It is widely understood that Feminism, as the term had come to be defined is a distinctly twentieth century concept, precipitated primarily by the women suffragette movement in the first half of the century and later by the American civil rights movement in the second half. Yet, author Marlene LeGates presents new perspectives on the origins of feminist thought in her scholarly work In Their Time: A History of Feminism in the Western World. This essay will cite instances from this book as well as Women Imagine Change: A Global Anthology of Women’s Resistance from 600 BCE to Present to illustrate the historical underpinnings of feminist thought, with a special focus on the underlying political transformation.
Marlene LeGates states that the events and circumstances surrounding the French Revolution of eighteenth century provided crucial political transformations which were later manifest fully during the feminist movement. The French tradition of ‘querelle des femmes’ served as an open forum for both men and women to freely express their political opinions. At these gatherings, members of both sexes were known to express their discontent with the then prevailing religious, political and intellectual culture. This forum allowed women to question the “authoritarian, hierarchical and patriarchal” social order that most considered the natural and only social arrangement possible. It also has to be remembered that the preceding century was also the time when two crucial breakthroughs were achieved in the intellectual realm. These were the discoveries made by Galileo Galilei about the cosmos surrounding earth and the physical laws of nature purported by Isaac Newton. The significance of a forum such as ‘querelle des femmes’ should be seen in light of the way these parallel scientific developments were treated by the religious and political Establishment of the day. The fact that women freely argued and expressed their opinion with men at a time when Galileo was being persecuted by the Church for expressing scientific truths, says something about the advanced status of women in the period immediately preceding the French Revolution (LeGates, p.121).
It is then apt to infer that the political transformation that is effected by the French Revolution of the late Eighteenth century is induced by and later absorbed into notions of gender equality during the feminist movement. In the preceding century, equally important political developments took place across the English Channel, namely the establishment of British Parliament as the primary arbitrator of political debates. During this time, influential thinkers such as John Locke and other philosophers of the Enlightenment period did for political upheaval what modern day feminists did for emancipating women. At its core, the feminist movement is a political movement as much as a cultural one. Hence, it should come as no surprise for the students of the subject that the French Revolution has had such a profound effect on the way feminist ideology evolved and manifested itself in the twentieth century (LeGates, p.121).
Later, in chapter six of her book In Their Time: A History of Feminism… author Marlene LeGates cites further examples of the pattern in modern history where feminist ideas and activism have always been part of a broader political movement. Again, LeGates attempts to dispel the misunderstood notion that feminism is a late twentieth century phenomenon, by pointing to how nineteenth century Literature proved to be an avenue for self-expression for women. For example,