Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives

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A central problem of women's history is that women have been defined by men using concepts and terms based on men's experiences. Such androcentric thought pervades all domains of knowledge. Scholarship in women's studies, developed largely since the late 1960s across a broad range of disciplines, shows that attitudes, customs, laws, and institutions affecting women are grounded in religious and functionalist perspectives according to which "woman" is said to have been created from and after man; has been identified with her sexuality and defined by her sexual function; and has been confined to roles and relationships that are extensions of her reproductive capacity. Alongside this history stands a centuries-old feminist critique that challenges as self-serving and often misogynist the assumptions and intentions of the religions, philosophies, sciences, and familial and political institutions that have shaped the experiences of women in most eras and cultures. Moreover, both the definition of women and its critique reflect a Eurocentric bias that today is the subject of much criticism. This entry summarizes the scholarship produced since the mid-1970s by historians of women, reflecting their collective efforts to compensate for ahistorical assumptions and to constitute a written record both more inclusive of the experiences of women and more open to differences of perspective. It assumes that the history of women requires consideration of moral and ethical as well as social, economic, and political issues.

Women Defined

From ancient times it has been customary to define "woman," in relationship to man, as a limited and contingent part of a dimorphic species. Western cultures have placed heavy constraints on female lives, sometimes justifying these constraints by attributing to women, such as Pandora and Eve, responsibility for human misfortunes resulting from their allegedly weaker self-control or greater lasciviousness. Despite the existence of exceptional women in myth and history, most women in most historical societies have been confined to positions of dependency. Ultimately, whether on the basis of their capacity for pregnancy and resulting physical vulnerability or the use of women's fertility in forging relationships of social and economic value, women, like children, have been denied an independent voice. Seen as "lesser men" by the fathers of Western philosophy, women have been viewed as "Other," as not-man, through a discourse in which human being was embodied in the male sex (Beauvoir).

Deprived of political power and identified with sexual temptation, women have been subject to myriad laws and customs that have at once prescribed and enforced their secondary status. Men have termed women "the sex"; defined them primarily in terms of their sexuality; and, as masters of family and public power, created and staffed the institutions that control female sexuality. In the early fifteenth century, the Italian-born French author Christine de Pizan (1364–ca. 1430) challenged the prevailing androcentric definition of her sex, declaring that the evil attributed to women by learned men existed in men's minds and that, if permitted education, women would become as virtuous and capable as men.

Resistance and rebellion by individual women have a long history; and organized protest, termed feminism only since the 1890s, is traceable through a history that is continuous for at least two centuries. However, the condition of women has only occasionally been viewed as a general problem of social justice. The woman question, as it was phrased in the nineteenth century, was debated as a political, social, and economic, but rarely as a moral issue; women's rights and responsibilities were discussed as matters of expediency. In the great democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the "inalienable rights of man" were not extended to women. Men, as heads of traditional patriarchal families, continued to speak for their dependents, women as well as children. While some Enlightenment philosophers, most notably Theodore von Hippel (1741–1796), had admitted the abstract equality of all human beings, and others, such as the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), advocated women's accession to equal education and to full civic rights, social arrangements nevertheless made it expedient to ignore their claims. Ultimately, most efforts to improve women's status and condition have been justified on grounds of expediency: if women vote, said the suffragists of 1915, war would be less likely; if mothers earned fathers' wages, said the feminists of 1985, fewer children would live in poverty.

Most matters related to women, then, whether intellectual constructs or social institutions, whether constraining or enlarging women's options, whether produced by misogynists or feminists, have rested on utilitarian grounds. Woman, first of all as an individual human being, was rarely the subject of thought or decision; woman as wife and mother or potential mother has been the ideal type. Even for suffragist leaders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the resort to arguments of expediency over considerations of justice or ethics has itself been an expedient (Kraditor). By the 1990s, however, following two decades of reexamination of all domains of knowledge by scholars in women's studies, feminist theorists began to challenge arguments based on expediency (while sometimes using them as well) and to demand a voice in the discourse through which both knowledge and social institutions are established. Noting injustice in the treatment of women, and the absence of concern about women at the center of most modern and contemporary philosophical systems, they criticize ethical theory itself as a hegemonic expression of the values of a dominant class or gender (Walker).

