The Production of Historical Feminisms, Part Two: Transnational Strategies and the Feminist ‘We’

With this post, Johanna Gehmacher returns to the issues of tradition-building and historicization within women’s movements. Using a book that combined trans-temporal and transnational strategies to legitimise and incite feminist activism in West Germany in the 1970s as a case study, Gehmacher examines the production of meaning within feminist movements and the interconnection between visions and politics of the past, present and future in feminism. Part One of this series can be found here.

International networks played an essential role in the development of feminist movements in the nineteenth century. Since the 1880s, regular international women’s conferences spurred a strong transnational dynamic. Reports on the development of the women’s movement in the delegates’ own countries published in conference proceedings were a key part of these meetings and provided narratives and material that these women later covered in feminist journals and national newspapers to incite activism at home. Pointing to achievements and successes in other countries became a significant way of legitimising demands in one’s own country. However, Leila Rupp has shown that the ‘we’ developed in this transnational arena of feminism around 1900 was neither anti-nationalist nor egalitarian. Indeed, the ideology of international sisterhood was frequently combined with an orientalist and racist strategy of othering.1 The biased records and silences that were strategically left in the archives frequently remain unnoticed by historians. If historiography operates only on a national level, it often unconsciously reproduces the historical actor’s documentation practices and, thereby, fails to detect the hidden models of the allegedly more advanced (Western) countries and constructions of the backwardness of non-Western countries.  Many of the hierarchies these reports supported only become visible when studied on a transnational level.

A transatlantic dynamic was similarly at work in the second half of the twentieth century, when North America, and particularly the US, served as models for European feminisms. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, pamphlets and books from the US played an important role in developing feminist groups and networks in German-speaking countries. The transnational passage of agendas and narratives, however, came with some problematic homogenising effects. Among them were, on the one hand, the reduction of US feminism to selected positions that resonated particularly well with local agendas, and, on the other hand, the adoption of simplified narratives of feminism that at times blended out the variegated and concurrent initiatives in (Western) European countries. In an article on intersectionality in the memory work of the new women’s movement in Germany, to take just one example, Ilse Lenz has contended that the stereotypical American narrative of ‘white middle-class feminism being later alerted to racism by Black feminism’ does not fit with the history of West German feminism of the 1970s.2 Her critique, however, needs to be differentiated and supplemented with an analysis of other forms of racialized self-conception of German feminists of that time.3

To hint at some of the contradictions and silences produced by adopting a specific American narrative of feminism in a German-speaking context once more, I want to come back to the book published as 1. Frauen(raub)druck (Women’s [Bootleg] Print) by the West Berlin Women’s Centre in the early 1970s. The second subtitle on its cover announced the smaller, though probably more influential, part of the book: a translation of Anne Koedt’s famous pamphlet The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. Here, I do not want to go into how Koedt’s critique of the Freudian concept of female sexuality was translated and disseminated in Europe, but instead I want to use it as an example of the effects of transnational strategies of tradition-building and creating a feminist ‘we’. Translating that text, the new women’s movement in West Germany established a strong link with radical feminists from the US. However, they also adopted the legacy of a movement that was not identical to the development of feminist activism in German-speaking Europe.

Analysing the publication context of Koedt’s original work provides insight into strategies of historicization and tradition-building among US radicals. Among other places Koedt’s text was republished in Notes from the Second Year a compilation of radical texts for women’s liberation co-edited by Anne Koedt and Shulamith Firestone in 1970. By counting the years of the movement, the title suggested a foundational moment, even if it did not specify when and where this had taken place. The logic of counting also promised future development: there would be notes from the third, fourth, fifth, etc. year. The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm obviously played a central role in this revolutionary dynamic as it was the only text that had already been published in the Notes from the First Year.

Cover of Notes From the Second Year (1970). Provided by the Rubenstein Library under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

If we want to reflect on historicisation and tradition-building, the volume is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it exemplifies the activist strategy of stipulating a specific perspective on the movement through publication. In their foreword, the editors claimed that they wanted to counter misrepresentations of the movement promulgated by their enemies. Therefore, they had decided to compile the authentic and authoritative texts of the movement and make them available for radical women’s groups in the whole country. However, this initiative was also an effective strategy of claiming hegemony in debates within the movement. We, therefore, can see it as an intervention that aimed at fixing a specific theoretical stance on women’s liberation at a critical political moment.

Secondly, the publication demonstrates how tradition-building and historicization are interrelated. In their editorial, the New York radicals Koedt and Firestone linked their project to the work of nineteenth-century activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, specifically their journal The Revolution:

We needed a movement periodical which would expand with the movement, reflect its growth accurately, and in time become a historical record, functioning politically much as did Stanton and Anthony’s Revolution exactly a century ago.4

In doing so, Koedt and Firestone placed themselves in a tradition that had been edited in a very specific way. In her 2014 book, The Myth of Seneca Falls, Lisa Tetrault demonstrates how Stanton and Anthony created a mythological history of women’s suffrage in which they were the only and unquestioned leaders. Stanton and Anthony had written out other rival activists and, most importantly, had adapted their version of US-suffrage history to the racial politics of memory after the Civil War.5 What we should, therefore, analyse is the intersection between problematic historicization strategies of nineteenth-century activists (Stanton and Anthony) and tradition-building strategies of twentieth-century radicals (Firestone and Koedt). The latter had a rather different agenda than their forerunners and were most probably ignorant of the racial politics and silences in the historical narrative through which they sought legitimacy for their own project.

This intersection becomes even more complicated when we go back to Berlin. Here, historical awareness—and blindness—took a different form. The editors claimed they had rediscovered Vaerting’s book by chance at an antique bookshop and were rather surprised to find such a radical feminist statement from the time before the Third Reich. In comparison to Koedt and Firestone, they were more aware of the ruptures and distortions of feminist history in their country. That is why, I argue, they presented their tradition-building in a gesture of discovery. It allowed them to refer to a history they approved of without discussing the continuities and discontinuities between the West German women’s movement and National Socialism. There are silences here, too, but they are different from those in the traditions Firestone and Koedt built upon. In order to address these silences, we would have to take a closer look at the divisions and ruptures that affected the German’s women’s movement since before the First World War. We should also problematize the uncritical adoption of the US narrative of feminism and ask why it was so attractive to adopt the tradition of another country? In post-World War Two Germany (and Austria) the transnational perspective opened up exciting new ways of thinking and acting. But it also allowed feminists to blend out the National Socialist past and the complex history of breaks and continuities.

To sum up: As inevitably as the historians’ questions and research perspectives are loaded with present concepts and tendencies that need to be de-constructed, the documents historians of women’s movements try to decipher and contextualise have their own leanings. Working with the rich material of historical activists’ self-documentation, we have to carefully distinguish between the historical protagonists’ (often conflicting) intentions to create narratives through which they want to be remembered, and alternative narratives that were side-lined or silenced as a result. We must also pay attention to later appropriations of these histories as part of the tradition-building initiatives of later movements. How and why certain histories are taken up says much about the self-understandings and projections of feminism, as well as about the politics of memory and forgetting. The analysis of these layers is complicated by practices of transnational transfer that led to the adoption of agendas and narratives developed in and for differently structured publics. What is more, the production of movement archives also took place across time. We, therefore, have to read the imaginary and real archives of feminism as ‘systems of expectation’, as multi-layered results of diverse and contradictory, but meaningful political practices in specific times and places.

The production of historical feminisms always takes place in the present.



The featured image includes parts of the cover of 1. Frauendruck included in Part One of this post.

  1. Leila Rupp, Worlds of Women. The Making of an International Women’s Movement (Princeton [N.J.], 1997). []
  2. Ilse Lenz, ‘Wer sich wo und wie erinnern wollte? Die Neuen Frauenbewegungen und soziale Ungleichheit nach Klasse, „Rasse“ und Migration’, in Angelika Schaser et al. (eds.), Erinnern, vergessen, umdeuten? Europäische Frauenbewegungen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt, 2019), 255–284, at 266. []
  3. Cf. for instance Pia Marzell, ‘“Sind wir uns so fremd?”: Aufbrüche in der Rassismusdebatte der Frauenbewegung’, History/Sexuality/Law, (accessed 24/05/2021). []
  4. Shulamith Firestone & Anne Koedt, ‘Editoral’, in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation (New York, 1970), 2. []
  5. Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 (Chapel Hill, 2014). []

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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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