Explain why Gender was used for such diverse political purposes in the late 18th Century

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Explain why gender was used for such diverse political purposes in this period?

During the late eighteenth through to the early twentieth centuries, gender has been used in various different ways to aid and hinder political activism. Historians often use the term ‘gender’ to explore the differences between men and women during this period which allows us to see how they interact with each other. Indeed, in recent years, there has been an increased interest in the part that women have had to play in history and the influence that they have had on political events. Feminists have often asked how and under what conditions the roles and function of each sex have been defined: “how the very meanings of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place”. However, it is also important for historians not to fall into the trap of taking the term ‘gender’ to only be in reference to the roles and lack of attention that women have received throughout history, and for this reason, I wish to discuss the importance of both men and women in the changing political climate. This era of ‘modern’ history can be seen as a time of great change, with significant developments in the fields of science, politics, warfare and technology. With the outlook that this was the age of discovery and globalisation, it easy to see why European powers began a political, economic and cultural colonization of the rest of the world and why many of the people (particularly in the lower classes) wished to revolutionize the way in which they had been living. What has become clear is that rather than the notions of class and gender change being two separate things; the two have become inevitably linked in explaining the diverse political changes of this period. As Joan Scott says: “We cannot understand how concepts of class acquired legitimacy and established political movements without examining concepts of gender, [in the same way that], we cannot understand working class sexual divisions of labour without interrogating concepts of class”.

        This new link between gender and class mobility led to a great deal of new political ideology during this period. Perhaps the most striking example of the way in which gender can be seen as being connected with diverse political change can be highlighted when looking at France in the period during and just after the French Revolution; a time when the people’s notion of society and hierarchy was turned on its head and with social boundaries becoming more blurred than they had been before. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy for historians to look upon this period as a time when the lower classes began to rise; where the equal rights of man were widely accepted by all. However, what is important to remember is also the confusion and upset that the Revolution caused- not just in terms of fighting- but the psychological ramifications that came from upsetting the hierarchical nature of French society. It is worth noting that in France at this moment, the male was seen as being the ‘supreme being’ in society, with women being viewed as their subordinates. These views of women were strongly influenced by the Catholic Church which observed (as a result of the sinning of Eve) that women were a moral and physical threat to men, thus meaning that male authority within the family was regarded as essential for social order. For this reason, it was seen as the social norm for only men to be politically active, whilst the women remained within the confines of the ‘private’ life in which she was expected to be wife and mother before all other things.

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        This purely misogynistic view of women in France can be most strikingly seen with the case of Marie Antoinette during the Revolution- a case which gives us much insight to the problems faced by French women of the day. Unlike no other royal women that had come before her, Marie Antoinette was subject to a constant barrage of abuse (particularly in the pornographic sector), which both undermined her high-born status as queen and her role as the ‘mother’ of France. Because women were unable to act politically outright, the queen was blamed for corrupting the mind of the king and ...

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