Ideas on Europe

Yesterday’s Women in the European Assembly

Ilse Elsner (SPD, Germany) in the European Parliament of the Six in 1969 © European Union Yesterday’s Women in the European Assembly
Ilse Elsner (SPD, Germany) in the European Parliament of the Six in 1969 © European Union

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

How nice to have you back on euradio! You are Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey, in the UK, and you have already shared with us on several occasions your research on the role of women in the early stages of European integration.

And my project is still ongoing. At the moment, I am completing a paper examining the general background and characteristics of the first twelve women engaged European integration, specifically their social and educational background before they were appointed at the European level.

Tell us about your findings.

Unsurprisingly, depending on their date of birth, the role of the two world wars has strongly influenced their political membership, experience, and possible advocacy role. Those who were still relatively young before World War II have contributed to the progress of the young Assembly to becoming a political Chamber and then a directly elected Parliament, as Nilde Iotti has done, whom I spoke about in detail last year. Others staid on for longer in the European Parliament, as Astrid Lulling, from Luxemburg, or even went on to be appointed Commissioner, like her compatriot Colette Flesch.

When you study their education, their social and family ties, their age when they joined the Assembly, you can identify certain characteristics, also in comparison to their male counterparts. We can see how women were discriminated against in the almost exclusively male environment of the time, but also how family ties can support women’s internationalization. And their trajectories offer interesting findings on their achievements in exploiting their political position and in steering their careers as successful political actors.

Was there actually a woman at the very first meeting of the Common Assembly?

Yes, one! Marga Klompé, from the Netherlands This first sitting was held in Strasbourg on Wednesday, 10th September 1952 and brought together 78 delegates from the six founding members.

Marga Klompé was 40 years old at the time, the youngest in the 40-49 age group, which represented a third of the members. At a moment when women in France, Belgium and Italy had secured the right to vote less than years ago, Marga Klompé really had a pioneering role.Within the European Coal and Steel Community she actively participated in the draft of the Messina Resolution, which laid down the foundations for the Treaties of Rome. As other women, as for example Marguerite De Riemaecker-Legot, she left her European and international career to dedicate herself to domestic politics.

Did these pioneer women have families who supported them?

Yes, they tended to come from political families. At least 50% of them were related to someone involved in politics. Maria Probst was the daughter of a diplomat; Jacqueline Thome-Patenôtre was married to the America born son of the French Ambassador to the United States of America; Johanna Schouwenaar-Franssen was the wife of a member of the Dutch parliament; Erisia Gennai Tonietti was the daughter of an Italian political activist, president of the anti-clerical association of her hometown; Jacqueline Rutgers was the sister-in-law of the chairman of the Dutch “Anti-Revolution Party”; and Nilde Iotti was the partner of the leader of the Italian Communist Party since 1947.

Interestingly, as in the case of Maria Probst and Johanna Schouwenaar-Franssen, they remained socially involved at the local level. In general, research has shown that women preferred to take ‘practical decisions of real consequences’, considering that national politics, compared to local politics, was more a ‘shadow-boxing’ exercise.

You are working on fascinating life stories. What can we learn from your research for today?

I think the political experience of yesterday’s women is not just enriching our knowledge of the history of European integration, but can also, and above all, help us to think about how we talk about the past. These women’s role and contribution have been erased and ignored for so long, but knowledge about them can only enrich the present and put women’s domestic and international political representation into a different perspective.

Thank you very much, Simona Guerra, for sharing your research with us. I recall you are Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey.

An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.