Fine points of feminism

Woodside scholar says a tradition of feminism is hard-won in France

The Cecil H. Green library on the Stanford campus served as the venue for the recent launch of two books by historian Karen Offen on the evolution of feminism over five centuries in France. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova/The Almanac)

Few could argue that women seeking to obtain for themselves the rights and privileges enjoyed by men have been engaged in an effort that has been ongoing for a very long time. Their efforts have drawn the disdain and repudiation of powerful men, and the campaign is hardly over, as demonstrated most recently by revelations that launched the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.

A public campaign in print has been going on for centuries in France, according to two new books by Woodside resident and feminism scholar Karen Offen.

In her latest books – "The Woman Question in France, 1400-1870" and "Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920," published by Cambridge University Press – Offen examines an influential 500-year public debate in which French women and their advocates take on the struggle for women's rights of liberty and equality, and for equality while recognizing their differences from men.

"No one has done more over the past forty years to establish women's history in the scholarship of the French Third Republic than Karen Offen," says emeritus professor Steven C. Hause of Washington University, St. Louis, and University of Missouri, St. Louis, about "Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic." "It was worth the wait: a deeply thought-out analysis of many sides of the 'woman question' from maternity through education to religion and economics. It is a must-read for anyone interested in modern France."

Bonnie G. Smith, a Board of Governors distinguished emeritus professor of history at Rutgers University, lauded Offen's latest work. "The rich debate plus the engaging cast of characters should finally discredit the cliche that French women thinkers and activists were less evolved than feminist activists elsewhere," she says in a statement. "Given the widening interest in feminism today, Offen's incomparable scholarship is a foundational resource."

The Almanac met with Offen at her home and at a debut for her new books at the Cecil H. Green Library on the Stanford University campus.

Offen proposed two types of feminism in a 1988 journal article, and noted her preference for "relational feminism," an argument influential in France that embraces women's acquisition of their rights "as women (and) defined principally by their childbearing and/or nurturing capacities ... in relation to men."

By contrast, the "individualist feminist tradition," Offen says in that article, celebrates "the quest for personal independence (or autonomy) in all aspects of life, while downplaying, deprecating, or dismissing as insignificant all socially defined roles and minimizing discussion of sex-linked qualities or contributions, including childbearing and its attendant responsibilities."

Relational feminism in the French sense encompasses motherhood, fatherhood and all of what is essential to maintaining a society that values those attributes, she says. And she found it to be widely understood. "What I found when I talked to people in France was that it was perfectly natural to have relational feminism," she says. "People in other countries, South America, Africa, you name it, they all understood relational feminism. They'd say 'Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We get that.'"

But in the United States, "they didn't want that to be called feminism," Offen says. When she made clear her distinctions between the two concepts and her belief that playing them out may lead to differing social structures, "the U.S. feminist communities were freaking out, (saying) 'Our individualist feminism is the only thing that is feminism.'"

The debate

The 500-year public debate in France, according to Offen, addressed matters such as the influence of women, their intellectual capacities, whether they should be educated, the sexual politics of knowledge, and whether women could occupy positions of authority.

Among their travails, women endured discrimination in the labor market, a double standard on sexual morality, government-regulated prostitution and trafficking in women and children, Offen says.

She discovered records of this extended public conversation, and that they had never been translated, while planning her book on feminism in France's Third Republic between 1870 and 1945. She noticed that the questions being asked were not new, and research led her all the way back to 1400, she says.

"We forget sometimes that France was the most populous country in Europe in the 18th century," Offen says. "French was the language of culture, of diplomacy. People everywhere who were in the upper classes or educated spoke French as well as whatever other language."

The debate put "an enormous emphasis" on the education of women, including their need for marketable skills, Offen says. But though their power and influence were "very considerable" in France, women had no authority, she says. This practice was and is not uncommon in other cultures, but in France it was codified, she says. "Exclusion from political authority ran all the way down through the culture," she says.

The Salic Law, which became public in France in the late 16th century, specifically excluded women from positions of authority, Offen says, adding that French women were barred from practicing law and medicine.

She also noted that the Napoleonic Code, adopted in the late 18th century, was not completely abolished until the mid-1960s. The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the code "subordinated women to their fathers and husbands, who controlled all family property, determined the fate of children, and were favoured in divorce proceedings."

Inequality in the workplace took off after the Industrial Revolution, she says, when people no longer led subsistence lives and had to find work. After mechanization, "it gets very very bad (for women), especially in France," Offen says, because France led Europe in the number of women in its labor force.

"It's not even clear that (men) thought this economy was in their favor," she says. Their driving belief was, "This is how things should be," she adds.

In writing about the public debate of those times, Offen includes comments by men and French women that seem to indicate how unfair it all was.

