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On the other hand, they stressed the unique position of women as mothers. Revolutionary feminists claimed that women as mothers of the republic demanded that they have a special place in the public sphere, they were a group of individuals historically excluded now deserving of their time in the sun. But by basing claims to voting rights upon a role usually regarded as womanly and private their claims were tenuous. This doctrine of the uniqueness of women also reinforced the idea of the separate spheres, or that there was a so-called 'natural' division of labor based on sex.
In her companion sequel to her first book, Visualizing the Nation, Landes switches from the more textually-based earlier work to that of the image, which can, she believes, be even more persuasive in showing the paradoxes of female power and the feminization of the private sphere since artists, unlike writers, often feel less a responsibility for teasing out the contradictions inherent in their works. She also stresses women's historical location as a subject of painting, as the object of the gaze rather than the gazer herself.
Visual works do not merely depict history, but reflect cultural assumptions -- and impact those assumptions. During the revolution images "worked sometimes independently and sometimes in tandem with words to affect the preferred sexual positions of men and women in the new society" (Landes 2001, p.12). Images affect words, and words affect images, and one should not automatically assume that 'the word' is more important than the image.
In republican France, old images were condemned as encapsulating old ideologies, and there was a call for new works of art that could depict republican ideals while there was also an Enlightenment strain of thought in the new government that distrusted art as artificial and aristocratic, and contrary to the Enlightenment celebration of science and empiricism. The ideal of citizenship was visually offered a female image as the ideal citizen and republican, and the republic itself was seen as a woman, yet real women were increasingly relegated to familial roles, and the images of women were often those of mothers, victims, or martyrs -- or eroticized beings.
Real women were never absent from the public sphere but "their presence was registered within the public sphere in a manageable way -- trapped within a picture" (Landes 2001, p.133). Women were liberated in the image as symbols, or symbolized concepts of liberty, but often these conceptual symbols were erotic, or showed women as mothers of the new republic, or in other traditional feminine roles and poses. As to the question of whether the Revolution advanced female progress, Landes is ambivalent. There is no question that the stasis of the Old Regime would not have propelled any political change in a positive way, and things would have likely remained as they were, with aristocratic women enjoying the liberating pleasures of class and money via the court and salons, and women of the other estates entirely subjugated to the control of a patriarchal system. The Revolution, for all of its imperfections, interjected fluidity into the calcified social and political system of France.
But 19th century scholarship has shown that the ideology of the separate spheres has been particularly damaging in viewing the bourgeois women's true work as residing at home, and ignoring or erasing the presence of women in the public sphere, even when women do make an impact. When women are reduced to symbols, it is hard to view them as individuals in need of enfranchisement, with real needs, and many other cultural examples besides Revolutionary France exist where females were symbolically central but marginal in government and society as 'real' women (Ancient Greece springs to mind).
The effect of the French Revolution upon women was neutral, by and large -- aristocratic women were hurt perhaps even worse than aristocratic men, middle and lower class women benefited slightly, before the Revolution began to collapse and implode in a fashion that affected all of France. But both of Landes' work, read in tandem, are important reminders that one must 'read' images just as closely as books, and the mere presence of female images cannot be assumed to be evidence of liberation.
Landes, Joan B. Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2001.
Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of…[continue]
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