Sasha Rasmussen: Reframing Femininity: What the French Revolution can tell us about the work for Gender Equality (#hireahistorian)

One of my all-time favourite things about studying history is talking about the French Revolution – not only because it is a generally rousing subject, but because it is a strikingly clear example of the impact of feminist scholarship and the approaches this might entail.

Last century, women’s history was deemed so marginal that a prominent scholar could unashamedly pronounce: “My understanding of the French Revolution is not changed by knowing that women participated in it.” This statement naturally produced outrage and indignation, and then it began to produce new research. Feminist scholars began asking, ‘where are the women?’, and when they found them, they were faced with the question of how best to tell their stories in a male-dominated discipline which had ignored or dismissed female voices for centuries. Generally speaking, these feminist scholars approached this challenge in one of two ways: either by forcefully reintroducing individual women into the traditional narrative, or by shifting the frame of reference.

In the first case – which is perhaps the more intuitive method – historians retained the accepted forums of politics, economics, and revolutionary literature, but highlighted the role of specific powerful women within these arenas. This approach has produced some remarkable and rigorous scholarship: innovative new biographies of Marie Antoinette, praise for Olympe de Gouges and her Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen as the first feminist manifesto, and the symbolic march of women to the Palace of Versailles, with their intention to confront the Baker himself (i.e. the King) about the lack of bread. Suddenly, these undoubtedly important women were back on the historical radar, but the context of what is considered ‘revolutionary’ has not been fundamentally changed.

The second case represents a significant shift sideways in our understanding of what made the Revolution. If we consider only the political, of course we will find the councils and committees and the National Assembly all full of men; men voting; men writing pamphlets; men making speeches from the gallows. But if we pan the camera sideways a little, away from the formal political arena and into the domestic sphere, suddenly there are revolutionary women everywhere: women donning tricolour cockades on their shoes and clothing; women adorned with earrings in the shape of miniature guillotines; women serving dinners off crockery emblazoned with revolutionary scenes; women playing revolutionary board-games with their children.

But what has all this got to do with now, with gender today? As I see it, these two strategies remain at the heart of the struggle for women’s full empowerment and participation in their societies: either we need to get more women in the spotlight, or we need to drastically change the rules of the game. How often have women been told to ‘lean in’, to promote and assert themselves in a more ‘masculine’ way, to speak up in meetings, to put themselves forward for leadership roles? We often speak of the need for female CEOs, and to encourage young girls to aspire to careers in the traditionally masculine fields of STEM subjects, law, and politics. I am not suggesting that women should not pursue these paths, but I am suggesting that we also need to re-evaluate the social value system which identifies these as the most desirable prizes.

The role of the CEO, for instance, glorifies a ‘masculine’ model of communication and behaviour: aggressive, decisive, direct. We thing of men in dark suits with big desks and powerful handshakes. When we compare this with the more ‘feminine’ work of nurturing – for example, caring for children, the elderly, or the infirm – the contrast is stark. As a society, we put our money where our mouth is – the pay of a position corresponds to its prestige. What we are saying, collectively, when we pay CEOs and top businessmen (the ‘-men’ is deliberate) upwards of six figures, is that their work is important and valued. We do not say the same to teachers, nurses, and carers, and we dismiss the value of the vast amount of unpaid work done primarily by women in their households.  When the managing director of a rest home receives not much shy of a million per annum, and the workers caring for the elderly who live in that home are earning minimum wage, we need to rethink our values.

It therefore becomes a question not only of valuing women, but of valuing ‘femininity’. In my research as an historian, I frequently encounter pompous male journalists of the early 1900s, who congratulate certain prominent women on having overcome ‘the limitations of their sex’. Over a century later, the rhetoric has changed little. For many boys and men, the worst insults are those which are emasculating, which cast their behaviour or manner as feminine. Ian McEwan sums this up succinctly, in a passage later lyricised by Madonna: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it's okay to be a boy; for girls it's like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.” Why are we so ashamed of ‘girliness’? And how can we expect girls to succeed when they are told that something about them is inherently weak and undesirable?

Girls should be encouraged to become engineers and political leaders and construction workers, but boys should equally be encouraged to be nurses and teachers and fathers. My vision of a gender-equal future is one in which each person is encouraged to pursue their individual strengths, without reference to gendered expectations of career paths or behaviour. There are women who are strong and men who are nurturing, and these qualities should be recognised and valued, irrespective of who possesses them. If we could succeed in disassociating certain traits or behaviours from perceived sexual differences, both women and men would benefit from the freedom to be themselves, to exercise their full potential, and for their contributions to be fully appreciated. It is the valuing of ‘masculine’ ways of being above those considered ‘feminine’ which still qualifies our society today as a patriarchy.

While this remains the case, although we continue to push for women in top-ranking positions, this won’t generate the large-scale change we hope for. To offer a harsh metaphor, putting individual women in high-powered positions is to gender equality what trickle-down economics is to poverty: real change needs to address the system as a whole, to change the foundations and assumptions on which our institutions are built. It is easy to look at statistical indicators and congratulate ourselves on how well we have done; it is harder to look beyond the markers to the realities and experiences of women’s lives, and to create change which is meaningful on a human scale.

This is, in my opinion, the principle value of an education in the humanities. As an historian, I have been taught to pay attention not only to the action itself, but to the frame and context in which it sits. The campaign for women’s rights needs people who are trained to question and challenge, to ask ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Historians are accustomed to gaps in the data, and are armed with a number of strategies which allow these silences to speak. We are alert to implicit or tacit bias in the information available to us, and we know that who asks the question – and how – will shape the answer. If organisations hired fewer people whose sole interest is crunching numbers, and more people capable of approaching an old question from a new perspective, I believe we would see a marked increase in the rate of progress and the efficacy of solutions in issues of gender. The battle for gender equality will not be won by brute numerical force – sometimes a change of tact is also necessary.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on September 2, 2016 and filed under Women Deliver 2016.