Hal Draper with Anne Lipow

Women and Class

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Part 1: Class Roots of the Feminist Movement

Chapter 4
Sex and Sects:
The Trouble with the Utopians

The women’s movement that blossomed in the upswing of the French Revolution, and that was crushed by the Jacobins before they were in turn crushed by the Thermidorean reaction, had no visible continuator in the post-revolutionary period.

The last gasp of the Revolution, which was also the first breath of the modern socialist movement, was the so-called Conspiracy of the Equals in 1796. Led by “Gracchus” Babeuf, it came to grief quickly, and its leaders were executed. This Babouvist movement did not raise the question of women’s rights; the Equals were not that equal. Yet we learn incidentally that there were women militants among these rebels. At the end, a woman named Sophie Lapierre went on trial along with the men, and gave a better account of herself than most of her comrades. I wish we could find out more about this remarkable woman, but it is characteristic that historians are not very interested.

By that time it was perfectly clear that the Rights of Man meant the rights of men – not only in the Constitution of 1793, which was the formal platform of the Babouvists; not only in the minds of the leaders whom the Babouvists glorified, such as Robespierre and Marat; but also in the minds of the Babouvist revolutionaries themselves.

In fact, an especially reactionary blast on the question came from one of the prominent Babouvists who survived the 1796 debacle: viz., Sylvain Maréchal, the man who had actually drafted the Manifesto of the Equals for Babeuf’s band. “Maréchal l’Egalitaire” he was called, but it was not surprising that the Manifesto – which eloquently denounced all “revolting distinctions between the rich and the poor, the great and the little, masters and servants, rulers and ruled” – had nothing to say about half of humanity.

Worse: by 1801, with the old century and the old revolution both dead, Maréchal came out with an anti-feminist attack on the main issue still agitating what remained of the so-called Woman Question. This issue was: Should women be educated, or should they be kept in pleasing ignorance the better to perform their womanly duties? This question concerned upper-class women who had a chance to get an education; the workingwoman majority had long since sunk back into its customary invisibility. It was the educated bourgeois women who justly denounced Maréchal. Others, men and women, giggled in prose and in verse to make such powerful arguments as this:

Do not betray your charms
That are so very inviting.
Do you want to resemble the Muses?
Then inspire, but refrain from writing!

In the days of counter-revolution, male chauvinism descends to a sophomoric level.

The confluence of socialism and feminism, which had been heralded by the “Enragé” wing of the Revolution, was certainly not brought to realization by the Babouvists. Where then was a socialist feminism first encountered? The answer is: in an unlikely man named Charles Fourier. After Fourier, the cause of women’s rights and female emancipation was intertangled with that of socialism, right, left and center.

1. Fourier: The Pioneer

Fourier’s name is embalmed in histories of socialism with the label Utopian Socialist; but his utopianism was only one aspect of his significance. We are here concerned with another.

In modern terms Fourier was not very socialistic; his utopian blueprints did not entail the abolition of capitalism, and did not call for the elimination of private property in production. Indeed, he assumed the continued contrast of rich investors of capital on top and poor people on bottom, in almost as hierarchical a structure as the society he detested. What his New Order aimed at was particularly social rationality, as against the unreasonableness of a society based on hypocrisy, disorder, and planlessness. What he counterposed to the incoherent status quo was an alternative society invented freehand inside his own skull, down to small details. This was the utopian side of his lucubrations.

But Fourier’s blueprinted renovation of society was not limited to its social and economic arrangements. He had range. For example, as a patriotic Frenchman he was interested in reforming the gastronomic customs of his countrymen. And he also looked to a complete transformation in sexual relations as an accompaniment of social progress.

In this respect he was a pioneer in the history of social thought. At the same time – and this will have to be made clear in the pages to follow – his achievement in this field has often been overpuffed. There is a problem of balance.

Fourier’s most attractive statement of ideas is in his first book, which is darkly entitled Theory of the Four Movements. Here he polemizes, sometimes brilliantly, against many of the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of the sexual mores of the present “Period” of “Civilization” (both of these quoted words are technical terms in his ideological schema). His exposure of the institution of marriage as an oppressor of women and a form of licensed prostitution is so modern that you may read it without appreciating its originality, because it is so familiar today. His cry is freedom:

If God has given amorous customs so much influence over the social mechanism and the transformations it can undergo, this was a consequence of his horror at oppression and violence; he wanted the happiness or unhappiness of human societies to be proportional to the constraint or freedom they allow. Now God recognizes as freedom only that which extends to both sexes and not one alone ...

