Women in European History

GISELA BOCK’s book is a welcome addition to the growing number of texts that take a comparative approach to women’s history in Europe. Bock’s contribution is a distinctive one. She sets out to explore the debate “about what or how women and men are, should be, could be.” (1) Known as the “querelle des femmes” or “des sexes,” this debate, Bock claims, shaped European culture more than any other. She includes comparisons between countries but the central focus is on “common, transnational developments” from the late 18th century to the present day. (x) A number of themes are considered throughout: the complex relationship between concepts of equality and difference; debates over whether women could be women and fully human; competing versions of women’s citizenship and the question of whether tradition or innovation had greater weight across the centuries in influencing ideas about women’s social roles.

Drawing on a wide range of literary texts, Bock begins by exploring the history of the “querelle,” stretching back to the Middle Ages. In contrast to those who see the debate over sex differences as just a literary one, she claims that writers such as Christine de Pizan were aware that humour and satire could help to shape the relationship between men and women and contribute to creating a new world. The second chapter highlights the significance of the French Revolution in providing a space in which women’s political citizenship could be raised. As might be expected, the ideas of Mary Wollstone-craft are given a prominent position, but attention is also drawn to less well-known figures such as Olympe de Gouges. In an interesting discussion of her ideas, Bock examines the “traditional” and “modern” features of the arguments made by De Gouges and suggests that her ideas are far too complex to categorize as radical, moderate, or conservative. Bock suggests that women involved in the counterrevolution were also at the interface between tradition and innovation. They defined revolutionary freedom according to their own needs, such as the freedom to practice their religion. Nonetheless, ultimately the French Revolution failed for women and was to have repercussions that affected them throughout the nineteenth century. The exercise of political citizenship was identified as a masculine activity, while the Napoleonic Code emphasized women’s subordinate status within the family and confirmed that their private virtue underpinned the stability of the state.

The next two chapters trace women’s attempts to contest these definitions of their role through the development of organized women’s movements from the 1860s. Bock suggests that whether they were demanding economic, social, or political change, women did not want to switch gender roles but sought liberation from subordination and the freedom to be themselves. The suffrage movement in particular combined arguments that women needed an equal human status with the notion that women had special virtues. In attempting to explain why women achieved the vote in some countries after World War I but not in others, Bock joins many recent authors in questioning the conventional wisdom that enfranchisement was a reward for participation in the war. Instead she suggests that where class was a barrier to male suffrage, as in Britain and Germany, women gained the vote soon after universal male suffrage had been won, whereas the vote came late to France and Switzerland where there was republican anti-clericalism and where universal male suffrage had been achieved long before.

Chapter Five has a different focus than the rest. It deals with the extent to which women used their voices as citizens to improve the lives of working-class women and the family through social welfare reforms. There is also a key section on the inter-war dictatorships, their attitudes towards women, and their effect on women’s lives. Bock makes the point that all of these regimes sought to break down the barriers between public and private life, but that this was taken to extremes in Nazi Germany. Bock argues that while the history of women was always diverse in respect to their affiliation to “imagined communities” such as class, religion and nation, in the 20th century this could become a matter of life and death. Thus in Nazi Germany Jewish women found that race was of far greater significance for them than their sex. Overall, Bock provides a subtle discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of state welfare and population/family policies for women in the inter-war years and draws attention to the differential ways in which women gained advantages from these. In the final chapter there is a discussion of the “querelle” in the period after 1945. This includes an analysis of the impact of war and also of “second wave feminism.” Bock suggests that the goals of women’s liberationists were different from those of earlier women’s rights campaigners since they attempted to speak for all women while emphasizing individual subjectivity. Reflecting on the changes in women’s lives she concludes that, although women are better off compared to men than previous generations, there is a lot to be desired. She notes that the querelle des sexes is ongoing as women seek not only equality but freedom.

Overall this is a stimulating book. The discussion of the “querelle” is always a subtle one, attuned to the complexities of the arguments made by contemporaries themselves and avoiding the temptation to present ideas such as equality and difference as if they were binary opposites. Cultural history has been associated with a post-modernist perspective in which emphasis has been placed on language rather than “lived reality” and on a questioning of whether the broad analytical category of women still makes analytical sense. Gisela Bock rejects that view, claiming that “women are women (and human beings)” whose state of being fluctuates over time and place. She is careful throughout to examine the relationship between debates on the Woman Question and changes within the economic, social, and political context, although there are times when the emphasis on discourse can obscure the importance of material change in women’s lives. The wide scope of the book is both a strength and a weakness. The reader can end up frustrated when interesting observations, such as the contradictory effects of welfare policies on women, or the extent to which an emphasis on women as consumers of ready-made goods could undermine concepts of the housewife as homemaker in the inter-war years, are not discussed in any depth. From the outset Bock claims that the size of the book makes it difficult to look at links with women outside Europe. This is surely an important omission at a time when feminist ideas were closely intertwined with questions of imperialism, nationalism, and internationalism and when there was a complex interaction between women in the colonies and imperial nations.

Nonetheless, readers will find a great deal to interest them in the ideas presented here and will be stimulated to explore the issues raised in greater depth. Although the book is about women in Europe, Gisela Bock makes clear throughout that their history cannot be separated from that of men. She concludes that within a global framework the issue of women’s rights and human rights has taken on a new significance and in the 21st century will be crucial to answering the question, “Are women human?”

By Gisela Bock