Okategoriserade Introduction. Writing women’s history in times of illiberal revisionism

As the articles in this issue demonstrate, the revisionist strand of nationalist herstory has certainly made some women visible in narratives about historical events, but it is also highly problematic as it often reproduces traditionalist notions of femininity, masculinity and ideas about women’s “proper” place in history and society.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 4:2017 pp 39-41
Published on balticworlds.com on March 7, 2018

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Through the past century, East-Central Europe has been the scene of numerous spectacular political upheavals and often violent political change: from the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Second World War, and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944to the 1956 revolution in Hungary and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, to Maidan protests of 2014 and the subsequent war in Ukraine. All these events have since been transformed into potent political myths, and their leaders serve as national or revolutionary heroes, their interpretations shape future political projects, and their commemorations define the values underlying contemporary collectives. Women played active roles in all of these watershed events, as feminist scholarship on gender and war in the region and beyond has shown.1Their participation, however, has often been ignored by mainstream accounts,2 which largely reproduce the gendered division between the front and the rear or the home front, and symbolically subjugate women’s emancipatory goals to revolutionary or national ones.

Stemming from this perceived absence of women and their political participation in official narratives about the past, the rationale for women’s history of wars, revolutions, and political upheavals seems to have been straightforward. First and foremost, it inscribed women back into the “blank spots” of official narratives about the past. In fact, from the 1970s onwards, women’s and gender history constituted itself as a vigorous field of study mostly in reaction to the absence of women and gender from written history and collective memory. Hence the systemic omission of women from history, called “the problem of invisibility” by the prominent feminist scholar Joan Wallach Scott,3 has long remained the foundational issue for women’s history. In consequence, the feminist perspective has largely functioned as a critical tool to uncover female figures active in the past, as well as to explore and document women’s contribution to society.4Against this background, it is much rarer to find women’s history works that have attempted to revise mainstream accounts of the past and reformulate knowledge about politics using these discoveries. It can be argued that this relative underrepresentation of significance-driven revisionism5 has, in turn, led women’s history to function largely as an appendix to political history, a separate field with little bearing on mainstream understandings of political processes.

However, as the papers in this special issue alert us, absence and invisibility are not necessarily the key challenge and point of departure for feminist research on wars and political upheavals in East-Central Europe. In fact, some countries in the region have recently witnessed what can be called the ‘herstorical turn’ — an outbreak of interest in women as participants in historical events, accompanied by a departure from viewing the past in a ‘male stream’6 framework. Even more telling is the fact that this shift has often been carried out, not by feminists, but by right-wing actors. Among them have been right-wing authors engaged in herstory writing, neoconservative political groups that use women as symbols of the national struggle, and newly founded national memory institutions that research and commemorate women as national heroines and martyrs. In this issue, the articles by Andrea Pető and Weronika Grzebalska reflect on the recent mainstreaming of women into history in a nationalist framework as part of a broader illiberal shift in Hungary and Poland. As they argue, women’s history has become one of the spaces where the values and narratives underlying the new anti-modernist project of the New Right are being forged and popularized.

Of course, the phenomenon of nationalist herstory is not a novelty. Across the region, various women ‘worthies’ and their biographies have often been used as symbols of independence movements or broader political projects. Like feminists who have engaged in the ethical task of righting injustice by recording the stories of individuals and institutions “whose experience [they] share and whose life stories and world views they often find laudable”,7 right-wing circle shave also studied and celebrated their women worthies in frameworks rooted in conservative or nationalist politics. In fact, it can be argued that nationalist herstory has often been an effective avenue for ensuring women’s visibility in the political process, recovering female figures from the “epigons’ niche” of women’s history8 and mainstreaming them into the very center of national history. This has even led some right-wing historians to claim that the marginalization of women’s history research stems from its rejection of the national-militarist tradition and the role it gives to women’s emancipation. In line with this narrative, Undersecretary of State Magdalena Gawin of the Polish Ministry of Culture under the illiberal party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) has recently argued that “research on women does not enter the mainstream because it is often written against the national tradition.”9