Real freedom would mean that women’s innate superiority to men would have a chance to flower. It is wrong to “judge women by their present ways, by the pretences they are driven to by our customs, which deny them any freedom ...” Harem odalisks regard themselves as “automatons created for men’s pastime,” but “how much greater a difference would there be between our ladies and those of a well-ordered nation in which the sex would be elevated to full freedom!”

This leads Fourier to his famous thesis about the relation between women’s freedom and the level of civilized advancement – the thesis that Marx and Engels liked to quote, along with many other socialists. “It has been seen,” wrote Fourier, “that the best nations were always those that gave women the most liberty ... It can likewise be observed that the worst nations have always been those that subjected women the most ...”

As a general thesis: Social advances and changes in Period are brought about in proportion to the progress of women toward liberty, and declines in the Social Order are brought about in proportion to the decrease in the liberty of women. These political changes are influenced by other events, but no cause so rapidly produces progress or social decline as a change in women’s lot ... In summary, the extension of women’s privileges is the general principle of all social progress.

The main qualification to be made is that this statement does not distinguish clearly between the role of women’s “liberty” (equality of rights) as a direct cause of progress and as a sensitive barometer of progress, or of course a mixture of the two.

One of Fourier’s strongest suits was his exposure not only of marriage but of the many and various hypocrisies of contemporary society. In general, it was his critical side that had the most lasting impact on the development of socialist feminism, not his utopian blueprints.

Typical of Fourier is his biting dissection of the traditional male libertine pattern: the man spends his youth seducing as many women as possible; then, grown older and perhaps less robust, he looks to make a “good” marriage and “settle down,” but naturally the favored woman must be chaste and pure and guaranteed to remain so indefinitely. Fourier asks:

On retiring from the social world, why don’t men take women matured by experience, like themselves? ... It is amusing that Civilized men, who pride themselves on surpassing women in rationality, demand that at the age of 16 women should possess the rationality which they themselves do not acquire till they are 30 or 40, after wallowing in debauchery during their golden youth.

He attacks the philosophes of the Enlightenment, including by name Rousseau, “who spouts about relegating women to housewifery,” yet in his Confessions celebrates the “courtesans and complaisant charmers” he ardently pursued. “How would he have gained these diversions if all the ladies had followed his precepts and lived only for a husband? That’s philosophers for you: they declaim against wealth, honors and pleasures, and go after them like mad, under the pretext of reforming the world and its morals.” These philosophers “concern themselves about the Domestic Order only to rivet tighter chains on the weaker sex.” They denounce young people who can still do what age now denies them, like the envious oldsters cited by Horace, who “Disqualified from pleasures that youth abuses, / Condemn them for the boon that age refuses.”

This is Fourier at his best.

2. Fourier: The Short-Sighted Visionary

Fourier’s superiority to the prejudices of his day may make us charitable toward his weaknesses, but we must see what his weaknesses are. For in the end Fourier will capitulate to those prejudices. The root of his failure was that he approached the question of equality for women from the side of the problem of sexual freedom, not equal rights – and he stuck there.

These two questions have been intertwined throughout the history of the so-called “woman question,” mostly from the male viewpoint. It is the old society that insisted on linking them inextricably. The philistines always had the smirking conviction that sociopolitical rights for women could not be separated from sexual freedom, and that sexual liberty meant sexual libertinism; hence freeing women from even the worst legal chains meant taking a first step toward moral anarchy.

Social radicals have therefore always faced the need to distinguish. There is a vital distinction between concern for women’s rights (or liberty), founded on the aspiration for human freedom, and rejection of all restrictions on sexuality imposed by current social mores. This distinction is clearer in our day than ever before. Precisely because so many veils have been lifted, we plainly see the contemporary phenomenon of “sexual freedom” advocates who are only a new type of oppressors and exploiters of women. Many of the latter deserve the Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year award – from the Henry Miller type, whose anti-establishment rebellion masks the fact that he regards women as sexual objects only, to the Playboy Club sexploiter. To these champions of sexual freedom, women’s emancipation operationally means their emancipation from sexual inhibitions the better to make them available to “emancipated” men for purposes that have nothing to do with social equality.

