“Feminism” is an umbrella term, it trumpets along the paths of our recent history with the revolutionary spirit of sacrificed females, but it has also kindled some fires of modest demand, with women whose minds yearned for “more”: more rights, more activity, more fairness, more recognition… within a sphere of domestic contentment.

Popular imagery and feminism in late Victorian and Edwardian England seem to have a hard time merging into a suitable combination. Even though it is the restraints imposed on Victorian women which sparked such winds of rebellion. As a critic of the recent British film Suffragette (2015) explained “Edwardian women appear genteel in photographs, but the tactics of the suffragettes transgressed feminine expectations of the era.”[1] I (Eloise) went to see the film with a friend of mine after having failed to convince my husband (who has unfortunately developed a pointed wariness to anything touching upon the term). Suffragette displays a laudable effort at reminding us that not only women who could afford to do so could be activists, but many unknown and forgotten members of the working classes renounced everything for the cause.

My friend was astounded by the violence in words and deeds of Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers. She confessed quite freely that her vision of feminism at the time was something close to the character Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins:


Glynis Johns acting the part of Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins (1964)

This is Disney’s representation of feminism. It embodies a moderate version, a woman who embraces an ideal, within the comfortable framework of her social position and domestic setting. Mrs Banks may lift her jupons just a bit to provoke her staff, she will seize the policeman’s arm and swirl around his astonished lieutenants in a graceful little defiance of authority. But she won’t take off those impeccable gloves.

It is rather appalling that such a dated and irreverent illustration of suffragettes still springs to mind over half a century after it was broadcast. In an attempt to counter this Disneyfication, we might cite several British women who fought for the advancement of their rights and condition in a moderate fashion. Their claims came to light during the prolific period of “New Journalism” in the 1880s and 1890s. The new genre of the interview pictured women who could promote their rights yet still defend a domestic feminine ideal. The journalist and interviewer Sarah Tooley was a telling example of this tendency. She interviewed novelists Frances Hodgson Burnett and Annie Swan, as well as the women’s trades’ union activist Clementina Black and emphasized aspects of their femininity and harmonious domestic settings. This fits with Margaret Beetham’s claim that “these [illustrated interviews] consistently stressed the womanliness which marked even ‘advanced’ writers and the New Woman.”[2] In an interview with Frances Willard, Tooley herself explains that “the granting of the suffrage to women need not upset social and domestic life that I can see,”[3] and as Terri Doughty points out: “Tooley still supported a number of conventional gendered assumptions about femininity and domesticity.”[4]

The point of this blog post is that we have traced similar views across Europe, transcending cultural claims and national trends. As a team we have made our own moderate survey of Pan-European women editors and journalists who asked for “more” without renouncing what they already had. Is it “moderate feminism” we are speaking of, or the groundwork of a new definition of domestic ideology which still has effects and consequences in our day-to-day lives?

Sweden and France

In Sweden, Eleonor Lilliehöök (1887 – 1977) was a wife, and mother of five children when she devoted her energy to Sweden’s National Association of Housewives (Sveriges husmodersföreningars riksförbund) which she chaired for nearly 20 years. She edited its member’s paper (Husmodersförbundets medlemsblad) from 1928, gave interviews and wrote articles about her struggle to give housewives a stronger voice in social contexts and a free choice to work inside or outside their homes. Lilliehöök was at first reluctant to pursue this career because she did not want to make a claim against her domestic welfare. She steadily refused to become politically involved.

Lucie Dreyfus and her family, 1905

Lucie Dreyfus and her family, 1905

French feminism struck its roots in a deeply moralistic vein which drew on the image of the responsible woman whose domestic duties endowed her with the ability to make sound decisions in all matters, public as well as private. A significant example is the interaction between Lucie Dreyfus, the wife of Captain Alfred Dreyfus whose career was shattered by a miscarriage of justice, and the team of women who worked with Marguerite Durand, editor of the feminist periodical La Fronde (1897 – 1903). In her absolute devotion to her family and battle for justice Lucie Dreyfus personified the heroic figure of Marianne, symbol of the Republic since 1792. “Nous sommes toutes des Lucie Dreyfus” [We are all Lucie Dreyfuses] proclaimed La Fronde in a campaign of support in 1898. One of the most militant journals in defense of women’s rights in France thus made allegiance to the devoted wife and mother whose duty lay within the bounds of her domestic sphere.[5]

