"Gendered Nations" Conference Summary (March 25-28, 1998)


"Gendered Nations" Conference Summary



From: Dr. Karen Hagemann

        Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Women and Gender
        at the Technical University of Berlin
        Ernst-Reuter-Platz 7, Sekr. TEL 20-1
        D-10587 Berlin

        Phone: +49-30-31426974
        Fax:  +49-30-31426988
        E-Mail: hagemann@kgw.tu-berlin.de
        Internet: http://www.kgw.tu-berlin.de/ZIFG



Berlin, March 25-28, 1998

by Patricia R. Stokes, Cornell University

As part of an effort to introduce feminist modes of analysis into more tradition-bound areas of history, "gender" emerged in the late 1980s as an analytical category. Ten years later, historians are focusing on the task of re-examining such "traditional" areas of history - political, economic, and military - through the lens of gender. Toward this end, 39 scholars from 16 different countries gathered in Berlin, Germany, March 25-28, 1998, at the conference "Gendered Nations: Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century - International Comparisons." Chaired by Dr. Karen Hagemann of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Women and Gender at the Technical University of Berlin in cooperation with Prof. Ida Blom of the University of Bergen (Norway), and organized under the auspices of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Women and Gender at the TU and the Einstein Forum Potsdam, the conference took the form of an intensive workshop. In examining the juncture of gender and the nation during the crucial constitutive phase of modern nationalism, the conference's goal was to assess the current state of the research in this hitherto relatively neglected area, to identify promising directions for future study, and to orient future work more toward international comparison.

The number of participants was limited in the interest of promoting a focused discussion and developing networks for future research and exchange. All those present were grateful to the sponsors: the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), the British Council, the German Marshall Fund, the Hans Boeckler Foundation, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, and the Technical
University of Berlin. Framed by incisive opening and closing remarks, the bulk of the conference consisted of five thematic three-hour sessions. Each panel began with half-hour commentaries on the papers (which participants had circulated prior to the conference) followed by brief responses from the authors, so that most of the time was devoted to highly fruitful discussion. All participants agreed that the conference went well beyond the goals that had been formulated for it. In light of the extraordinary interest the conference attracted (over 40 inquiries from a variety of countries, in addition to those who actually participated), plans are underway to publish a collection of articles (in English) based on the conference papers. This report will summarize the high points of each panel, then identify major issues that ran through the entire discussion, and finally touch upon a few areas where the need for further research appears to be most urgent.

Gendered Nations in International Comparison

Ida Blom's introductory lecture provided a useful framework for the discussions that followed. She noted that studies of individual nations remain the cornerstone and precondition for comparison, and that historians do not face an either/or choice between single-nation and comparative studies: both are needed. Comparison, especially at a transcultural level, risks becoming too abstract to be compatible with the historian's insistence on careful evaluation of evidence and historical specificity. However, grand-scale comparisons may offer a point of orientation for further studies, expose a Western-centric bias, illuminate pros and cons of research from an "outsider's" perspective, and draw attention to crossculturally common phenomena (such as the widespread importance of educating women in the formation of nation-states) as well as differences. More limited comparisons, looking at three or four nations, offer many of these advantages, while building on solid evidence and thus remaining "more in tune with historical methodology." Blom then illustrated this point with an example comparing Japan, India, Norway, and Sweden: She found that while images of the family were central in all cases, and all four nations utilized masculinity as the basis of granting rights, there were differences in notions of femininity that stemmed from different paths to modernization, from varying relations between the individual and the collectivity, and from the influence of religious fundamentalism. Blom further suggested that much more attention must be devoted to the study of the role of masculinity and war in forming and sustaining the nation-state; here, she cautioned against seeing war as wholly the province of men. Masculinity, like femininity, may be inflected by race, class, ethnic, colonial, and religious divisions and identities. She pointed to religion as a particularly neglected area in conjunction with nation and gender, and suggested that a "juggling" metaphor best described the process of trying to take all these facets of identity into account in historical writing.

