The Production of Historical Feminisms, Part One: Historical Awareness and Political Activism

In the early 1970s, a slim pink book designated as the first issue in a series titled Frauen(raub)druck (Women’s (Bootleg) Print) became a best-seller in the burgeoning women’s movement in German-speaking countries. To categorise the influential publication is, however, a challenging task for more than one reason. Bearing two titles but no year of publication, the book lacks unambiguous and comprehensive bibliographic information.1 Also, the editors remained anonymous, and beyond a connection with the West Berlin Women’s Centre (Frauenzentrum Berlin), it is difficult to ascertain their place in the feminist milieus of the 1970s. But importantly, by linking the movement with two distinct historical and political contexts (early twentieth-century German research on gender roles in ancient societies and 1960s US-American radical feminism), the book raises questions about how to conceptualise historical awareness in 1970s feminism. To better understand the specific relationship between past, present and future the editors imagined, we have to go back to the critical feminist thinking on the production of historical feminisms that has developed since the 1990s.

Movement Archives and Activist Practices 

From early on, women’s and gender history criticised the archive as a gendered institution. This meant that the historical study of women’s movements was soon accompanied by archival activism and the creation of new collections of material from former and contemporary movements. Today when we explore the history of the women’s movement, we, therefore, encounter two very different types of archives. On the one hand, governmental repositories document how a state reacted to and tried to contain a specific social movement. To reflect the inner logic of a movement is, however, by definition, beyond their remit. Movement-based collections, on the other hand, keep records of past campaigns and fights. A variety of material is to be expected in these archives: papers of individual activists, as well as of organisations, pamphlets, journals and books. Yet, whatever their wealth may be, they are, in a categorical sense, fragmentary, as they are produced by a different set of practices to that used in public archives.

Cover of 1. Frauendruck: Photograph courtesy of Johanna Gehmacher.

If we want to understand the structure and meaning of these movement archives and use the material they hold in a sensible way, it is helpful to look at how Ann Laura Stoler has analysed the colonial archive. She has moved the focus away from the archive’s contents and has instead pointed to the importance of archival practices, and to the common-senses and anxieties that guided the routines of these institutions of state power.2 Following her definition of archives as ‘systems of expectation’, we can gauge commonalities and differences between public and private repositories, state and movement archives. Here, I argue that movement archives are neither equal to state archives (even if they adopt precisely the same regulations) nor complementary to them (although they often keep the documents official archives disregard). Rather, they are the outcome of a specific set of practices inseparably linked with the goals, strategies and controversies of the movement they are connected with. Therefore, when working with their material, we need to analyse the affective knowledges, hierarchies, and practices that produced these archives. Only when we study the relations and interactions between political activism and archival practices will we be able to analyse these documents’ meaning and relevance in a fuller sense. Taking the case of historicising projects, like the publication of 1. Frauen(raub)druck in Berlin in the 1970s, can help us to understand strategies of tradition-building and their relationship to historicisation in European feminism after the Second World War.

Tradition-Building and Historicisation

Already in her 1992 critical assessment of Western feminist historiography, Antoinette Burton reminded us of the problematic effects of essentialising and homogenising historical feminisms for present needs of activism and theory. ‘The narrativization of our history –’, she argued, ‘how we end up with the stories about historical feminism upon which we rely – needs to be continuously revealed as the historical process it is.’3 Following in that vein, we can analyse historicisation and tradition-building as different yet interacting ways of establishing relations between past, present and future.

Historicisation aims at marking the relevance of a particular agenda for the future. When political activists look back (and sort their papers) in later years of their life, they often do so with the desire to make their own course of action appear logical and consistent. As Krista Cowman has shown for the UK after the First World War, many pre-war feminist activists wrote autobiographies and often also initiated archiving projects.4 Their endeavours both competed with their fellow activists’ narratives to become the hegemonic version of the movement’s story and addressed those imaginary future successors taking up their struggle.

During these fights, activists strove to define the future narrative of their activism. Taking the example of Helene Lange and Gertrud Bäumer, Angelika Schaser recently pointed to the way documentation practices were also effective power strategies within the German women’s movement around 1900. By publishing a comprehensive handbook, Lange and Bäumer reinforced their own relevance and leadership in their time. What is more, by selecting, compiling, and excluding source material from their handbook, they strongly influenced the historiography of the movement for a long time: not only did they stipulate the division between middle-class and socialist activists, but they also obscured the activities of the radical wing of the movement.5

Tradition-building, on the other hand, takes place when activists look back in history and link their agenda to the demands of an alleged predecessor. Tradition-building, in its various dimensions, can be an important practice to mobilise followers and to build up the significance of a specific cause. To position oneself or a movement as a successor aimed at finishing an earlier mission establishes an identification with what Reinhart Koselleck calls a ‘past future.’6 However, this strategy usually entails the remodelling of the alleged historical precursor along new lines. It emphasises what is important for the here-and-now and blends out what no longer fits.