It is simpler, and historically has been more effective, to argue the needs of women in terms of their differences from men—their needs as wives and mothers, their concerns with nurturant values, their familial and social responsibilities. Women often do speak "in a different voice," reflecting different moral concerns and material circumstances (Gilligan). Women have been and remain deeply divided over their own definition of self: as individuals entitled to, and now demanding, equality of treatment with men; or as persons with gender-specific differences and resulting relationships with families, friends, and communities to whom they bear responsibilities that limit individual autonomy and rights. "Equal rights feminists" have been challenged for basing their claims on an abstract concept of personhood that denies female specificity. Rather than buttressing the claims of individualism based in nineteenth-century liberal philosophy (Fox-Genovese; Pateman), they should, according to this view, emphasize the need for men as well as women to acknowledge their dependence on and debts to the communities that are essential to their existence.

Furthermore, through failure to emphasize female differences, women may continue to be measured through a single, male-constructed lens that ignores or denigrates female-specific experiences. Yet woman along with man should be the measure of all things—and the universalizing of human experience based only on consideration of dominant cultures should be avoided. Awareness of the dimensions of this "equality vs. difference" question is critical to understanding a wide range of historical and contemporary issues regarding the status of women. Can gender-specific needs of individuals such as pregnant women be acknowledged in law that also supports equality of treatment for all individuals? Can employment preferences be granted to men if, historically, most women have not pursued a given occupation? How should a history grounded in gender distinctions be interpreted (Scott)?

Scholars today recognize that neither "man" nor "woman" has a single, fixed meaning; cross-cultural and international differences defy simple definition. The concept of separate spheres of human activity labeled public and private, political and personal, society and family, however, has a long history; the reality of women's lives was obscured by these universalizing categories of analysis often used by philosophers, politicians, and professors. In the early twenty-first century, historians of women have firmly established the historicity of women, a critical first task. Women's lives, as well as their consciousness, vary, not only by era but also by class, race, age, marital status, region, religion, education, and a host of factors peculiar to individual circumstances. Implicit in this work is a political message: that changes over time past make future change conceivable. Also implicit is an accusation of injustice against a system of societal arrangements that has suppressed women, for the questions raised in this scholarship deal often with omissions, silences, and double standards. This form of scholarship elicits new knowledge and conjectures about human possibilities.

Women in Traditional Western Societies

As the story has been reconstructed, women in history have become increasingly visible (Bridenthal et al.). New anthropological studies suggest that women may have enjoyed greater equity with men in prehistorical times (Sanday). Agrarian economies with relatively little differentiation of tasks allowed for more egalitarian relationships within families; families themselves constituted societies, and participation was not dichotomized by gender, or sex roles. The classical world, with its more advanced economies, and greater wealth and militarism, vested both property rights and citizenship only in men, as heads of households. Separated into family and polity, society became a male world of civic virtue. Relegated to the household, women became men's property, and a double standard of sexuality was constructed to assure female subjection to patriarchal family interests. A woman's honor, and that of her family, was identified with her chastity. The virtue of a woman, said Aristotle, was to obey. Differentiation by class allowed some variation of roles for women; but Plato's philosopher queens aside, no women could claim equal treatment in regard to property, citizenship, marriage, criminal law, or access to social institutions. Women existed to reproduce and to serve men's needs; rights in their progeny were assigned to men.

INFLUENCE OF CHRISTIANITY. The spread of Christianity brought new possibilities for women: for some, a role in spreading the new religion; for all, a promise of spiritual equality. Christianity created new opportunities for women's voices to be heard, especially by instituting marriage laws requiring consent and establishing, in some instances, inheritance and property rights for women. Monasteries and convents, while providing shelter for the destitute, also offered education and alternative careers for a small, often highborn, minority. The high Middle Ages saw the foundation of the first universities in the Western world, beginning in 1088 with Bologna, whose famous twelfth-century legal scholar, Gratian, incorporated into his influential study Aristotle's dualistic view of women as passive and men as active, in law as well as reproductive physiology.

