Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview
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"Equality" and "Difference" in Historical
Perspective: A Comparative Examination
of the Feminisms of French Revolutionaries
and Utopian Socialists


It has become common practice among today's feminists to speak of two opposing tendencies within the movement. One tendency—that of a so-called equality group—emphasizes the similarities between women and men, affirms androgyny, and argues that an equal rights, gender blind strategy is the sensible way to achieve women's freedom and equality. A second tendency— that of a so-called difference group—emphasizes the differences between women and men, affirms the female, and argues that sex-differentiated policies may be necessary to achieve gender justice. 1 Although most feminists have aligned themselves clearly with one or the other of the two tendencies, some others are now suggesting that we must accept contradiction and argue from one or the other position as circumstances warrant. Few, however, recognize that the positioning of these two tendencies in opposition, one to the other, is a construct that we might—and, I urge, that we should—challenge. 2

This essay is intended to shed light on the two tendencies in feminist thought and open up the possibility of an alternative understanding of their seeming opposition. I begin by briefly chronicling the construction of this opposition in contemporary feminist theory and politics, for it is within our movement that the questions we ponder have been constructed. I then examine the two tendencies in early French feminism—the "equality" tendency among feminists of the 1789 Revolution and the "difference" tendency among utopian socialist feminists of the next generation. By looking at these two moments in the history of the development of feminist thought we can explore these tendencies in the context of their initial articulation and reflect on the circum-

I would like to thank the General Research Board, Office of Graduate Studies and Research, of the University of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Humanities Travel to Collections Fund for their support for the research for this paper.

Several people read and commented on an earlier version of this article. I would like especially to thank Gay Gullickson, Joan Scott, and the anonymous readers for their suggestions.


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Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution
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