French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century

By Claire Goldberg Moses | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7 La Querelle des Femmes of the Second Empire

The imperial government of Napoleon III maintained an elaborate system of both direct and indirect censorship of the press and prohibited open discussion of political issues in public meetings for most of the years ( December 1851-71) of the Second Empire. These controls on the press and on assembly precluded feminist propaganda, organization, or agitation and limited the influence of those feminist sympathizers who had escaped the general proscription that had sent so many of the 1848-49 activists into exile. The woman question did not disappear, but for a time at least, the loudest voices in the by-now centuries- old "querelle des femmes" were antifeminist or outright misogynist.

During the 1850s and 1860s, antifeminism consolidated even on the Left, in significant contrast to the 1830s and 1840s, when patriarchal arguments had been voiced primarily by conservative right-wing theorists. Then, left-wing theorists had rarely battled feminists, even when they disagreed with their objectives. The favorable climate for feminists within leftist groups began to change in the 1840s. Both Auguste Comte and Etienne Cabet, for example, denied that women should have any political rights or public role, but in 1848, their positions were still flexible. Cabet permitted women to attend his club's meetings and, in April, he even promised to consider seriously supporting women's suffrage. The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the republican Jules Michelet were more determinedly antifeminist than either Comte or Cabet. But even though their first writings on the woman question predate the 1848 Revolution, it was not until after 1851, when the state fully repressed feminists and their allies, that their antifeminist positions came to predominate among

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