This Aristotelian dualism was also advanced by the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century; he combined his reading of Aristotle with the Christian view of creation to assert that woman was a "defective and misbegotten" man, assigned by nature to the work of procreation. The rebirth of learning thus gave new life to the hoary tradition of defining women as not-men and for men, in terms of qualities they lacked and services they provided. Renaissance thinkers transmitted across the ages classical Greece's sharp distinction between polity and household. The literature of courtly love notwithstanding, as dynastic power was reconstituted in bureaucratic and political structures, the separation of public and private arenas of human activity increased; and relative to aristocratic men, upper-class women faced new restrictions. Growth of the market economy, however, probably had a more liberating effect on rural and urban women of other classes.

Neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation, both considered watersheds in European history, brought reformed ideas about women to the fore. The advent of Protestantism meant the closing of nunneries that had allowed some women, notably those who could offer a dowry to the church, agency outside marriage. It also deprived all classes of women of the succor of the Virgin Mary and female saints. However, Protestantism did provide some literate women as well as men direct access to the word of God in the Bible. By ending clerical celibacy, it opened opportunities to ministers' wives, and ultimately, especially in the dissenting sects, it allowed women wider participation in church affairs. In the Counterreformation, some Catholic laywomen formed communities through which they provided social services for the poor, ill, and orphaned. Nuns continued to serve as teachers, nurses, and social workers. But Catholics and Protestants alike, following the biblical injunction of Paul, taught women silence in public and subjection to men in private.

URBAN VS. RURAL EXPERIENCE. Controversy over the effects of the Renaissance and Reformation on women's lives continues to fuel debate among historians of women. In an increasingly complex society, generalizations fail to satisfy: some women prospered, enjoyed education by leading humanist scholars such as Erasmus, and wielded power on behalf of dynastic lines. Urban craftsmen's wives shared in domestic production and local marketing of goods, and helped to manage artisanal workshops. City women developed professions of their own, largely in the healing arts, midwifery, and retail establishments, especially those purveying food. But most wage-earning women worked as domestic servants, frequently for a decade before marriage and sometimes for their entire lives; "maid" had become synonymous with "female servant."

However, most women, like most men, lived in rural settings, where all members of the household pooled their labor in a family economy organized to produce the goods and services essential to supporting and reproducing themselves. They lived within households and made essential contributions to the economic survival of their families. Labor needs over the family's life cycle determined the status, residence, and welfare of most people (Tilly and Scott). Only after centuries-long structural changes in agriculture and industry, in company with a demographic shift that reduced both mortality and fertility, did the employment of female productive capacity generate public debate over a "woman question." Ultimately it was a shift in the location of women's traditional work—especially making cloth and garments—from the household into the factory, and the ensuring restructuring of (especially married) women's economic contribution to the family, that created the conditions for feminist debate. Only then did the question "Should a woman work?" or "Should she have a 'right to work'?" make sense.

EFFECTS OF POLITICAL AND SCIENTIFIC DEVELOPMENTS. In addition to religious reformation and the expansion of commerce and trade, other major trends in the early modern period led to new institutions and novel ideas that affected women's lives and challenged traditional views of women's "nature." Political centralization and the rise of science also meant change in women's lives. According to one recent interpretation, the great witchcraft persecution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflected not only religious and gender conflict but also efforts to legitimize political authority by exercising new forms of social control over individual behavior (Larner). Because women's relative physical and economic weaknesses made their recourse to magic power seem plausible, and because their alleged sexual insatiability predisposed them to temptation by the devil, 80 percent of the victims of witch-hunts were female—often older, single, eccentric women lacking male protection.

Ultimately science disproved many misogynist notions about the female body. However, despite studies in embryology challenging the Aristotelian view of women's passivity in reproduction that also buttressed attitudes and customs denying them agency in society, only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were such classical and false assumptions finally displaced by scientific knowledge.