Even in Fourier’s first book – which we quoted above, and which is easily his best on this issue – his views on women’s rights were embedded in, and almost incidental to, his exposition of the coming delights of sexual permissiveness in his utopia. In this and later books, he devoted most space not to women’s rights and social equality but to such burning questions as the sixty-four varieties of cuckoldry in modern society. This may make amusing reading, but it reflects his distorted emphasis.

Much more important to Fourier than women’s equal rights were his blueprints for sexual life in his utopia. In Theory of the Four Movements he describes a rather complex and perfectly arbitrary pattern of male-female living groups, where sexual relations resemble group marriage; and he freely lays down restrictive patterns and regulations for various pairing relationships. This is the sort of social engineering he delights in working out on paper, with artificial detail piled on detail – all “logically” deduced from abstractions about human nature. His phalansteries (blueprinted communities) wind up being a variation on the medieval monastery or convent pattern which practised the opposite of his precepts.

That this was what Fourier was mainly interested in became even more evident after his first book. Women’s rights and equality were more and more muted; the blueprints for the sexual revolution of the New World of Love filled an ever larger portion of his mental horizon. The result was seen in a book whose bulky manuscript he left unfinished, Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux. After his death, his cautious disciples suppressed it, being apprehensive enough about bourgeois indignation at the “immoral” material Fourier had already published. (It appeared in print only in 1967.) In all its 500-odd printed pages, there is next to no attention paid to the social problem of women’s equality.

Here is a political portent. In our own day, the anthology of Fourier’s writings, The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, edited by Beecher and Bienvenu, pays much attention to the “sexual freedom” side of Fourier and includes many excerpts from his unfinished manuscript; but it neglects precisely those writings by Fourier on women’s emancipation that were famous among his contemporaries and most influential for generations. This same pattern is reflected in the editors’ Introduction, a substantial essay. It does not contain a sentence devoted to Fourier’s views on women’s sociopolitical freedom and the influence of his views for the history of the issue. This contrast speaks eloquently about the various guises of sexism.

The change in Fourier’s writings does not necessarily mean that he changed his views; it is a question of what he thought important. He needed hundreds of pages for his loving concentration on varieties of sexual encounter, “orgies,” incest, polygamy, and other fascinating questions, and none to mention whether women really had equal rights in his Nouveau Monde Amoureux. It is a testimonial to the ambiguous meaning of “sexual freedom.” Freedom for what and whom?

What Fourier sees in central place is not freedom for women but, rather, freedom of access to women – for emancipated men like himself, who rightly rejected the contemporary patterns of both libertinism and decorous morality. In this sense, for all his advanced contributions, Fourier remained within the boundaries of sexism.

This motive drive is one of two reasons why his Theory of the Four Movements addressed itself to men, and to men’s interests, in proposing its reforms. The other reason was that it is the Master Sex that had to be convinced, since it controlled society. Fourier, we know, had a broad streak of cunning-opportunist practicality alongside his visionary fancy. His catalogue of the defects of the marriage institution very systematically lists its disadvantages for men.

This appeal to men’s interests was not simply a tactic, for it merged into his tendency to soft-pedal all issues of women’s rights. If he began by subordinating women’s interests, he ended by rejecting them in practice. Already in Theory of the Four Movements he assured his readers that at present he proposed no demands for women’s emancipation or equality of rights. Indeed, he began to say that he strongly opposed any such changes or reforms in present society, as distinct from the beautiful future.

After having made a strong argument for women’s “freedom” in his first book, he appeared to be alarmed by his own daring, and hastened to assure that he had no unorthodox proposals for now:

I do not mean to ... suggest that the spirit of liberty should be instilled in women. To be sure, it is necessary for each social period to mold youth to revere the dominant absurdities ... [J]ust as I would condemn a Barbarian who raised his daughters in the ways of Civilization though they would never live under it, I would likewise condemn a Civilized man who raised his daughters in the spirit of liberty and reason appropriate to the 6th and 7th Periods [of the happy Fourierist future], which we have not reached.

