Blog, Women's History, Women's History Month

Feminisms: A Global History by Dr Lucy Delap

When I was asked to contribute to Penguin’s Pelican series, I was determined to write an accessible account of feminist history that would place it in global perspective. This ambitious framing was certainly taxing, and I must confess, at times seemed impossible to deliver on. Spanning diverse goals, ideas and principles, global ‘feminisms’ cannot be easily amalgamated or grouped under any one definition, particularly when the time frame is more than two centuries. I stepped back therefore from any sense of comprehensive coverage and concentrated instead on opening up a series of entry points, rooted in innovative areas of historical interest, which would allow for a broad, non-chronological framing of feminisms across all continents.  I was particularly excited about bringing to the fore new work in the history of emotions, material culture, space and place, dreamworlds and sensory histories. I wanted readers to hear, see and touch feminisms as much as approach them textually. My chapter on feminist songs was thus accompanied by a spotify playlist (collaboratively curated by invitations spanning 5 different languages). This is an ongoing project to which readers and researchers can add. Have a listen here.

Feminisms invites us to hear the voice of women such as Hallie Quinn Brown (c.1845-1949 pictured left), born to parents who had been enslaved, a musician and founder of the National Association of Colored Women. Quinn participated in the global congresses of the International Council of Women (ICW) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Association, but refused to accept any form of racial segregation and led a musicians’ boycott of the ICW in 1925 when it proposed racially segregated seating at a concert.

There has been a turn towards the global in recent scholarship, and this is changing the way we think about many of our taken-for-granted methods and questions. Tracing the movements of migrants, of commodities, of ideas and finance across national boundaries has given new perspectives on writing history. But historians of feminism have been somewhat slow to take up this challenge. Those that have gone global have often done so with a model of Euro-American influence spreading out to ‘less developed’ or ‘peripheral’ countries. The story has been one of the key thinkers – John Stuart Mill in Britain, August Bebel in Germany, Ellen Key in Sweden, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the United States – broadcasting their ideas and finding new audiences in countries such as Japan, China, Argentina and South Africa. These ‘peripheries’, it has been argued, were committed to ideas of progress and modernisation and often deployed ‘women’s rights’ strategically, as a means of using labour more efficiently, progressing national development and policing sexual mores.  These Eurocentric assumptions have pervaded histories of feminism, particularly in the versions offered to mass audiences.

The spread of feminist ideas and practices turns out to be a much more complex story than this. The well-known, ‘headliner’ figures of feminist history were important, and their ideas were read with attention around the world. But ideas do not travel in isolation from local context; they were always shaped by the specific place and time of reading, and cannot be said to have originated in the global North.  Feminisms traces the distinctive local versions of feminism across the globe, and the networks of influence between them. It refuses to take at face value the often-voiced complaints of backwardness and temporal lag that can be found in many settings of the global South, and instead tracks debates on women’s educability, property ownership, consumption, legal personhood and sexual autonomy across regional and local arenas.

Sometimes it was the impact of large-scale global events that informed questions of gender justice across many locations. The revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the repudiation of absolutism in the 1840s, demands for free labour regimes across the nineteenth century, the anticolonial mobilisations of the twentieth – all were associated with openings for questions of gender justice. Pressure for feminist reforms did not only come from elites, but were just as commonly generated at the margins, in ways that disrupted the status quo profoundly. I look to some very personal and intimate stories to illustrate the larger landscapes, and draw readers’ attention to questions of scale. The specific circumstances, for example, of the protests amongst market trades in British-ruled Nigeria, for example, created opportunities for disruption of both colonial and indigenous gender orders in the 1920s.  Global history doesn’t only require broad overviews, but can also operate at the intimate, microhistorical level to show how a figure such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti could later draw on the market trader protests to mobilise women into tax-resistance ‘picnics’ in 1940s Abeokuta, Nigeria. That Ransome-Kuti went on to travel and campaign across the globe through her membership of the Women’s International Democratic Federation reminds us of the shifting scale needed to understand feminist histories. My book tells the stories of local and place-specific forms of activism within larger currents. My efforts to do this are necessarily driven by my own interests and sources of fascination. But I’d like for readers to feel as though they could draw up their own mosaic of feminisms, according to the questions that motivate them. This book therefore is envisaged as a gesture towards new histories rather than any kind of final word.

The status quo explored here isn’t only the patriarchal organisation of society, but also the various power landscapes established within feminist movements. Going global draws attention to how the interests of women in the global South were not always aligned with those of the global North, and also highlights the challenges poorer, indigenous and racialised women made to their marginalisation within feminist debates in every setting. Titling the book ‘feminisms’ was not meant to indicate that all can be brought under this label. Instead, I sought to take seriously the limits of feminist and women’s politics, and the importance of moments of repudiation. Hallie Quinn Brown, pictured above, was like many other women of colour, deeply aware of how some campaigners saw women’s justice and racial justice as mutually exclusive rather than interacting. It was often women of colour who provided intellectual and activist feminist leadership, as well as deep challenges to the exclusions embedded within feminisms. Some searched for alternatives; ‘womanism’ was coined by novelist Alice Walker, aiming to acknowledge the racism faced by women of colour within the feminist movement. Nonetheless, many black and Asian women have identified as feminists and have insisted that they maintain their access to this identity despite white women’s hostility or bias. Black power and Marxist activist Angela Davis for example has talked of commitment to abolition feminism, which brings prison campaigning into the foreground of her commitments. There have been many other prefixes that can give nuance to the different strands of feminisms – black feminism, socialist, radical, revolutionary, Christian, Islamic feminisms – and which motivates the pluralisation of ‘feminisms’ in my research.

Finally, Feminisms aims to not only tell more diverse stories about the feminist past, but to provide useable resources for today’s activists. It sometimes feels as though contemporary activists want to dismiss the activism of the past labelling it timid or racist or class prejudiced. But I suggest that a richer relationship to the past is possible. We can understand our own dilemmas better if we deepen our historical understanding; to recognise that it is normal for there to be conflicts within social movements, and that these can lead to better forms of organising. This can help us see for example, contemporary conflicts between critics and supporters of the inclusion of transwomen in feminist spaces and movements not as a fatal conflict for the feminist movement but as part of a ever-present dialogue over inclusion and exclusion. Understanding feminist history can reveal to us that debates over non gender binary individuals are not new – there have been gender non-conformists and gender-crossing at most points in feminist history. The perspective from history, even as it acknowledges conflicts and exclusions, can provide a hopeful account of the continuing relevance and workability of mobilisation around gender justice.

Dr Lucy Delap is a historian of modern Britain, working on gender history, the history of feminism, print culture, labour history, disability and religion.