Sexing Political Culture in the History of France

by Alison M. Moore


Gender and sexual imagery have played uniquely symbolic roles in the modern French history of politics, religious struggle, and nationalism. That role is particularly obvious at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with Islamic head-scarves occupying public debates, while the feminine head of the national icon Marianne still adorns the centre of the République Française logo, and female political representatives remain in sharp minority.

Not only in France but in numerous global cultures, modern nationalist ideologies have referenced gendered and sexual motifs in order to seduce, provoke and embed their political and social values in the population, or in order to inflame animosity toward competing nations and ideological enemies. Among them all France has most consistently placed gendered and sexual metaphors at the center of its political culture. France may have provided the prototype for the tendency toward gendered and sexualized imagery in European nationalisms of the nineteenth century, considering the politically influential nature of the first French republican experiment of 1789 and how widely its values were exported throughout Europe during the Napoleonic invasions. The mechanisms of transmission included both direct export and reactive competition, resulting in archetypes of the nation as a woman in Britain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and other countries whether Napoleon had planted a flag there or not. Indeed, the recurring Franco-Germanic conflict has often been the site of intense generation of gendered and sexualized images of the nation in both cultures, as several of the chapters in this volume demonstrate.

For gender and sexuality historians of France, it is obvious that complex layers of historical meaning are embedded in present-day anxieties about religion, women and the secular state. Indeed feminine icons, masculine ideals, sexual perversions and norms, women’s heads and gendered metaphors have been a feature of French political culture since the Middle Ages. Reflecting on the continuities and distinctions between these recurrent forms of preoccupation provides important clues to how and why such imagery continues to be inscribed within divisive contests over nationhood, ideology and identity.

This is not a book about the history of women, gender, or the history of sex per se, nor even about the history of sexuality in its narrower discursive sense, but is instead a study of the history of the particular uses to which gendered and sexual symbols have been put in the service of the nation, the republic, the revolution, religion, progress, race, colonialism, secularism, and the state. The genealogies traced here proliferated diffusely across state discourses, propaganda, and popular media, through historical precedence and cultural habit. The approaches employed to tease out their salience and examine their emergence and transmission are necessarily grounded in a diverse range of disciplinary approaches - political, cultural, social, and intellectual history, cinematic reading and contemporary feminist political analysis.

To invoke gender or sexual desire, perversion or difference, is to suggest something of our bodily experience, of our intimate relationships, of our parental imagos, and of our inner longings. Thus it gives the state, ideological communities or social elites the power to reach into popular imagination and activate symbols that will engage others in collective agendas––even those which may stand against their own particular social interests. That strategy became marked in times of nation-building and especially in times of war during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it pre-dated the modern nation state, as the copious evidence of sexual and gender discourse in religions of the medieval and early modern era suggests.

This edited volume is essential reading for scholars and students of the history of political culture, nationalism, gender and sexuality, the history of France or feminist studies.


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