Nation-States, Ethnicity, and Gender Order

The first panel considered problems of inclusion, exclusion, and difference

  • of dominance and subordination - as affecting not only the gender hierarchy but also the hierarchical relationships among various ethnic groups within a "nation" and among various "nations" that either already exist or are fighting for existence. Beth Baron's paper pursued the influence of gender (as well as sexuality and religion) in "The Making of the Egyptian Nation." Looking at several crucial, transformative moments in Egypt's movement from a part of the Ottoman Empire to national independence, Baron argued that the Woman Question, which emerged from the breakdown of the harem system in which slave women were an indispensable link in reproducing the Ottoman elite, "became the fault line of Egyptian nationalism," along which both men and women activists negotiated "cultural adjustments." Catherine Hall, interrogating the juncture of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in the British Reform Act of 1832, submitted that "the idea of the nation was always fragile," and that its survival depended on "a series of inclusions and exclusions of different groups, locked momentarily in complex hierarchies which always threatened dissolution." Hall's paper suggested that at the point when the Act was passed, shoring up hierarchies of race and ethnicity in an imperial context was more important that reinforcing the gender order. Ethnicity was also critical to constructions of masculinity and the nation in Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff's article, "Male Otherness in the French Revolution." Analyzing two paintings by Girodet, Schmidt-Linsenhoff showed how images of homoeroticism and the former Afro-Caribbean slave as "noble savage," two visions of masculinity that arguably deviated from a white, heterosexual norm, partook in discourses on the form republicanism should take and on whom should be included in the corps politique.

    Commenting on these papers, Geoff Eley saw four common areas: each paper looked at a particular historical conjuncture, each portrayed nationalism as a particular project (modernization, defining citizenship), each examined the body and embodiment, and each dealt with slavery and emancipation. In striking a middle ground between primordialism and modernism, said Eley, the papers demonstrated a dialectic between national identities as a matter of sensibility and shared memory of belonging, on the one hand, and the deliberate, contingent, and inventive actions of historical actors upon such cultural dispositions, on the other. In addition to raising questions of reception and representativeness (especially with regard to the images analyzed), the discussion drew out the importance of sexuality and religion in conjunction with ethnicity, and opened up the question of how and when one can find certain factors, such as ethnicity or race, to have been more formative than, say, gender or religion. This question of "juggling" different aspects of national identity was to run throughout the entire conference.

National Wars, Military Systems, and Gender Relations

The second panel examined both the significance of gender in mobilizing for war, and how changes in the military system and means of waging war affected construction of the nation and the gender order. Looking at the entire history of the United States, Linda Kerber found a great deal of slippage in the ostensible parallel between the obligation to bear arms and the rights of citizenship: Not all men have been required to wage war, nor have women been legally or practically excluded from doing so; yet women with military records have frequently been denied various veterans' entitlements, and men's ostensibly unique obligation to bear arms has been used as an argument to deny women other privileges of citizenship, such as suffrage. Similarly, Karen Hagemann also found discursive constructions of masculinity to have played a key role in "The Formation of a 'Manful and Valorous Nation'" in Prussia during the anti-Napoleonic uprising. Here, too, the citizen was equated with the "patriotic warrior" and military service conflated with masculinity; while these images of masculinity were inflected according to class, urban/rural differences, and social status, they shaped a male and militaristic nation that excluded women from the centers of political power, though women did occupy a place in the metaphor of the nation as a "folk family." For early twentieth-century Great Britain, Joanna Bourke traced changes in military training that increasingly employed gendered instinct theory: Young male recruits from disadvantaged classes were viewed as "not man enough," in need of training to unlock a basic instinct to fight, while women's maternal instincts were believed to make them uncontrollably ferocious in battle.