"If we had permitted our women to make laws and to make History, what tragic and hideous narratives women would have been able to write about the unmentionable wickedness of their unworthy males," wrote Henri Corneille Agrippa de Nettesheim, who, the Library of Congress says, was a 15th century German philosopher of the occult.

Sixteenth century Scottish theologian John Knox, in his pamphlet "The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women," wrote, "To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely [an insult to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice."

Women rebelled, evidence for which Offen drew from the record in print. (The invention of the printing press was a major factor in the progress of this debate, Offen says.)

"If I wore chains that could be broken, they would have been broken long ago," wrote Madeleine de Scudery, a 17th century novelist. "Under what conditions can liberty be found? From birth we are not only the slaves of parents but of custom and fashion. ... We are not given even the freedom to choose our masters, since we are often married against our inclination. ... Ambition is useless to us and our heritage is obedience."

"Little girls are brought up in foolishness and are expressly disarmed so that men can deceive them more easily," wrote 19th century revolutionary Louise Michel. "That is what men want. It is precisely as if someone threw you into the water after having forbidden you to learn to swim or even after having tied your arms and legs."

"Please, Gentlemen beaux esprits," wrote Madame de Beaumur, editor of the "Journal des Dames" in 18th century Paris, "mind your own business and let us write in a manner worthy of our sex; I love this sex, I am jealous to uphold its honor and its rights. If we have not been raised up in the sciences as you have, it is you who are the guilty ones; for have you not always abused, if I may say so, the bodily strength that nature has given you? Have you not used it to annihilate our capacities...."

They were not without allies of the male variety.

Francois Poullain de la Barre, a 17th century writer and philosopher, wrote that men agreed to educate women to purposely "abase their courage, darken their mind, and to fill it only with vanity, and fopperies; there to stifle all the seeds of Vertue, and Knowledge, to render useless all the dispositions which they might have to great things, and to take from them the desire of perfecting themselves, as well as we by depriving them of the means."

Alfred de Vigny, a 19th century French poet, wrote: "After having reflected a great deal on the destiny of women in all times and in every nation, I have come to the conclusion that every man ought to say to every woman, instead of bonjour – Pardon! for the strongest have made the laws."

Scholar and lecturer

Karen Offen is a celebrated scholar on the subject of women's history and forms of feminism. She recently received a lifetime achievement award from Who's Who, whose publisher has previously included her as a notable person among American women and in American education.

Offen has a bachelor's degree and an honorary doctorate from the University of Idaho, was a Fulbright fellow in France, and obtained her master's degree and doctorate from Stanford University, where she has been an independent scholar affiliated with the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research since 1977.

She has had fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and has directed summer seminars for post-doctoral students for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Offen is well-published and has lectured around the world, including in Germany and Hungary for several months at a time, and at Santa Clara University, the University of San Francisco, and Stanford. Her research activities have taken her to libraries in France, Belgium and Switzerland.

She is married to George Offen, a member of Woodside's committee to protect the environment. He recently retired from the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, where he worked on ways to prevent pollution from coal-fired power plants, his wife says.

The Offens have two daughters, both of whom were enthusiastic athletes and married coaches, their mother says. One daughter works as a manager on a dude ranch in Colorado, and the other is a nonpracticing licensed social worker teaching health at a university in Southern California.

'It's about us'

The basis for individualistic feminism, is "it's about me," Offen says. "In relational feminism, it's all about us."

If that is the guiding principle, men of today interested in joining long-ago advocates Poullain de la Barre and de Vigny in advancing relational feminism may wonder how to participate.

"Just be aware," Offen says. "'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you' applies to men and women as well as to men and men and women and women. Just operating on that principle, I think, is very sound. ... It's very simple and it's very profound."

Behaviors that Offen says men should avoid include taking up more physical space than you need, appropriating women's suggestions, not paying attention when women are speaking, taking for granted that women are going to serve food and drink, not helping with the housework, and assuming that you're going to drive the car.

"Little things like that, and there's still a lot of it," she says.

Offen notes that men's careers are structured to be "nonstop all the way through," and thus not always workable for women in their childbearing years who want to have families. That's a socio-political problem, she says.

"It's really either/or" for those women, she says, "or they push, push, push, push, they get to (age) 38 and then they can't conceive. You're between a rock and a hard place."

People don't have to do everything all at the same time, she says. "There should be sequence. There should be sequence for men, too," she says. "That kind of lifestyle pattern is not good for anybody."


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Like this comment
Posted by WACC
a resident of Woodside: other
on May 18, 2018 at 7:24 pm

You can hear Karen speak at the October 5th First Friday Event sponsored by the Town of Woodside Art & Culture Committee and it's FREE

Karen Offen - October 5, 2018
7:00 pm Woodside Town Hall 2955 Woodside Road, 94062

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