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  • The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870 by Karen Offen
  • Mary McAlpin
Karen Offen, The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). Pp. xviii + 286. $49.99.

Karen Offen explains in her preface to The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870 that she did not initially set out to write an overview of nearly five centuries of debate on the place of women in French society. It was while conducting research for a different monograph, her 2018 Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870–1920, that Offen noticed a surprising lack of shared knowledge between historians of women who focus on this later period and those interested in the early modern or immediate postrevolutionary era. Offen's principal, corrective goal in writing the work under review here was thus to demonstrate that "no aspect of the debates on the woman question actually began with the Third Republic" (x; emphasis hers). Whatever the validity of this critique, it is certainly true that in Offen one finds a scholar whose interests and writings span the centuries with ease. Her survey of debates and themes surrounding the woman question from 1400 until 1870 is admirably comprehensive; indeed, the sheer breadth of data (collected over forty years) is a constitutive aspect of her study, for she claims to "let theoretical insights proceed from the abundant evidence" (xi). She quite firmly rejects what she considers theory-driven approaches to women's history, such as Marxist analyses. She is also critical of Anglocentrism and of the anachronism she diagnoses in the work of feminist scholars who view the past "through the distorting lens of their contemporary preconceptions and preoccupations" (10).

The scholars whom Offen most effectively calls to account are those who refuse to acknowledge that a gender-free history of France is an egregiously incomplete version. Her study is to be understood as "a case study in what we now call 'the sexual politics of knowledge'" (xi). Offen convincingly argues for the exemplarity of her topic, given two factors: the highly visible role that women played over the centuries in French history and culture, and the striking richness of the French historical record relative to other countries. The vast number of facts and [End Page 271] sources referenced makes it unlikely that the non-specialist will be able to absorb most of the information presented in any particular chapter; readers will however be able to follow the thread of Offen's argument for the continuity of the debates on the civic and political roles allowed, or more often refused, French women.

For eighteenth-century specialists, the first three chapters are the most rewarding. Chapter one considers the fascinating topic of the centrality accorded women in the "civilizing process" and as behind-the-scenes players in French politics. As Offen notes of the presumption of women's power during the ancien régime, "The brothers Goncourt may have exaggerated the phenomenon, but they did not invent it" (29). In the second chapter, Offen follows the thread of influences that made the subordination of married women in the Civil Code of 1804 "neither accidental nor inadvertent" (53). In chapter three, she makes a point that will hardly surprise scholars of the French Enlightenment, but may well be (as she argues) news to those working on the Third Republic: "Biomedical thinking about the two sexes and their reciprocal relationship in society had become central to European debate on the woman question well before the French Revolution or the nineteenth century" (84). Offen creates a neologism, "biotheology," to describe the increasing displacement from God onto Nature of explanations as to how the social order should be constructed. The usual suspects from the history of medicine and sexuality (Ludmilla Jordanova, Londa Schiebinger, Thomas Laqueur, et al.) are presented to make this argument, alongside an impressive list of primary sources.

As her study unfolds, Offen's teleological focus on post-1870 French culture becomes increasingly apparent. One feels the anticipation as her account moves toward the period when women "talk back." Offen notes approvingly: "they would have a great deal to say, and not only would they reclaim their 'difference' as a...


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