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The woman question

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

'The woman question', which is translated from the French term querelle des femmes (literally, 'dispute of women') refers both to an intellectual debate from the 1400s to the 1700s on the nature of women and feminist campaigns for social change after the 1700s.

While the French phrase querelle des femmes deals specifically with the Renaissance period, 'the woman question' in English (or in corresponding languages) is a phrase usually used in connection with a social change in the later half of the 19th century, which questioned the fundamental roles of women in Western industrialized countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, and Russia. Issues of women's suffrage, reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, property rights, legal rights, and medical rights, and marriage dominated cultural discussions in newspapers and intellectual circles. While many women were supportive of these changing roles, they did not agree unanimously. Often issues of marriage and sexual freedom were most divisive.[citation needed]

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  • ✪ Nineteenth Century: The Woman Question
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"The Woman Question" "The Woman Question" was being reconsidered. In the 1840s through 1890s slavery and women's rights issues gained momentum. In 1848, the most famous of the women's rights conventions was held in Seneca Falls, NY, and organizers Stanton and Anthony spoke as did many men. In 1851, the conversations and conventions continued, but the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, OH, became a pivotal moment for the voices of women and black women. Francis Gage, President of the Convention, published her account of the speech in The Anti-Slavery Bugle (The Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee). After several white men and pastors dominated the conference and the women sat back and listened to the men argue about their rights, emancipated slave Sojourner Truth stood and walked on stage to the gasp of many. Some who were arguing behind the scenes were upset that blacks were present, partially because they did not want the abolition and women's rights issues clouded and partially because of prejudice. Truth delivered a momentum-turning speech, called "Ain't I a Woman" (510-1), which hushed the men and those who were letting race cloud the issue: She left the stage to applause and was lauded in the newspapers. As seen in the examples above and in the selections for the course, women in this period increased their voice through writing, and some such as Fuller and Eliot were making professional pay and supporting themselves off of their work. As issues such as temperance, abolition, and suffrage became major topics, pro- and anti- sides emerged strongly in public. The modern woman was being formed--one who sought an education, considered if that also could have a profession to support herself, considered how marriage and children worked into the equation and how a profession worked into marriage, wanted the right to own property, vote, and have the rights men held. However, long-held beliefs about a woman's role being dedicated to a domestic life, taking care of the parents until married and turning her attention to husband and children grounded the position of the anti-feminist groups. Many believed women to be pure, innocent, and unscathed by politics and the horrors of the world, and becoming part of public life through voting rights and having a profession outside of the home were concerning. --If women received the same education as men, then could they understand the information, and would it corrupt them? --How would life's issues harm women and the ideas they teach their children? --How would women react to the horrors of war and reality of political argument? --Some of work and political meetings happened in places where respectable women should not be, so how would they be viewed in society after being in the streets of an impoverished neighborhood, a pub, or battlefield with the wounded? --How would having a profession negatively impact domestic life? --Would women ignore their wifely and motherly duties? --Would some women not want to have a husband, family, or children when exposed to so many challenging ideas? -What would happen to society? Since the 1840s, women sought to hold property, and included in that property was the right to their children and own earnings. The meaning of Mrs. was mistress--belonging to the Mister or the Master--meaning wife. When a woman married, everything became the husband's property, including the dowry, property if any, and all belongings. He owned her property, therefore, he owned her and their children, too. From the 1840s through the first decade of the Twentieth Century, England and America passed similar series of laws. In England, the first of the Married Women's Property Acts passed in 1870 who were allowed women to own their own earnings and to inherit property, and the 1882 law expanded those rights to control their own property and extended the law to all of Great Britain. In the United States, small strides were made in several states--first in 1848 in New York--and spread to the federal level in the Homestead Act of 1862, where women were allowed to write wills, keep their own earnings and were "grant[ed] feme sole status to abandoned women" (Craig). Custody battles favored men prior to the Revolutionary War in America, but after the war, young children and female children could stay with the mother. The woman had the right to divorce in some states in the cases of adultery, even when adultery happened with slaves and masters, but in England, men could divorce, but women could not, and women were not entitled to marital property, including children, until the passage of these laws.



