Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought

By Perovic, Sanja | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought


Perovic, Sanja, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought

For the last twenty years or so there has been a burgeoning interest in the contribution of women to the cultural life of the ancien régime. Much of the groundbreaking research has been done by feminist scholars who have argued for the importance of gender as both a historical as well as analytical category.1 In addition to reshaping the boundaries separating historical and theoretical research, feminist scholarship has also underscored the attendant methodological difficulties in combining the two. At the risk of simplification, one can say that historians have tended to privilege empirical evidence of women's activity while literary and cultural critics have focused on the cultural value of key women writers and artists.2

Lesley H. Walker's A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France (Bucknell, 2008) intervenes on both sides of the issue. Tracing the emergence of a "maternal discourse" centered on an idealized mother figure, Walker aims to historicize our current notions of feminine virtue which she views as bound up in a modernist narrative of emarrcipation. By arguing for the importance of the domestic sphere in the development of an enlightened society based on greater justice and equality, Walker's goal is to recuperate an alternative picture of female virtue. This is one in which maternal solicitude, and rejection of the public sphere in favor of private virtue, are key factors to overall social reform. Walker convincingly shows that the domestic sphere cannot be reduced to the distinctions between public and private spheres, since domestic reform was considered an essential component in the creation of an enlightened community. In so doing she argues against the traditional feminist narrative, which has typically cast the domestic sphere as the place where women have been " 'repressed,' 'silenced,' 'marginalized/ and 'domesticated'" (18). In this sense, her book rejoins Carla Hesse's recent claim that radical feminist scholarship, by focusing on the exclusion of women from the public sphere, has underestimated the cultural contributions of women who saw themselves as working within the liberal enlightenment tradition.3

Walker's evaluation of the domestic sphere is motivated by two observations. First, that feminist scholarship, while opening up new areas of research, has tended to privilege visionary personalities such as Olympe de Gouges or public figures such as Germaine de Staël to the detriment of those female writers and artists who cleaved more closely to the century's own understanding of feminine virtue. Second, that the contemporary theoretical interest in the psychodynamics of the bourgeois "nuclear family," especially as developed by Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition, has its roots in an eighteenthcentury valorization of domestic life whose historical specificity has been subsequently forgotten. Unlike Freud's narrative that is predicated on an absent mother, Walker shows how eighteenth-century idealizations of the loving family stressed the presence pf an (often) all-seeing, self-sacrificing mother and the virtual absence of the "husband as a viable love object" (35). Although not all readers will accept her characterization of affectionate mother-daughter relations as "homo-erotic," Walker's suggestion that the eighteenth century viewed heterosexual love between husband and wife as an unsustainable norm even as it privileged an idealized domestic life is an interesting one. For it suggests that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom for women even as it constrained them in other ways.

Subsumed under these general goals is a further concern: to introduce the reader to key women writers and artists in order to expand our understanding of what constitutes a "feminist canon." In addition to analyzing the works of such well-known figures as Marie-Jeanne Roland, de Staël, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, and Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, Walker also treats lesser-known figures such as the prolific writer and journalist Jeanne-Marie Ie Prince de Beaumont and the painter and engraver Marguerite Gérard, sister-in-law of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.