europe was immersed in an era of conservative reaction which would have direct repercussions on the social and legal condition of women. This conservative reaction insisted on the subordination of women to men, and on separate spheres, believing that domestic life and the family was best for women. Despite this feminist voices were not completely silenced. European revolutionary processes would once again contribute to the reactivation of feminism.

1.4.1 The First Demands

Women’s first demands were focused primarily on economic, educational and political rights. As much a result of the tenacity of ancient feudal laws as a result of the diffusion of the new Napoleonic Code, women in European societies were denied full economic rights. This was especially the case for married women who were completely under the guardianship of their husbands. It is therefore not strange that among the first feminist demands was the right to dispose of their own property and their own money. In some countries women’s organisations, allied to radical political parties, made possible legal reforms such as the Married Women’s Property Act (1882) in England, which recognised their right to property and to spend their money as they pleased. Even earlier laws were those of Norway in the 1840s and 50s which equalised inheritance and gave women the freedom to go into business (1864). In general these reforms did not only come about because of women’s organisations fighting for their rights. They were also responses to widespread demands in European society which saw how the industrial revolution and changes in the economic structure had given rise to a growing number of middle class women demanding work. They were also due to changes in the strategies of landed families looking to preserve their inheritance.

On the other side there were still countries like France and Spain which throughout the century reinforced legislation which allowed discrimination against women. The Napoleonic Code (1803) and its Spanish offshoot the Civil Code of 1889 ensured reduced personal autonomy for women in so much as their goods and income were administered by their husbands. It was only in the twentieth century that these countries managed to revoke discriminatory legislation.

Related to the above was the demand for access to appropriate waged work. This was not a new demand: Christine de Pisan or Mary Wollstonecraft were women who earned their own living and they demanded the right to hold those jobs for which they were qualified. It was not that women had not worked before, rather that because of the new economic conditions there was an increased number of women who had to enter the labour market. These, in large measure, were members of the middle classes which were incapable of providing security for them, especially single women - or they needed this work in order to increase their income. Legal landmarks of this trend included Norway’s Professional Freedom Law of 1866, or, as we have seen previously, laws which permitted access to higher education and to the exercise of the liberal professions. Bourgeois feminists thought of access to work as a liberating force, in clear opposition to Marxist thought which spoke of work as alienating. In reality women workers did not demand access to work but rather an improvement in the conditions of their work: an eight hour shift, the denunciation of the exploitation of home workers, etc.

We indicated earlier how Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that the problem of English women rested on the gender model in force at that time, which was built on education and social etiquette. It is not strange then that she saw education as the most appropriate means to put women on an equal plane with men as well as a way of making possible women’s autonomy. These ideas, albeit with small formulaic nuances, are the starting point from which the European feminist movement in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries persistently demanded the right to education for women. This, together with the right to work, the cornerstone of socialist feminism, is in contrast to a current which is more focused on political equality and the struggle for the vote. It is precisely in this context of rights that nineteenth-century Spanish feminism stands out with figures such as Concepcion Arenal, Pardo Bazan or Suceso Luengo. [References??] In 1860 the platform of the Finnish Women’s Movement, and the works of the Finnish feminist Elizabeth Lofgren {Reference??]realised that access to university and a better professional formation for women were the basic foundation stones of their political programme, though they did not give up the focus on suffrage. In 1892 Alessandra Gripenber wrote that "in countries which do not enjoy political liberty, and where male suffrage is also restricted, on must focus on questions which concern higher education, professional preparation and general enlightenment." [No reference in bibliography.]

1.4.2 The fight for suffrage

The suffragists present a clear image of our past and of the feminism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and particularly so the direct action of one group of British suffragists. In reality the demand for the female vote was one of the main causes of women’s mobilisation. This was why feminists thought the vote would give them access to the centres of political decision and would allow them to create laws which would abolish other social inequities. The path to the vote was not easy and it was full of pitfalls and small victories before the suffrage was finally gained.

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries the more well-known British suffragists were the most active and had the most radical discourse. As a result, the British suffrage movement was divided between one moderate and one radical side. The former, organised into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett, dedicated itself to political propaganda, rallies and persuasion, all within the bounds of the law. But forty years of activity had not been enough to break the resistance of the authorities. Because of this, a radical wing was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, known as "suffragettes." Their leader, Emmaline Pankhurst, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Their goal was obtaining the vote but they also used direct action. As a result of the radicalisation of the suffragists, prison terms and hunger strikes became common political responses in the face of growing repression.

For researchers this radicalisation contributed to winning the female vote in Great Britain, although it would not be until 1928 that women could vote on equal terms with men. It was a long road from the Reform Bill of 1832 (which marks the beginning of English suffrage agitation) to the winning of the vote, punctuated by small victories. Thus women were made eligible for local government posts, and later (1880) they were made voters in local elections. From the middle of the century they participated in school and hospital governing boards but it was only after World War I that the national vote was gained, a result of changes in mentality which has been present before the 1914-1918 contest but above all the vote was a result of the services women rendered during the war.

