Friday, June 09, 2023

Neal Ascherson on women and the revolutions of 1848

Neal Ascherson reviewed Revolutionary Spring by Christopher Clark, a history of the revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848, for the London Review of Books last month.

Ascherson's paragraphs on the experience of women in those revolutions make the 1840s sound very much like the 1960s:

Women got absolutely nothing out of 1848. ‘It is difficult to decide what is more striking – the tireless advocacy of the women activists or the immovability of the patriarchal structure they were challenging,’ Clark writes. ‘Women were not enfranchised anywhere in Europe in 1848.’ 

And yet they fought and died, gun in hand, on the barricades of Paris, Berlin and Milan. In the Frankfurt Parliament, ‘the discussion of votes for women elicited guffaws and hoots from the deputies ... and was dismissed out of hand.’ This was to be branded a firmly male revolution, with women celebrated only for waving ribbons from windows at the marching men below. 

Some of the shrewdest and most detailed witness accounts of 1848 came from female observers – Marie d’Agoult and Margaret Fuller among them – and with their help, Clark’s coverage of women’s history in this period is the most sustained and exciting investigation in his book. 

He begins with the flame-throwing eloquence of Claire Démar in Paris in 1833: ‘There still exists a monstrous power,’ she announced, ‘a species of divine law ... the power of the father.’ Everything about marriage was unequal, she said, and marital love was little more than ‘a two-fold egoism’. ‘The liberation of the proletarians, of the poorest and most numerous class, is only possible through the liberation of our sex.’ 

Démar and other early French feminists such as Suzanne Voilquin and Jeanne Deroin had disillusioning contact with the utopian sects of the day, usually patriarchal and too often mistaking sexual liberation for submission to the lust of some bearded guru. 

The journalist Eugénie Niboyet asked why the stupidest man could vote when the most intelligent woman could not; why, indeed, should women pay taxes that they had not taken part in legislating? Everywhere, from France to insurgent Hungary, women came forward to act in the revolution and were met with degrees of male mockery. 

The ridicule (‘mannish blue-stockings and divorceuses’) ‘infiltrated the awareness of so many women, even the most politically active ones, who struggled to reconcile their activities with “inherited notions of womanliness”’.

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