Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought

By Perovic, Sanja | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought


Perovic, Sanja, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought

For the last twenty years or so there has been a burgeoning interest in the contribution of women to the cultural life of the ancien régime. Much of the groundbreaking research has been done by feminist scholars who have argued for the importance of gender as both a historical as well as analytical category.1 In addition to reshaping the boundaries separating historical and theoretical research, feminist scholarship has also underscored the attendant methodological difficulties in combining the two. At the risk of simplification, one can say that historians have tended to privilege empirical evidence of women's activity while literary and cultural critics have focused on the cultural value of key women writers and artists.2

Lesley H. Walker's A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France (Bucknell, 2008) intervenes on both sides of the issue. Tracing the emergence of a "maternal discourse" centered on an idealized mother figure, Walker aims to historicize our current notions of feminine virtue which she views as bound up in a modernist narrative of emarrcipation. By arguing for the importance of the domestic sphere in the development of an enlightened society based on greater justice and equality, Walker's goal is to recuperate an alternative picture of female virtue. This is one in which maternal solicitude, and rejection of the public sphere in favor of private virtue, are key factors to overall social reform. Walker convincingly shows that the domestic sphere cannot be reduced to the distinctions between public and private spheres, since domestic reform was considered an essential component in the creation of an enlightened community. In so doing she argues against the traditional feminist narrative, which has typically cast the domestic sphere as the place where women have been " 'repressed,' 'silenced,' 'marginalized/ and 'domesticated'" (18). In this sense, her book rejoins Carla Hesse's recent claim that radical feminist scholarship, by focusing on the exclusion of women from the public sphere, has underestimated the cultural contributions of women who saw themselves as working within the liberal enlightenment tradition.3

Walker's evaluation of the domestic sphere is motivated by two observations. First, that feminist scholarship, while opening up new areas of research, has tended to privilege visionary personalities such as Olympe de Gouges or public figures such as Germaine de Staël to the detriment of those female writers and artists who cleaved more closely to the century's own understanding of feminine virtue. Second, that the contemporary theoretical interest in the psychodynamics of the bourgeois "nuclear family," especially as developed by Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition, has its roots in an eighteenthcentury valorization of domestic life whose historical specificity has been subsequently forgotten. Unlike Freud's narrative that is predicated on an absent mother, Walker shows how eighteenth-century idealizations of the loving family stressed the presence pf an (often) all-seeing, self-sacrificing mother and the virtual absence of the "husband as a viable love object" (35). Although not all readers will accept her characterization of affectionate mother-daughter relations as "homo-erotic," Walker's suggestion that the eighteenth century viewed heterosexual love between husband and wife as an unsustainable norm even as it privileged an idealized domestic life is an interesting one. For it suggests that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom for women even as it constrained them in other ways.

Subsumed under these general goals is a further concern: to introduce the reader to key women writers and artists in order to expand our understanding of what constitutes a "feminist canon." In addition to analyzing the works of such well-known figures as Marie-Jeanne Roland, de Staël, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, and Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, Walker also treats lesser-known figures such as the prolific writer and journalist Jeanne-Marie Ie Prince de Beaumont and the painter and engraver Marguerite Gérard, sister-in-law of Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

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