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Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 360-363

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Hesse, Carla. The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Pp. 233. ISBN 20-691-07472-0

Very often we draw the distinction between social conventions and prescriptions versus how people actually behave. It is common sense to assume that if someone is discouraged from doing something, it does not necessarily mean that she or he will not do it. Yet when it comes to the study of gender, the difference between prescription and practice tends to be effaced, as women's behavior is studied primarily in terms of gender-based prescriptions and representations. It seems then, that there are [End Page 360] at the very least two stories to be told about women. One story, which may be complex and contradictory but remains nonetheless one-dimensional, tells us how women are represented and advised to act. The other story, which is more difficult to retrieve, adds yet another dimension to our understanding of history by describing how, as far as we can tell, women did act. In her study of the political and social transformations around the French Revolution, Carla Hesse combines both approaches. She examines the mutual interplay between social prescription and actual behavior in the creation of what we may call the modern self. While many histories have been written to chart the transition from subject (to the king) to active citizen for men during the French Enlightenment, The Other Enlightenment suggests that what is missing from the picture is a similarly multidimensional account of women's modernization.

There are many good reasons why feminist scholars have tended to describe women's political roles during the French Enlightenment as one of exclusion or - at the very least - marginalization. Following the French Revolution, when the modern self became largely defined by one's duties and rights as a citizen, in being excluded from citizenship (voting and holding office) and discouraged from political activity, women were in significant ways relegated to the margins of the public sphere. Furthermore, the cumulative effect of social prescriptions that women remain feminine by being primarily wives and mothers affected women's behavior as well as their circumstances and options. Enlightenment philosophers, including Kant and Rousseau, famously suggested that women would be monstrously de-feminized if they participated, along with men, in public life. Philosophers and journalists routinely lampooned, criticized, and derided political women. They proposed instead a model of gender that enforced the division of spheres between women's private roles as wives and mothers and men's roles as citizens. Because of their widespread cultural influence upon beliefs and practices, the effect of such representations of femininity cannot be ignored. While not denying the general validity of this account of women's modernization, Hesse proposes that it needs to be both nuanced and altered. Nuanced, because women were not relegated to the private sphere as completely as the history of social prescriptions and representations of femininity suggests. Altered, because women played an active role in politics during the French Enlightenment.

Hesse begins her study by juxtaposing two cases which came before the Revolutionary tribunal: that of Mme Clere, a fishwife prone to bouts of drinking, and that of Mme Roland, a famous Girondiste and salonnière. Both women were charged with sedition. Furthermore, both represented groups - from opposite sides of the social spectrum - that had connections to political power. Mme Clere participated in a tradition of fishwives, or poissardes, who had privileged contact with the king as representatives of the people's voice. Mme Roland, in turn, was at the center of post-revolutionary culture and politics. Yet in their defense, both women claimed to be on the margins; to speak personally rather than politically, and to be ignorant of political [End Page 361] events. In both cases, the very eloquence of their speech was used against them as proof of political knowledge and participation.

This assumption, Hesse illustrates, was not altogether without basis. A very thorough examination of women's writing during the period following the French Revolution...


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