The northern countries like Norway and Finland were the first to commit to political equality and the first to establish women’s right to vote. Norway, with a strong movement born in 1830, quickly gained political equality. In 1910 universal suffrage was established and women enjoyed full civil rights. From 1912 they were eligible for almost all the responsibilities of state. Since 1906 the Finnish Diet had been elected by universal suffrage, thus making itself the first country in Europe where women participated in national elections. Certainly the assembly had reduced powers but by 1910 it included 19 women.

In contrast to this, countries with Roman heritage like France and Spain lagged behind - in these countries it was many years before women gained the suffrage. Since the 1880s French women could elect and be elected in local educational and welfare councils but the vote for the National Assembly would only come after World War II. It was a long struggle. Demands for political equality had returned with force after the establishment of universal male suffrage in 1848. But neither the radical nor the moderate wing was able to break through the social and legal barriers which stood in the way of women’s suffrage. It was not a popular cause and Hubertine Auclerc had no success. [Reference??]

Spanish feminism, which Mary Nash has qualified as more social than political, [reference??] did not have suffrage as one of its basic demands. Certainly one can read texts from about 1870 which demand full political equality, but it was not until the Second Republic and the debate on the Constitution of 1931 that the demand for suffrage becomes important. This very democratic constitution established universal suffrage and did not exclude women, despite resistance from leftist as well as right-wing parties. The radical deputy Clara Campoamor was the defender of the motion which included female suffrage in the new constitutional text, but she was not alone. In the streets feminists had created a climate of opinion which backed up the deputy’s action. The Republican defeat and Franco’s dictatorship eliminated universal suffrage until the Constitution of 1978.

Authority’s resistance to women’s suffrage can only be understood if we think of the radical departure of its propositions from the mentality and cultural rules of this period. Certainly these demands started with the discourse which fed the bourgeois revolutions which put an end to the Ancien Regime, but politics continued to be reserved for men. The underlying premises of female suffrage called into question the current order since it implied the presence of women in the public sphere and questioned the male monopoly of this space. In fact it seemed incompatible with the discourse about domesticity and the patriarchal order. The suffragists were seen as a threat to home and family and until this threat was dispelled, and the role of mothers reconciled to that of voters, it was not possible for the system to consider women as citizens. This reconciliation was brought to a head above all in the crisis of World War I.


Some Universal Suffrage Dates



Great Britain 1928
Norway 1912
Finland 1906
France 1945
Spain 1931


1.4.3 The press and public organisations

We have been speaking of the demands of the feminist movement throughout the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries but we have made few references to two basic means by which feminists gained their ends: the press and the public organisations which were sometimes, though not always, related. The scheme is simple: the creation of a feminist newspaper is parallel to the creation of an organisation. The newspaper serves as a magnetic attraction to feminists and as an organ of propaganda.

The first known feminist newspapers come out of the context of the English free-thinkers of the early nineteenth century and from the French San Simonians. British women defenders of parliamentary reforms launched an attack on the tyranny of patriarchal institutions. One of these, Elizabeth Sharples, edited her own paper, Isis. The French for their part launched The Free Woman, the New Woman and the Women’s Tribune. Among the newspapers which will have most fame and influence we must note the Englishwoman’s Journal (1859) that made itself a major reference point of English feminism. But probably the French paper The Revolt best exemplifies the level reached by this kind of journalism. It is considered one of the best French newspapers of the era. With their long-term, influential activities editors like Caroline Remy "Severine" or Helen See not only lived from their work but also chronicled French political life. Indeed, as noted by Anne-Marie Kapelli, [Reference??] this apprenticeship in public writing took root in the very heart of feminism and showed itself to be absolutely essential in the fight against being a forgotten, temporary movement. In addition to this, the level of women’s emancipation in society and the level of tolerance towards feminism can be read in the evolution of the feminist press.

These organisations are the means by which energies are focused and strategies and models of political action are developed in order to solve the social question of women. These meeting spaces were sporadic in their early days and linked to times of general political effervescence - such as the French revolutionary clubs, the San Simonians of 1830 or the feminist clubs of 1848. This tendency to create public organisations was very strong in Germany and England. In the former country organisations re created, from the middle of the century, which are a clear response to misogynist politics. Fighting powerfully against abuse or in favour of rights, these organisations are used to endow feminists with identity. In the name of these organisations the entire arsenal of democratic expression is mobilised: newspapers, rallies, meetings, demonstrations and national and international congresses. Exchanges between women were intensified and the European network of feminism continued to grow. This network, however, developed into two parallel streams: one liberal and one socialist. The rupture between them, without reconciliation or later tactical alliance, was crystallised in the international feminist congress in Berlin in 1896. The socialist women continued working within the framework of the International.

These international networks inspired the international co-ordination of a few activities. We note especially: the International Council of Women, the Women’s International led by Clara Zetkin or the International Abolitionist Federation led by Josephine Butler. All these organisations gave their members the sense of belonging to a stream of international opinion.