From his analysis of how society has made women “weak,” he concludes that since they are weak, they need masters at present. Since he has proved that women are thoroughly rotten creatures, how can such rotten products of this society be granted freedom? Changes in their lot are scheduled only for the happy tomorrow after the Fourierist phalansteries have operated for generations. Let the spirit of liberty be “instilled” in women only after society has been revolutionized - – by the men, of course.

It is easy enough to show how this practical conclusion collided with arguments adduced in other chapters; for Fourier was two-headed on the subject. He did have a passage in his first book which implied that his proposed sexual revolution was an immediate objective. Its “various delights” for the voluptueux were promised for “the present generation,” as soon as the New Order was organized. “I insist on the nearness of this good fortune; for in matters of pleasure one does not like delays.” He tells the reader titillatingly that he has refrained from giving the whole picture, “lifting only a corner of the curtain,” because a view of the whole picture “would cause too much enthusiasm, especially among the women.” It is the language of the carnival barker. Later on in the same book, his other head tells him to stress the remoteness of the prospect in order not to épater la bourgeoisie more than it can stand.

In later books, especially under the increasingly cautious influence of disciples who were more interested than he in total respectability, he wrote more than once that the aforedescribed delights could not be expected for as much as a hundred years after the coming of the New Order. He assured his public that the new “extension of liberties in love” which he had committed to paper “will be introduced only by degrees and not suddenly ...” It will have to be “voted for by the fathers and husbands over the entire globe.” Still later, he asserted that “I have often said: the innovations will never take place except after unanimous votes of the fathers and husbands.” The thing is now only a visionary fancy.

Visionary indeed: for Fourier the emancipation of women was a vision – a vision to dangle before dazzled eyes, not a programmatic plank to fight for. The utopianism of this utopian was not a matter of his visionariness but of his short-sightedness; he could not see the realities of political struggle.

Fourier’s great thesis – that social progress is proportional to women’s liberation – may have been exaggerated in form but it had the merit of pointing to a cogent conclusion: the condition of women is not only a barometer of social progress but also a lever. It follows that there is good reason to fight for women’s liberation now – especially now. Fourier did not understand the contradiction between his historical thesis and his practical operation precisely because of his utopianism; he understood only dangling visions.

There is a related contradiction, common to prophets who denounce the status quo. Fourier “proves” so thoroughly that contemporary society debases and corrupts women that it becomes impossible to see how the degenerate and mutilated products of the system can change it. Yet he exhorts them to do so; he wants them to rise up as soon as they read his consciousness-raising revelations about their own stultification. In effect he tells women: Poor women, you have been degraded into animals. It’s not your fault, but you’re pretty worthless creatures, you know. And now that I have told you this, I can’t understand why you female canaille don’t immediately turn into Joans of Arc.

The necessary result of this nonsense is, first, disillusionment; next, the conclusion that salvation can never come from the debased canaille themselves, but from above – that is, from those who did the debasing. To save the victim there is only the executioner. This is illogical, but it has the advantage of being an easy delusion to hang on to; for this solution requires only one messiah, one enlightened Teacher, one Good Despot, one progressive capitalist, or one Maximum Leader.

There is a straight road from the one-sided and mechanical thesis of the debasement of the victim by society to the authoritarian solution of the Savior from Above. It was Marx who offered the solution to this dilemma: the victimized mass becomes fit to rule only through the process of its own struggle against victimization. The social and political class struggle is a school, not merely a battlefield. But utopianism has no solution to the dilemma, no matter how pleasingly it dangles its visions.

Finally, let us give the helm a turn or two the other way, in the name of balance.

While it is superficial to hail Fourier uncritically as a modern prophet, I think it is no better simply to condemn him for his inadequacies. The historical fact is that it was the strong side of Fourier that, in fact, had the most impact on the socialist movement as it converged with feminism. Fourier’s queasy arguments against women’s-rights-now were pushed into the background in the furor over his powerful exposure of the moral hypocrisy of society.

It was not Fourier’s disciples who were responsible for this development. On the contrary: these followers soon developed into a pinkish reformist sect under Victor Considérant, and did their utmost to conceal or gloss over their founder’s deviations from respectable morality. No, it was the Establishment itself that ensured Fourier’s influence by making him the target of their outraged denunciation. This is a historical service that the ruling elements in society have rendered time and again. Fourier became a révolutionnaire malgré lui. Socialism, done in by its friends again and again, can often depend on its enemies to keep it in the ways of truth.

