Excerpt: Practiced Citizenship

The following is an excerpt from Practiced Citizenship: Women, Gender, and the State in Modern France (January 2019) edited by Nimisha Barton and Richard S. Hopkins.

For over fifty years, scholars have grappled with the model of citizenship first forwarded by the British sociologist T. H. Marshall. According to his schema, the attainment of full citizenship in modern nation-states proceeded in three consecutive stages: from civil rights (i.e., the right to work and make contracts) to political rights (i.e., the right to vote) to social rights (i.e., the right to a certain minimum standard of living guaranteed by social legislation). The shortcomings of this model as it pertained to women seemed clear to feminist scholars early on. As the political theorist Carole Pateman demonstrated, the modern social contract undergirding nation-states was from the start premised on an implicit “sexual contract.” According to Pateman, the birth of modern democracy necessarily entailed the total political erasure of women. Indeed this is what many historians of the French Revolution have demonstrated and declared. That women in France did not gain suffrage until a century and a half after the Revolution would appear to confirm these readings.

Yet through the concept of “the social” historians since the 1990s have succeeded in reexamining and ultimately complicating both Marshall’s typology and early feminist readings of women’s total exclusion from the body politic and the national community. For this generation of scholars, “the social” denoted the nineteenth-century reimagining of the liberal republic’s engagement with the citizen through the social realm, a domain considered distinct from both political and economic spaces. While scholarly accounts initially focused on the shifting (male) citizen’s relationship to the state as a political and economic subject, eventually they came to interrogate how the state’s newfound interest in the social invested women with great importance, in spite of their lack of formal political rights. As Denise Riley and Joshua Cole demonstrated in particular, the social domain was an object of inquiry and a site of objectification by state planners, social scientists, doctors, and others who were looking for pathologies in the working classes to explain their propensity to violence, revolt, and insurrection of all varieties. As Riley explains, their inquiries into the social led to an expanded interest in families, specifically “familial standards” of “health, education, hygiene, fertility, demography, chastity and fecundity.” Against the background of an alarming “crisis of depopulation” in late nineteenth-century France, families emerged as a seemingly depoliticized object of study, an essential building block of society that could rally many to its noble cause. And, as Riley put it, “the heart of the family [was] inexorably the woman.”

In their pathbreaking book, Gender and the Politics of Social Reform, Elinor Accampo, Rachel Fuchs, and Mary Lynn Stewart used the rhetoric and actions of Third Republican statesmen in France to illustrate the centrality of women and families to that corner of the social realm in which the state was most interested in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: namely, the health and welfare of the declining French population. In a frightening era of depopulation, these scholars argued, women became central to the national project of increasing the quality and quantity of the French population and thus integral to the crafting of the welfare state. Populationist and familialist fears crystallized in a bevy of maternalist and family-centered welfare laws intended to shore up families by protecting and providing for women. Throughout, the particular culture of republicanism in France rallied both men and women to the cult of republican motherhood, an indispensable construct of the French nation. In the end Accampo, Fuchs, and Stewart shed new light on the evolution of women’s citizenship, claiming that social rights rooted in republican notions of womanhood came early and fast for women in France even while political rights would continue to lag behind. The seeming inconsistency resulted from the “gendered thinking” of Third Republican statesmen who sought “not only to create a version of republican motherhood to serve the family and the state, but also to use women to tame working-class men.”

Gender and the Politics of Social Reform was pivotal in demonstrating women’s centrality to the social from the perspective of middle-class men, who sought to redefine womanhood, harness women’s reproductive capacities, and engage in nation-state building with an eye to women’s gendered service to the state. Building on that significant scholarly contribution, this volume seeks to tell the complicated story of how the newfound realm of the social—from the social legislation it produced to the very activist space it furnished—also provided a space for women to maneuver, exert power, and achieve their own ends. In order to demonstrate the significance of women’s deeds and words in the public realm, the volume engages with recent scholarship on social citizenship that tends to highlight how citizenship is lived, practiced, and deployed by historical subjects who nevertheless lack the formal status of citizenship. Through an emphasis on citizenship as practice, these essays demonstrate how gender normativity and the constraints placed on women as a result nevertheless created opportunities for a renegotiation of the social—and sexual—contract. In the process this volume offers a rereading and reinterpretation of well-trod historiographical terrain on women, gender, and citizenship in modern France. Most significant, however, the volume suggests how a return to the social may prove a fruitful avenue of inquiry to explore citizenship cultures and practices and how scholars might reconsider citizenship for marginalized groups through this creative new framework, as indeed many have already begun to do.

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