Transatlantic Connections of the Women’s Movement in the Long 19th Century: Interview with Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson

Editorial Note: Professor Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson has been Chair of the Transatlantic History and Culture Department at the University of Augsburg since 2016. Previously, she served for five years as Deputy Director of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. Her research focuses on Transatlantic relations, African American history, women’s history, and religious history.

As part of her blog series on the history of the women’s movement in a transatlantic perspective, Marietheres Pirngruber spoke with Professor Waldschmidt-Nelson in April 2021.

Interview: Marietheres Pirngruber
Translation: Erik Brown

During your time at the GHI, you published an anthology on the transatlantic linkages of the women’s rights movement. What fascinates you about this topic?

I must confess that I have always been fascinated by the history of oppressed groups. After all, I have done a lot of research in the area of African American history. There is also a history of oppression among women. With a few exceptions, the female sex has been massively disadvantaged for thousands of years, not only in Europe and America, but across the world. Women have been oppressed, exploited, and disenfranchised in patriarchal, sometimes religiously based social orders. And if truth be told, in most countries, women were denied access to higher education and professional occupations well into the 20th century; moreover, they were politically incapacitated. In some countries, that’s still the case today.

What fascinates me most about this history is that there have always been truly courageous women who have resisted, who have rebelled against their oppression. In the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the two great revolutions – the American and the French Revolutions – brought equality and equal rights to the forefront. Two women who, inspired by these ideas, drafted writings for women’s rights as early as 1791 and 1792 were Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft. Their writings spread like wildfire; they were translated into a wide variety of languages around the world and are still considered to be the founding documents of feminism today.

In today’s world, it is taken for granted to exchange ideas across continents. How could an exchange and cooperation work in the 19th century? 

It was a relatively complex development that took a long time. After all, following the early feminist writings I just mentioned, it still took about half a century, until the middle of the 19th century, before real action followed. So, the question is, how did an exchange between women come about? Why did it not exist before? For this, it is important to remember the idealistic and technical achievements of that time. On the one hand, as I already mentioned, there was the new mindset of the Enlightenment, and then industrialization and urbanization were also very important. Through them, a new middle class had formed, which no longer consisted only of aristocratic women, but made it possible for a larger number of women to learn to read and write. They were all able to read the new writings that were now coming into circulation and then spread and manifested these ideas more and more. Another important factor was the transportation and communication revolution. The facilities of steamships, for example, reduced the crossing time from Europe to America from over six weeks to nine days. This was a real revolution; it was not only about the passage of people, but also of newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and appeals. These could now be distributed at six times speed. Railroad networks were also being expanded on the continents, and communication was further improved with the help of new telegraph connections.

Another important aspect were the many social reform movements at the beginning of the 19th century. Essential to the emergence of an international women’s rights movement, for example, was the abolitionist, or anti-slavery, movement. Women were very strongly involved in this movement and learned there, as they later put it, “the tools of movement building.” So, how do I organize public protests, how do I prepare, for example, demonstrations, petitions, how do I write calls for action? How can I hold public speeches in the first place, because this was also something very new and revolutionary for women at that time? These were skills that many women first learned through their involvement in the abolitionist movement. And it was within these movements that women first developed the awareness that they themselves were oppressed as women. The idea was: black people can’t vote, but we can’t vote either. Of course, it was not quite comparable, but it did develop an awareness of gender discrimination. For that matter, it is also very fascinating to see that nearly exactly 100 years later, the same thing, or something very similar, happened again, because out of the participation of women in the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Second Wave Feminism then developed in the United States.

International Congress of Women in 1915. LSE Library,

Did these women share the same convictions for the most part, or were there also different views based on their national origins?

That is also a very fascinating question, and it is not so easy to answer. I would say for the period up to the 1920s, when a large part of Western countries introduced women’s suffrage, the national differences were not particularly great. I would want to make more of a chronological differentiation there. Until the mid-19th century, women were primarily concerned with property and contractual rights. In the legal sense, a woman used to be only a ward, or a minor. She was either her father’s ward, then her husband’s ward after marriage, or her brother’s ward without marriage. For example, if women brought their inheritance into the marriage, the money or houses belonged to the husband. Or, in the case of separation, custody of the children was almost always awarded to the man; the children were virtually his property as well, not the woman’s. I would say that by the middle of the 19th century, the fight against these laws was a priority for women’s rights activists in almost every country, and the first successes in this area soon followed. From the 1860s on, the focus then shifted a bit in the U.S. and later also in Europe to the second major priority: access to education and to professional occupations, as it was forbidden for women, for example, almost everywhere to go to college.

So, the struggle was first focused on not making themselves economically subject to blackmail by allowing women to hold their own property and thus be somewhat independent. The second step was to focus on access to education and professional jobs, and then, especially in the last third of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, came the struggle for the right to vote. The idea that women should vote seemed too radical to many before, and the timing of the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement varied in different countries. In Great Britain, the so-called suffragettes were active much earlier than in Germany. At the same time, several international women’s peace movements were formed: Many women believed that men were always causing war and destruction and that it was up to women to work together for peace. For example, the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom was founded in 1915. However, these international women’s associations for peace, women’s rights, or social justice usually disintegrated rather quickly in the event of war. Women’s concerns were quickly subordinated to national interests. From the 1920s onward, the focus of the respective women’s rights movements in individual countries then developed with greater national differences than before. Since women’s suffrage had spread more or less nationwide, it continued in different forms depending on the national legal situation – similarly with regard to reproductive rights, labor rights, or access to political office.

Why is it important today as a historian to continue to research these networks?

Today, we still do not have real gender equality, therefore I think it is very important to deal with the attempts of earlier women’s rights activists to build networks and to develop successful strategies. On one hand, you can ideally learn from this what worked and what did not. At the same time, I also think it instills courage to look at the history of these women. Sometimes you think you could almost despair that nothing is happening. But when I compare our situation today with the situation back then and see how these women kept going, sometimes even going to prison for their ideals, and still did not give up, I find that very inspiring. We must always remind ourselves not to give up hope. But also, that you can’t just sit there passively, that you have to actively stand up against the oppression of women through your publications, your political involvement, or other activities. I think this message that you really have to keep fighting for progress and gender equality in social, economic, and political spheres is something that these older women’s rights movements and networks can inspire us to do. To end with the words of the African American feminist Ella Baker, “The struggle continues. Somebody else carries on.”