1.4.4 Feminist currents to 1930

Although the entire European feminist movement appropriated the platform of demands we have summarised above, it was certainly divided through prioritising one or another aspect of women’s national experiences or through differing philosophical conceptions. In broad outline we have divided the feminist movement into its political and social aspects. French and English women better represent the first, that is to say, a political and democratic feminism oriented towards the full integration of women into the polis. This has its clearest expression in the fight for the suffrage. Spain and Italy are outstanding examples of the second, where feminists primarily emphasised the right to education and the improvement of social conditions.

To this difference between political and social feminism we should also add differences which are not reducible to a national dimension but are rather two different conceptions of what it is "to be a woman." On one side there is a powerful egalitarian current which represents women purely and solely as part of the human race. This fight has been oriented towards political reforms or, in the case of the more radical socialist feminism, has also struggled for the general emancipation of humanity. On the other side there is a stream which emphasises gender difference, and is called a dualist tendency. This, while not forgetting equality with men, insists on these differences. This last stream situates maternity as a role of all vertebrates which defines women physically and psychically. This "maternal" feminism would be welcomed as a way of protecting women within the greater society.

1.4.5 The Feminism of the 1960s

Female suffrage and all its attendant reforms seemed to have undone the women’s rights movement. In the years following World War II legal equality seemed like a fact of life, but something must have been going wrong in the 1960s when the movement burst onto the scene again with great force. The first expression of this unrest and of the discovery of oppression in the era of legal equality was Simon de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex (1949). The other landmark that we must record even though outside of our geographical remit, though no less influential for that, as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) which denounced the cultural discomfort of US women. One or another noted how informal social control had been very effective in imposing a hegemonic model of gender which identified woman as mother and wife; this model cut off all possibility of personal realisation and made those women culpable who were unhappy with this life choice.

These texts recreate the sense of thousands of women who, in an apparently happy society, feel themselves to be oppressed and discriminated against. Throughout Europe the 1960s made it clear that the political and social system which, though it had legitimacy in the universality of its principles, was nevertheless sexist, racist and imperialist. This political affirmation gave rise to political movements of a marked counter-cultural character. Neofeminism was born precisely in this setting.

This feminism took on a long struggle for legal reforms which would ameliorate significant inequalities in education: mass access to university studies; or pay differences; access to the vote in those countries which didn’t have it. In general woman demanded access to all areas and levels of human activity in conditions equal to those of men. From the 1970s these demands would have their realisation in legislative measures throughout Europe which guaranteed equality before the law, and equality in economic activities, etc. Finally, they would establish the foundations of a proactive politics.

But for the wider society that which called most for feminist attention in these years was anything directed at combating general oppression in the family, marriage and sexuality. This was the best location in which to question the dominant paradigm and for this reason they were significant political battlegrounds even within conservative institutions. Using the tools of Marxism and psychoanalysis, feminists theorised the relations of power within familial and sexual relations. This revolution in political theory can be summarised in the slogan "the personal is political." The breadth of this criticism can be seen in the specific, concrete legislative reforms in divorce and abortion law, and later in laws against sexual harassment and other changes in consciousness about sexist violence both within and outside of marriage.

But if political action on the part of large numbers of women and the fight for reforms had been important, even more so have been the neofeminist contributions to the criticism of the patriarchal order and to the construction of a feminist theory which allows us to describe the world from our point of view. Feminists coined fundamental concepts such as patriarchy, gender or sexual harassment. In the political world it meant the construction of women as autonomous political subjects and the recognition of the need for political action separate from men. This was born the Women’s Liberation Movement. These differences about separate or joint action would be at the root of the debate about single or double militancy. The first schism in the new feminism would be between feminists linked to political parties and those who were not; they were called independents.

The first group derived women’s oppression from the political-social structure, from the System, and were linked to leftist parties and union organisations. These "politicos," as they were disparagingly called by radical feminists, gave to the movement their political/organisational experience, a condition of organisational success in those years. They also never lost the vision of the diverse experience of women according to their class position. These contributions to feminism should not allow us to forget the contradictions which these women suffered within their organisations as a result of strategies which tried to hide or ignore them.

The second stream, known as radical feminists (as they called themselves) were against the subordination of women’s activity to the strategy of leftist parties. They were not anti-left but were very critical of the recalcitrant sexism and sidelining of women’s problems in favour of more general political ends. These feminists drew attention to the common oppression of women, inspired the creation of consciousness-raising groups and had a fierce egalitarianism in their work style. This last, carried to its logical conclusion, was paralysing in that it negated any possibility of organisation. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s these two tendencies seemed to have evolved towards what was known as the feminism of equality and that of difference. In those years the first stood for the transcendence of gender differences and the second for an emphasis on sexual difference.

Differences within the breast of the feminist movement have not ceased but the tempering of some radical postures and the growing presence of women, above all of feminist women, in political parties and institutions, united in the recognition of diverse experiences and methods, has transformed the political vision of feminism. It may not perhaps have such dazzling demonstrations but it is a widespread movement which has entered women’s and men’s lives and made irreversible consciousness and legislative changes.