Replacing the Mold: Alternatives to the Middle–Class Ideal

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Replacing the Mold: Alternatives to the Middle-Class Ideal



Middle-Class Feminism While the origins of feminism can be found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not until the nineteenth century were coherent alternatives to familial and social relations proposed. Some middle-class women were at the forefront of these challenges to the bourgeois ideal. The opening of a dialogue over the natural rights of men as citizens during the French Revolution created a forum in which men and women could criticize the traditional place of women as domestic creatures not suited for public life. The French writer Olympe de Gouges (1745–1793) critiqued women’s place in society in Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen (1791), focusing on their status in the family. Feminists began to argue that women needed to be emancipated from their husbands’ authority before they could be considered citizens. Despite their demands for liberation, feminists found themselves ever more restricted to the family while even their poorest male counterparts gradually attained the political rights of citizenship. After working within many of the social-democratic reform movements of the early nineteenth century—such as Chartism in England in the 1840s and the revolutionary movements that swept Europe in 1848—middle-class women raised specific public criticisms of their status during the second half of the nineteenth century. They did not explicitly reject the middle-class ideal, but instead they sought to use socially acceptable conceptions of women as nurturers and caregivers to extend women’s rights. They formed wide-ranging collective organizations that sponsored newspapers and sought to advance women’s status, first within marriage and the family and then in society at large. Divorce and property legislation was among their biggest concerns. In England, Caroline Norton (1808–1877) petitioned the British Parliament for changes in the laws governing women’s property and child custody after her husband, George Norton, attempted to take both from her in a divorce case. Her efforts culminated in the Infant Custody Act of 1839, which allowed women custody of children who had not yet reached seven years. Another Englishwoman, Barbara Smith Bodichon (1827–1891), led efforts for property reform that culminated in the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870. This act enabled married women to control their wages and any inheritance they gained after marriage. Similar efforts followed in most other European states, including Russia and the new nation-states of Germany and Italy. Feminists also worked to improve educational opportunities for women at all levels of schooling and to increase access and opportunities for professional work outside the home.

The New Woman By the late nineteenth century middle-class feminist activism, a rise in use of birth control, improved medical knowledge about pregnancy, and an increase in the number of single women working professionally contributed to the idea of what contemporaries called the “new woman.” The “new woman” was a single female who rejected the bourgeois model of marriage and the “cult of domesticity.” She argued for sexual freedom and equality, defined as the capability to separate sexual activity from the burdens of pregnancy, so that she might enjoy social and sexual relationships in the same way that her male counterparts did. By the early twentieth century she began to argue for the right to vote and an end to the oppression of women in the family and society. Many suffrage organizations reduced their demands for equal political rights when World War I began in 1914, but women in many European countries gained the right to vote in the years immediately following the war.


The 1833 parliamentary testimony of Dr. Hawkins, an English medical practitioner, is typical of the middle-class answer to the burdens that working-class women faced as wives, mothers, and workers: that is, he would make the working-class mother more like her middle-class counterpart.

But let us suppose one of these young females about to assume the character of wife, mother, nurse, house-keeper,—which she too often undertakes prematurely and improvidently. She has no time, no means, no opportunities of learning the common duties of domestic life; and even if she has acquired the knowledge, she has still no time to practice them. In addition twelve hours’ labor is an additional absence from home in going and returning. Here is the young mother absent from her child above twelve hours daily. And who has the charge of the infant in her absence? Usually some little girl or aged woman, who is hired for a trifle, and whose services are equivalent to the reward. Too often the dwelling of the factory family is no home; sometimes it is a cellar, which includes no cooking, no washing, no making, no mending, no decencies of life, no inventions to the fireside. I cannot help on these and other grounds, especially for the better preservation of infant life, expressing my hope that a period may arrive when married women shall be rarely employed in a factory.

Source: Edgar Royston Pike, ed., Hard Times: Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution (New York: Praeger, 1966), p. 236.

Gay and Lesbian Relationships As the discussion of homosexuality grew more common in the nineteenth century, especially among urban and educated people, that lifestyle became another alternative to the bourgeois family model. Karoly Benkert (1824–1882), a Hungarian psychoanalyst, employed the term homosexual for the first time in the 1860s. By the 1880s and 1890s the causes and nature of homosexuality, especially lesbianism, were topics of public discourse. This discussion was linked to two

issues that concerned many Europeans at the time: the growing number of single people and a reduction of the birth rate. Many people identified homosexuality with the new bohemian lifestyle made popular by the youths who dominated the urban landscapes of Europe. The “free” living arrangements identified with homosexual activity concerned political and social analysts because this lifestyle deviated from the family model that dominated middle-class values and much government policy for more than a century.


Renate Bridenthal, Susan Mosher Stuard, and Merry E. Wiesner, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History, third edition, revised (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, eds., Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, volume 4 of A History of Women in the West (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993).

Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700–1950 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1999).

Bonnie G. Smith, Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700 (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1989).