As the articles in this issue demonstrate, this revisionist strand of nationalist herstory has certainly made some women visible in narratives about historical events, but it is also highly problematic as it often reproduces traditionalist notions of femininity, masculinity and ideas about women’s “proper” place in history and society. In doing so, it has often distorted the political significance of women’s participation and downplayed the importance of gender politics as a tool of manpower mobilization. Looking at women soldiers in the WWII Red Army and the Ukrainian Armed Forces fighting in the Donbas region, Olesya Khromeychuk argues that the primacy of the nationalist interpretative framework for making sense of the war effort has resulted in the marginalization of women in historical narratives about the past. Reproducing the gendered imageries of national projects which cast men as the metonym of the nation and women predominantly as its metaphor,10mainstream accounts of both these conflicts portrayed women’s contributions as exceptional and subsidiary. Similarly, Zuzana Maďarová argues that the dominant narrative of heroism and suffering under Communism has created a paradoxical image of female activists as “strong women who resist the authoritarian regime but are obedient towards their husbands and fathers”11 through her analysis of the memory of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. Agnieszka Mrozik analyzes the portrayals of women communists in the Stalinist period in Poland, produced in the framework of nationalist history during the illiberal turn. She argues that biographies of women dignitaries served the broader political function of delivering a cautionary tale against “excessive” liberation of women, so that female communists were often presented as beasts and demons rather than political agents. Similarly, Nadezda Petrusenko argues how conservative historians from the early 20th century pro-governmental tradition in Russia have presented female terrorists as mad and promiscuous. By showing how conservative historians depoliticized women by explaining their radicalization with reference to emotional and psychological dysfunctions, the latter two articles unveil the broader gendered power relations in history writing. In all three articles, the authors show how the discursive framework of anti-Communism or counterrevolution has often appropriated their political agency and concealed the motivations of their ideological engagement.

Contributions in this issue remind us that right-wing historical revisionism is itself an example of value-driven revisionism, a tool used for the production of the nation here and now, aimed at weaving a certain value system into the very fabric of society’s self-knowledge. As such, it has often used women’s history instrumentally in the service of these broader political and ideological goals. Yet much of women’s history has shared the same predicament. In fact, Andrea Pető makes the important assertion that this high degree of reliance on value-driven revisionism has been the fundamental weakness of women’s history in the region and elsewhere. Because it has attempted to write women into history based on “a new system of values becoming hegemonic”,12 it has become increasingly “vulnerable to populist redefinitions”.13 In this hegemonic struggle between value-driven revisionisms, women’s history and feminist research have long been fighting a losing battle. In fact, as the ongoing illiberal shift demonstrates, feminists do not have a monopoly on writing women’s history, just as they cannot count on their mono-poly on representing women politically.

How, then, can women’s history escape this vicious circle of value-based revisionisms engaged in a power struggle for cultural hegemony? One way to go about it can be found in canonical feminist scholarship that argued for the need to reach the level of significance-driven revisionism by using gender as a category of analysis: i.e., tracing how the political process has been shaped by the production and mobilization of notions of gender by different actors.14 By revealing how a specific organization of the private sphere plays a crucial role in the production and legitimization of a particular political order — and many ostensibly private practices are, in fact, activities necessary for upholding the political process — significance-driven gender history of political upheavals becomes an indispensable tool for understanding political processes themselves. ≈

All articles in the theme:


In 2016, commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution brought new conflicts in memory politics. This article analyzes the reasons for women’s absence from the historiography of the 1956 Revolution and discusses how the polypore state is using the populist turn to introduce hegemonic narratives and to include women in the narrative of “national feminism”.

By Andrea Petö 


This paper discusses the current “herstorical turn” in professional and popular historiography and memory of WWII in Poland: a growing interest in women and the distinctiveness of their wartime experiences. Focusing on one dominant strand of this “herstorical turn” – nationalist herstory – the article reflects on the ways in which women’s history has become one of the platforms a broader illiberal political shift that is currently ongoing in Central Europe.

By Weronika Grzebalska 


Agnieszka Mrozik analyzes the portrayals of women communists in the Stalinist period in Poland, produced in the framework of nationalist history during the illiberal turn. She argues that biographies of women dignitaries served the broader political function of delivering a cautionary tale against “excessive” liberation of women, so that female communists were often presented as beasts and demons rather than political agents.

