The contribution of Victor Hugo to the liberation, emancipation, and changing perceptions of women in 19th century French society

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Ní Riordáin, Jeanna
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University College Cork
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The over-riding perceptions of Victor Hugo’s attitudes towards women are intensely coloured by his deep-seated Romanticism and his well-testified, stifling and over-bearing treatment of women in his personal life. As such, Hugo’s contribution to the feminist struggle of his time has been woefully overlooked in the larger scheme of his social and political activism. Through a close examination of his largely unstudied public discourse on women’s rights, this thesis situates Hugo’s feminist views firmly in the context of Enlightenment feminism and 19th century feminism, while also drawing heavily on the illuminating principles of Enlightenment feminism. In particular, this thesis examines Hugo’s support for several of the most determining issues of 19th century French feminism, including women’s right to education, equal citizenship, universal suffrage rights, and the issue of regulated prostitution. Further, by examining the way in which Hugo’s views on women’s maternal role extended far beyond the limited vision of domesticity bolstered by the ideology of ‘republican motherhood’, this thesis engages in a re-appraisal of Hugo’s literary representation of maternity which identifies the maternal as a universal quality of devotion and self-sacrifice to which all humankind must aspire for the creation of a just, egalitarian, and democratic society. Though at times inevitably constrained by his Romanticism, this thesis demonstrates the extent to which Hugo’s feminism is grounded in his wider vision of social emancipation and is underpinned by a profound empathy, compassion, and moral conscience – qualities which are just as fundamental today, as they were for Hugo when participating in the fitful, though decisive, feminist struggle in 19th century France.
Victor Hugo , Feminism
Ní Riordáin, J. 2015. The contribution of Victor Hugo to the liberation, emancipation, and changing perceptions of women in 19th century French society. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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