Ute Frevert's comments noted that although these papers addressed different eras, types of wars, military systems, and political structures, they did arrive at some common findings: All found an intimate relationship between
nation-building and war, constituted in specifically modern wars fought exclusively by men (and increasingly with the expectation that the entire male nation would participate); yet family images created a space for women to participate in the making of the nation. Frevert further raised a set of broad questions on the impact of the experience of war in shaping national and gender identity; how war is connected to peacetime; the effects of different military systems; how to account for class differences; methodological problems of relating rhetoric to real politics; and how to capture change over time. Discussion revolved around these questions (especially the transition from war to peace, and the relationships between rhetoric and politics), as well as how one can best define and understand the connection between arms-bearing (as right and/or obligation) and citizenship, given that both of these terms are highly malleable. The example of German views of France gave rise to the observation that national identities are often constructed in relation to neighboring countries. Discussants noted women's role in shaming men into fighting and maintaining a semblance of normalcy, and the significance of the trope of sacrifice both in mediating between the symbolic and the real, and in securing women's and men's gender-specific collaboration in war.

Nations in Social and Cultural Practice - Gender-Specific Participation in National Movements

Differences between men's and women's contributions were also central to the third panel, which looked at specific, gendered forms and scopes of action in the cultural and social practices of nations. Aparna Basu's study of the "Nationalist Construction of the Indian Woman" during the colonial period among social reformers, intelligentsia, nationalists, and publicly active women found that motherhood, spirituality, and tradition played a prominent part in nationalist discourse on women in its response to colonialist disdain of Indian masculinity. However, this discourse was "not monolithic" and women could draw on it (and later, on Gandhi's celebration of women's moral strength) in forming associations and becoming politically active. For South Africa, Helen Bradford offered a striking example of how interrogating the gendered dimensions of nationalism may disrupt conventional wisdom in both directions: During the Boer War, white rural Boer women bore the brunt of suffering and, infused with zealous religious patriotism, proved to be the more bellicose sex, urging their men to fight to the death and refusing to surrender despite harrowing experiences in concentration camps. Appropriating a previously male domain, these women nurtured anti-imperialist, maternalist cultural nationalism in their families and associations after the war. Dirk Reder argued that patriotic German women carved out a nationalist (albeit less overtly martial) role for themselves during the German Wars of Liberation, as well. Women's clubs, which were founded to equip volunteers and then extended to help care for the wounded, opened up new opportunities for women to participate in public life, made an active and important contribution to winning the war, and expanded the permissible scope of proper womanly behavior for German women - even in the face of backlash after the war ended. In contrast, Margaret Ward found that Irish women, organized in the Ladies' Land League in 1881 and 1882, were excluded from active roles in the Irish nationalist movement after the demise of their League. More radical and intransigent than their male counterparts because they perforce identified with other disfranchised groups, these women refused to accept a mere auxiliary role dispensing charity during the land war and were squeezed out of the movement when male Irish nationalists reached an compromise with the British government.

The panel's commentator, Jane Rendall, perceived several areas of overlap
among the papers: a focus on short but significant key historical moments, anti-imperial wars against the British, ongoing national struggles, and women's participation (only Bradford showed a gendered transformation, instead). She also identified four common issues that could benefit from further elaboration with regard to gender-specific participation in nation-building: the varying significance of religion; class differences, particularly the role of the poor rural majority (in contrast to those who were urban, prosperous, and educated); the impact of four varieties of nationalism (genealogical, cultural/linguistic, civic/state, imperial); and how gender identities might co-exist rather than be in opposition (a question intended to destabilize the public/private dichotomy). Discussion dealt in part with the inevitable ambiguities and ambivalences of nationalism and the nation, and with the necessity for exclusion that is built into formation of a nation (a point that implied "racial" nationalism would be a fifth variant). For women, greater room to maneuver within a national movement is by no means identical with emancipation, and indeed their inclusion - however partial - may often be bought at the price of excluding others from participation in the nation. Discussants further saw a need to take an expansive view of what is political, including much of what is often viewed as "private," such as the home, the family, and the body; and to take account of the institutional bases (schools, media, legal systems) that initiate and sustain nation-building.