Marguerite Durand, editor of feminist periodical La Fronde

Marguerite Durand, editor of feminist periodical La Fronde

Spain, Italy, and Greece

Considerable socio-political change concerning the condition of women was gradually achieved in Northern Europe in part due to the central role of the female press. Nevertheless, greater autonomy for women was far from a foregone conclusion in Southern European countries, where the cult of domesticity remained deeply rooted throughout the 19th century. In countries like Spain, Italy and Greece, female self-expression was traditionally characterized by indirection, because the code of propriety was rigid and did not leave much space for women to express themselves in public. The fact that domesticity took the form of a prevailing value system in those countries can also be explained by the lack of access to basic rights like education: “The universalization of primary education started in the Protestant countries of Central and Northern Europe as early as the 17th century […] but came about, in some countries of Southern Europe, only in the first half of the 20th century.” [6] As an immediate consequence, women’s labor market participation was surprisingly low and attempts to edit periodicals were numerous but usually short-lived.

In the highly patriarchal Italian society of the 19th century, female self-assertion was mostly discrete although exceptions to this tendency did exist. Luisa Amalia Paladini (1810-1872) editor of the weekly periodical Educatrice Italiana (Florence, 1863-1865) was perhaps not a notable exception, she was however an influential figure of her time. In the pages of her periodical, she expressed moderate views on the role of Italian women in shaping a better society. This role would be fulfilled only if women acquired full access to education that would consequently permit them to participate in public dialog. Luisa Paladini used discrete language in order to fight against prejudices connected to the gentil sesso. This is why she was often encouraging her fellow sisters to love literature and to admire their country: “The importance that she attached to education stemmed from the conviction that in order to fulfill our duties towards God, but also towards the family and the country, it was necessary to obtain full awareness of the mission that both men and women had undertaken.”[7] Luisa Paladini was evidently fighting for equality in a conventional way, but the enthusiasm that she aroused among middle class Italian women does not deserve to be forgotten.

Baroness Wilson (1833-1922)

Baroness Wilson (1833-1922)

Moderation was considered to be a female virtue of utmost importance even among the Spanish upper classes. Emilia Serrano García (1843-1922) also known as Baronesa de Wilson was one of the most prolific editors of her time publishing her periodicals not only in Paris and Madrid but also beyond the Atlantic, in Lima and La Habana. As Marie-Linda Ortega emphasizes : “Emilia Serrano understood the importance of accomplishing a shift from the private sphere of the home to the public sphere. In this way, [women] would break away from the silence and discretion that burdened their tasks and they would be able to find a more direct and efficacious way to run their own periodicals.”[8] Although Emilia Serrano underlined the growing importance of education in her articles and books, she remained rather mild when it came to the basic characteristics of “ideal womanhood”: “The Baronesa’s concept of the ideal educated woman is firmly rooted in the late nineteenth century Catholic concepts of ideal womanhood, the details of which have been so well described in articles about El Angel del Hogar (The Home Angel) and the cult of domesticity in nineteenth century Spain.”[9] However, Emilia’s temperate views on women’s vindications were not opposed to basic rights, such as women’s participation in the public arena. This is exactly the reason why she engaged in cultural transfers by establishing a transnational network of fruitful intellectual exchanges with women who lived at the other side of the Atlantic: “The Baronesa’s magazine clothed, under its apparent orthodoxy, the seeds of incipient feminism. This “closet feminism” sprang from the very idea of roles that were assigned to women by the limiting standards of male preceptors.”[10]


