This will be an international and comparative history that includes all of the national cultures of Western Europe. The focus will be on Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany (the Nazi era, during which feminist organizations were prohibited, will be discussed only as it influenced devel­opments in other countries and in postwar West Germany). The Scandinavian nations will also figure prominently. Southern European nations such as Spain, Italy, and Portugal will play a lesser role, partly because for a large portion of the period they were ruled by dictatorships that suppressed feminism, but they will also be included, as will smaller nations such as Switzerland and Ireland.13 The source material will include both original documents and the rich and copious body of secondary literature that has reconstructed the history of women in many nations.

My aim is both to provide a synthesis of existing research and to place its results in an international perspective. The field of women’s and gender history has questioned many conventions of the discipline of history but has retained its focus on the national state. The past thirty years have seen the production of countless excellent works covering many aspects of women’s and gender history in individual countries—works upon which the present study depends. And their perspective is valid and illuminating, for the national state—its political structures, its distinctive geography, language, and culture, its economic and social systems, and not least its military fortunes—did much to shape the environment in which individuals lived and thought.

But the national focus can also limit the explanatory power of history, for most major trends, especially those of the modern era, arise from forces that are international in scope. And we cannot simply assume that nationality was the only, or even the primary, marker of individual identity. Nations, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, are not timeless and primordial entities— on the contrary, they are “imagined communities,” invented and sustained to fulfill their citizens’ need for a “sense of belonging.”14 These citizens may well have an equal or greater need to belong to entities smaller or larger than the national state. Among the former are families, cities, and provinces; among the latter are regions and other “imagined communities” linked by religion, class, race, gender, or other identities shared across national boundaries.

During our period, the feminist movement was among the largest and the most closely knit of these international communities.15 To be sure, bonds of gender did not transcend those of nationality, and the dense network of feminist organizational life and intellectual exchange was disrupted by war and international rivalry. But international tensions could also stimulate communication, for feminists were loyal defenders of national honor and sought information about other countries in order to compete with them. And international dialogue, though it touched on all issues, was particularly intense on themes related to the family, child welfare, and the theory and practice of motherhood—aspects of life that, though they took distinctive forms in each national culture, were common to all.

The international approach does not obscure or overlook the differences among nations—on the contrary, it illuminates these differences.16 The follow­ing chapters will center on ways in which ideas derived from an international movement—feminism—were received, implemented, modified, or rejected within specific national cultures. As the sociologist Theda Skocpol remarks, such comparisons can demonstrate difference by showing what variable fea­tures of each case affect the “working out of putatively general processes.”17 More than the study of a single nation, a comparative perspective can reveal what is truly distinctive to each culture and what cultures have in common.

Why the focus on Western Europe? Traditional historical narratives treat the European nations as separate entities and stress their cultural differences and their conflicts. Within a historical perspective that centered on Europe or on Western civilization and took little account of other regions of the world, these conflicts loomed large. But with the end of European dominance and the rise of global politics, Europe was displaced from the center of history and reclassified as only one of many regions of the world. “Europe,” writes the historian of India Dipesh Chakrabarty, has been “provincialized by history itself.”18 From this global perspective, the European “province” is at least as notable for its common civilization as for its internal diversity—a perspective that the recent consolidation and growth of the European Union has powerfully reinforced.

Among all the aspects of culture that Western European nations share, patterns of reproduction and family life have always been among the most distinctive. A “European marriage pattern” involving late ages at marriage and small nuclear-family households emerged in the early modern era, and during the period covered here the trend toward reduced birth rates that is known as the “demographic transition” occurred within about thirty years (from 1880 to 1910) in all the Western European nations with the exception of France (where it had begun much earlier, around 1820) and Spain and Ireland (where the process began later, in the 1920s). Throughout Western Europe, these statistical trends were accompanied by highly distinctive political processes, chiefly the building of welfare states, and by social change, especially in the experience of childhood, family life, and the status of women. These patterns diverged from those of Eastern Europe, where the demographic transition and its attendant changes came (on average) somewhat later, and from those of European settler societies such as Australia, the United States, and Canada, which differed from their mother countries in demographic composition, population trends, and political systems.19

Although the turn toward comparative history is recent, the field of women’s and gender history has already produced some outstanding works in this field. Many of these are anthologies that include articles on individual countries but do not explicitly compare them. Synthetic works of comparison include Richard Evans’s early work on international feminism; Susan Pedersen’s pioneering book on family allowance policies in France and Britain; Alisa Klaus’s account of maternity policies in France and the United States; comparative histories of family policies in Germany and Sweden by Teresa Kulawik, Silke Neunsinger, and Wiebke Kolbe; and Karen Offen’s survey of European feminist movements.20 Among these authors, only Evans and Offen deal with more than two national cultures. Following the example set by these authors, this study will include smaller countries such as Holland, Belgium, and Ireland as well as the better-known “great powers.” Mindful of restrictions imposed by publishers’ page limits, the availability of research materials, and not least the patience of readers, I have no intention of providing a complete and systematic survey of events in all the countries that I have included. Instead, I will use selected examples to illustrate major trends.