In this provocative interdisciplinary essay, Joan B. Landes examines the impact on women of the emergence of a new, bourgeois organization of public life in the eighteenth century. She focuses on France, contrasting the role and representation of women under the Old Regime with their status during and after the Revolution. Basing her work on a wide reading of current historical scholarship, Landes draws on the work of Habermas and his followers, as well as on recent theories of representation, to re-create public-sphere theory from a feminist point of view.Within the extremely personal and patriarchal political culture of Old Regime France, elite women wielded surprising influence and power, both in the court and in salons. Urban women of the artisanal class often worked side by side with men and participated in many public functions. But the Revolution, Landes asserts, relegated women to the home, and created a rigidly gendered, essentially male, bourgeois public sphere. The formal adoption of "universal" rights actually silenced public women by emphasizing bourgeois conceptions of domestic virtue.In the first part of this book, Landes links the change in women's roles to a shift in systems of cultural representation.
Under the absolute monarchy of the Old Regime, political culture was represented by the personalized iconic imagery of the father/king. This imagery gave way in bourgeois thought to a more symbolic system of representation based on speech, writing, and the law. Landes traces this change through the art and writing of the period. Using the works of Rousseau and Montesquieu as examples of the passage to the bourgeois theory of the public sphere, she shows how such concepts as universal reason, law, and nature were rooted in an ideologically sanctioned order of gender difference and separate public and private spheres. In the second part of the book, Landes discusses the discourses on women's rights and on women in society authored by Condorcet, Wollstonecraft, Gouges, Tristan, and Comte within the context of these new definitions of the public sphere. Focusing on the period after the execution of the king, she asks who got to be included as "the People" when men and women demanded that liberal and republican principles be carried to their logical conclusion.
She examines women's roles in the revolutionary process and relates the birth of modern feminism to the silencing of the politically influential women of the Old Regime court and salon and to women's expulsion from public participation during and after the Revolution.