Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Housewives or Harlots": Women's Struggle for Emancipation in the 19th Century

"Women must be housewives or harlots, there is no other choice." This is the phrase that succinctly wraps up women's limitations due to publicly accepted conceptions in nineteenth-century society. The phrase originates from French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose theories epitomize the tenets of mutualist socialism.

In this chapter, "Socialism, Feminism, and the Socialist Women's Movement from the French Revolution to World War II," one of Charles Sowerwine's main points is that the development of different forms of socialism in Europe led to disparate women's liberation movements throughout the continent. According to Sowerwine, the German socialist women's movement was the most successful, followed by England, while France's socialist women's movement was all but futile. While French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued that women should be in the home, German socialists Marx and Engels asserted that women needed to obtain political and economic equality. Sowerwine points out that Clara Zetkin, a leader of the women's socialist movement, was confident that socialists would support women's fight for civil rights. Thus, women felt bold enough to embrace the separate organizational structure that they were at first forced to accept. Later on, the separate structure provided the impetus German women needed to create a mass movement for women's civil rights.

The French Socialist Party, Sowerwine states, suffered from the nonexistence of a separate women's organization since women felt alienated within the party. Lacking their own organizational structure, women were unable to organize in the manner of the German female socialists. I thought it was interesting that Madeleine Pelletier fought for women's rights in France but she didn't want to create a separate party section for women because she thought that would be humiliating. Unfortunately, Pelletier's concern for the way such an organization would appear contributed to the stunted development of the suffrage movement.

To be honest, this topic turned out to be much more interesting to me than I thought at first glance. I am amazed at how the ideologies and decisions of individuals played a large part in the trajectory of the various movements for women's liberation throughout Europe. I would definitely categorize this chapter under "Law, education, and citizenship" because the whole movement is based on obtaining human rights and the essentials of citizenship for women.

Oh, and I was excited to learn that in 1911, Clara Zetkin suggested that March 8th be designated as International Women's Day. I remembered hearing about that day last week but didn't think too much about it. It's too bad it has already passed because now we can really appreciate it! I love making connections from the past to our own lives. That's a big part of what makes history enjoyable, in my opinion. :)


  1. So, Alyssa, if so much has changed since 1911, and if we're supposedly part of a university system that values the study of issues related to women, why did you (and I) hear so little about International Women's Day?

  2. I also wonder how much Sowerwine's analysis of the "effectiveness" of Women's movements in Europe was effected by his masculine point of view. Wasn't that the main contention of most feminists in response to Second Wave feminism? That women's rights didn't just include pushing women into the work place and, thus, masculinizing them? Think, also, of Maoist China's period of gender erasure which, while giving women jobs and political clout, eventually lead to a backlash towards women after the lifting of the Cultural Revolution.