Although feminism, like democracy or socialism, appeals to a universalistic solidarity—born, in this case, of resistance to common experiences of patriarchal and capitalist inequality—the character of particular women’s movements is still shaped by profoundly national contexts of history and socio-economic progress. The uneven trajectories of contemporary capitalist development, of under-development, have imparted to the national contingents of the international women’s movement similar yet different demands, priorities, structures and orientations. In most cases the form of the emergence of modern feminism has been directly influenced by changes in the role of women in the national productive system. Thus, to invoke a principal North-South differential, the nature of the women’s movements in the advanced industrial countries has been influenced by the increasing integration of women into the wage economy and by the partial socialization of reproduction to meet the demand for female labour-power. The immense productive capacity of the capitalist Centre to transform basic needs and to extend the sphere of commodity relations creates, in turn, the conditions for an expanded female working class to raise new demands for equality. In contrast, the economic position of women in many developing countries has greatly deteriorated over the recent period. The education gap between the sexes has widened, domestic activities have been devalued, and frequently women have become more marginalized within the wage economy.

Greece is an intriguing case precisely because the national social formation displays many of the features and contradictions of both advanced and less developed countries. The classical ‘semi-peripheral’ economy, Greece combines a significant ‘off shore’ commercial and shipping complex with a patriarchal agricultural economy and a weak manufacturing base. Although women’s role in the Greek economy has been greatly transformed over the last thirty years, they have not, as in Northern Europe, increased their presence within the wage sector. At the same time post-war Greek history has been dominated by civil war, counterrevolution and the struggle against military dictatorship. Thus the contemporary women’s movement has been particularly influenced by the antecedent or simultaneous roles of women within democratic and class struggles. Most recently the efforts of the pasok government to implement gender equality from the ‘top down’ have raised important questions about the relationship between the ‘autonomous’ mobilization of women and the parties of the Left. In the survey which follows, beginning with a brief evocation of the origins of feminism in Greece, I have tried to elicit the peculiarities of historical and social development insofar as they have influenced a distinctive women’s movement.

Like all great popular struggles, the long Greek War of Independence in the early nineteenth century drew upon the stamina and courage of women. For much of the period, while men were in the mountains fighting the Ottoman armies, women were the mainstay of the agricultural economy. After most of the peninsula won freedom in 1821, some upper-class women who had been involved in the national movement began to voice the demand for girls’ schools and female literacy as first steps in raising the status of women. However, since parts of Greece remained under Turkish occupation, the women’s question continued to be overshadowed by war efforts, and the energies of upper-class women were redirected towards charitable work with the poor, war orphans and refugees.

What can be properly called the ‘first wave’ of the Greek women’s movement emerged after 1856 with the initial flowering of capitalist development. The spectacular growth of commerce and the merchant fleet, coupled with the efforts between 1874 and 1885 to modernize the economic and administrative structures, contributed to the emergence of a definite bourgeoisie with a modern outlook. It was middle-class women of this ascendant stratum who now took the lead in voicing the more radical liberal demand for the vote as well as for the abolition of infamous laws prohibiting women from the professions, business and government. In 1870 the pioneering women’s periodical Eurydice was published, calling for more equal treatment at work and in education, and incorporating feminist ideas from Western Europe. In 1872, the Ladies Association for the Education of Women was founded, and in 1879, the Union of Greek Women. In 1887 the Newspaper for Ladies began its thirty-year history, while in 1890 the first woman student was admitted to the University of Athens. Under the shadow of national bankruptcy in 1883, however, the liberal optimism of the middle classes was shattered. Mass emigration to North America provided the main outlet for idle male hands while women stayed behind to care for children and tend the land. Despite the founding in 1898 of a conference to investigate the condition of Greek women, continuous economic crisis together with war, or the threat of war, made it almost impossible for women’s demands to be heard. Middle-class women’s groups reverted to conservative charitable work until the end of the First World War.

The post-war crisis, including the expulsion of 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor, led to the disappearance of the last remnants of tsiflikia, the Greek form of feudal holdings, as all large estates, clerical and private, were appropriated in 1923 and redistributed to the male peasantry. This epochal transformation—which cast the countryside in its present mould of myriad family-based small farms—consolidated the patriarchal structure and cultural conservatism of Greek rural society. The transformation of the propertyless male peasant into a smallholder was mirrored inside the family by the enhanced authority of husband and father. Although the interwar years witnessed a small-scale industrial boom in the towns, the urban economy remained dominated by artisan units and almost half the male workforce was in crafts or services. A small female proletariat existed in the textile mills and tobacco plants, but women as a whole were still overwhelmingly and disproportionately confined to agriculture. While men were able to take advantage of new opportunities resulting from urbanization, the women were left behind as unpaid custodians of a subsistence agricultural system: a pattern that has tended to persist to the present day.