status of women in 19th century europe

Topics: 19th century, Europe, Feminism Pages: 8 (2041 words) Published: April 19, 2014
HIS1012: Europe Re-made
Did the status of Women in European Society improve or decline during the 19th Century?

The 19th Century was a time of mass change across the European map, both industrially and socially. The situation of women differed from country to country, yet the emergence of new ideas, revolutionaries and socialists allowed women to progress in society. Gaining vital freedoms and responsibilities which they had not experienced in the previous Centuries.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the status of all women improved in 19th Century society. Social freedoms that were experienced by women in some societies were revoked from women in others. For example, in British society, many women faced the risk of deportation and slave labour across the empire.1

What we must first analyse, to get a better sense of perspective for women in 19th Century society, is the situation of women in the 18th Century. Traditionally, men where seen as the superior sex and it was the widely accepted viewpoint that, in marriage, men were supposed to rule over their wives and all property belonged to the husbands. Politically, women possessed virtually no formal rights and were confined to a small sector of the economy in which their work would be seen as an ‘extension of domestic responsibilities.’2

During the period of the 1789 revolutions in France, Women began to demand better education and protection of their property rights.3 This outlines the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ in France and how they began to demand civil and political rights as early as 1789. A time when most women, especially in other European countries were confined to the home and such advances would probably have been seen as preposterous.

It is important to recognise that revolutionary participation did have some significance for women as their status experienced variations between the years 1789 and 1804. They obtained the legal right to marry without parental consent and more importantly, monetary compensation for their own property.4 This outlines early progressions for women’s status in France in the late 18th/ early 19th Century and how the Revolution in France acted as a huge stepping stone for Feminism in France allowing women to gain liberties that would not be granted in places such as Britain for almost another Century.

In the latter part of the 19th Century, France was the centre of an advanced feminist movement. It would appear that the situation of women was improving in France long before it did in most other European countries. This was maybe to due to the active feminist movements in both the First and Second French republics.5 Additionally, the emergence of feminist thinkers within socialist groups such as Enfantin. His works were widely disputed at the time and having read them, it would appear that sexual pleasure was the main orientation. However, what we must consider are the implications and effects that his works had on society and the emphasis that it placed on the ‘New Woman’.6 Enfantin wrote about all aspects of the new woman’s role in society and the rights she should be given. He highlighted the success and advancements of Japanese and Tahitian societies in which women had been respected and thus believed it to be the central reason to their economic superiority. 7

Similar to Enfantin, Fourier had little doubt that that nature intended equality and that there was no reason why women could not go on to become doctors, teachers, writers or athletes.8 Although, it is important to note that the works of people like Enfantin and Fourier did not gain any real credit politically and were seen by many at the time as an embarrassment to the Saint Simonian movement (which they were both part of) and seen more so as the ‘championing of sexual license.’9 The Saint Simonian movement was very much present in 19th Century French society and expressed ‘modern’ and ‘new’ views on feminism. 10 At the time, their...

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Pilbeam, P. French Socialists Before Marx, Teddington, Acumen Publishing, (2000).
Simonton, D. European Women’s Work 1700 to the Present, London, Routledge Publishing, (1998).
DeGroat, J. The Public Nature of Womens Work: Definitions and Debates during the Revolution of 1848, in: Montgomery, F. and Collette, C. (eds.) The European Woman’s History Reader, London, Routledge Publishing. (2002).
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