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« Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology | Main | Guest Posting -- Yahmdallah »

March 25, 2003

Sisterhood is Forever


In researching some aspects of my postings on Impressionism, I have entered new territory (for me, anyway): women’s studies. I went looking for a history of feminism in the 19th century. At least as far as the “Women’s Studies” shelves at my local Barnes and Noble went, I noticed that there weren’t a whole lot of studies present, at least not in my sense of the word. I was looking forward to thick analyses of the demographics, education, employment, reproductive activities, political positions, etc., etc., of women during the 1840s, the 1850s, etc. In short, ahem, facts. Fat chance, buster. At least as far as the titles on these shelves went, what I found were a series of book-length polemics—e.g., “Sisterhood is Forever.” Forever, huh? I pondered, I wonder how they know that?

However, I’m a Blowhard and I take my responsibilities as an informed windbag seriously, so I didn’t abandon ship. I finally found one volume that seemed like it might do the trick: “A History of Women, Volume IV, Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War.” It was edited by Georges Duby, (a member of the Academie Francaise), Michelle Perrot (Professor of Contemporary History, University of Paris) and Genevieve Fraisse (Research Associate in Philosophy, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris), all of whom seemed pretty respectable. And, the clincher, was that it was published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University. So I plunked my $19.45 down and bought the book.

And, it’s true, there are some interesting and rather valuable facts scattered about in the book. (I plan to use some of them in my posting.) But in what I had assumed was the pure temple of objective scholarly research, I found what I would have to describe as a remarkably high incidence of outright opinion, wild overgeneralization and anachronistic reading of past behavior by today’s standards.

Let me give you an example from the chapter “Bodies and Hearts” by Yvonne Knibiehler:

The French term for unwed mother, fille mere, first entered the language during the Revolution and is only now disappearing. For two centuries it connoted an affront to the very logic of patriarchy.

At this point, I start looking around for a footnote—after all, such an affront must have been noted by some of those darn patriarchs over two full centuries. No dice. I skip down a few lines:

To be sure, illegitimate births were not unknown in previous centuries. But between 1750 and 1850 their status changed, as it were. There were a variety of reasons for this: the number of illegitimate births increased, “seducers” were denounced as irresponsible, and the authorities became increasingly concerned about the problem. The number of unwed mothers increased everywhere [footnote 50], although not always at the same pace. In France the illegitimacy rate rose from 3.3 percent of all births in 1790 to 7.4 percent in 1840, stabilizing at between 7 and 8 percent by the turn of the twentieth century. In Paris, however, a destination to which girls in trouble flocked, the rate rose as high as 30 percent in the period 1830-40.

Gee, if nearly a third of the children being born in their city lacked the financial support of fathers, the authorities would have been a bit amiss not to notice something, don’t you think? (Especially in a city where 70% of the population was described as poor?) Moreover, these authorities seem to have blamed the absent father-seducers for the problem. Seems reasonable, if possibly one sided, to me. However, what troubles me is that statement that illegitimacy increased “everywhere” which, of course, I take to mean: everywhere. I check out footnote 50, which refers me to “The History of French Population.” Did the author mean “ France”?

A few sentences further we find this passage:

Some women lived as concubines of their children’s father. But the true “unwed mothers” were those deprived of all male support. Nearly all had given in to force, intimidation, or promises of marriage. Ill-protected by the law, defenseless young women remained vulnerable in the countryside as well as in the cites. In fact, public opinion made no exception for rape. [footnote 52] Any girl who gave in, even if forced to do so, was “ruined,” fallen,” unworthy of respect or help. When pregnant, she was thrown back on her own resources, except in unusual circumstances. [footnote 53]

Again, my alarm bells go off regarding the claim that “nearly all” of the women totally deprived of masculine support were victims of rape, intimidation, or lies. There is no footnote. How could the author possibly know this? So now I start looking at the footnotes that are present in the text. Footnote 52 refers me to “The History of Private Life” edited by Michelle Perrot, one of the editors of this series. That seems a bit incestuous for such a strong statement, but let that go. How about Footnote 53? This refers me to “Social Inequality in a Portuguese Hamlet: Land, Late Marriage and Bastardy (1870-1978)” by Brian Juan O’Neill. Does it strike you that our author may be a bit sloppy in generalizing on unmarried pregnant women being thrown entirely on their own resources based only on data from a single Portuguese hamlet?

But even more, it’s the general thrust of this statement that troubles me. These young women are being presented as victims of benighted public opinion. The only other members of society mentioned are authority figures, and these (the patriarchy) are the people presumably to blame for this ugly injustice. But what behavior is being stigmatized here, and who is doing the stigmatizing? If rape is no defense against this stigma, then it would appear that the problem is sexual activity by unmarried women, pure and simple.

Note what is not being stigmatized here: (1) married men having children with their own wife, (2) married men having children with other men’s wives, (3) married women having children with other women's husbands, or (4) married women having children with unmarried men. What links all of these "non-stigmatized" activities? They all involve the access of married women to the genes or financial support of their own husbands or extramarital lovers.

So what group benefits from the tightly defined prohibition on unmarried women's sexual activities? I would venture to say married women are the big winners here.

But, of course, one cannot find discussions of female sexual competition in “A History of Women.” Remember, sisterhood is forever!



posted by Friedrich at March 25, 2003


I suspect that you're trying the wrong feminist historians; there's a lot of dreadful stuff out there, but there are some real gems hidden amidst the dross. For example, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall's "Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 "(London, 1987), which does a nice feminist historiography of big Northern England industrial families like the Cadburys. Has a tinge of Marxism too, which may or may not upset, depending on your analytical priors, but it's well written, well researched, well footnoted, and not afraid to highlight conflict of interest among women.

Posted by: Henry Farrell on March 26, 2003 12:23 AM

First of all, teflon suits should always be donned when approaching the subjects of feminism, homosexuality, race, religion, single malt scotch, and political party, so I'm hoping that you're practicing safe blowhardism and are currently ensconced in your gear.

That said...

I think one of the better books on the subject, though it's more of a "what has gone wrong" rather than a positive outlay of Women's Studies facts (even though it does contain a portion of those), is "Who Stole Feminism" by Christina Hoff Sommers. She points out which studies are based on fact, and which studies actually report those facts in a true and unbiased manner - and which don't. She also exposes and torpedoes all the opinion mongers, which is great fun. Most surprising of all, she concludes with suggestions on what to do - almost nonexistent in many such critiques of social movements.

When I had a friend of mine (who's a woman who was of age when Betty Freidan fired the first volley and has been involved in feminism since) read the book, she commented that Sommers was "just talking about the loons." Meaning the Dworkins, Gilligans, Faludis, Irelands, and such of the world. Well, it seems to me that the loons are the ones running things right now (har har, get it? NOW? *ahem*), and are not as fringe as my friend implied.

The other good book by Sommers, especially if you have a son, is "The War Against Boys." It's a little repetitive, and I recommend borrowing it rather than laying down cash. But it's full of good, scary stuff.

I have my telfon suit on, now, too.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 26, 2003 1:04 PM

You might try the books by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, though she writes on a period somewhat earlier than mid 19th C. You have to look in History for those rather than Women's Studies, however. Good women's history is History first. There's too much about Finding Your Inner Goddess stuff in the Women's Studies sections.


Posted by: Deb on March 26, 2003 3:10 PM

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