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Transnational Ahead of Its Time: Author Examines Council of Women

National borders are broken down in Oliver Janz and Daniel Schönpflug’s soon-to-be-released collection Gender History in a Transnational Perspective: Networks, Biographies, Gender Orders. The contributors examine historic cross-continent networks of European feminists. Following a short introduction from the author is a excerpt from Karen Offen’s chapter, in which the author examines the International Council of Women, which she considers “transnational” before the term was coined.



Karen Offen introduces this first part of the volume with reflections on a fundamental question: Can the category “transnational” be applied to the early international women’s movement, even though its representatives did not yet employ the term.


Historical scholarship is pressed to justify anachronistic terminology. It seems, though, that its use is often unavoidable, since historians’ implicit and explicit questions about the past always stem from their own present. Also, from a theoretical and methodological point of view, employing anachronistic terms allows for clearer analytical terminology as the linguistic horizon of the contemporaries is often ambivalent, contradictory and multifold. 



From, “Understanding International Feminisms as ‘Transnational’ – an Anachronism? May Wright Sewall and the Creation of the International Council of Women, 1889 to 1904″ by Karen Offen


Anachronism is a perplexing issue for historians.


My first serious encounter with anachronism was over the use of the word ‘feminism’ to connote claims and campaigns for women’s emancipation prior to the early 1880s, before the French women’s suffrage advocate Hubertine Auclert invoked (in 1882) the terms ‘féminisme’ and ‘féministe’ as synonymous with women’s rights in her publication La Citoyenne.


Between 1882 and the century’s end, these two terms were speedily disseminated through most other western languages.


One solution to the problem of anachronism is to stick resolutely to the terminology used by participants and advocates prior to the actual introduction of the terms, in this case, the emancipation of women or women’s rights.  A second approach is to inquire into the origins of the words, to investigate the ways in which they traveled and were used cross-culturally, and to come up with an overarching definition that does not confuse specific issues, or local and national tactics and strategies in argument and execution, with the fundamental objective. This is precisely the approach I chose in the 1980s with reference to feminism/feminist. In the case of feminism, the fundamental objective was this: to challenge masculine domination, to contest male privilege and sex-based hierarchies in sociopolitical, legal, economic and cultural arrangements. Another way of putting this is: to re-balance the power between the sexes in a society in which men have monopolized the privileges and the authority. The important thing is to keep one’s eye on the ultimate, underlying goal.


Following this series of investigations, I felt comfortable using those words in my book European Feminisms, 1700–1950 to describe women’s emancipation efforts – not only the spectrum of possibilities that might sprout and take root within national cultures but also those efforts that bridged, even transcended, national boundaries and time periods, and to interpret them in a way that could be considered ‘inter-national’, if not invariably ‘trans-national’ (I use the hyphen deliberately in both these terms, since ‘national’ serves as the lexical reference norm in each case). I also looked closely at the politics of using these words, ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’, and I particularly noted the objections to employing them, as was the case of the vast majority of late nineteenth-century German-speaking advocates of women’s emancipation who (for political reasons, and with only a few exceptions) preferred using the expressions ‘Frauenbewegung’ (women’s movement) or ‘Frauenrechtlerin’ (women’s rights advocate) to the ‘imported’ French terms ‘féminisme’ and ‘féministe’, thereby encompassing, but also relativizing the emancipatory aspect of this particular Bewegung in the first instance, and specifying ‘rights’ as its objective in the second. The term ‘women’s movement’ can and does encompass many manifestations of women’s activism that have little to do with emancipation or rights per se.


The same exercise of historicizing words and their usage can be helpful with respect to the term ‘transnationalism’. The word ‘international’ itself appeared only in the late eighteenth century, in the work of Jeremy Bentham, according to the authoritative Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Consulting my unabridged 1970 (second edition) of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language recently, I found the term ‘international’ present, of course, with the principal meaning of ‘between or among nations’ (p. 959). But the word ‘transnational’ does not appear (p. 1940); the closest word is ‘transoceanic’. Further investigation revealed that ‘transnational’ seems to have come into wider circulation among economists and political scientists in the 1950s and into the early 1970s. Academic historians took up this language during the late 1980s and into the early 1990s: for example, Ian Tyrrell and Michael McGerr used the term in their exchanges in a forum in the American Historical Review, published in 1991, as did Gisela Bock in her Maternity Policies book, which also appeared in 1991. Both these works had been in press before this date. Well before 2000 ‘transnational’ began to flourish in the work of feminist sociologists such as Inderpal Grewal and Valentine Moghadam, both of whom are to some degree associated with post-colonial theory and address contemporary women’s issues from the perspective of sociology.


Furthermore, contemporary concerns about ‘globalization’ – a word that currently trips off everyone’s tongue – have swept the term ‘trans­national’ into contemporary usage. So my question is: can we or should we historians use these terms ‘transnational’ and ‘transnationalism’ – as some are doing – to describe earlier efforts that antedate the terminology – as a number of scholars in other fields have been doing, perhaps unreflectively. How should we historians deal with this anachronism when we discuss developments prior to the First World War?




Karen Offen is historian and independent scholar. Offen earned her PhD from Stanford University and is a Senior Scholar in Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.




Oliver Janz is Professor of Contemporary History at Freie Universität Berlin and has been Visiting Professor in Berne, Trento and Rome. He is editor-in-chief of 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. His recent publications include: Das symbolische Kapital der Trauer. Nation, Religion und Familie im italienischen Gefallenenkult des Ersten Weltkriegs (2009), Dolce Vita? Das Bild der italienischen Migranten in Deutschland (2011) and 14 – Der Große Krieg (2013).


Daniel Schönpflug is Vice Director of the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin. His publications include Luise von Preußen. Königin der Herzen (2010) and Die Heiraten der Hohenzollern. Verwandtschaft, Ritual und Politik in Europa 1640-1918 (2013). In recognition of his commitment to Franco-German scholarly exchange, Daniel Schönpflug received the Gay-Lussay-Humboldt-Award in 2010.