Friday, June 13, 2014

Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution by Joan Landes.

Professor Joan Landes has written a book that stands as a partial rebuttal to the notion of a public sphere as democratizing. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas explained that, in 17th Century Europe, the Monarchical State was the center of public attention. As capitalism took hold, the bourgeoisie began to create an arena for their voice. Through books, newspapers, periodicals, coffee houses, libraries, clubs, salons and a variety of other instruments, the new middle-class produced a competing locus of communication with that of the monarchy and aristocracy. Habermas calls this arena “the public sphere.” He expounds further that “informed public opinion began to function as a weapon in the battle against the arbitrary dictates, privileged corporations and secret practices of the absolutist state (Landes, p. 41).  Those favoring wider public participation in political discourse see this as a positive occurrence. Joan Landes cautions against overly optimistic conclusions. She offers evidence that in France, as this new sphere became more prominent, women were systematically excluded from it between 1750 and 1850.

Prior to the French Revolution, “women exercised a considerable degree of power” hosting salons (Landes, p. 22). Women were writing at this time as well and, while their efforts were excluded from most public media, they did have some limited avenues such as the “Journal des Dames” (Landes, p. 57). Additionally, aristocratic women had a social rank that permitted them both greater respect and access influential men. This permitted them the ability to advance the causes of petitioners. While these powers are notably circumscribed, they represent a greater influence than women were soon to have.

The French Revolution began promisingly enough. In 1789, Women were in the streets and “at the new centers of political communication…By the summer of 1791, women were participating avidly in clubs and popular societies … attending as spectators in the galleries of section assemblies, the national legislature and radical clubs,” taking part in demonstrations and signing petitions (Landes, pp. 106-118). But the author elucidates a trajectory beginning with demands that women attend to domestic duties and ending in 1793 with women being “banned from active and passive participation in the political sphere” (Landes, p. 147).

Men’s efforts to domesticate women in this context are hardly surprising. While vestiges of that impulse exist today, it was a prominent, Europe-wide cultural feature, in the late 18th Century. Even an early feminist like Mary Wollstonecraft, who “insists that women can be educated rationally,” cannot envision a role for women beyond “good mothers and good household managers” (Landes, pp. 131-2). While 21st Century individuals may have difficulty envisioning a time of such limits on women, their fate was inevitable after the upheaval of the revolution had passed. Women were reattached to the private sphere of the home, minus the aforementioned powers they had during the Ancien Regime. Ironically, French women had less influence under a republic than under a monarchy.

Landes exposes this irony with organized deftness. Some examples could have been improved: It was unnecessary to spend a full chapter on Rousseau. While he discussed women’s role at length, he was just one man and an iconoclastic one who did not represent the multiplicity of educated male opinions during the 1750s. A survey of enlightenment males, and their verbal justifications for repressing women, would have been more useful. Also, there is a ten page critique of a 20th Century movie, “La Nuit de Varennes.”  Current cinema is not historical evidence, no matter how insightful the director. Discussion of a modern film, even one about the past, can be nothing more than movie talk. There are enough misogynist male historians who still harbor the outdated view that women are unfit for an evidence-based field, without a female historian supplying them with ammunition. Aside from these minor errors, Landes stays on point with ample evidence.

Women and the Public Sphere successfully challenges “the Revolution’s claim to universality” and the notion that the public sphere, immediately resulted in democracy for all. Landes concludes “for women today, the Revolutionary era has not yet ended” (Landes, p. 201). If we define revolution using its social meaning of changing society at its root, this is clearly true. Women have not yet achieved full equality; they are still less well-paid, less well-represented and less physically safe, than men. But what Landes does not discuss is that the innovations between 1750 and 1850 (an ethos favoring democratization, along with a public sphere to discuss it), place equality within reach. While these changes caused an initial setback for women, they also opened the floodgates for future advancement. Society began to accustom itself to liberty. Women experienced this change, and today employ the tool of the public sphere and the language of democracy in their struggle. In spite of earlier obstruction under a republic, women never stopped fighting for their share of freedom. I am quite certain that they won’t stop until it is attained.

Landes, Joan. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

For review of a book on the aftermath of the French Revolution in Europe, see: