Women's History
Book Reviews


Globalizing Feminisms, 1789-1945
Rewriting Histories

Karen Offen, editor

The twenty articles presented in this collection reveal the extent to which new scholarship has positioned feminisms as crucial global movements toward women’s emancipation. Karen Offen has used her well established connections with fellow historians throughout the world, often through her participation in the International Federation for Research in Women’s History, to collect and edit this seminal collection.

The two action verbs featured in the title, “globalizing” and “rewriting,” reveal much of the book’s thrust. More than once terms such as reinterpret, rethinking, redefining, reassessing, and reclaiming, appear in the text as authors, in Offen’s words, “challenge and transform our understandings of a variety of historical issues that have formerly been addressed strictly from male-centered, purely national perspectives.

Offen further explains that she selected articles that “featured the work of historians who analyze and compare development in more than one national context [and]...raise questions about transnational feminist organizing across national countries.” This is much needed given the recent pathbreaking new perspectives on transnational efforts in the west, plus work from countries such as Japan, India, China, the Middle East, and Australia. In non-western regions in particular, new analysis which identifies indigenous roots to feminist discourse as well as the influence of imported western ideas is presented. Also described is cross-border activism as well as obstacles encountered as feminists worked together in international arenas.

The book’s time period, the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 to the end of World War II, is described by Offen as a turning point that gave rise to practical efforts to embody principles of rights, liberty, and equality on behalf of women as well as men. Most important, it saw the first ventures of women into international organizing. The book divides into four thematic sections with introductory remarks by Offen at the beginning of each. Following a rough chronological order, it starts with “Opening Out National Histories of Feminisms.” “Rethinking Feminist Action in Religious and Denominational Contexts” follows. There is a large section called “Birthing International Feminist Initiatives in an Age of Nationalism and Imperialism.” Articles under “Reconceptualizing History Knowledge Through Feminist Historical Perspectives” complete the book. Some pieces pose intriguing questions. Offen’s own piece, “Was Mary Wollstonecraft a feminist?,” sets the stage. Later, Leila J. Rupp asks what in the early first wave of women’s movements drew women together across the borders of nationality? What contributed to their sense of being internationalists, as well as members of discrete national, ethnic and religious groups? And, how was a collective identity defined, and in what ways did the unacknowledged assumptions about the natural leadership of Euro-Americans limit truly world-wide participation in the internationalizing effort?

Other articles discuss aspects of women’s international connections that have been left in the shadows by most earlier historians. I was particularly taken with the less explored topics of the religious roots of a number of secular feminists activities, as well as the actions of feminists within, or on the fringes of, organized religious. New assessments of past assumptions are equally intriguing. Examples include Francesca Miller’s challenge of previous understandings of the story of Latin American feminists in their interactions with North Americans, and Marilyn Boxer’s re-reading of sources which led her to rethink past paradigms which denigrated feminist international movements as “bourgeois,” thereby making this area of research anathema to many scholars. Boxer’s work underlies the fact that a more complete understanding of the global nature of women’s rights activists demands the type of questions and research being done by the scholars in this collection.

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