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Gender and Europe

A gendered history of Europe, in which gender relations are a constituent element of the definition of European political, economic, and cultural space.

Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple [Liberty Leading the People] (oil on canvas, 1830). Paris, Louvre Museum.
Demonstration by workers from the Poutilov factory, February 23, 1917, in Petrograd.© Commons Wikimedia.

The concept of revolution refers to periods of socio-political transformation brought about (or simply initiated) by militant action and centred on the paradigm of equality and liberty. All revolutions since the French Revolution in 1789 have been events in which gender relations have been negotiated and sometimes redefined. They left a deep imprint on nineteenth-century European history and marked the birth of bourgeois modernity as well as its conceptions of the gender order. The gender order that emerged in the late eighteenth century defined male and female roles by linking them to specific spaces of action: women were excluded from institutionalized politics, the sciences, and the army, while a family law inscribed within civil codes made them subordinate to men. The revolutions of the nineteenth century challenged these inequalities. While revolutionary militancy reinforced the male gender, uncountable legal discriminations that had persisted for women were abolished after revolutions of the twentieth century.

Deportation of Russian Jews: convoys of women and children, July 17, 1941 Das Bundesarchiv Source: Wikimedia Commons
The emigration and disembarkation of European families in Australia, year 1885 (Drawing of migrants disembarking from a ship, 1885) John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title in English: Friedland Transit Camp, Aussiedler: men and women waiting in a hallway, June 1988  Original title in German: Lager Friedland, Flur, Aussiedler / Flüchtlinge June 1988 Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F079095-0030. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Francine Bajande, “November 1995. Women’s rights demonstration in Paris.” This major demonstration organized by a number of feminist associations reaffirmed the demands of women, including the right to an abortion and the right to work. It included many immigrant and exiled women. Pictured are Sahrawi and Algerian women. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The history of migration during the modern period has been studied without taking into account the respective roles played by men and women in individual and collective displacements. The study of forms of mobility in space, such as leisure travel, exploration, and colonial conquest, has rendered women invisible despite the fact that they were also active figures in long-distance displacements. Female victims of forced displacement have also remained in the dark for a long time. The history of circulations in Europe from the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century shows how the movements of men and women in space have contributed to the evolution of the gendered division of social roles, as well as the shifting and blurring of gender identities.

Turret lathe operator machining parts (Lot-et-Garonne, March 13, 1913)
Rye harvest on Gotland (Sweden 1900-1910). Source: Wikimedia Commons
Women working in a factory in Great Britain producing gas masks during the Great War. Source: Wellcome Library, London

In the early twentieth century, the majority of women either worked in their homes, were farmers, or served as isolated and specialized seamstresses paid for piecework. In the twenty-first century, practically all women are salaried employees regardless of their family situation or their spouse’s profession, and leave home to work, even if only for a few hours. With the spread of salaried employment, their labour has now become visible and disconnected from their family status. The divorce between professional and family status is now complete, with this situation no longer being seen as shameful and miserable for a number of decades. During the second half of the twentieth century, work served as a springboard towards economic independence for women, a major step towards freedom.

Women are far from being a minority in the working world. The contributions of their hard physical labour have always been immense and invaluable. Their work has never been incidental for society, just as their salary today is more than just extra income for the family.

Engraving by Paul Gavarni (1804-1866) “Spouses mutually owe one another fidelity, succour, assistance,” Œuvres choisies, 1857.
Decree approving the German translation of the French Civil Code by the French Prince Jérôme Napoléon, Kind of Westphalia, 1808. Source: Commons Wikimedia

The French Civil Code (1804), Europe’s first liberal and bourgeois code and a model of modern legislation, has had a lasting influence in numerous countries. Yet compared to other European codifications and to the customary law of its time, its conjugal and familial provisions were particularly rigid and served to consolidate masculine domination, as demonstrated by Prussian, Austrian, English, and Scandinavian law as well. These aspects of civil law had and continue to have a considerable impact on the lives of women. Despite protest from feminist movements from the early 1900s, it was only after the two World Wars and obtaining the right to vote that they succeeded in extending equal rights to private law. In the wake of the social and cultural transformations in relations between the sexes, the European Union has acted against gender discrimination as well as other factors of exclusion. Through its jurisprudence, the EU has made gender equality one of the European Community’s primary objectives and has defined common standards of equity for all Europeans beyond the differences in history and legal culture specific to each country.

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Birth control clinic (private archives of Marie Stopes), late 1920.
The demographic transition. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Demonstration for abortion rights in Milan (1975). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Demographic transition has accompanied the transformation of the couple and the family in Europe since the late eighteenth century. The founding element of the family remains marriage, with high marriage rates up to the 1970s, before a decrease in favour of cohabitation. Divorce also became commonplace. Family size shrank and became standardized with the introduction of more effective contraceptive techniques. For all that, norms continue to have considerable influence despite these major evolutions, as demonstrated by opposition to gay marriage, or restrictions to medically-assisted procreation. This resistance to what was called the “sexual revolution” in the late 1960s has instead prompted talk of the modernization of sexuality in the twenty-first century.

Herman Richir, Réunion du conseil d’administration de la Banque nationale (huile sur toile, 1918, Musée de la Banque nationale de Belgique).Herman Richir, Meeting of the board of directors of the National Bank (oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of the National Bank of Belgium)

During the nineteenthcentury, no-one questioned the link between power and masculinity, between men and domination of the public sphere. This power took on many forms, ranging from economic and political to military and even religious power. Although military prestige declined with the two world wars and the defeats of decolonization, men still held the reins over politics and the increasingly globalized economy. Nearly a century after the right to vote, and despite mass access to higher education, women still hit against the glass ceiling, which denies them access to responsibility. A small fringe of masculine leaders still concentrates most of the power in the twenty-first century.

The division between the private feminine sphere and the public masculine sphere imposed itself during the nineteenth century. The men possessing the most cultural and financial capital controlled the centres of economic, political, military, and even religious power. Despite the growing role of women in society, the erosion of this age-old domination was slow to come during the twentieth century.

This article is currently being written, for more articles on the same subject, please check the "To go further" section.

This article is currently being written, for more articles on the same subject, please check the "To go further" section.

This article is currently being written, for more articles on the same subject, please check the "To go further" section.


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