Café CSE: Europe’s Feminist Legacies

At a Café CSE, Renata Forste, Amy Harris and Jamie Horrocks discussed the history of feminism in Europe and the importance of understanding legacies that allow individuals to overcome gender-based antagonism.  

IMG_6093PROVO, Utah (Nov. 18, 2015)—What is a feminist? On a continent with as many ideologies and cultures as Europe, a standard definition of feminism is by no means simple to establish.

At a Café CSE panel, Renata Forste, professor of sociology, Amy Harris, associate professor of history and Jamie Horrocks, assistant professor of English, discussed the past, present and future of European feminism and how feminist legacies throughout the history of Europe encourage mutual respect and discourage institutionalized male dominance.

Though an all-encompassing definition of feminism and a common feminist experience across Europe are difficult to establish, Harris suggested three guiding principles to provide a framework for the overall goal of feminism in Europe.

Harris explained that feminism works to one, recognize the validity of women’s experiences; two, exhibit consciousness of and discomfort with institutionalized injustice toward women; and three, advocate for the elimination of institutionalized injustice.

“One of the things that is complicated about feminism in Europe historically is when the term feminist was invented versus what we talk about as early feminism in Europe,” said Valerie Hegstrom, the panel moderator, who then asked, “Where does it start?”

Harris explained the role that consciousness plays in a feminist timeline in Europe.

Proto-feminists, for example, who grappled with what would be considered feminist issues before the term was coined in the 19th century, show that consciousness of collective injustice against women is required in establishing a feminist legacy.

Such figures recognize that they are not just at a personal disadvantage in society, but that this condition is systemic, Harris said.

Moving the discussion to the present-day influence of feminism, Hegstrom asked how traditional roles for women and men developed over time in Europe, asking particularly what the European family looks like today as the result of feminism.

Forste gave the example of the difficulty many Europeans have in changing gender stereotypes. “Feminism has opened up opportunities for women to go into the public sphere, to get education and to go to work, but what it hasn’t done is brought men back into the private sphere,” she explained.

One problem that is also disconcerting to Europeans is that fertility levels are now below replacement level, said Forste. She added that though countries across Europe have tried to institutionalize practices that would make it easier for families to have more children, men still have trouble becoming equal partners in the household.

“There’s really no motivation for a woman to take on more burden in the private sphere in addition to the burden in the public sphere,” said Forste. “It comes down to how we define masculinity as much as how we define femininity.”

Horrocks discussed the example of Scandinavian countries that are famous for having the most family-friendly policies in the entire world. She explained that these countries do an exceptional job of providing maternity and paternity leave, yet questioned how effective this was in increasing fertility rates.

Forste explained that even if countries such as Norway do offer paternity leave, men don’t take it. “It shows that you’re not as committed to the workforce if you do. That changes your definition of masculinity,” she said. 

To conclude, Hegstrom and the panelists agreed that there is still much we do not understand about what it meant to be a woman throughout earlier centuries in Europe.

“As scholars focus on our own particular problems, we haven’t put the pieces together yet,” said Hegstrom. “That’s one of the real problems that we have when we’re trying to define a universal woman’s experience across time and across the continent.”

Harris concluded, however, that what is really at stake is not merely a more systematic knowledge of the complex history of the European past, but rather how this knowledge will be accessed and used to more fully understand the “woman question.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers the Women’s Studies Program  for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.