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  • The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870 by Karen Offen
  • Patricia Tilburg
The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870. By Karen Offen (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2017) 286 pp. $49.99

In this remarkable work of historical synthesis, Offen provides an indispensable overview of several centuries of debates about the place of women in French society. A "companion volume" to her Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870–1920 (New York, 2018), this book draws from Offen's previously published research and from the work of other scholars of French women's history; it is a [End Page 501] consciously synthetic study relying on "decades of collaborative, collegial feminist scholarship" (xii). Offen seeks to present the particularities and under-analyzed continuities of the "woman question" in France for both scholars and general readers by bridging periodizations that have long dominated the field. Thus, in preparation for the volume that follows it, The Woman Question in France "is grounded in the realization that no aspect of the debates on the woman question actually began with the Third Republic" [emphasis in original] (x).

Offen's study is a corrective, first, to restrictive chronologies, and, second, to a tendency to see French "universality" rather than "cultural exceptionality" in gender debates. As a historian whose work is rooted in nineteenth-century European feminisms, Offen discovered in researching women's emancipation debates of the Third Republic, that "the explanatory schemes devised in recent women's history and feminist theory, notably those concerned with chronology, did not hold up for the French case" (11). The first chapter contends that early modern French elite society was characterized by a "peculiar and quite remarkable" association of Woman with culture and civilization, rather than nature, and a heightened notion of women's cultural influence. Although the chapter does not pursue this comparative suggestion, it does marshal examples primarily from historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to demonstrate that post-revolutionary efforts to curb women's influence were a continuation of previous debates rather than a rupture.

Offen renews this argument in the second chapter, in which she asserts that efforts to restrain women's political authority did not originate with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but instead must be seen as part of a longue durée history in which "concerns about gender became embedded at the very core of French notions about governance and rule" (47). Similarly, Offen's discussion of early debates about women's education and intellect concludes that a notion of gendered separate spheres was "hardly a nineteenth-century development."

Despite the imposing sweep of centuries indicated in the book's title and in its conception, the study has most to say about the period from the late seventeenth century through the 1860s. For instance, although Chapter 2 begins with the intention to survey "evidence that encompasses five centuries," it in fact offers only a couple of pages about late sixteenth-century French law; the bulk of the chapter moves within the period from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century.

The book is at its most compelling when Offen applies her wideranging knowledge to some aspect of nineteenth-century French women's history before 1870. The volume includes one chapter drawn from Offen's own original research, an elegantly argued essay about the politics of women's history in the nineteenth century. Therein, she is especially interested in 1840s scholarship by Edouard Laboulaye and Ernest Legouvé, which addressed the question of the history of women's power, and post-1848 studies by men like Jules Michelet, which, in the aftermath of women's revolutionary activism, "produced justificatory historical defenses [End Page 502] of 'patriarchy'" (178). Offen also produces a masterful survey of debates about women's labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to argue that many women workers made claims for expanded labor rights but also sought to enforce a sexual division of labor, "in defense of of their already extant economic positions against male encroachment" (202).

Offen wisely dots her chapters with recurrent characters from the July Monarchy and the Second Empire, engaging primary voices like those of Julie-Victoire Daubié, Andr...


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