Roots of Nineteenth-Century French Feminism: The Image and Reality of Womanhood
Nineteenth-century French women's lives were quite different from women's lives in earlier centuries. Although the underlying patriarchal structure had survived the French Revolution, its form in the nineteenth century had changed in ways that explain the emergence of feminism at that time as well as the demands that feminists articulated over the course of the century and the means they would contemplate to achieve their purposes.
The very concept of womanhood had changed. Women were now idealized and, at the same time, sharply differentiated from men. This had not been so in earlier centuries, when women had been considered not unlike men but had been denigrated for their supposed lesser moral worth. As we shall see, the emergence of feminism in the nineteenth century related to this new conceptualization of womanhood.
In literature, the idealization of women was one aspect of Romanticism which, in reaction to eighteenth-century cynicism, rediscovered sentiment, passion, and love. Novelists and poets surrounded the female with fervent adoration. Woman was the Angel, the Saint, the Madonna. This is the language of Rodolphe, the seducer of Emma Bovary (Flaubert), of Dumas for Marie de Flavigny (later Marie d'Agoûlt), of Béranger for Delphinede Girardin (Delphine Gay)