Although by the eighteenth century the economic, political, and intellectual structures that maintained traditional attitudes and institutionalized age-old practices toward women were subject to a multitude of challenges, time-honored patterns persisted. Just as in the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas had recapitulated Aristotle, so the influential eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau reinforced belief in woman's role as the helpmate of man. Like Adam's Eve, Rousseau's Sophie, the ideal wife of his ideal citizen, Émile, was created to serve, support, and console the chief actor on the human stage, the man to whom she was legally subject. The Napoleonic Code of 1804, and similar codes of law subsequently promulgated across Europe, required married women to obey their husbands. Voices that demanded inclusion of civil rights for women along with the "Rights of Man"—Condorcet in France, von Hippel in Germany, Mary Wollstonecraft in England—were silenced as the Age of Reason gave way to an Age of Steel. Men alone wrote and signed the new "social contract"; as "natural" dependents, women could not aspire to citizenship.

And yet women increasingly did claim civil rights. Despite the negative examples of Wollstonecraft (dead after childbirth and infamous more for her unconventional lifestyle than for her contributions to radical philosophy), Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges (author of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, 1791), and Jeanne Manon Roland (dead on the Jacobins' guillotine, ostensibly for having violated the boundaries of conventional femininity), and despite increasingly restrictive legal codes and an ideology of domesticity that won widespread support across class lines, new philosophic currents, based in the Enlightenment concept of human perfectibility, generated the first organized movements for women's rights.

Women in Transforming Societies

Inspired by the French Revolution, women in the nineteenth century began to form groups through which collectively to advocate improved treatment of their sex. By the mid-nineteenth century, organized groups we now call feminist were formed in France, England, the United States, Prussia, and even Russia, to challenge women's subject status. The new protest took place in the context of economic as well as political transformation in western and central Europe and the United States. Revolutionary changes in methods of agriculture and transportation, and the rise of an enlarged market economy, industrialization, and urbanization brought profound alteration to family structures and relationships. More young people, including women, could claim and find opportunities for social and geographic mobility and economic independence.

Especially for women, however, escape from the confines of the patriarchal family brought new vulnerabilities (Tilly and Scott, 1978). With female wages far below subsistence levels, a woman alone required assistance, and might trade sex for survival, risking dismissal from employment for her "loose morals" or extreme deprivation if deserted by her male partner.

Social reformers responded, purportedly in women's defense. Not all protesters and reformers called for equality for women; few, if any, entertained ideas of identical rights and responsibilities for both sexes. Utopian schemes for the total reconstruction of society aside, debate over the status of women most often focused on ways to "protect" them: to shelter traditional women's work from the intrusion of men; to safeguard women (along with children) from unsafe conditions and/or excessive hours of labor; to secure for women rights to inherited property, their own earnings, and custody of their persons as well as some share in legal authority over their children in cases of divorce. Divorce itself, largely illegal or difficult to obtain before the twentieth century, was one of many reform issues about which women themselves differed, often on the basis of class, religion, or ethnicity.

DEFINING FEMINISM. Emphasis by historians on the womansuffrage movement, which began as a minority concern within women's groups in the mid-nineteenth century and peaked near the beginning of the twentieth, has obscured not only the larger concerns of women activists but also deep differences within feminist movements. Campaigns for "equal rights," grounded in the assumptions of liberal individualism, became dominant to a greater extent in England and the United States than elsewhere. Contemporary Englishlanguage dictionaries tend to define feminism as a movement toward political, social, educational, economic, and legal rights for women equal to those of men. This has been termed individualistic feminism (Offen).

The feminisms of continental Europe in that earlier era, as well as later women's movements in Third World countries, reflected a closer association with the social question— that is, with issues of class and nation—and with family relationships and community ties. This constitutes a relational form of feminism. Socialist feminists, while cognizant of women's needs for education and encouragement to participate fully in political struggles in support of class goals, declined to envision as their purpose access to equal— and equally exploitative—conditions with working-class men. Others, including Catholic feminists in large numbers, insisted on improvement of women's status in order to enhance their performance in traditional women's roles and relationships. In some countries, notably the United States, a "century of struggle" for women's rights grew out of religious ferment and the recognition that no subjected person, woman or slave, could be fully responsible to God as a moral being. Nineteenth-century equal-rights feminism and the concurrent movement for "protective legislation" offered contrasting answers to the "woman question."

