Event Recap, News

Revolutions, Reforms, and Gender: Narratives of Democratization

Emilie Kathol-Voilleque
February 27, 2019

On February 27, 2019, Professor Hedwig Richter, of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, gave a lecture on the relationship between the history of democracy and masculinity. Arguing that democratization in the 19th and 20th centuries was a project of elites changing the system through reform, she also highlighted the transnational nature of democratic waves. In order to recognize the place of women in the history of democratization, researchers must move away from the notion of democratization as revolution.

Although most scholarship portrays democratization as a struggle from below, Professor Richter believes that it is more accurately viewed as a project of elites. Highlighting the example of the Preußische Städteordnung of 1808, which granted the right to vote to 3% of the population, she pointed out that most voters were not pleased with gaining suffrage. Even though voting was mandatory, less than half of voters exercised their right at the polls. While suffrage was supposedly granted to foster a sense of community among the electorate, Professor Richter argued that elections were actually a tool of discipline for elites.

Contemporary histories of democracy tend to be histories of revolutions, but Professor Richter argued that democratization should be characterized by reform. Quoting Dawn Teele, she remarked that, “the emphasis on revolutionary unrest has made women and studies about women invisible.” Focusing exclusively on violent conflict in history leads to the “amplification of bipolar gender roles.” Women commonly advocated for non-violent change within the existing institutions of their communities, like churches. The “domestication of politics,” through polling booth reform and introduction of the secret ballot, allowed for the greater political participation of women.

Finally, Professor Richter claimed that democracy is the product of international waves of change. Despite parallel waves in democratization, histories of democracy are commonly told with a national perspective. Understanding the fight for women’s suffrage, and recognizing the work of women activists, requires a transnational point of view.

Many thanks to Professor Hedwig Richter for her time and thoughts on this important topic.