The woman question

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"The woman question" is a phrase usually used in connection with a social change in the later half of the 19th century, which questioned the fundamental roles of women in Western industrialized countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, and Russia. Issues of women's suffrage, reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, property rights, legal rights, and medical rights, and marriage dominated cultural discussions in newspapers and intellectual circles. While many women were supportive of these changing roles, they did not agree unanimously. Often issues of marriage and sexual freedom were most divisive.[citation needed]


"The woman question" originally referred to a broad debate in the 1530s in Europe as to whether women should be allowed to study in European universities. Both in the scholarly and popular sphere, authors criticized and praised women's natures, arguing for or against their capacity to be educated in the same manner as men. As classical Aristotelianism held that women are incapable of reason, many argued that women's nature prevented them from higher learning.[1] As the debate developed, some agreed that men were not naturally more intelligent than women - but argued that the female nature also prevented them from taking higher learning seriously.[1]

The debate over the nature and role of women can be understood in part as a development of the Romantic movement's exploration in fiction and drama (and opera) of the nature of 'man', of human beings as individuals and as members of society. In this, it is clearly prominent in such works as Die Walküre, Effi Briest, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, A Doll's House, and Hedda Gabler. Each of these treats women's emotional, social, economic, and religious lives.[citation needed]


First use[edit]

The term was first used in France: the querelle des femmes (lit. 'the question of women'). From 1450 into the years that witnessed the beginning of the Reformation, institutions controlled by the Catholic Church, had come into question. These debates extended to the relationships between men and women. Heinrich Agrippa contended that men in society did not oppress women because of some natural law, but because they wanted to keep their social power and status. This began a long literary quarrel which continued through the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution.[2]

On one side of the quarrel, many argued that women were inferior to men because man was created by God first, and were therefore stronger and more important. Also, much of Christianity, throughout the ages, has viewed women as the Daughters of Eve, the original temptress responsible for humanity being expelled from the Garden of Eden.[3] On the other hand, many believed that Eve was the deceived, not the deceiver. Agrippa argued for the nobility of women and thought women were created better than men. He argued that in the first place, women being made better than man, received the better name. Man was called Adam, which means Earth; woman Eva, which is by interpretation Life.[4] Man was created from the dust of the earth, while woman was made from something far purer. Agrippa's metaphysical argument was that creation itself is a circle that began when God created light and ended when he created woman. Therefore, women and light occupy adjacent points on the circle of creation and must have similar properties of purity.[citation needed]

Religious justifications were not the only sources of information regarding woman's nature. As Renaissance humanism developed, there was great interest in returning to classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Classical philosophy held that women were inferior to men at a physical level, and this physical inferiority made them intellectually inferior as well.[1] While the extent of this inferiority was hotly debated by the likes of Christine de Pizan and Moderata Fonte, women continued to be understood as inherently inferior to men, and this was the basis for preventing from women from attending universities or participating in the public sphere. [1]

Use during the Victorian Era[edit]

The term querelle des femmes is used in England in the Victorian era, stimulated, for example, by the Reform Act 1832 and the Reform Act 1867. The Industrial Revolution brought hundreds of thousands of lower-class women into factory jobs, presenting a challenge to traditional ideas of a woman's place.[5]

A prime issue of contention was whether what was referred to as women's "private virtue" could be transported into the public arena; opponents of women's suffrage claimed that bringing women into public would dethrone them, and sully their feminine virtue.[6]

Areas of discussion[edit]

The woman question was raised in many different social areas. For example, in the second half of the 19th century, in the context of religion, extensive discussion within the United States took place on the participation of women in church. In the Methodist Episcopal Church, the woman question was the most pressing issue in the 1896 conference.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d DiCaprio, Lisa, and Wiesner E, Merry. Lives and Voices: Sources in European Women's History. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2001
  2. ^ The Portable Rabelais, p. 370. ed. Samuel Putnam, 1964; Gisela Bock and Margarete Zimmermann, "The European Querelle des femmes." In: Medieval Forms of Argument: Disputation and Debate. Hrsg. Georgiana Donavin, Carol Poster, und Richard Utz. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002. S. 127-56.
  3. ^ Frize, Monique. Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy's Pioneering Female Professor. 1st ed. N.p.: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, n.d. Print.
  4. ^ "The Philosophy of Natural Magic: End Matter by Morley:The Nobility of Woman." The Philosophy of Natural Magic: End Matter byMorley: The Nobility of Woman. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.
  5. ^ Hudson, Dale; Adams, Maeve (2010). The Women Question. W.W. Norton and Company. Retrieved from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-11-09. Retrieved 2014-01-08. .
  6. ^ Parkman, Francis (January 1880). "The Woman Question Again". North American Review. 130 (278): 16–31. Retrieved 2009-12-14.  p. 17.
  7. ^ Through the North American Review, writers Sarah Grand and Ouida argued over the role of women in western society. "War on the Woman Question: It Will Be the Leading One Before the Methodist Episcopal Conference" (PDF). The New York Times. 1896-05-01. Retrieved 2009-12-14.