By Agnieszka Mrozik 


This paper examines women’s contribution to war and the perceptions of that contribution by comparing experiences of women in the Red Army during the Second World War and in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the conflict in the Donbas region. Here it is argued that in both cases structural gender discrimination was ingrained in the military, which accepted women’s contribution to war in times of need, but treated that contribution as subsidiary, thereby distorting men’s and women’s experiences of warfare and facilitating the instrumentalized militarization of women.

By Olesya Khromeychuk 


This article discusses the main narratives employed by conservatives at the beginning of the 20th century to explain the political violence committed by women, and it shows how these narratives have been employed in the scholarly analysis of the topic. The article provides an answer to the question why progovernmental conservative views on the female terrorists and terrorism in prerevolutionary Russia have never been influential in the historiography.

By Nadezda Petrusenko 


The oral history archive of the non-profit organization Nenápadní hrdinovia (The Inconspicous Heroes) is considered as an example of a wider trend in Slovakia to exploit women’s memories for the purposes of conservative or nationalist interpretations of history, placing women in the traditional roles and discourses of victims, auxiliaries, and self-sacrifice. Using the concrete oral history project as a vehicle and a case study for the argument, the article contributes to the understanding of the current discursive landscape of memory of state socialism and of gender in Slovakia.

By Zuzana Maďarová 


1 For the state of the art, see the discussion of critical feminist historiographies of memory and war in Ayşe Gül Altinay and Andrea Pető, eds., “Introduction: Uncomfortable Connections; Gender, Memory, War”, in Gendered Wars, Gendered Memories: Feminist Conversations on War, Genocide and Political Violence, Routledge, 2016.

2 See Grzebalska in this issue.

3 Joan Wallach Scott, “The Problem of invisibility”, in S. Jay Kleinberg(ed.), Retrieving Women’s History: Changing Perceptions of the Role of Women in Politics and Society, Berg, 1988, 5—29.

4 See Gerda Lerner’s description of the four stages of women’s history — compensatory history, contribution history, transition, and synthesis . Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges“, Feminist Studies vol. 3, no. 1—2 (Autumn, 1975), 5—14.

5 A. Tucker, “Historiographic Revision and Revisionism”, in Past in Making: Historical Revisionism in Central Europe, ed. Michal Kopecek (Budapest: CEU,2008), 1—15; see also Pető in this issue.

6 C. Pateman and E. Grosz, Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory (Routledge, 2013).

7 Kathleen Blee, “Evidence, Empathy, and Ethics: Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan”, Journal of American History 80, no. 2 (September 1993): 596.

8 Dobrochna Kałwa, “Historia kobiet: kilka uwag metodologicznych” [Women’s history: a  few methodological notes], in Dzieje kobiet w Polsce: Dyskusja Wokół Przyszłej Syntez y [Women’s history in Poland: Discussion  around a future synthesis], ed. Krzysztof A. Makowski (Poznań: Nauka innowacje,  2014):28.

9 Marta Duch Dyngosz, Magdalena Gawin, and Zuzanna Radzik, “Miejsce kobiety”, Znak, no. 714 (November 2014), http://www.miesiecznik.znak.com.pl/7142014z-magdalena-gawin-i-zuzanna-radzik-rozmawia-marta-duch-dyngoszmiejsce-kobiety/.

10                  Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather (London: Routledge, 1995), 354—355.

11                  See Zuzana Maďarová in this issue.

12                  See Pető in this issue.

13                  Ibid.

14                  See e.g. canonical works on using gender as a category of political analysis, e.g. Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December, 1986):1053—1075; Cynthia Enloe, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

  • by Weronika Grzebalska

    is a sociologist and independent analyst whose work focuses on militarism, security, right-wing politics, and gender in Central Europe. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Polish Academy of Sciences where her dissertation explored the post-1989 paramilitary organizing in Poland. Currently, she is a Rethink.CEE Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, working on the gendered implications of changing national defense policy and civil-military relations in post-2014 Central Europe. She also lectures on military issues at the American Studies Center and the Gender Studies program in Warsaw. In the past, she was a fellow at the Trajectories of Change Program of the ZEIT-Stiftung, a Kosciuszko Foundation fellow at Clark University (United States), member of the FEPS Young Academics Network, and a president of the Polish Gender Studies Association.

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