National Symbols, Rituals, and Myths - Gender Images and Cultural Representations of Nations

The fourth panel entailed an examination of national emotions and their codification in various countries. It asked to what extent national feelings, as constituted in rituals, celebrations, and myths, have also been an expression of emotions as inflected by culture, social stratum or class, generation, and above all gender. Eira Juntti's paper on "Images of Women and Men in Early Finnish Nationalism" found that a young maiden was often used to represent Finland poetically in newspapers during the 1830s. This image was counterposed, seemingly as an "Other," to images of the "real" Finn who was always a man - an honest, progressive farmer, whose steadfast Christian faith was intertwined with his Finnish nationalism. With regard to the Czech national movement, Jitka Malekova traced the nineteenth-century evolution of two legendary early women leaders from marginal, ambivalent characters to central, heroic figures in the myth of national origin. Malekova argued that this transformation helped to construct an auxiliary myth, that of gender harmony, as constitutive of the Czech nation (particularly in opposition to images of female subordination in Germany). For Latvia, Irina Novikova found that although men dominated the nationalist movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, nationalist representations portrayed women as an integrative force, preserving elements of the national past in their maternal roles as educators of children and as collectors of folk artifacts. Images of the maternal also merged with organic metaphors that symbolically unified and homogenized the Latvian nation.

Commentator Silke Wenk observed that in all three papers there was a disjuncture between the lofty images of "the Feminine" used to represent the nation and the exclusion of real women from many rights within the nation. Wenk asked whether the modern construction of women as a subject is made possible through national movements, whether femininity and modern binary gender distinctions are necessary elements in the exclusion of national outsiders and in the containment of ethnic and social differences, and whether the distinction between culture and politics remains useful if we see women as acting primarily in such realms as folklore and education. While the discussion gave some consideration to the problematic aspects of myths of gender harmony, the question of how to most usefully treat images and representations took the foreground. Most participants agreed that a broader range of methodologies is required when dealing with non-verbal materials, and that interdisciplinary conversations (as here, between historians, art historians, and literary scholars) could lead to fruitful and innovative approaches. Participants proposed a number of desiderata, which included: scrutinizing everyday objects for their role in propagating and reinforcing nationalist ideas in peacetime; asking how linguistic genders are linked to the gendering of the nation; looking at the structures of embodiment and desire in images; placing images in their specific historical context and analyzing how and why they change over time; examining the interplay between culturally available stores of images and their selective use in the service of particular interests; and when practicable, attending to the reception of images.

National Identities, Social Identities, and Gender Identities

The fifth and final panel considered how identities are culturally constructed. In addition to the question of what such identities have meant in various places and periods (including the present), the panel was charged with investigating how the construction of these identities may interact - that is, how they may reciprocally condition, reinforce, or undermine one another. Belinda Davis ascertained a shift from the masculine to the feminine in "Gendered Images of the Nation in Wilhelmine Germany." Whereas in the 1890s, the nation was identified with the soldier and women were suspected of weakening the nation through a love of luxury, in the course of World War I an image of women, and especially working class women, came to stand for the nation as opposed to a state that had lost touch with the needs of its suffering people. For a similar period, Marilyn Lake analyzed "The Anomaly of Woman in a Homosocial Nation" in Australia, where the "imagined community" that white Australian men discursively constructed in self-conscious contrast to indigenous people and British imperialists was composed of virile, hard-living outback men, autonomous yet loyal to their mates - a vision that excluded women from the nation. Feminists responded with an alternative vision of a maternalist state and alliances with Aboriginal women, but also with literary collaborations in exclusionist national fantasies of unity. Dorinda Outram's paper on "The Construction of National and Gender Identities in the French Revolution" argued that republicans attempted to displace the corps politique of the king by incorporating political power in the physical bodies of individual, visible male leaders. Outram suggested that their performance of sovereignty over self through "intense mimesis" of figures from classical antiquity legitimated their partaking of sovereignty within the republic, but that this legitimacy was too unstable to serve as the basis for persistent political factions, thus creating a vacuum that the nation-state would later fill. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, who was unfortunately prevented from attending the conference, nonetheless submitted her paper on "Dependent Ladies and Disappearing Slaves: Constituting the Virtuous American Citizen 1786-1789." Using various strands of the feminist critiques of liberal humanism, Smith-Rosenberg argued that bourgeois print media portrayed women as weak and dependent, yet deceptive and wily - "an irrational and ridiculous other to the sagacious middle-class male citizen."