EQUAL BUT DIFFERENT. Differentiation between "individualistic" and "relational" forms of feminism heightens current debate over the definition of feminism. It also parallels a major controversy among feminist theorists that cuts to the heart of moral issues regarding women. Must arguments undergirding a political movement on behalf of women—the various forms of feminism—be grounded in the assumption that human beings are identical? If so, equalrights law can be used to deny pregnant women special insurance and employment benefits. Equality so defined may demand identity of treatment.

Alternatively, to emphasize women's particularity, to focus on sexual differences, may invite legislation (and buttress attitudes) restricting women's options in the guise of acknowledging their special needs. Precisely this argument was long used to justify labor laws that denied many excellent employment opportunities to all women because they required occasional work during evening hours or involved physically demanding tasks. More recently, women workers in potentially hazardous industries have faced coerced sterilization or loss of employment on grounds of their capacity for reproduction. But to deny that women on the basis of their sex constitute a special class can also deprive them of support they may need—for example, in pregnancy. It can even, some argue, destroy the very basis for a political movement in their name and interest.

This "difference versus equality" debate, often in inchoate form, has led to extended conflict over definitions of feminism and feminist demands. It also raises fundamental issues regarding individual rights, family responsibilities, and the prerogatives of government. In the nineteenth century, reformers called for legislative action to ameliorate the worst abuses of industrialization and urbanization. Reformers ranged from British industrialists who wanted to improve the quality of the labor force to French Social Catholics who sought to base solutions to societal problems on Christian principles to Prussia's "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, who schemed to reduce the threat of socialist revolution. Whether impelled by religious, philanthropic, political, or economic motives, they shared the recognition that such innovations increased governmental powers over persons' lives. They also found that they could succeed, against strongly held liberal tenets favoring laissez-faire practice, by exposing the physical, and allegedly moral, dangers to female (and young) persons posed by the new working and living conditions. Working women rarely spoke for themselves in these debates, and even feminist voices, largely from the middle class, were little heeded.

Beginning in the 1840s with the first laws limiting women's night work, every policy of the interventionist states, acting in lieu of a patriarchal family to regulate female behavior, extended the premise that women needed special consideration and that men must provide them with protection, even against themselves. The nineteenth-century debate over short hours and the twentieth-century controversy over state regulation of reproduction share the assumption that adult women, as individual citizens, cannot or should not be empowered to make decisions affecting their own persons. Whether arguing against a woman's working out-side the home at night, on behalf of keeping her husband home from the cabaret, or championing limits on abortion, advocates of restrictive legislation link women's rights with those of others: husband, child, family, state.

Similar arguments may be employed on occasion in support of male-specific measures such as military conscription, which subordinates individual freedom to national security. Such denial of personal autonomy, however, remains the exception for men and, moreover, often brings with it rights of citizenship. Women, on the other hand, are assumed to serve the interests of others at all times, and rarely gain comparable advantage. Historically, legislation concerning women has not distinguished among them by race, ethnicity, or class, by marital status, age, preference, or capacity, assuming marriage and motherhood to be the overriding obligation and destiny of all women, and conflating childbearing with child rearing. As historians have highlighted in recent books, the interests of women and their calls for "freedom" may even be seen as at odds with those of the family. This, of course, is true especially of the type of family associated primarily with the white, Western world (Bell and Offen; Degler); studies of the African-American family in the United States, and of extended families in other cultures, stress their function as sources of strength as well (Jones).

The history of women in the twentieth century reveals the centrality of the "woman question" to the social, economic, and political concerns of many nations. During wars and revolutions, traditional notions of women's place and struggles over woman suffrage have been eclipsed by calls for female labor and patriotic support. Apparent feminist advances, however, have frequently led to the reinstitution of traditional norms. Following both world wars, women were summarily discharged from good-paying jobs or offered less skilled and less rewarding employment. However, structural changes in commerce and industry have escalated demand for female workers, especially in clerical, teaching, and other service occupations dominated by women; expansion of educational opportunities has augmented female literacy and professional expertise; advances in public health, nutrition, and medicine have continued to increase female life expectancy and decrease infant mortality; and new technologies have reduced the need for labor-intensive household chores. All of these changes tend to free many women for long periods of productive activity outside the family. As more and more countries have been swept into the global economy and information network, women's movements, often linked (and sometimes subordinated) to nationalism, have appeared around the world. Along with efforts to improve women's health and education, Third World feminists are challenging double standards in law and culture as well as such practices as clitoridectomy, marriage by capture, and sati (Johnson-Odim and Strobel).