3. The Saint-Simonians: Into the Bog

If Fourier’s feminism was not carried forward by the Fourierists, who did? The answer is: this was done by the Saint-Simonian group which developed in the late 1820s.

It is ironic that the founder of Saint-Simonianism, Count Claude Henri de Saint-Simon himself, had virtually ignored the issue. The two tendencies, Fourierist and Saint-Simonian, went in opposite directions on this point as they developed: in the one case the Founder had pushed the issue to a high point, and his followers tried to bury it; in the other, this pattern was reversed.

True, Saint-Simon had once made a passing allusion to admitting women to membership in one of his hierarchical ruling bodies; but in fact he had no interest in women’s rights, and little interest in anyone’s rights. Saint-Simon was the most authoritarian of any of the early socialistic ideologists. This characteristic was carried over to the circle of followers who grouped themselves after the Founder’s death around the periodical Le Producteur, with Olinde Rodrigues as editor and Saint-Amand Bazard and Prosper Enfantin as its leading thinkers. “We call for order and proclaim the strongest and most unitary hierarchy for the future” – this is what they taught when they started giving lectures in 1828. If there was no question of equal rights for men, there was hardly any reason for equal rights for women, except insofar as equality was furthered by equally subjecting both sexes to the demands of hierarchical power.

Bazard, who was the dominant mind in the first period of the group’s existence, was strongly influenced by Fourier’s ideas on the woman question. It was under his leadership that the Saint-Simonian disciples became both semi-socialistic and pro-feminist. In particular Bazard adopted a number of Fourierist doctrines: that the real unit of society was neither the man nor the woman but the couple, the Male-Female unit; that the present marriage institution was an instrument for the subordination of women, and that marriages should be freely dissoluble; and that the double standard in sex morality should be rejected. These views went far to condemn women’s unfairly subordinate role in present society. But Bazard was for monogamous marriage, meaning the equal obligation of both partners to maintain fidelity unless the bond was dissolved.

Bazard started talking about these issues in the lectures of 1828–1830 which were later published as the Exposition de la Doctrine de Saint-Simon. They had not been mentioned in Le Producteur. In general, the social-political content of Saint-Simonianism as a movement reached its apogee in Bazard’s lectures, and the influence of the tendency in France and in nearby countries mounted especially after the impetus given by the “July Revolution” of 1830, which shook up all of politics. By November of that year, the group acquired a daily paper when Pierre Leroux’s Globe went over to Saint-Simonianism. In fact, almost everything that is positive in the blossoming of this early socialist tendency was associated with the leadership of Bazard.

But when in late 1829 the group had organized itself as a “Church,” a religion, it had consecrated two popes to head its hierarchical structure: Bazard and Enfantin. This was one pope too many. This is not the place to review the whole story, but, in brief, Enfantin reached out for sole power and made a successful takeover coup in November 1831. The issue on which Enfantin based his coup, and on which the movement was wrecked, was the woman question.

Anyway, Enfantin claimed it was the woman question. In fact, the issue had nothing to do with women’s rights or freedom except in rhetoric. The issue was Enfantin’s proposal to recast the movement to subordinate social-political issues, and put something else in first place: viz., rejection of the conventional sex morality of society, “sexual freedom.”

Enfantin’s leadership increasingly subordinated the movement’s concerns with human exploitation and economic rationalization to the watchword of “Emancipation of the flesh,” which became probably the best-known slogan promulgated by socialists in the first half of the century. A month before the crisis and coup, in October 1831, Enfantin had proposed breaking out of the monogamous restriction advocated by Bazard. Those men and women, he said, who possessed a “mobile” nature foreign to “constancy” should not be bound by the restrictions of conventional mores. On November 21 he announced his takeover to the group as a fait accompli, take it or leave it: “I am not a presiding chairman, nor even a tutor or teacher. I am not even a priest – I am THE Father of Humanity!” Some dissidents walked out on the messiah.

At the same session Enfantin made clear that the issue had nothing to do with advocating more rights for women or greater equality for them than Bazard was willing to countenance. What he aimed for was the emancipation of men, primarily, from restriction to one sexual partner at a time. He revealed that this was the key to all problems of society.