In her comments, Karen Offen pointed out that there are differences among
nations and nationalisms with regard to the emancipation of women, and that the role of mother-educator was not simply constricting but could serve as a powerful argument for women's education and civil rights. Offen also brought up the issue of male anxiety of losing control (which was not limited to white men). Finally, in the context of historians' responsibilities, Offen raised the question of how one can go beyond current practices of complicating and destabilizing, to making informed choices about which factors were historically most important. The discussion dealt with how the lines are drawn between inclusion and exclusion and with definitions of an "inner enemy" in ethnic and racial terms as well as along gender lines. The point was underscored that women, too, wield power and may participate in strategies of exclusion. In addition, both nationalism and the gender order may look different when observed at a local or regional level. Finally, participants revisited questions of sexuality, desire, and embodiment.

Gender and Nation - Conclusions

In her closing remarks, Ruth Roach Pierson interlaced perceptive commentary on the individual papers with more general observations. She framed these observations in terms of a problem she (and many of her students) have encountered with Benedict Anderson's enormously influential Imagined Communities: that his analysis is "too bloodless and abstract" to answer the question he poses, namely, why so many people have been willing to die for their nation. This conference, Pierson suggested, provided a three-pronged corrective to Anderson's account. Contrary to Anderson's account, the conference papers showed how nationality and gender are "inextricably and ineluctably intertwined," rather than clearly separated. These papers also made a start at interrogating "the deep structures of subjectivity and identity formation," particularly with respect to images and erotic investments. Thirdly, and again in contrast to Anderson, some of these papers attended to the problem of nation being "raced" as well as gendered; here, Pierson invoked George Mosse's description of racism as a "scavenger ideology" capable of "annexing" nationalism. However, Pierson pointed out that only a minority of the papers took on race, sometimes more as an addendum, and that their incomplete success in doing so underscores the great difficulty of doing so in a single project. A number of Pierson's comments on individual papers had broader applicability: She proposed that the relationship between the image of women (or the lack thereof) in national iconography and real women's agency in nationalist movements needs further study. She raised the question of whether fears of women recede during times of national danger and crisis, but only for the duration of the crisis. And finally, she returned to the problem of integrating empire, ethnicity, and race: One solution, as in Hall's paper, would be to juxtapose separate narrative units in succession, which enhances narrative clarity but at the cost of seeing "how these diverse actors simultaneously impinge on and constitute one another." Pierson concluded that this conference considerably advanced our understanding of gender and nation, while making a more modest contribution to explaining how race and nation interact. The challenge that remains is to examine the imbrication of race, gender, and nation.
Overarching Issues

A number of major issues cut through the entire discussion during the conference. As a point of departure, all participants agreed, it is necessary to be aware of one's own positionality. This includes such matters as one's own gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and generational position, as well as whether one is studying a given nation from an internal or external position. Moreover, particular historical circumstances (currently, the rise of the European Union, for instance) may shape the historian's view of nations and render the history of nations and nationalism more compelling. The historian must also remain aware that he or she is playing an active role in shaping national memory, and thus altering the object of study. Another important consideration from the outset is the need for a clear definition of terms, both within one's own analysis and with respect to the historical phenomena and era under study. Closely related to this is the ongoing obligation to attend carefully to historical specificity and historical context - a task that is complicated by attempts at comparison.

A recurrent concern in the discussion was the significance of war in shaping nations. Here, a number of questions await further study. Against the suggestion that nations are forged in war, a number of counterexamples (e.g., Scandinavian nations) were adduced; where, then, does war appear to have been crucially formative for the nation, and what accounts for the differences? To what extent has the link between the nation and war formed the character of the nation as a male-dominated invention? How do different forms of war (anti-imperialist, civil, aggressive, wars of liberation) affect the relationships among gender and nation? Participants agreed that the importance of war is not confined to periods of active fighting but extends to memory of war, cold wars, reconstruction, and preparation for war. Arms-bearing, masculinity, and citizenship appear to have been associated in a variety of contexts, but the historian must attend to the historical specificity of this and also take into account various forms of women's belligerence. Finally, a willingness to sacrifice is a central demand of all nations, and especially so during wars and crises.

