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Status of women in 19th century europe

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The 19th Century was a time of mass change across the European map, both industrially and socially. The situation of women differed from country to country, yet the emergence of new ideas, revolutionaries and socialists allowed women to progress in society. Gaining vital freedoms and responsibilities which they had not experienced in the previous Centuries.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the status of all women improved in 19th Century society. Social freedoms that were experienced by women in some societies were revoked from women in others. For example, in British society, many women faced the risk of deportation and slave labour across the empire.1

What we must first analyse, to get a better sense of perspective for women in 19th Century society, is the situation of women in the 18th Century. Traditionally, men where seen as the superior sex and it was the widely accepted viewpoint that, in marriage, men were supposed to rule over their wives and all property belonged to the husbands. Politically, women possessed virtually no formal rights and were confined to a small sector of the economy in which their work would be seen as an ‘extension of domestic responsibilities.’2

During the period of the 1789 revolutions in France, Women began to demand better education and protection of their property rights.3 This outlines the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ in France and how they began to demand civil and political rights as early as 1789. A time when most women, especially in other European countries were confined to the home and such advances would probably have been seen as preposterous.

It is important to recognise that revolutionary participation did have some significance for women as their status experienced variations between the years 1789 and 1804. They obtained the legal right to marry without parental
consent and more importantly, monetary compensation for their own property.4 This outlines early progressions for women’s status in France in the late 18th/ early 19th Century and how the Revolution in France acted as a huge stepping stone for Feminism in France allowing women to gain liberties that would not be granted in places such as Britain for almost another Century.

In the latter part of the 19th Century, France was the centre of an advanced feminist movement. It would appear that the situation of women was improving in France long before it did in most other European countries. This was maybe to due to the active feminist movements in both the First and Second French republics.5 Additionally, the emergence of feminist thinkers within socialist groups such as Enfantin. His works were widely disputed at the time and having read them, it would appear that sexual pleasure was the main orientation. However, what we must consider are the implications and effects that his works had on society and the emphasis that it placed on the ‘New Woman’.6 Enfantin wrote about all aspects of the new woman’s role in society and the rights she should be given. He highlighted the success and advancements of Japanese and Tahitian societies in which women had been respected and thus believed it to be the central reason to their economic superiority.

Similar to Enfantin, Fourier had little doubt that that nature intended equality and that there was no reason why women could not go on to become doctors, teachers, writers or athletes.8 Although, it is important to note that the works of people like Enfantin and Fourier did not gain any real credit politically and were seen by many at the time as an embarrassment to the Saint Simonian movement (which they were both part of) and seen more so as the ‘championing of sexual license.’9 The Saint Simonian movement was very much present in 19th Century French society and expressed ‘modern’ and ‘new’ views on feminism. 10 At the time, their opinions were viewed as the most radical of feminist ideas, predominantly focused on sexual and emotional inclinations. Yet, women within the movement downplayed the ‘free love’ idea and instead, promoted economic independence.

However, though the writings of Enfantin were controversial and extensive, ideas such as these began to become more popular in 19th century France. These new ways of thinking promoted the roles of women in French society and began to re-shape the way that France perceived women and what their role was in society.

It may be argued that the status of women in France and other parts of Europe declined following the 1848 Revolution. Many of the Women arrested after June Days were harshly interrogated and subsequently sentenced to transportation. Following Napoleon’s Coup d’etat, in 1851, sentences became even harsher for women and a number of women were deported to Algeria. Punishments such as these outlined a significant inequality that remained between women and men. Even though men led the Revolution and the majority of women appeared to take part in support of their husbands, women on the whole, received more servere punishments than men.12 This would implicate that the status of women in French society had declined before it would again improve. In contrast, other European countries such as Belgium, change appeared to be gradual and progressive across the Century rather that fluctuating.

In 19th century Britain, the situation and status for women remained unchanged. Described by Florence Miller in 1890 as ‘Legal slavery’.13 Women in Britain gained little, if anything in the 19th century and had no independent means of living. An unmarried woman attracted social disapproval, pity and was encouraged to emigrate to one of the British colonies in which men were in the majority.14 It was not until the emergence of the Suffragette and Suffragist movements in Britain that women began to climb the social hierarchy and gain more political and civil rights. As we know, that change was only recognised in the early 20th century (1918) and even after that, women continued to face social and civil struggles.

Although, the industrial revolution in Europe brought with it a great change in the emergence of a larger female workforce. Women tended to work in the Textile Mills, Domestic services and some even worked in Coal mines. For women, the industrial revolution provided them with the opportunity to earn an independent wage and improved living standards.15 On the other hand, it may be argued that the industrial revolution exploited the female status in Europe. Men still assumed supervisory roles above women on greater wages and women were often made to work from 8am until 11pm.16 Such changes to European society undoubtedly gave the woman more independence yet it may be contended that women were only allowed to do such work because there were not enough men to fill the rising number of jobs. Implications of this would be that the status of women was improving economically yet not politically or socially. If anything it had worsened. Women were contributing to society more so than ever before yet they were refused a say in any political matters and legally were still obliged to live under their husbands jurisdiction.

