Eroticism and the Body Politic; a Review
Lynn Hunt has put together an insightful compilation on the subject of women in 18th and 19th century France. Scholars in history, art history, and literature are brought together in nine essays broken up into three sections of three essays each focused respectively on the 18th century, the Revolution, and the fin de siècle. The nine varying scholars are brought together and edited by Hunt to discuss the body erotic and the body politic of women in France. With a wide variety of authors, scholars in many areas, and essays of varying opinions and experience over a large period of time, Hunt's Eroticism and the Body Politic gives a multi-faceted look into how women and the roles of their bodies were perceived in 18th and 19th century France. Also discussed are two reviews by Thomas Laqueur and Ruth P. Thomas, used to compare and contrast insights on the argument Hunt forms as to what is a woman and her body, erotically and politically. Proposed is the idea that there is a connection between the erotic and the political and at the very center of it all is the question of women's place. Throughout European history when thinking of power one would put it under the domain of men. Though men could not relate to one another without their relationship to women and their bodies, nor could social or political order continue to reproduce without a woman’s body. In this time women were thought of as dangerous when meddling in the public, in political affairs with their fickle thoughts and irrational emotions. In 18th century France women had a very clear role and it was not one of power. For example most peasant or petty bourgeois women’s aspirations were to marry a worthy man and make him proud by running a home and raising his children. Women dare not aim higher because it was not their job to; their duty was to the family, to their men. Even with a woman of royalty, she could marry a king, even birth one, yet they could never be queens in their own right like other countries such as England. As France went through great changes during this time period, changes in politics, the birth of democracy, the issue of women’s place arose. Women were seen nurturers, the givers of life; they could lead men to righteousness. They were also seen as depravers with the potential to lead men down a path of ignorance and neglect. From a time when women’s place was very well defined, it is now changing and the role of women’s bodies has become up for discussion. One argument of women’s place as discussed by Mary Sheriff’s Fragonard’s Erotic Mothers and the Politics of Reproduction and especially put forward by Rousseau, is in the home. The role of her body is to be that of a mother, to raise and provide for her children, and of her body as a wife, to support and please her husband. A woman’s body could not do both; convenience, tradition, and economic reasons had many women sending children off with wet-nurses so that they may continue their full duties as wives to their husband’s bodies. Moralists found issue with women who did this, arguing that mothers employing wet-nurses were “neglecting their natural and patriotic duties, choosing instead to preserve their beauty, satisfy their selfish vanity, and enjoy unfettered the pleasures of society.”(Sheriff, 21). Enlightened beliefs of where a woman’s body belonged viewed women as a wife to her husband, a mother to his children, and completely removed from the public sphere, this was what writers of the enlightenment described as natural mothers. A natural woman’s body belonged in the home, with the family, her body as a representation of great maternal love. A leading argument for the proper place for women was that they did not belong in the public, that is, the political sphere. Since women had the power to nurture, they also had the power to nurture immoral and irrational thoughts into the minds of men and their children. Many at the time believed women’s...
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