The History of Feminism Is Political History
By Karen Offen
Is “real solemn history” constituted of “the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page…and hardly any women at all,” as Jane Austen once characterized it in her novel, Northanger Abbey? Two hundred years ago, that succinct delineation of political history (and allusion to the absence of women from it) was tellingly true. Today, notwithstanding a few skeptics, the answer to that question can be, “No longer only that.”
Once viewed as “social history,” and more recently studied through the lens of cultural history, the history of feminism is, in fact, political history, or it is (to put it another way) a more expansive history of politics that incorporates women and analyzes gender politics. It foregrounds women’s concerns, perspectives, and efforts to be recognized as integral members of their respective societies. Feminist claims are primarily political claims for change in specific settings; they erupt frequently in times of political unrest. Thus, the history of feminism is a gendered narrative of political history that goes well beyond the adding and stirring in of an occasional queen, a comment on “new woman” fashion, or a photograph of a demonstration for the right to vote. It necessarily expands the very meaning of “political” and of what constitutes “politics”.
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