A number of participants insisted that a clear distinction be drawn between the nation and the state. (Another way of casting this might be the difference between the Kulturnation and the Staatsnation, though not everyone was equally convinced that this was a useful way to frame the problem.) A state may be multinational. Moreover, being a citizen is not identical with being a national subject; the term "subject" here may refer to both subjectivity, in a Foucauldian sense, and being subject to power. Pierson argued in her closing remarks that the nation/state distinction is more than a mere analytical one; it is also an ontological distinction. She pointed out that while women must be included in one way or another within racist conceptions of the nation, racism can lead to certain groups being extended at least some rights of citizenship yet excluded from the nation. Finally, the nation and nationalism are always ambivalent, and particularly so for women and subaltern groups. Both inclusion and exclusion have their price, be it collusion with racism on the one hand, or disfranchisement on the other. If a group previously marginal to the nation achieves integration, what ends does its integration serve (militarism, maintenance of empire, etc.)? What is the trade-off for that group? And whose exclusion may then be effected or reinforced? Furthermore, specific strategies to achieve inclusion, such as stressing women's contribution to nation as mothers, also tend to be ambivalent, and participation in a national movement by no means guarantees a share of the fruits of that movement. Differences among women (even of the same race and class) may be relevant here. Yet inasmuch as membership in a nation may be the political precondition for a wide range of civil and human rights, membership in a nation has often exerted a compelling attraction. In addition, those who do not belong to a nation-state are also generally excluded from influence in an international arena. For a specific historical moment or period, the historian must ask: Is the national project one of emancipation, progress, modernization, belligerence, or some combination thereof? And how does one define terms such as emancipation or progress?

Future Research: Objects and Methods

In short, the conference produced a wealth of ideas for future research. This report has referred to a good many of them above. The richness of this field for future researchers is a reflection of the fact that work on gender and nation is everywhere still in a relatively early phase, and much remains to be done. Although this is true for all topical areas, two of these should be emphasized here. For one, the intersection of nation, gender, and religion remains largely unexplored. Several of the papers here indicated its importance, whether in terms of religious differences and minorities (Baron on Moslems and Copts in Egypt), a pagan past (Malekova on Czech nationalism), or forming different gendered nationalism (Bradford on Boers in South Africa). Secondly, there is a pressing need for further research on masculinity and the nation. The papers by Schmidt-Linsenhoff, Hagemann, and Lake provided a variety of models as to how one might proceed. Still, this conference could only be an initial effort in this direction.

Methodologically, the conference made a contribution to two questions of
persistent urgency that will continue to occupy historians. In accounting for gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and generation, both Blom's juggling metaphor and Pierson's closing reflections suggest that an all-purpose solution remains beyond reach. The general consensus in discussion was that one must keep an eye on all these factors. However, in research and writing one must focus on those that appear to have been most germane to a specific historical situation, partly because their relative weighting and relevance have indeed varied over time, and partly because the historian faces a pragmatic imperative to write an account that will be readable. Secondly, the challenge of comparison calls for ongoing work. Participants agreed that the comparison is necessary, at the very least to put ostensible national "peculiarities" to the test, and to recognize broader (perhaps even "general") mechanisms at work. At this stage, comparison seems to be most productive when fairly focused, examining a few nations at a time. Work will surely continue on the most effective strategies for comparison and on how best to extend limited comparisons to a larger field while respecting historical standards of evidence and argumentation. Here, too, the conference could only make a beginning. It illustrated the variety of questions at stake, clarified the most evident similarities and differences, and more precisely formulated the theoretical and methodological problems. The task now is to determine how comparative projects should be designed in the future in order to most fruitfully build on this beginning.