Women, Equality, and the French Revolution

Women, Equality, and the French Revolution

Women, Equality, and the French Revolution

Women, Equality, and the French Revolution

Synopsis

This work represents the first book-length study of attitudes toward women during the French Revolution and the discrepancy between its principles of liberty and equality and the suppression of women's rights. Working from original source material produced in 18th-century France, Proctor traces the striking continuity between pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary thought on the equality of women, and addresses such issues as the extent of support for a sexual equality movement and how the men of the Revolution justified the contradiction of personal rights.

Excerpt

The adherents of the French Revolution rationalized their controversial activity in terms of a philosophy of liberty, equality, and what they liked to call the inalienable rights of man. Considering the fact that some one- half the inhabitants of eighteenth-century France were women, it might be expected that even the most haphazard application of those supposedly universal principles would have resulted both in a recognition of the subordinate position of women in French society and in support for the idea of equality between the sexes. The present work investigates to what extent that did or did not happen, and if not, then why not.

To ask such questions is not to indulge in a prolepsis inspired by contemporary events and the modern feminist movement. Modern feminism may trace its origins only as far back as the early nineteenth century, but the debate about the nature of woman and her role in society has been around since at least the Renaissance. Well before the beginning of the Revolution, it was a burning issue; by the eighteenth century it was provoking an unprecedented outpouring of articles, contest entries, essays, and multi-volume publications. Virtually every aspect of a woman's life was being scrutinized and analyzed both by the forces of resistance and by the forces of change. What was a woman's "natural character"? What should it be? Should she be educated? How, and to what extent? What was her proper role in the family? In society? What were her rights? Not merely philosophers and essayists, but novelists, playwrights, journalists, and the man in the street were all asking these questions. And as vital as they are to the understanding of any culture, the answers people give to these questions become particularly revealing . . .

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