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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 172-181
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Feminist Modernism and National Tradition:
Britain, the United States, Hungary, India
Ann Taylor Allen
Martin Pugh. The March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women'sSuffrage, 1866-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 303 pp. ISBN: 0-19-820775-1 (cl).
Patricia Greenwood Harrison. Connecting Links: The British and American Woman Suffrage Movements, 1900-1914. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood University Press, 2000. . xvi+281 pp. ISBN 0-313-31084-X (cl).
Susan Zimmermann. Die bessere Hälfte? Frauenbewegunen und Frauenbestrebungen im Ungarn der Habsburgermonarchie 1848 bis 1918.Budapest: Promedia Verlag, 1999. 422 pp. ISBN: 3-85371-153-2.
Catherine A. Robinson. Tradition and Liberation: The Hindu Tradition in the Indian Women'sMovement. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. x+230 pp. ISBN: 0-312-22718-3 (cl).
"Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking," sang the British suffragettes in 1911, and their contemporary Susan B. Anthony is famous for her assertion that, in the century-long struggle for woman suffrage, failure was impossible. By the turn of the twentieth century, woman suffrage advocates in many Western nations were certain that their victory would arrive as inevitably as the dawn follows the dark. Suffragists developed a view of history that I term "feminist modernism." In general they saw the past, including their own national histories, as a long night of oppression. Unlike many of their male contemporaries, who were obsessed with degeneration and cultural decline, feminists looked forward to an age of equality and justice. These hopes were supported by an international feminist culture which transcended national borders. However, the burden of national history was not easy to shake off, and feminist movements were firmly rooted in the culture and traditions of the nations in which they operated. The books under review here examine the history of feminism in the context of four national cultures: Britain, the United States, Hungary, and India.
The reader is immediately struck by the great disparity in the stages that the history of women, and specifically feminism, have reached in the countries under consideration. In Britain and the United States, research is so far advanced that Martin Pugh can offer a revisionist perspective on [End Page 172] a large body of literature and Patricia Harrison can add a new dimension to the well-known biographies of British and American leaders by exploring their trans-Atlantic contacts. By contrast, Susan Zimmermann rescues the Hungarian women's movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from almost total obscurity by offering a basic, narrative survey of their history from 1848 to 1918. And, Catherine A. Robinson, likewise, tells a largely unknown story of Hindu feminists in India and the tensions between Western-inspired ideologies and their native religious traditions.
During this period Britain regarded itself as the world center of representative government and constitutional rights. British suffrage activists invoked these traditions even as they protested their incomplete and biased application. Martin Pugh, a professor of history at Liverpool John Moores University, presents us with a series of readable and informative essays on the British suffrage activists themselves and the political context in which they operated. Pugh argues against the claim of many historians that the peaceful and legal methods used by such constitutional suffrage organizations as the National Union of Woman Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), were largely ineffective, and that only the tactics used by the militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), which included civil disobedience, aggressive heckling, and ultimately violence against property, revitalized an otherwise moribund campaign. Against this stereotyped view, Pugh advances a deft and subtle political analysis of the suffrage question from 1900-1914. The constitutional suffrage movement, he demonstrates, worked effectively to gain political allies across the political spectrum, even among Conservatives. Moreover, by 1900 women's use of such avenues provided by the British state as the local franchise, a free press, and participation in political parties had won over a large segment of public opinion to the cause of woman...