The European Women’s Lobby (EWL)

The European Women’s Lobby (EWL) was created in 1990 at the initiative of EU civil servants, in a context of the institutionalization of feminism. Inspired by the European Network of Women (ENOW) created in 1983, its goal was to inform women’s associations and to influence European institutions in favour of women. After multiple waves of enlargement over the course of twenty-five years, the lobbying group became the largest coalition of European women’s organizations. Despite the number and cultural diversity of its members, it takes firm stances with regard to polemical subjects, affirming its pro-choice and prostitution abolitionist positions.

Logo of the European Women's Lobby

The European Women’s Lobby (EWL), founded in 1990, carried on the unifying goal pursued by the International Council on Women (1888), the Soroptimist International (1921), and the Women’s Committee of the European Movement International (1947). The creation of the European Community in 1957 gave new life to these attempts to coordinate women’s associations in Europe. While article 119 of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 recommends equal pay for both sexes, the Women’s Organization for Equality (WOE) was created in 1971 in Brussels, driven by Anglo-American feminists who were close to women’s liberation fronts. In order to apply article 119 and the three directives from 1975, 1976, and 1978 confirming the principle of economic equality, organizational structures were created within the European Commission in 1976: the Equal Opportunities Unit and the Women’s Information Unit were led, respectively, by the Frenchwoman Jacqueline Nonon and the Italian woman Fausta Deshormes. These two European civil servants were behind the creation of the EWL. While the feminist psychologist Lydia Horton and other members of the WOE established a sub-group in 1978 called the Women’s European Action Group—which studied these new community structures for equality and in 1980 became the Centre for Research on European Women (CREW)—Deshormes and Nonon discussed their dream of creating a “European women's forum” during a lunch with four other French feminist and Europeanist friends: Marcelle Devaud, a Gaullist who supported the ECSC and became the first female Vice-President of the French Senate; Irène de Lipkowsky, co-founder of the women’s umbrella organization “Les Françaises libres,” and recipient of a Commander’s Cross from the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for bringing together French and German war widows; Jeanne Chaton, a former representative of the French government to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women; and Janine Lansier, President of the Comité français du travail féminin and of the Women’s Committee of the European Movement International France.

1979 certainly gave them reason for hope. This was the year of the European Parliament’s first election, with universal suffrage, which elected Simone Veil to the presidency of an assembly in which approximately one in four representatives was a woman, and in which sixty-seven female representatives created an ad hoc committee on women’s rights, a future base of support for the EWL. Seeking to take advantage of the desire of European institutions to reinforce their legitimacy with citizens by funding public interest groups on a European level, Fausta Deshormes used her professional contacts with the women’s associations of Europe to defend her project for a forum. For eleven years she sought to convince the reluctant representatives of associations from twelve EU member countries by organizing four major European conferences. On May 17 and 18, 1982, a conference in Bonn brought together 40 associations. Although internal opposition on how to organize, along with a certain Euroscepticism, prevented the creation of an NGO, the participants were pleased that this conference contributed “to the reciprocal knowledge of Europe’s female citizens and the discovery of solidarity across borders, as well as to hope in the European dimension rather than national solutions.” In 1983, CREW received a grant from the European Commission—actively solicited by Jacqueline Nonon for the only feminist organization oriented toward European policy—in order to bring about a genuine European coordination of national associations, the European Network of Women (ENOW). The British researcher Eva Eberhardt, a member of ENOW, played a major role in the implementation of the EWL during the ensuing conferences, which attracted more participants to Torino in 1984, The Hague in 1985, and London in 1987, where the representatives of 85 women’s associations from Europe adopted the two resolutions that created the European Women’s Lobby on September 22, 1990. Serving as an intermediary between women’s organizations and European institutions, its goals were to inform European women through letters and reports, in order for them to participate in European programs affecting them; to harmonize feminist aspirations by coordinating actions in European countries; and to influence EU decisions to eliminate violence against women and rethink European society so as to value the contributions of women. It became the first genuinely structured coordination of women’s associations on the EU level through effective transnational organization: a secretariat of salaried lobbyists in Brussels, and a volunteer component based on the member European networks and national coordination of women’s associations.

Originally, the founders of the EWL had a similar profile: highly educated bourgeois white elites, who worked in Brussels and were very active in politics. They defended within the lobby the priorities and perspective of a Western feminism that was not very open to minorities, that of the twelve countries who founded the organization. The expansion of the EWL, which for the most part followed the pace of accession of new EU member states, changed the game. In 1995, newly-arrived Swedish and Finnish women, well-versed in state feminism, brought their organizational and lobbying experience. This enabled the EWL to carry out more effective lobbying during preparations for the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1996, in which gender mainstreaming (the concept of taking gender into consideration in all European policies) was added to the EU’s principles. The expansion to include women’s associations from Eastern Europe in 2004 represented a genuine challenge. The women’s associations from the former Soviet block were fewer, less structured, and rejected feminism, which they associated with communism. Their priorities were of an economic order, and they were less interested in the social questions being debated at the time in Western Europe, such as prostitution. To adapt to the preoccupations of its new members, the EWL implemented a strategic plan to redefine common values and priorities, an exercise that is now conducted every year. Twenty-five years after its creation, the lobby has certainly become the largest coalition of European women’s organizations, representing all socio-economic and ethnic categories, including 2,700 associations in 31 countries: 28 EU states, along with the three accession candidates, namely Turkey, Serbia, and the Republic of Macedonia. The search for a high degree of consensus, which is essential to the functioning of so large a network, nevertheless does not prevent the lobby from taking firm stances on contentious subjects, such as abortion and prostitution. For example, the EWL has defended the abolition of prostitution since 1998, despite the reluctance of certain feminists in the Netherlands and Germany. Since 2002, it has also been pro-choice—that is favourable to reproductive control for women and against the conscientious objection of medical staff for abortion—despite the disagreement of Polish feminists on the subject.

To quote from this article

Claire Lafon , « The European Women’s Lobby (EWL) », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/20 , consulted on 21/05/2024. Permalink :


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