European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History

By Karen Offen | Go to book overview
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Rearticulating Feminist Claims, 1820-1848

In the period from 1820 to the new outbreak of revolutions in 1848, partisans of the critical perspective we now call feminism once again mounted a campaign to curtail, even to abolish the privileges of the male sex, to expose the prejudices that supported male privilege, to transform existing institutions, to empower women and thereby liberate them from male control. Especially in the postrevolutionary nationstates of France and England a broad spectrum of writers and social critics recast earlier Enlightenment formulations to envision a radical restructuring of the relationship between the sexes within the family and in society. Touching on a full range of legal, educational, economic, and political issues, they added full-blown demands for economic freedom and political rights, moral reform, sexual liberty, and even (in England) birth control. The issues they raised were debated not only in tracts and books but also in the pages of the Times of London and the Westminster Review, and in Paris in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and the Charivari.

This new generation of feminist challengers included such diverse contributors as Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, George Sand, Flora Tristan, and Louisa Otto. They would confront the Napoleons, the Vireys, the Hannah Mores, and the Hegels who had sought to limit, constrain, and channel women's possibilities, whether in the name of the male-headed family, the "public order" of sexual and social hierarchy, or the universal subject "man."

These challengers would deploy a prolific range of arguments to make their points for liberty, equality, and justice for women: they invoked analogies to slavery, developed arguments of sexual complementarity, asserted the importance of motherhood, women's moral authority, and their unique roles as civilizers of men. In 1817, for instance, shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars, the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley pondered the question, "Can man be free if woman be a slave?"1 In 1830 the Anglo-Irish Anna Doyle Wheeler argued: "When I advocate the


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European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History


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