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- Máire Cross: Between Sexual Conservatism and Political Subversion. Contrasting Images of would-be Emancipators in fin de siècle France
Máire Cross: Between Sexual Conservatism and Political Subversion. Contrasting Images of would-be Emancipators in fin de siècle France
Although not the first country to grant women voting rights, France has a long tradition of radical feminist discourse and conservative attitudes about the role of women in the family and matters of personal sexuality. Indeed the complexity of French feminism of the fin-de-siècle was nowhere more in evidence than over the matter of female sexuality and political rights for women. The underestimation of the diversity of political movements has largely been addressed in recent years by the work of scholars such as Christine Bard, Michelle Perrot, Siân Reynolds, Steven Hause, Paul Smith, Florence Rochefort and Francis Ronsin. It is generally agreed that although relatively small in numbers, the variety of associations created for women was proof that the establishment of the Third Republic in France had brought in an era of new political agency without actually granting the vote to women. As a result the end of the nineteenth century in France was a rich period in the history of mentalities if not in dramatic change in the status of women. What is less in evidence is the extent to which the feminist discourse or mentality about sexuality could be considered radical or subversive. While many feminists could be radical and subversive in their political actions they were often forced through convention to be quite conservative about sexuality issues. Indeed the beginning of the so-named feminist movement sparked a reaction of anti-feminism. The polemics of the political discourse of the left about sexuality is equally of great interest in assessing the impact of feminism on France as a whole. The output of publications and actions of the fin-de-siècle expressing diverse opinions attempting to change the social relationships between men and women provides an opportunity to explore the construction of political discourse about female sexuality within the confines of the Third Republic. Among those advocating more equal relationships between men and women in a subversive fashion was Madeleine Pelletier. I propose to present her subversive politics and contrast them with the content of her pamphlets on abortion and education for girls. In this way I shall examine the importance of the dialogue between sociological and political activist discourse about female sexuality and assess the veracity of the image of conservative mentality about matters sexual and political subversion.