Statement Francisca de Haan [engl.]

Francisca de Haan

“Is a European Women’s History Possible?”
Reflections on the “East-West” Dimensions of this Question*

Francisca de Haan

* This contribution was first delivered as part of a round table, É possibile una storia europea delle donne? organized by Angiolina Arru and Edith Saurer, at the fourth National Congress of the Societá italiana delle storiche (SIS), Rome, February 15, 2007. Chairs: Angiolina Arru and Edith Saurer; panelists: Gisela Bock, Luisa Passerina, Eliane Viennot, and Francisca de Haan. The author would like to thank the SIS for the invitation, and welcomes reactions to this paper.


“Is a European Women’s History Possible?” My answer to that question is a conditional “yes,” as I will elaborate below. While obviously one can approach this question from many relevant More…perspectives, my focus will be on the “East – West” dimensions of a European women’s history. This, in turn, is based on my experiences as a Dutch feminist historian who has been working for more than five years at the Central European University in Budapest, where I have learned many things from my colleagues (within the university and in broader networks) and students. From that perspective, I see three conditions that have to be met, if we are to develop something fitting the name of “European Women’s History”. First, both Western and Eastern Europeans must be self-critical and rethink their own, often unstated, assumptions; second, certain material conditions/needs have to be identified and addressed; third, we have to design concrete projects that will contribute to/bring us closer to the goal of a “European Women’s History” (or better, in the plural: European Women’s Histories).

For a start, we have to ask what we mean by “Europe.” Is this simply the (sub)continent with that name, in other words, a geographical entity? If so, are its borders clear and uncontested? We all know the answers to these rhetorical questions. “Geography” does not exist outside of, or beyond, politics. Is “Europe” also a cultural entity, does it have a distinct cultural history? Is or was there a “European civilization”? How does Europe relate to the European Union, and vice versa? And are the recent enlargements of the European Union in 2004 and 2007 a threat to Europe’s “identity,” as many people seem to think? (Encouraged by politicians who use these currents to reinforce nationalist and anti-immigrant tendencies.)

I am only raising these issues to emphasize how political any discussion about “Europe” is – now possibly more than ever. And while such questions about “Europe” can be answered in different ways, it is undisputed that who belongs to “Europe” and who does not, who is in and who is out, changes over time, and is fundamentally contested. It is also clear that, even if one agrees on what the European borders are, there is no homogenous “Europe” within those borders; rather, migration has always been a part of European history, and has expanded significantly since the 1990s.[1] The phenomenon of migration highlights the stark economic and political inequalities and hierarchies within Europe. Some of these hierarchies are related to what is known as “Western” and “Eastern” Europe – labels that for decades may have seemed fixed and self-evident, but are equally historical, changing, and contested, as we know from our own experiences and the work of scholars such as Edward Said, Larry Wolff, and Maria Todorova.[2] Moreover, these labels refer to incredibly complex and internally different entities; the homogeneity suggested by the concepts “East” and “West” is utterly misleading.

Condition 1: Dealing with Mental Structures

These preliminary remarks, then, bring me to the first “condition” that needs to be met if we are ever to reach the goal of a (true, meaningful) European Women’s History (or Histories), which is that both Western and Eastern Europeans need to be self-critical and rethink their own, often unstated assumptions.

As to the Westerners: we know that the privileged, those in the center or core, have the power to define the world. They can impose their worldview (here: claim the name “Europe”) even without thinking about it, let alone having to justify themselves. I would like to mention two examples, both showing the use of the name “Europe” in a way that privileges some and excludes others. Until very recently, i.e. even through the 1990s, “European Women’s History” in mainstream, Anglo-American, publications generally referred to Great Britain, France, and Germany. Smaller and/or less powerful countries outside of the northwestern “core” of Europe – whether Scandinavian countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, or Italy, Spain and Portugal – were ignored, and remained outside of the “master narrative” or “canon.” In other words, not only was Europe conflated with or narrowed down to Western Europe, but even within that decidedly narrow frame, some countries were privileged and treated as more important than others. Most of this went on entirely unquestioned.

