imagining citizens

I’ve been reading Annie K. Smart’s Citoyennes: Women and the Ideal of Citizenship in Eighteenth-Century France over the past few days, and as I read, I’m finding myself nodding along.  Moving away from – but still indebted to – scholars like Joan B. Landes, Carole Pateman and others who argued that women were actively excluded from political citizenship in the eighteenth century, Smart instead argues for a different vision of citizenship. Drawing on the insights of Uma Narayan, she asserts that citizenship is not just about public rights such as the right to vote or hold office, but it is about active engagement with and for the good of one’s society. As Smart writes:

A feminist vision of citizenship would embrace all members of a nation who actively participate in civic and political life….According to Narayan, citizenship is about belonging: ‘Citizenship has always been about membership, participation and belonging as well as about respect, dignity, status-equality, and a variety of rights.’ Citizenship is thus an active quality that demands participation in matters relating to the public good. (7)

I find this vision of citizenship immensely appealing. It responds to concerns I had when I first encountered the work of Landes, Pateman and others, and it also responds to my personal fascination with Rousseau. Now, Rousseau’s been a thorn in feminism’s side for a good while. Some feminist thinkers hate him. Some love him. Others find his work contradictory, ambiguous. Almost nobody is ambivalent. What is clear is that there is no single ‘feminist’ response to Rousseau. Nope, we’re all over the place on what Rousseau is saying and what his visions have to offer (or not). While I personally find Rousseau’s work problematic on some levels, I am also very much drawn into other aspects of his political vision and I’m really not ready to toss him overboard.

But back to Annie Smart. Smart’s argument is that the home was the key incubator of citizenship; it is in the home – and through the actions of nurturing mothers (mothers who nursed not only with their milk, but also with their care – that individuals developed their understandings of citizenship. In this conceptualization, the home is not a private, domestic space divorced from the political sphere; rather, it is integral to the political. It is the very birthplace of the citizen.

That people identified the home as a site of civic virtue is evident in the letters addressed to Tissot as well. While the performance of maternal virtue – the nursing mother, the doting mother, the mother who puts her health on the line for the sake of her child(ren) – is an obvious starting point, it’s also been very intriguing to read about virtuous fathers. Such fathers foreground their parental responsibilities, articulating a vision of citizenship premised not only on their own social positions as workers, but also on their roles and responsibilities as parents and further, on the health of their children (and how this health might affect their ability to contribute to the public good). Fatherhood and family are integral to their presentation of self. Equally interesting are the letters from individuals who experienced bodily distress as a result of family conflict. In these instances, bodies manifested emotional distress; in numerous cases, Tissot indicated that bodily disorder was the result of “chagrin” – grief as a result of discord and struggle.

If one thing is clear from reading these letters, it is that the family and the domestic were not imagined as passive or neutral spaces; rather, they were deeply implicated in questions of moral and civic virtue.

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