A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France

A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France

A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France

A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France

Synopsis

Chronicles the emergence of an idealized mother figure whose reforming zeal sought to make French society more just. This book contends that this attempt during the eighteenth century to rewrite social relations in terms of greater social equality represents an important but overlooked strand of Enlightenment thought.

Excerpt

Morality is the science of women, par excellence.

—Marie-Jeanne Roland (1777)

I cannot escape the notion (though I hesitate to give it expression)
that for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from
what it is in men.

—Sigmund Freud (1924)

A wide gap separates Marie-Jeanne Roland's judgment about feminine nature and Sigmund Freud’s conjecture about woman’s ethical character. Wider still is the gulf that divides these authors as intellectual and historical figures. Before facing the guillotine in 1793 for her commitment to the Girondin cause, Roland, who grew up in Paris, lived a domestic idyll for several years in the Beaujolais countryside where she educated her daughter, corrected the proofs of her husband’s encyclopedic project, and nursed the ailing peasants of her community. She also wrote prodigiously: four volumes of letters, essays, and, finally, memoirs from prison. in one of these essays, Roland argued that a woman’s suffering in childbirth made her the ethical subject par excellence. Without mothers, according to Roland, men would never come to know that indispensable human emotion: “pity.” Pity was understood by many in the eighteenth century to be the very foundation of the ethical community. Roland thus endows maternity with extraordinary ethical import. This investment in maternal agency was hardly unique to her. Throughout the eighteenth century, writers and artists gave shape to a remarkable mother figure: remarkable because she is, in many respects, utterly unlike what Freud imagined mothers to be. This maternal figure is the subject of the present book.

In A Mother’s Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France, I chronicle the emergence of an idealized mother figure whose reforming zeal sought to make French society more equitable and just. I argue . . .

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