Progressive Women: Feminist Consciousness in 19th century France

What is the definition of Feminist Consciousness?

According to historian Gerda Lerner, the definition of feminist consciousness is:

The awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group and that, as members of such a group, they have suffered wrongs, 2.)  the recognition that their condition of subordination is not natural, but societally determined, 3.)  the development of a sense of sisterhood, 4.)  the autonomous definition by women of their goals and strategies for changing their condition, and 5.)  the development of an alternate vision of the future.[1]

As suggested in the definition, there are multiple ways that feminist consciousness can be incorporated into a person’s moral philosophy. A broad interpretation of the concept suggests that people with a feminist consciousness are not required to meet every term in the definition. Due to the complexity of the concept’s application, when applied to women in 19th century France, a broader interpretation must be used.

Through the power of words, women were able to express certain opinions that could be interpreted as the formation of a feminist consciousness. The Napoleonic Civil Code (1804) served as an impetus for feminist protest not only because it discriminated against women but also because it intensified women’s sense of sex identification. The written word often was the medium in which women chose to express their discontent with prevailing laws, expectations, and their desire for greater independence. Multiple viewpoints expressed in written works, literature, and movements showed that not every woman in 19th century France agreed on the rights of a woman.

The “Proper” Image of a Woman:

Women of the upper classes were raised with discipline and were expected to become graceful entertainers. The education the women of the leisure class received was supposed to highlight and emphasize the feminine qualities that every woman was expected to have. The skill-set that upper class women received through their education revolved around how to be a domestic woman.  Among the skills women were taught included: etiquette  literature, musical instruments, and how to run a household. The words of orator Pierre Gaspard Chaumette explained that the place of woman was the household because it was the only place where a woman’s nature could be applied.

Nature tells woman: Be a woman. The tender care of children, the sweet concerns of motherhood, those are your duties. But your diligence deserves a reward? Well! you will have one! You will be the divinity of the domestic sanctuary, you will rule over your household through the powerful charm of your graciousness and virtue. Foolish women who wish to become like men, don’t you already have great advantages  What more do you want? You rule over our senses! You have the legislators at your feet.[2]

Chaumette asserted that the nature of a woman dictated that she should be confined to the household. In addition, he claimed  that with the limitation of being confined to a household, women have more control than men.  The opinion that Chaumette held was bias towards the rights of men. In truth, with the Napoleonic Civil Code, men had power over the household, not women. Women were controlled completely by the head of the household. Restrictions such as limitation on expressing opinions, having separate finances, and divorce were just a few issues that women had no say.

Types of Feminism that Emerged:

Authors: George Sand, Flora Tristan, and Suzanne Voilquin were influential women during 19th century France.  Through publications, these women asked different, yet probing political questions about the “rights of women” in comparison to the “rights of man”.

George Sand Flora Tristan Suzanne Voilquin
Social Status: Aristocrat turned Intellectual Aristocrat background turned working-class woman Working-class family
Feminism: Romantic fictional Utopian Saint-Simonian and later autonomous women’s movements
Audience: Middle to Upper class women who were capable of reading and had leisure time. Working-class men and women and some upper class figures. Saint-Simonian women and feminist readership

Click on a picture below to learn more about the feminist consciousness of these three influential women:

George Sand (1804-1876)

Figure 2. George Sand (1804-1876), a French novelist and memoirist.

Flora Tristan (1803-1844)

Figure 3. Flora Tristan (1803-1844), a political activist and feminst.

Suzanne Voilquin (1801-1877)

Figure 4. Suzanne Voilquin (1801-1877), a Saint-Simonian feminist.

[1] Lerner Gerda, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 232.

[2] Sandra Dijkstra, Flora Tristan: Feminism in the Age of George Sand, (London: Pluto Press, 1992), 8.

Image References:
Figure 1. The Reluctant Bride, Augustus Toulmouche, 1866. April 9, 2013.

Figure 2. Portrait of George Sand, Felix Nadár, 1870. April 9, 2013. 

Figure 3. Portrait of Flora Tristan. April 9, 2013. 

Figure 4. Portrait of Suzanne Voilquin. April 9, 2013. 

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