The querelle des femmes or 'woman question' originally referred to a broad debate from the 1400s to the 1700s in Europe regarding the nature of women, their capabilities, and whether they should be permitted to study, write, or govern in the same manner as men. Both in the scholarly and popular sphere, authors criticized and praised women's natures, arguing for or against their capacity to be educated in the same manner as men. As classical Aristotelianism held that women are incapable of reason, many argued that women's nature prevented them from higher learning.[1] As the debate developed, some agreed that men were not naturally more intelligent than women – but argued that the female nature also prevented them from taking higher learning seriously.[1] In addition, there was great controversy over Classical notions of women as inherently defective, in which 'defenders of women' like Christine de Pizan and Mary Wollstonecraft attempted to refute attacks against women as a whole.[2]

While this debate was deeply important to some of those who wrote in support of or against women, participation in the querelle des femmes was also an intellectual exercise for many authors with less personal significance.[2]

A resurgence in the debate over the nature and role of women are illustrated by the Romantic movement's exploration in fiction and drama (and opera) of the nature of 'man', of human beings as individuals and as members of society. Conflict between women's prescribed roles, their own values, and their perceptions of self are prominent in such works as Die Walküre, Effi Briest, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, A Doll's House, and Hedda Gabler. Each of these addresses women's emotional, social, economic, and religious lives, highlighting the ways in which 'the woman question' had disrupted notions of a static nature which all women share.[citation needed]


First use and traditional debate

The term was first used in France: the querelle des femmes (literally, 'dispute of women'). From 1450 into the years that witnessed the beginning of the Reformation, institutions controlled by the Catholic Church, had come into question. Secular states had begun to form in early modern Europe, and the feudal system was overtaken by centralized governments. This disruption extended to the relationships between men and women, and the Renaissance created a contraction of individual freedom for women, unlike men.[2] These changes were justified through a number of arguments which referred to the inherent nature of women as subordinate to men.

On one side of the quarrel, many argued that women were inferior to men because man was created by God first, and were therefore stronger and more important. Also, much of Christianity, throughout the ages, has viewed women as the Daughters of Eve, the original temptress responsible for humanity being expelled from the Garden of Eden.[3] Augustine in particular understood women as having souls that were 'naturally more seductive', and emphasized their 'powerful inborn potential to corrupt'.[4]

Religious justifications were not the only sources of information regarding woman's nature. As Renaissance humanism developed, there was great interest in returning to classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Classical philosophy held that women were inferior to men at a physical level, and this physical inferiority made them intellectually inferior as well.[1] While the extent of this inferiority was hotly debated by the likes of Christine de Pizan and Moderata Fonte, women continued to be understood as inherently subordinate to men, and this was the basis for preventing women from attending universities or participating in the public sphere.[1]

The 'defenders of women' on one side of the debate, according to Joan Kelly, "pointed out that the writings of the literate and the learned were distorted by what we now call sexism."[2] They pointed out that accounts of women's deeds and nature were almost entirely written by men, many of whom had reasons to speak poorly of women. These writers, who were referred to as 'ladies' advocates' by the 17th and 18th centuries, promoted an empirical approach, which would measure the deeds and capabilities of women without bias. These arguments did not always insist that women were individuals, as modern feminists would argue, but often simply attempted to defend the 'nature' of women from slander.


