THE ORIGINS OF MODERN FEMINISM: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780-1860 by Jane Rendall

THE ORIGINS OF MODERN FEMINISM: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780-1860

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An effective, well-handled comparative study. Rendall (History, York) shows how intellectual and social movements such as the Enlightenment and evangelicalism led to different feminist outcomes, depending on their interaction with social forces specific to each nation. She considers the legacy of the Enlightenment ""mixed,"" for, while women were spoken of as different from men, there was ""much more explicit discussion of how far such differences were innate, how far they were moulded by the environment."" Women's active participation in the American and French revolutions encouraged talk of their future roles in these two societies. In Britain, however, ""arguments about the personal and public role of women were Confined to the literary field, and to a relatively small circle of women and men."" In America and England evangelicalism had the effect on women of ""exalting. . . their essential qualities, defining their own sphere more clearly, [and] offering a limited but positive role within the movement itself."" But in Catholic France the ""feminization"" of religion meant an emphasis not on ""the pursuit of individual salvation by individual means but on the collective devotion of women within the context of hierarchical Church authority."" Similarly, while in France women's education was caught up in debates between clerics and anti-clerics, in America women not only wrote texts on education but themselves founded and taught in schools for girls. The national differences resulting from the new industrial order are less certain, and Rendall concentrates on asking what impact industrialism had overall on women's collective labor and action. Thus, French feminism faced great difficulties, especially after the political defeat of 1848; American feminism became part of the current of reform; and British feminism became more subject to the ""politics of class."" Still, Rendall believes that by the mid-19th century these nationally-based feminist movements ""acquired an independent ideological force, which transcended national boundaries."" A useful explanation of national differences whose legacy is still evident.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Schocken