The first of the two titles of the Frauen(raub)druck exemplifies this process of tradition-building. The title on the bottom left-hand side of the cover reads Frauenstaat und Männerstaat von Mathilde Vaerting (Women’s State and Men’s State by Mathilde Vaerting). It refers to the first female professor for pedagogy in Germany (Vaerting) and her 1921 book Die weibliche Eigenart im Männerstaat und die männliche Eigenart im Frauenstaat (Feminine Characteristics in Men’s States and Masculine Characteristics in Women’s States).7 Based on scarce sources on ancient societies, Vaerting’s dry scientific study discusses the psychological qualities of men and women as dependent on the community in which they live and whether it is governed by men or women. However, the excerpt of Vaerting published in the 1970s focuses solely on the existence of an ancient female state (allegedly proven by Vaerting), leaving the readers with the impression that the author had found evidence of historical matriarchy. Conversely, Vaerting’s theory on the psychological effects of power, which contradicted essentialist conceptions of femininity and masculinity, was completely ignored.

The biased presentation of the fifty-year-old scholarly book is significant in several respects. It shows the transformations that processes of de- and re-contextualization entail. Re-featured in a movement context, the text conveys a shifted perspective reflecting a specific agenda of the 1970s. While the editors used it as a confirmation that women were able to exercise and maintain power, possible transformations of the female psyche did not support their own call for female power. In their search for historical models, however, they found Vaerting’s book rewarding in a double sense. It provided them with imagined predecessors in pre-historical times and with a tradition of feminist thought they could refer to. Thereby they could narrate their own agenda as the continuation of an earlier movement, and, what is more, of a movement that had already established scholarly proof for women’s ability to govern a society. In her important article on temporality and anachronisms, Caroline Arni may well have had in mind similar strategies when she pointed out that establishing a narrative of historical predecessors is often highly enticing when fighting for political issues in the present. Very often, however, she argues, this strategy proves to be a highly projective move that says more about the present agenda than about the historical figure and his or her context.8

The second part of this blog post can be found here.


The featured image shows a reader outside the Frauenzentrum Frankfurt-Bockenheim in 1975. Photograph by user Helga Wiki, licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. For more information on the publication and its historical context, see Johanna Gehmacher, ‘Macht/Lust – Übersetzung und fragmentierte Traditionsbildung als Strategien zur Mobilisierung eines radikalen Feminismus’, in Angelika Schaser et al. (eds.), Erinnern, vergessen, umdeuten? Europäische Frauenbewegungen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt, 2019), 95–123. []
  2. Ann Laura Stoler: ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’, Archival Science, 2 (2002), 87–109, at 257. []
  3. Antoinette Burton, ‘”History” is Now: Feminist Theory and the Production of Historical Feminisms’, Women’s History Review, 1/1 (1992), 25–39, at 26. []
  4. Krista Cowman‚ ‘“There is so much, and it will all be history“: Feminist Activists as Historians, the Case of British Suffrage Historiography, 1908–2007’, in Angelika Epple & Angelika Schaser (eds.), Gendering Historiography: Beyond National Canons (Frankfurt et al., 2009), 141–162. []
  5. Angelika Schaser, ‘Helene Lange und Gertrud Bäumer als Historiographinnen der Frauenbewegung’, in Angelika Schaser et al. (eds.), Erinnern, vergessen, umdeuten? Europäische Frauenbewegungen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt, 2019), 170–197. []
  6. Reinhart Koselleck: Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten, (Frankfurt, 2017). []
  7. Theresa Wobbe, ‘Mathilde Vaerting (1884–1977): Die Macht des Unterschieds’ in Claudia Honegger & Theresa Wobbe (eds.), Frauen in der Soziologie. Neun Portraits, (Munich, 1998), 178–202. []
  8. Caroline Arni, ‘Zeitlichkeit, Anachronismus und Anachronien: Gegenwart und Transformationen der Geschlechtergeschichte aus geschichtstheoretischer Perspektive’, L’Homme, 18/2 (2007), 53–76, at 70. []

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Johanna Gehmacher

She is Professor of Contemporary History at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte at the University of Vienna. In 2018/19 she was the Gerda Henkel Visiting Professor at the German Historical Institute London and the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on women’s and gender history of the nineteenth and twentieth century in Europe. Among other issues, she is interested in transnational civic movements around 1900, in concepts of translation within these movements, as well as in the history of biographical thinking as a site of recurring de- and re-construction of gendered and nationalised identities. Her most recent publication is 'Covering the Suffragettes: Austrian Newspapers Reporting on Militant Women’s Rights Activism in the United Kingdom', in J. Hannam & J. Purvis (eds.), The British Women's Suffrage Campaign: National and International Perspectives (London, 2020).

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