Unlike earlier waves of feminist protest, the mid-twentieth-century rebirth of feminism called into action sufficient numbers of educated and strategically placed women and their male supporters to successfully challenge many social priorities and institutional structures. Though feminists are sometimes wrongly perceived as a special interest group reflecting only the needs and desires of middle-class white women in developed nations, their pressure, especially since the 1970s, has achieved significant change in legal status, medical treatment, and workplace conditions of benefit to all women. It has opened to women professions long monopolized by men, including medicine, law, the ministry, and the professoriate, whose collective powers of definition long buttressed gender biases. In some cases, most notably medicine, this represents a restoration to women of roles they held prior to the institution of professional schools and licensure, from which they were excluded. As healthcare providers, women today often challenge the gender distinction between male doctors who cure and female nurses who care. Women's health centers tend to stress women's need to question conventional medical procedures and to encourage women to assume an active role in determining their own treatment (Jaggar).

Women Challenging Epistemology

Modeled on the self-help agencies for women's health that first developed in the late 1960s and influenced medical practice, this new women's liberation movement has flourished in the academy, especially in the United States but increasingly in Europe and in some instances in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The field of women's studies, which began as a search for feminist foremothers and a female past lost to history, has expanded across the disciplines to question old methodologies, ask new questions, identify new sources, reinterpret received wisdom, develop new female perspectives, and challenge the very construction of knowledge—not only about the nature of women but also about all the constructs in the natural and social sciences based on androcentric experience. Grounded in advocacy for the rights of women to equality in education, culture, and society, it is a form of moral as well as scientific inquiry.

Among the earliest paradigms developed from the new scholarship in women's studies was the social construction of feminity. Whether psychologists rereading Sigmund Freud, sociologists reinterpreting Erik Erikson, or historians rediscovering Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger's notorious late-fifteenth-century handbook on witchcraft, these scholars found in the sciences as well as the humanities a pervasive confusion of description with prescription. Proceeding from male-imposed definitions of female nature and proscriptions limiting female behavior as old as written records of humankind, men as philosophers, preachers, physicians, politicians, patriarchs, and professors had labeled unconventional women abnormal, criminal, ill, even pathological—or, alternatively, not "real women." The eternal feminine of Western mythology falsely universalized descriptions of an idealized (implicitly) white woman (Spelman; Chaudhuri and Strobel).

Historical and cross-cultural studies that belie many such interpretations have now been done. The new women's history, increasingly inclusive of women of color and international perspectives (Offen et al.; Johnson-Odim and Strobel), lays bare the many consequences of the absence of female voices and agency, and the fundamental ways in which justice has been denied to half the human species. Women's history tells a tale of misconceptions, biases, and injustices that have oppressed women and limited their freedom of choice—and, hence, their moral responsibility. It also reveals the many and differing contributions, perceptions, and struggles that constitute the female past. Although this historical perspective faces challenges, sometimes by groups of women who remain dependent on traditional sex roles for economic support and social recognition, it nevertheless offers the potential for transformation of benefit to all (Jaggar). It rests, moreover, on the principles of justice.

To the extent that ethical considerations require attribution of personhood and personal agency to every human being, ethical behavior toward women calls for disclosure and discussion of the full record of women in history. It demands that women be defined by their particular positions within specific and changing contexts and allowed choices reflecting the full range of their human attributes. It calls for major societal change. Inspired by new knowledge and the new feminisms, women have begun as never before to speak in their own voices and to claim equality despite their differences—envisioning difference without hierarchy. The "woman question," as posed by women today, can no longer be answered in terms of expediency. The ground has shifted: in the new world, women stand along with men as individuals endowed equally, if perhaps differently, with moral rights and moral responsibilities.

marilyn j. boxer (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Biology, Philosophy of; Body: Cultural and Religious Perspectives; Care; Circumcision, Female Circumcision; Environmental Ethics: Ecofeminism; Ethics: Social and Political Theories; Feminism; Human Rights; Paternalism; Sexism; Social Control of Sexual Behavior


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