Suffrage Movement and the Subversion of the „Juridico-Discursive. Power in the Victorian Period: Elizabeth Robins and the Concept of 'New Women'

By Esmaeil, Najar; Reza, Kazemifar | K@ta, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Suffrage Movement and the Subversion of the „Juridico-Discursive. Power in the Victorian Period: Elizabeth Robins and the Concept of 'New Women'


Esmaeil, Najar, Reza, Kazemifar, K@ta


INTRODUCTION

Although making few references to women, the poststructuralist Michel Foucault (1926-1984) tremendously inspired feminist scholars to question about the dominant power, body, gender, and sexual relations. Gender theorists such as Judith Butler (1956) heavily drew from his hypothesis that body and sexuality are social/cultural constructs that are manipulated via sets of apparatuses.1 In The History of Sexuality, Vol 1 (1976), while delineating the development of sexuality in European culture, Foucault asserts that sexuality is defined throughout a sets of repressive laws and limits - what he calls the juridicodiscursive power - that ruling people objectify.2

In the following paragraphs, we provide an analysis of how women artists of suffrage movement attempted to subvert the contemporary juridico-discursive power with unscrupulously operating against the artistic hegemony of the early Victorian period. The term 'artistic hegemony' is utilized as a parallel concept for 'cultural hegemony'.3 Women's challenging of artistic hegemony (developed consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or accidently) occurred for the first time, as a collective movement, in the early twentieth century and put an end to the socially descending 'juridico-discursive' power.4

Throughout the history, ruling classes always wanted to use Art as one of their controlling apparatuses, what Marxists call 'superstructure'. However, the intrinsic nature of Art is irrepressible and it is why it has mostly been on the side of repressed people. Relevantly, during British suffrage movement, women utilized Art, that is drama and theatre, for the first time in women's history to publically criticize the oppressions on them.5

In Victorian England, women centered their political activities around establishing women organizations and debating over the concept of disenfranchisement. In 1832, the extension of the ballot "had happened over the Household Franchise Bill, and since then women had become involved politically in social affairs" (Pankhurst, 2010, p. 10). It was not until 1872 that various women groups united and worked as a collective force in the UK's political milieu. Women organizations joined together and formed a constitutional campaign named 'The National Society for Women's Suffrage' led by Lydia Becker (1827-1890). This campaign began to agitate for 'votes for women' in a "culture that was not ready to see women participating equally with men in the political arena" (Risk, 2012, p. 385). With the pursuit of universal suffrage, women were at the same time pursuing social independence, college education, widespread national health reform, equal job opportunities, and most importantly equal pay, which could in turn free them from home imprisonment. In the Victorian society women were limited still in their private spheres and were not accepted in public areas.

In the late nineteenth century, the generic belief was that "the family is woman's proper sphere.' (Van, 1999, p. 44).6 This polarity pushed women into disappearance from social context and operated, in Foucault's wordings, "as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know" (Foucault, 1978, p. 4). This denigrating feeling of non-existence finally provoked resistance among the Victorian women and made them seek for "places of tolerance" in order to openly express their discontents. At this status, women needed "nothing less than a transgression of laws, a lifting of prohibitions, an eruption of speech" to achieve their goals (Ibid, 5). Foucault maintains that desire (suffrage) exists when there is a despotic power (male oppression). This 'juridico-discursive' conception of repressive power restricts people to pursue their goals and limits them to the pre-defined roles. This primarily made the women unable to gain suffrage through the legislation. …

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