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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Twentieth-Century Europe
  • Martha Hanna
Women in Twentieth-Century Europe. By Ann Taylor Allen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. x plus 208 pp. $28.95).

In Women in Twentieth-Century Europe Ann Taylor Allen proposes to “look at women of many nations—rich and poor, married and single, religious and secular, feminists and anti-feminists, militarists and pacifists” (p. 4). To contain such a project within 170 pages means inevitably that some questions are analyzed more extensively and some issues examined more successfully than others. Feminists receive more attention than anti-feminists, the secularization of everyday life more attention than the persistence of religious faith. By concentrating on some topics at the expense of others Allen can explain what feminists hoped to accomplish but not why feminism remained (as she notes on page 131) a cause embraced by only a minority of women. By stressing the significance of war in the lives of European women, she reveals how an enterprise too often thought of exclusively as masculine transformed women’s lives and brought about the demise of separate spheres. Nonetheless, she does not fully explain how the absence of war—in Sweden most notably—also allowed for real advances in the lives of women.

Allen deploys the now rather tired Dickensian observation—“it was the best of times; it was the worst of times”—to construct her central argument: although European women experienced real progress in the course of the twentieth century, their gains were not sufficient to dismantle patriarchy, overcome economic inequality, or realign the distribution of life’s chores that have characterized women’s work for centuries. Ironically, much of the improvement in women’s lives, as well as much of the tragedy, can be traced to the transformative effects of war. Allen argues that war—and the Second World War more than any other—contributed to the erosion of the ideology of separate spheres, creating in its place an ideology of ‘gender integration’. The Great War began this process, when nurses and munitions workers moved women more obviously into the public sphere. These gains were then reversed when a natalist backlash, evident in democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian societies alike, undid in the inter-war years much that had been achieved between 1914 and 1918. What the First war had started, however, the Second completed, either by exposing civilians to direct military attack; by subjecting women as much as men to the atrocities of Nazi racialism; or by expanding women’s opportunities to serve in uniform or to seek employment in war-related industries. Allen concludes that “the war marked an essential stage in the long-term process of change . . . marked chiefly by the decline of the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ and the integration of men and women in many aspects of economic and cultural life” (p. 78).

The gender integration of the post-1945 era was real but should not be confused with authentic gender equality. In Western Europe, at least, women’s circumstances improved and were not, Allen insists, as dominated by the stifling ethos of domesticity and political conservatism as many historians, inspired by Betty Friedan, have insisted: “A more balanced account of the era calls these [End Page 498] claims into question” (p. 79). Perhaps so, but the evidence Allen marshals suggests that the positive advances—ready access to birth control, lower family size, the modernization of the household, and increased opportunities for women to work outside the home—all occurred not in the decade and a half immediately following the war but only in the mid-sixties or later.

When Allen turns her attention to women in Soviet-controlled Europe, gender integration seemed a mixed blessing, at best. ‘Emancipation’ as experienced east of the Iron Curtain meant that women were over-worked, underpaid, and still burdened with all the duties of domestic life. However grim women’s lot was under communism, much of the evidence presented here suggests that it grew even worse after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Female unemployment soared; those women who could find work were often subjected to systematic sexual harassment; others were victims of a sex trade that exported women from eastern Europe...


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pp. 498-499
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