'First wave' feminism in nineteenth-century France: Class, family and religion

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The history of 'first wave' feminism in France raises several questions of relevance to the contemporary women's movement. Organized French feminism began during the struggle to replace a Catholic monarchy with a rationalistic, republican form of government. Because of the allegiance of most Frenchwomen to the church, however, even the republican and socialist supporters of feminist reform in educational institutions and in civil rights opposed political participation by women. Feminists, who themselves emphasized reforms in family law and economic opportunities, formed numerous organizations, published journals and held national and international meetings, but remained less a movement than a mosaic of leaders and groups divided by class, religion and personal rivalry. More importantly, they were estranged from the majority of Frenchwomen by questions pertaining to the relationship of women to the traditional patriarchal family, which continued to play a dominant role in the religious, economic and social life of the country. Internal conflict developed over protective legislation and women's 'right to work', while external opposition centered about the politically reactionary potential of religious women, and the alleged 'anti-patriotic' individualism of those who rejected motherhood as the 'natural vocation' and only career of women. By pitting feminism against a particular form of the family, antifeminists obscured the reality of women's oppression and succeeded in alienating the potential support for feminism of most Frenchwomen. © 1982.

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  • Marilyn J. Boxer

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