One of the first women to answer 'the woman question' was Christine de Pizan. She published The Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, in which de Pizan narrated her learning of the value of women and their virtue. She wrote this book in response to a book called Romance of the Rose, which attacked women and the value of marriage. While de Pizan wrote this book to justify her place in the world of literature and publishing at the time, The Book of the City of Ladies can be considered one important source in early feminism.[2]

In the 1480s, Bartolomeo Goggio argued the superiority of women in his "De laudibus mulierum" [On the Merits of Women], which was dedicated to Eleanor of Naples, Duchess of Ferrara.[5]


Baldassare Castiglione contributed to the querelle in The Courtier in 1527, which voiced some support for the 'gentle' side of the debate, which favored women.[2] In 1529, Heinrich Agrippa contended that men in society did not oppress women because of some natural law, but because they wanted to keep their social power and status.[6] Agrippa argued for the nobility of women and thought women were created better than men. He argued that in the first place, women being made better than man, received the better name. Man was called Adam, which means Earth; woman Eva, which is by interpretation Life.[7] Man was created from the dust of the earth, while woman was made from something far purer. Agrippa's metaphysical argument was that creation itself is a circle that began when God created light and ended when he created woman. Therefore, women and light occupy adjacent points on the circle of creation and must have similar properties of purity.[citation needed]

1600s to 1700s

Moderata Fonte wrote The Worth Of Women in 1600, which collected poetry and dialogues which proclaimed the value of women, arguing that their intelligence and capability to rule cannot be recognized if they are not educated.[1] The tradition of defending women from specific attacks continued into the 1600s and 1700s:

Another poet, Sarah Fyge Field Egerton, appears to have written The Female Advocate (1686) – at age 14! – in reply to the "late satire on women" quoted for its obscenity; Judith Drake penned An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696); and women of low and high station continued the polemic in the eighteenth century. – Joan Kelly, "Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes.[2]

Victorian era

The term querelle des femmes was used in England in the Victorian era, stimulated, for example, by the Reform Act 1832 and the Reform Act 1867. The Industrial Revolution brought hundreds of thousands of lower-class women into factory jobs, presenting a challenge to traditional ideas of a woman's place.[8]

A prime issue of contention was whether what was referred to as women's "private virtue" could be transported into the public arena; opponents of women's suffrage claimed that bringing women into public would dethrone them, and sully their feminine virtue.[9]

Areas of discussion

The woman question was raised in many different social areas. For example, in the second half of the 19th century, in the context of religion, extensive discussion within the United States took place on the participation of women in church. In the Methodist Episcopal Church, the woman question was the most pressing issue in the 1896 conference.[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e DiCaprio, Lisa, and Wiesner E, Merry. Lives and Voices: Sources in European Women's History. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2001
  2. ^ a b c d e f g 1928–1982., Kelly, Joan, (1984). Women, history & theory : the essays of Joan Kelly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 77. ISBN 0226430278. OCLC 10723739.
  3. ^ Frize, Monique. Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy's Pioneering Female Professor. 1st ed. N.p.: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, n.d. Print.
  4. ^ L., Boden, Alison (2007). Women's rights and religious practice : claims in conflict. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 74. ISBN 9780230551442. OCLC 155679141.
  5. ^ "Bartolomeo Goggio | Querelle". Retrieved 2019-01-20.
  6. ^ The Portable Rabelais, p. 370. ed. Samuel Putnam, 1964; Gisela Bock and Margarete Zimmermann, "The European Querelle des femmes." In: Medieval Forms of Argument: Disputation and Debate. Hrsg. Georgiana Donavin, Carol Poster, und Richard Utz. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002. S. 127-56.
  7. ^ "The Philosophy of Natural Magic: End Matter by Morley:The Nobility of Woman." The Philosophy of Natural Magic: End Matter byMorley: The Nobility of Woman. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.
  8. ^ Hudson, Dale; Adams, Maeve (2010). The Women Question. W.W. Norton and Company. Retrieved from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-11-09. Retrieved 2014-01-08.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link).
  9. ^ Parkman, Francis (January 1880). "The Woman Question Again". North American Review. 130 (278): 16–31. Retrieved 2009-12-14. p. 17.
  10. ^ Through the North American Review, writers Sarah Grand and Ouida argued over the role of women in western society. "War on the Woman Question: It Will Be the Leading One Before the Methodist Episcopal Conference" (PDF). The New York Times. 1896-05-01. Retrieved 2009-12-14.


This page was last edited on 20 January 2019, at 21:10
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