In a speech ex cathedra, Enfantin informed the flock that the Saint-Simonian women would henceforth have a new status. Since “woman is still a slave” and we men must liberate her, Saint-Simonian women will no longer be eligible for the higher degrees in the hierarchy. The whole movement must revolve around the “Call for the Woman,” that is, the mystical search for The Woman who would occupy the supernal throne alongside the Father of Humanity – some day. But pending the discovery of this paragon, the unliberated women who were actually there in the unemancipated flesh were to be second-class sisters. “Our Apostolate is an apostolate of men,” he proclaimed; only men can be classé in the hierarchy because men “have long had their complete liberty with respect to women” but not vice versa.

“There is our new position with respect to women,” he summed up. No woman could any longer appear on a Saint-Simonian platform as its preacher; no woman could now be a part of the elite leadership (called The Family). Their consolation was, however, that they could consider themselves to be leaders of all the rest of the women in the world (who of course paid no attention).

Woman was henceforth “enthroned” beside Enfantin – on an empty chair. There has never been a more blatant case of the Pedestal Ploy.

The new line was announced at a public rally on November 27. Enfantin made his speech, beaming on his audience from his divine cloud: “Our Apostolate can be exercised as yet only by men; the Free Woman has not yet spoken ...” Of course, “the moral law of the future is the equality of men and women,” but the audience had no reason to hold their breaths waiting for the great moment. Then Rodrigues made his pitch for money contributions with an appeal to “Bankers, capitalists, workers!” in that order, and they proceeded to incorporate a Saint-Simonian financial institution to handle their business interests.

This was the beginning of the end for Saint-Simonianism. Another great event took place that same month. During the “three glorious days” of November 21–23 came the uprising of the canuts (silk-weaving workers) of Lyons – the first great revolt of the modern proletariat in Europe. At the time, the Saint-Simonians sincerely deplored this movement. While expressing sympathy with canut grievances, they condemned not only the weavers’ resort to force but also their defiance of high authority (a serious offence in the framework of Saint-Simonian ideas). Editor Michel Chevalier averred truthfully: “we are and we have been the firmest supporters of real order in France.” But the truth was of no avail. The government authorities had found disturbing evidences of Saint-Simonian sympathies among the Lyons workers, and this fact impressed them much more than Saint-Simonian protestations. The government set out to persecute the sect out of existence.

Having adopted this aim, the Paris government seized on the handiest pretext for a witch-hunt: not the Saint-Simonians’ real social and political views which had “corrupted” the Lyons workers, but a more sensitive issue: the issue of sex morality, which Enfantin was now handing them gratis.

The day after the November 27 rally, the government moved for an indictment. In January the police raided the Saint-Simonian premises, closed its rallies, and arrested a group of leaders, including Enfantin. During the ensuing trial in August 1832, Enfantin – instead of seeking to keep the spotlight on the radical social views which were the real reason for the crackdown – made the prosecution’s job easy by his grandstand plays against sex morality.

Enfantin believed in symbols, as we have seen – especially empty and dramatic ones. He came into court, refusing to accept defence attorneys, with two Saint-Simonian women whom he pretended to introduce as his counsel. But he was quite willing to assert in court that he stood for the political superiority of men over women. Reason: men think of the Big Family (society) while women are concerned with the small family, with domestic life ... The prosecution, on its part, made a big thing of an article in the Saint-Simonian Globe advocating that men and women should “without jealousy, give themselves to several,” and so on.

As the public ate up all this spicy stuff about Free Love (it was still spicy in those days), the government did not have to worry about criticism of the social order or the lot of the weavers.

So in the course of a few months under the Father of Humanity, the Saint-Simonian movement was sidetracked into a bog; turned toward the issue of “sexual freedom” instead of women’s rights; set up for an easy government crackdown; and cast in the public mind as a circus for crazies.

Of the subsequent history of the Saint-Simonian sect, I think the most often quoted fact is this: the disciples wore a special kind of garment that buttoned down the back to symbolize the need of brothers to help each other, since one could not button it oneself. As we saw, Enfantin was great on symbols. One remembers that the best-known garment answering this description is – the straitjacket.