At the end of the turn of the 20th century, Austrian women’s movements were thriving and leading members of feminist associations often published periodicals with a clear political and social view regarding women’s rights. Domesticity and the ideal family life were no longer prominent topics within the German public sphere, but in Austria an interesting opposition arose between two founding members of feminist associations, Auguste Fickert and Marianne Hainisch. Both advocated women’s rights, but they had different opinions on how to achieve their political and social goals. Fickert found inspiration in cultural and intellectual studies of her time. As a leading member of the Allgemeinen Österreichischen Frauenverein (AÖFV), she remained unmarried and childless and published Dokumente der Frauen (1899-1902) and Neues Frauenleben (1908-1912), in which she largely neglected domestic topics. As a result, she fought for a more ethical approach to overthrowing patriarchal authorities and establishing social and political change for women. The idea behind this “intellectual” feminism was to not follow the stereotype of the angry Suffragette who overthrows authority with physical violence and brute force. Hainisch clearly agreed with this ethical approach but adopted a more moderate feminism embedded in domestic ideology. She was the leader of the Bund österreichischer Frauenvereine, was married to a cotton-factory owner and had two children. The concept of family life and motherliness was the core aspect of her fight for equality and in 1924 she even introduced the American holiday Mother’s Day (Muttertag) in Austria.[11] As Hariette Anderson states, Hainisch regarded the “woman as mother and wife, [as] the educator of the coming generation to true morality.”[12] According to Hainisch, the well-being of society ultimately depends on the “familial mothering role,”[13] therefore advocating a more moderate and in a sense “domestic” approach toward social change and equal rights.

Marianne Hainisch (1839-1936)

Marianne Hainisch (1839-1936)

In this blog post we’ve listed a few examples of the – often difficult and highly fraught – balance between family life on the one hand, and the political battle for equal rights on the other hand. The face of feminism does not always have to involve women on barricades, quite literally fighting for freedom. A domestic feminism ran through Europe, which was perhaps equally successful in gaining social change. However, if you Google a picture of Hainisch today, you can find her with the tag-line “mother of Michael Hainisch, the second Bundespräsident of Austria.” This seems a bit unfair, after all of her achievements for women’s rights. Marianne Hainisch, just like Eleonor Lilliehöök or Emilia Serrano, was just like any modern woman juggling responsabilities. Maybe this sounds a bit like the battle many of us are trying to fight today? Food for thought!

Christina Bezari, Charlotte D’Eer, and Eloise Forestier.



[1] Smith, Michelle. “Suffragette reminds us why it’s a lie that feminists need men’s approval.” Guardian 28 December 2015.

[2] Margaret Beetham, A Magazine of her own ? Domesticity and desire in the woman’s magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routlege) 1966, p 128.

[3] Terry Doughty, “Representing the Professional Woman: The Celebrity Interviewing of Sarah Tooley” in Elizabeth Gray (ed.) Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siècle Making a Name for Herself (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan) 2012, p 170.Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]La Fronde s’appuie à la fois sur la femme traditionnelle, éprise de valeurs morales, et sur la femme nouvelle, soucieuse du droit” C. Royer, Les événements fondateurs de l’Affaire Dreyfus, (Paris : Armand Colin) 2009, p 138.

[6] Elizabeth Sherman Swing, Jürgen Schriewer and François Orivel. Problems and Prospects in European Education. Westport: Praeger, 2000, p.4.

[7] Angelica Zazzeri. In: Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. Volume 80, 2014: “L’importanza primaria che attribuiva all’educazione e all’istruzione derivava dalla convinzione che per adempiere ai doveri verso Dio, la famiglia e la patria fosse necessario acquistare piena consapevolezza della missione a cui uomini e donne erano chiamati.”

[8] Marie-Linda Ortega, “Emilia Serrano de Wilson, Minerva entre práctica y metáfora” in Françoise Étienvre, ed. Regards sur les espagnoles créatrices: XVIIe-XXe siècle. Paris : Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2006, p.111: “Y es que Emilia Serrano se ha concienciado de la importancia para la mujer de pasar del ámbito cerrado del hogar al espacio público y de romper con el silencio y la discreción que pesan sobre las actividades femeninas, la vía más directa y eficaz para conseguirlo resultando la dirección de una publicación periódica.”

[9] Maida Watson. “Women Writers in Late 19th Century Perú: The Semanario del Pacífico and the Baronesa de Wilson.” In: Confluencia, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 1992), p.49.

[10] Maida Watson. “Women Writers in Late 19th Century Perú: The Semanario del Pacífico and the Baronesa de Wilson.” In: Confluencia, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 1992), p.48.

[11] Niederösterreich im 20. Jahrhundert: Kultur. Ed. By Oliver Kühschelm et al. Böhlau 2008.

[12] Harriette Anderson: Utopian Feminism. Women’s Movements in fin-de-siècle Vienna. New Haven: Yale University Press 1992. p. 15.

[13] Ibid., p.16.