Saint-Simonianism and Feminism in the Early 19th Century
The Industrial Revolution increased the gulf between middle-class women and working-class women in many ways. Both groups of women were oppressed during this period. Middle-class women were excluded from economic activities and were confined to their homes. They raised their voice for better education, access to meaningful work and the right to vote. At the same time, working-class women, who contributed to the income of the household by working in factories and mills, protested demanding better salary and working conditions.
Saint-Simonianism and Suzanne Voilquin
While some working-class women were drawn to trade unionism, some others went on the path of utopian movements such as Saint-Simonianism. Inspired by the ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon, Saint-Simonianism was a movement which flourished in France, in the first half of the 19th century. This movement advocated a ‘union of work’ in which all classes cooperated to mutual and equal advantage, in an increasingly scientific and technological world. They promoted a communal lifestyle where female principles of peace and compassion would replace more aggressive masculine values.
Influenced by Saint-Simonianism, Suzanne Voilquin, a French embroiderer, decided to come out of her marriage to live as an independent woman.
Some satirical prints of that time depicted male Saint-Simonians doing household chores and wearing corsets, while their female counterparts were portrayed as those who took up activities like hunting and giving speeches, which were considered male pursuits.
Influenced by Saint-Simonianism, Suzanne Voilquin, a French embroiderer, decided to come out of her marriage to live as an independent woman. She wished to be an example for others. In the wake of the July Revolution of 1830, which had done nothing to alter the fortunes of the working class, Voilquin believed that being an advocate of Saint-Simonian cause was necessary. She herself had faced hardships after the revolution as a steep decline in the sale of luxury goods affected her work as an embroiderer.
In 1832, Voilquin became the editor of La tribune des femmes, a journal promoting Saint-Simonian values. Though women of all classes were invited to contribute articles, recruitment only focussed on working-class women. Writers published their articles in first name only as a protest against the social norm of having to take their husband’s name after their marriage. La tribune des femmes was the first attempt to create a ‘female consciousness’.
“Each individual woman will place a stone from which the moral edifice of the future will be built,” Voilquin said.
Feminist writers in the early 19th century
As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in the 19th century, women started to examine their status in society. Charles Fourier, French philosopher and Utopian socialist, coined the term ‘feminisme’ and advocated a new world order based on cooperative autonomy for men and women alike. He believed that all women must be free from patriarchal oppression. All the work should be open to women, so that they could choose their work according to their individual skills, interests and aptitudes. Contribution from women was vital for a harmonious and productive society, he said. His views spread across both sides of the Atlantic and the people who supported his views created a number of utopian communities in the 1840s and 50s. In these communities, men and women lived and worked harmoniously.
Influenced by Fourier’s beliefs, Frances (Fanny) Wright, a Scottish-born feminist, freethinker, and abolitionist living in America, published a series of letters titled Views of Society and Manners in America in 1821. In these letters, she argued that American women were “assuming their place as thinking beings” but were restrained by their lack of financial and legal rights. She spent time in a utopian community in Indiana founded by Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer. She also became the first women to edit a journal when she became the editor of The New Harmony Gazette.
British writer Harriet Martineau rose to fame after the publication, in 1832, of Illustrations of Political Economy, a collection of 25 fictional stories in which she described the impact of economic conditions on ordinary people at different levels of society.
Wright moved to New York in 1829 and started giving lectures calling for the emancipation of slaves, legal rights of woman, formulation of divorce laws and introduction of birth control. It was a time when female public-speaking was considered taboo.
British writer Harriet Martineau rose to fame after the publication, in 1832, of Illustrations of Political Economy, a collection of 25 fictional stories in which she described the impact of economic conditions on ordinary people at different levels of society. Then, she travelled to the United States, studied its democratic principles and published her findings in Society in America in 1837.
In 1845, American journalist Margaret Fuller published the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century in which she rejected the defined attributes for each gender. She wrote: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” This remark was well ahead of her time.
In the second half of the 19th century, there was a new wave of female campaigners raising their voices. While most of them were from the middle classes, the growth in the business sector and bureaucracy fuelled a demand from the working-class women to become stenographers, copyists and bookkeepers.
However, the satisfaction brought by such employment was reduced by lower wages women were paid when compared to their male counterparts. Women’s work was still seen as secondary during that time.
Marx and Engels provided a conceptual framework for understanding oppression which impacted feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Marx and Engels located the root of women’s oppression in their role within the nuclear family in class societies. They understood that women’s role as biological “reproducers” results in their subordinate status inside the nuclear family, and consequently throughout society. In capitalist societies, women in property-holding families reproduce heirs; women in working-class families reproduce generations of labor power for the system. In his book, Origin of Family, Private Property and The State, Engels argues that “the modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife.”
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How do you describe the term "Saint-Simonianism" to your students?
Can you think of ways in which Saint-Simonian ideas influenced Suzanne Voilquin?
How do you describe the contributions of writers like Suzanne Voilquin and Frances Wright in the growth of feminism during the period of industrial revolution?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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