4. The Two Faces of Cabet

By the 1840s, as we will see, there were other socialistic tendencies of interest in the history of women’s rights; but of the utopian sects there is a last one to be considered before we end this chapter.

Among the French sects, the banner of feminism seemed to be taken over by the movement founded by Etienne Cabet, which he called “Icarian Communism.” Cabet had published the most detailed utopian blueprint of all, in his novelistic Voyage en Icarie (1840); on the other hand, Cabet (not personally a fantasist) proceeded to organize the most down-to-earth social-political movement around his ideas. He was very much aware of the value of the woman question in gaining adherents from half the population, and he wanted to use it for all it was worth.

The result was a series of contradictions between word and deed which force us to make a cynical but justified explanation: Cabet himself did not favor a single concrete step of any importance that would increase women’s rights, but he tried to write and speak so as to give women the impression that he did. He had a good deal of success in this exercise in doubletalk: Jeanne Deroin (whom we will meet later) looked on Cabet as the left’s leading proponent of women’s rights. She was taken in.

To be sure, by the 1840s there was no vast number of people who even pretended to be for advances in feminist rights. The Saint-Simonians had collapsed, and anyway their crackpottish transformation of the issue was not a help but a hindrance. The Fourierist group under Victor Considérant was doing its best to be as respectable as possible. At least Cabet made noises about women’s rights; this was the homage he paid to feminism.

Cabet’s exercise in two-facedness started in his movement bible, the Voyage to Icaria itself. The book contains a direct statement that in Icaria “husband and wife are equals.” But many pages away, it also has the nearest thing to an Orwellism that I have seen written down in complete seriousness: the husband is more equal. This is what Cabet writes: “I should like the law to proclaim, as in Icaria, equality between husband and wife, only making the voice of the husband the preponderant one ...”

In fact, wherever Icaria gets concrete, women’s role and rights get to look more and more like the existing society. Women cannot vote, or hold office, or participate in the political life of this utopia. The typical family is patriarchal: a grandfather orders everyone around like the patriarch of a French peasant family. While women may work at outside jobs (this is a bit of modernism) they are still responsible for the household chores. Icarian morality is more prudish and hidebound than advanced French society of the time. The Icarians boast that there are no cabarets, taverns, or other dens of iniquity, but instead there are fine public privies everywhere. Typically, we are told that education is the same for boys and girls, but when we learn the details we find that after adolescence girls are taught the “womanly” arts (housework, cooking, specializations like dressmaking, etc.). There is actually a “cult of woman” in Icaria – it was enjoined by the Founder in just those words – but this is only the Pedestal Ploy again.

This two-timing two-step, or sex shuffle, was continued by Cabet all through his subsequent political movement. Again it must be emphasized that his distinction lay in the assiduity of his lip service; few others bothered to deceive feminists in this fashion. C.H. Johnson has documented this aspect of the Icarian movement; for example, he describes how at a meeting in the midst of the 1848 revolution Cabet managed to avoid coming out for woman suffrage while Jeanne Deroin came away from the meeting believing that he had endorsed the cause. His organ Le Populaire had a regular feuilletonist who was a woman and a feminist (writing under a masculine name), but eventually this Jenny d’Héricourt broke with Cabet and told the truth about his views.

Yet, for all that, it would be superficial to dismiss Cabetism as simply a matter of hypocrisy, though it was hypocritical. In a way we have already seen, Cabet served malgré lui. Illusions too are social realities in a sense; they have an effect. Jenny d’Héricourt, even in her denunciation of Cabet, was probably right in maintaining that Icarian Communism as a doctrine was responsible for advertising the “great truth ... that the liberty of woman is identical with that of the masses.” We have seen how Reaction itself made the views of Fourier and the Saint-Simonians into a cause célèbre; we can also see that political hypocrisy gave some valuable cover to militant women in the period leading up to the revolutions of 1848–1849.

What we have not yet seen is any political basis for integrating socialist and feminist ideas – other than Fourier’s general formula. And we have not yet met anyone who advocated complete equal rights for women now. Nothing like this emerged from any of the utopian movements despite their reputation for vision and visionariness. But by Cabet’s time it had already been done in England – by a man and a woman who were not utopians.

Last updated on 12 September 2020