The second example is the almost complete neglect of “Eastern Europe” in publications that claim to cover “Europe.” I am not referring here to the period of state socialism, when this would also be problematic but more understandable. The neglect or omission of “Eastern Europe” has continued in recent publications that deal with Europe before the Second World War, even by some of the best and most sensitive women’s historians. Here I am thinking of Gisela Bock’s book from 2000 (in German) and 2002 (in English), entitled Women in European History. This incredibly well-researched, thorough, and much needed book only deals with Western Europe but, and that is the problem, without reflecting upon that limitation – as the students in Budapest never fail to point out.[3] Another recent case is the book called Women and Socialism, Socialism and Women: Europe between the Two World Wars, edited by Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, and published in 1998.[4] This too is a highly valuable publication, which makes it all the more unfortunate that, despite the promise of its title, it deals with Western European countries only. (Just imagine for a second how interesting, complex, and exciting a book on that topic would be that would really cover “Europe”.)

As mentioned above, BOTH Western and Eastern Europeans must be self-critical and rethink their own, often unstated assumptions. So, not only should Western Europeans stop thinking (or automatically assuming) that Western Europe equals Europe, Eastern Europeans should also make some mental changes. Here, the problem is that many “Eastern Europeans” – both in historical and contemporary settings – talk and write about “Europe” as if that were somewhere else, as if they or their countries were not part of it (as in the phrase “I am traveling to Europe”). While I understand that this is a reflection of many years of exclusion (or of being regarded as secondary Europeans, see again, Larry Wolff’s enlightening book), it doesn’t help to reproduce these structures ourselves. Rather, as long as we are stuck with names or concepts such as Europe, all “Europeans” should equally claim that name – hoping that in the process we will all get used to it.

Condition 2: Identifying Material Problems and Inequalities

Although I believe in the powerful impact of mental structures such as those pertaining to “Europe” and the need for change on that level, there is more to it. We are not just dealing with problematic mental maps, these cannot be separated from profound material problems and inequalities. My second condition therefore is that certain material conditions and needs have to be identified and addressed. For a start, there is the intractable problem of language: who can even do research in or about many of the Central and Eastern European countries? Who reads Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian, Albanian …? How can we read each others’ work and communicate with each other? Regarding these language barriers, one could argue that there is no fundamental difference with say Sweden, the Netherlands, or Italy, on the one hand, and Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, on the other: most students of European history, that is, don’t know the languages necessary to include these countries. I will come back to this below.

But more importantly, when focusing on “Eastern Europe,” there is the incredible lack of any infrastructure for research/doing women’s history there. This lack of infrastructure in itself has many dimensions, of which I will mention two:

– Most countries in former state-socialist Europe have no scholarly tradition of women’s history because that was ideologically impossible. Whereas Western-European countries from the 1970s developed an academic field called women’s (or later, women’s and gender) history, no matter how contested, there was nothing of the kind in Central and Eastern Europe. And in many cases, women’s history is still a non-existing entity. “Gender Studies” may be a fast growing field, but whether they are relatively well established or just beginning (as in Tiblisi, Georgia), women’s history is generally not part of the curriculum. If there is any money at all, and generally there is very little or none, it doesn’t go to “Women’s History.” This, in turn, is probably related to the fact that women’s history has lost its avant-garde position in women’s and gender studies in “the West,” and to the fact that the discipline of history in former state-socialist countries is generally conservative, empirical-positivist, and aversive if not antagonistic to the use of theory. Consequently, there is very little openness to or interest in “women’s history,” and there are no, or only very few, feminist historians.

– This means that the field cannot develop. We know that for an organization to become less sexist or more “women-friendly,” there is the need of a certain “critical mass,” generally estimated at about 30 percent women. In a similar way, women’s history can only develop if there is a certain number of people who do research and publish in the field, who refer to each other, have discussions, and build on each other’s work. In this sense, I recently read an encouraging review essay by a young Russian feminist historian, Marianna Muravyeva. Discussing four books on Russian women and the Russian women’s movement, she writes:

These books demonstrate that there is real progress in Russian women’s history. We can see Russian authors recognising each other’s work as historiographical fact; using each other’s research; referring to each other; and trying to construct an independent historiography.[5]

Muravyeva, then, sees the beginning in Russia of the emergence of women’s history as a scholarly field, consisting of academics who recognize and build on each other’s work. I think one cannot overemphasize the importance of what she has identified here: a few isolated individuals cannot build up a field or a historiographical presence, there has to be a certain number of people working in the same direction.