Similarly to Britain, the emergence of the female industrial workforce had also occurred in France, in particular Paris. Nevertheless, the participation of women reflected a great attention to their presence unlike in Britain. Judith DeGroat notes that the female population constituted to 40% of the manufacturing sector by the mid 19th century, a figure that outlines the growing importance of women to Parisian society.

Following the emergence of Karl Marx’s ideas in the mid 19th Century, his followers in Eastern Europe believed that the ‘Women Question’ was ‘secondary to revolution’.18 Marx’s followers in Eastern Europe believed in the idea that the restructure of the class hierarchy would inevitably lead to the emancipation of women. Although, revolutionaries in Eastern Europe chose not to focus separately on the status of women because they believed it to be a process that would happen inevitably with the social restructure. With the restructure came measures to ensure that women gained equality in the work place and society.19 Yet it is important to realise that women were only emancipated as workers and not as citizens.

19th Century Germany used a slogan to described the woman’s role as ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche’. This translates into Children, Kitchen, Church.20 A slogan such as this represents how lowly German women were thought of during this period. Legislation did not even recognise women as citzens. The status of women in Germany did not appear to improve until 1918, which was similar to Britain. However, it is clear to see that single women held much more independence than those who were married. Many held jobs as teachers yet were legally obliged to give up their profession after marriage.

Moreover, in 1865, the General German Womens association was formed to foster the education of women and prepare them for employment. The movement however focused soley on educational needs for women and did not campaign for political and social improvements. Additionally, the movement was more helpful to Bougeoisie woman as opposed to all women in Germany and as a result, the achievements of the movement were minimal. Yet, movements such as these signify how the status of women in Europe was slowly becoming a force that would pick up greater power and independence at the turn of the century. Women began to campaign more extensively towards political emancipation, signifying their recognition by society.

In conclusion, the status of women in Europe during the 19th Century appeared to improve overall though there were declines and fluctuations throughout the period. Feminist thinkers and movements began to remove the barriers that had prevented women from gaining political emancipation for so long. In comparison to the status of women in the 16th and 17th centuries it is evident that female status improved indefinately. Yet it is important to recognise that the pace in which female status improved differed across the face of Europe. This is due to the different situations and circumstances that women faced during the 19th century. For example the French revolution and the emergence of new ways of thinking such as Socialism and Marxism. The 19th century improvements were vital to the feminist movement in terms of gaining equality and political emancipation at the start of the 20th century. Had these progressions not been made, the modern world would have been shaped ever so differently.

Citation of Works. Bibliography.
Wollacott, A. Gender and Empire, Capern, A. and McCarthy, L. (eds), Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, (2006).

Pilbeam, P. French Socialists Before Marx, Teddington, Acumen Publishing,

Simonton, D. European Women’s Work 1700 to the Present, London, Routledge Publishing, (1998).

DeGroat, J. The Public Nature of Womens Work: Definitions and Debates during the Revolution of 1848, in: Montgomery, F. and Collette, C. (eds.) The European Woman’s History Reader, London, Routledge Publishing. (2002).

Old Bailey Online. (2013), Gender in proceedings, available from: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gender.jsp (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Exploring the French Revolution. Women and the Revolution, available from: (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Clark, J. (1992), Women in the French Revolution, available from: http://www.tcr.org/tcr/essays/CB_Women-French_Rev.pdf (accessed 25th November 2013.)

Moses, C. French Feminism in the 19th Century, Albany, State University Press New York, (1986).

Chastain, J. (2004), St Simonians, available from: http://www.ohio.edu/chastain/rz/sanmoni.htm (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Women’s History, (2002), What British and European Ideas and Social Movements Influenced the Emergence of Feminism in the Atlantic World, 1792-1869?, available from: http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/awrm/intro.htm (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Chastain, J. (2004), French Women Insurgents, available from: http://www.ohio.edu/chastain/dh/frenchwo.htm (accessed 25th November 2013.)

Wozjeck, H. Women in Mid 19th Century England, Hastings Press, available
from: (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Women in World History, The Plight of Women’s work in the Early Industrial Revolution in England and Wales, available from: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/lesson7.html (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Gosselin, A. (1993), Feminism and post (19th Century) History in Eastern Europe, available from: (accessed November 25th 2013.)

Alexander, M. (2012), Prezi, The 19th Century German Woman, available from: http://prezi.com/rgja7yt49ihe/womens-rights-19th-century-germany/ (accessed November 25th 2013.)

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