Ideas on Europe

The early women of European integration - Ideas on Europe

The early women of European integration - Ideas on Europe

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Simona Guerra, from the University of Surrey, in the UK.

Just in time for Europe Day on the ninth of May, you would like to speak about the “early women of European integration”. Can you explain what is meant by this?

With pleasure. 

When studying the EU’s history, we often see in books and manuals the image of the signature of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, with the so-called “Founding Fathers”, as Konrad Adenauer or Alcide De Gasperi, the Italian Prime Minister sitting along a table. Women are completely absent.

This has been noted already in the literature. In 2017, an Italian historian, Maria Pia Di Nonno, has worked on a project covering the biographies of relevant women for the European Integration process. Yet, she told me how challenging it was to retrieve documents and data on these early women in the archives. In 2018, Ana Milosevic wrote a short post asking whether Europe prefers her sons over her daughters. In the same year, six female colleagues pointed in a powerful article to the co-constitutive nature of EU studies that reproduce social hierarchies and help to sustain gender inequalities.

In the opening chapter of the recently published handbook on Gender and the EU (2021), Gabriele Abels and Heather MacRae show to what extent the history of Europe post-1945 is ‘by and large’ incomplete. They write that an analysis of standard texts on the evolution of European integration proves that women are hardly, if ever, mentioned as part of the political elite which has shaped European integration, particularly during the first two formative decades, and add that Desmond Dinan’s book of 2006, which has been one of the most widespread in English, has a name index of 165 men, but just …four women.

So were women really absent from these early years of integration?

They were not numerous, but definitely not absent. 

Take the first ‘Common Assembly’, when the European Parliament was not yet directly elected: it shows a list of 12 women in the 1950s and 1960s and 31 up to the first directly elected assembly in 1979! Yet, names as Marga Klompé, Johanna Frederika Schouwenaar-Franssen or Erisia Gennai Tonietti are mostly unknown. 

Tell us more about them!

Marga Klompé, a Dutch politician, was the first woman to join the ECSC Assembly constituted in 1952. It was a consultative body of 78 delegates appointed from national parliaments, and Marga Klompé was the only woman. In the following years she was part of the working group on the powers of the Assembly, and later on the preparation of the Messina Declaration, which laid down the foundations for the Treaties of Rome. She stepped down from the Assembly in 1956 to become the first female minister of the Netherlands. 

Johanna Frederika Schouwenaar-Franssen was a member of the Rotterdam city council. From Sept 1947 she was president of the VVAO Association, working on women’s equality, the improvement of their career and lifelong empowerment. In one her speeches she stressed the social responsibility of higher education: 'In addition to trying to be a good person and a dutiful worker, the academically trained woman also has the duty to be a good fellow citizen'. She joined the Common Assembly on the 29th of December 1960, and, as a member of the Social Commission, published a report on equal pay for men and women.

Erisia Gennai Tonietti, born on the Island of Elba, in 1900, is the first Italian MEP. She joined the Assembly on the 15th of February 1961. An independent, elected in Italy for the Christian Democratic party, she was proud of representing her constituents, and she is the author of the first attempt to admit women to juries. Later in her life she was praised as one who, while in office, successfully made progress on gender equality. 

In other words, these great women have simply not been written about.

Yes, and that’s not only unfair, it is also biased, and simply not the correct story.

Even though it is true that there were less women in politics at the time, they still sat in the Common Assembly, and in quite a few cases they had important national roles, as Deputy President or President of the national Parliament, or Minister at the national level. Nilde Iotti, for example, who joined the Common Assembly in 1969, was elected in 1997 as vice-president of the Council of Europe. But they were also shapers of European integration. As a matter of fact, we only know half of the story. ‘His’ story, as Gabriele Abels and Heather MacRae write.

There is a deficit in European studies. It is recognised and acknowledged, and still we continue to learn history in the same way, with the same bias. It is up to us, as researchers, to get to know the work of these early women of European integration, and to write about them in our publications.

And to speak about them on the radio! Many thanks, Simona, for your very timely editorial for Europe Day! 

“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Miriam Mona Mukalazi, from the University of Düsseldorf.