Condition 3: Designing Concrete Projects

Russia, however, would also be one of the few positive cases that I can currently think of (in addition to Russia, another would be Poland, where Anna Zarnowska has been a pioneer of the field, and there are quite a few women’s historians). We therefore need to design projects and forms of cooperation – my third “condition” – that will bring us closer to a (more even) “European Women’s History” by building up feminist historical scholarship.

Such projects (in part) need to focus on “basic” research: women’s histories literally have to be retrieved. Secondly, whether we like it or not, all of us need to publish in languages that allow us to read each other’s work, generally, I suppose, English, French, and German. Perhaps we have to be more radical, and encourage everybody to publish in English; not at the expense of publishing in “local” languages, but parallel to that. And certainly not to reproduce existing hegemonies, but rather to challenge them by bringing in stories from the margins, or at least “non-core” countries. Only then will it be possible in the future to produce books about “Women in European History” that do include information about Central and Eastern Europe. Thirdly, in addition to uncovering women’s histories and making available the new findings, this original research has to be read along with and enrich the existing scholarship on women’s and gender history, allowing us to examine critically the assumptions of this historiography. Fourthly, in order to both stimulate research and improve/heighten the academic status of women’s and gender history (partly related to what I mentioned above in part 2),[6] there is also a need for respected and peer-reviewed publications.

I know that “L’Homme. Z. F. G.” – the journal, the group of editors and their various projects – is doing or aiming for a lot of the things mentioned here. But more is needed, and I believe that the various efforts will only strengthen each other (along the lines pointed out by Muravyeva). The concerns mentioned above, then, were informing two projects I am or have been involved in. The first was a project to generate and publish new and reliable biographical information about leaders of women’s movements and feminisms in twenty two countries in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe – from about 1800 until today. The resulting 150 biographical texts were published in English.[7] A reviewer of this book wrote that “one hopes that the availability [of the portraits collected here] will inspire further research by Western scholars.” Indeed, one does. The second project is “Aspasia”, an international, English-language, peer-reviewed yearbook on women’s and gender history of Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, published by Berghahn Books.


To conclude, in order to develop a “European Women’s History,” we have to be sensitive of and critical to assumptions on both sides, “East” and “West”; we have to publish in English; and we have to design research projects that will bring in researchers and knowledge from formerly marginalized countries as well as formulate questions that will bring in previously ignored perspectives. In the end, only such critical and comparative research can, I believe, result in a kind of historical work that would be more even in terms of the subjects, countries, and regions it would cover,[8] highlight our shared European histories, and allow us to reflect upon not only our shared historical past, but also to be more aware of the power and status differences within these shared trajectories, and to reflect upon them from different perspectives. Moreover, such projects hopefully will contribute to developing and strengthening the field of women’s history across Europe.


[1] Leslie Page Moch, Moving Europeans. Migration in Western Europe since 1650, Bloomington/ Indianapolis 1992; Mirjana Morokvasic-Müller, “Transnational Mobility and Gender: A View from Post-Wall Europe,” in: Mirjana Morokvasic-Müller et al eds., Crossing Borders and Shifting Boundaries Vol. I: Gender on the Move, Opladen 2003, 101-133. In addition, there is the dimension of Europe’s colonial history, as dealt with by Gisela Bock in her contribution to the round table.
[2] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Penguin 1995 (Orig. 1978); Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: the Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford, CA 1994; Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, New York 1997.
[3] Gisela Bock, Women in European History, Oxford/Malden, Mass. 2002 (orig. Frauen in der europäischen Geschichte: vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, München 2000). To be clear: the problems discussed here are not a matter of individual ignorance or arrogance, but of historical complexities and profound structural inequalities.
[4] Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves eds., Women and Socialism, Socialism and Women: Europe between the Two World Wars, New York 1998.
[5] Marianna Muravyeva, “Current Research on Gender History in Russian Historiography,” in: Aspasia, 1 (2007), 266-271, quote on 268.
[6] In a conversation with me, a young male colleague from the History Department at the Central European University only a few weeks ago referred to himself and his colleagues as doing “normal history” – in contrast to women’s history.
[7] Francisca de Haan, Krassimira Daskalova and Anna Loutfi eds., A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms. Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries, Budapest/New York 2006, 678 pp.
[8] Just ask the very elementary question why it would be more important for us to know about British than about Italian or Bulgarian women’s history?

This contribution will also be published in „Genesis. Rivista della Società Italiana delle Storiche“.

Schreibe einen Kommentar