French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century

By Claire Goldberg Moses | Go to book overview
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This book is a study of the development of feminist thought in nineteenth- century France. Its focus is a body of ideas set into a social and political context, rather than a "pure" philosophical analysis. This approach derives from my belief that the questions feminists asked were based on their life experiences and that the remedies they proposed for their grievances were constructed with intellectual tools of analysis available to them in their time and place.

To place nineteenth-century French feminism in its historical context, I begin with a brief look at the pre-nineteenth-century history of the "woman question" in France, considering both the continued subordination of women and early feminist attempts to change that situation. The Revolutionary heritage was a particularly important influence on nineteenth-century feminism, both directly and indirectly. Nineteenth-century feminists were aware of the experience of earlier feminists and were inspired by their vision of emancipation; but nineteenth-century feminists' quite different ideology was also shaped by their knowledge of the violence of revolution and their fear of the Terror. While espousing Revolutionary egalitarian ideas, they conceptualized them in different ways and sought new methods to implement change, based on their concern for peace and social reconciliation.

The legacy of the French Revolution, briefly outlined in chapter 1, affected the evolution of feminism indirectly as well by shaping feminism's political context. Nineteenth-century French feminism existed in the shadow of repression. Governments, driven by their memory of the Revolution and the Terror, were slow to guarantee the right to free expression of new ideas. A continual shift from liberal to repressive to liberal to repressive government slowed the development of feminism; and it was often truly dangerous to espouse feminist views. Only as the Revolution receded into the more distant past and the fear of social unrest lessened somewhat was freedom of expression guaranteed by a secure and liberal republic, and only by the 1880s did feminism finally emerge from its start-and-stop


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