CLIO TALKS BACK: How long have we been fighting the war on poverty ?

Clio has been sorting through her many files. This one struck a chord. People nowadays (at least in the U.S.)tend to think that “wars on poverty” were invented quite recently, and that women’s disproportionate poverty is relatively new.

Read, then, to the words of Zoé Gatti de Gamond, a Belgian French-speaking “economic feminist”. Published in 1841-42 in Paris, her book on Charles Fourier and his system laid out arguments that are still relevant in the twenty-first century. Here is what she had to say, nearly 170 years ago:

“The most direct cause of women’s misfortune is poverty ; demanding their freedom means above all demanding reform in the economy of society which will eradicate poverty and give everyone education, a minimum standard of living, and the right to work. It is not only that class called “women of the people” for whom the major source of all their misfortunes is poverty, but rather women of all classes.

“From that comes the subjection of women, their narrow dependence on men, and their reduction to a negative influence. Men have thus materialized love, perverted the angelic nature of women, and created a being who submits to their caprices, their desires – a domesticated animal shaped to their pleasures and to their needs. Using their powers, they have split women into the appearance of two classes: for the privileged group, marriage, the care of the household, and maternal love; for the other, the sad role of seduced woman and of the misfortunate one reduced to the last degree of misery and degradation. Everywhere oppression and nowhere liberty.

“The question is not to decide whether it is fitting to give women political rights or to put them on an equal footing with men when it comes to admission to employment. Rather the question exists above all in the question of poverty; and to make women ready to fill political roles, it is poverty above all that must be effaced. Nor can the independence of women be reconciled with the isolation of households, which prevents even the working woman from being independent.

“The system of Fourier, imperceptibly and smoothly introducing associations within society, resolves all the difficulties in the position of women; without changing legislation or proclaiming new rights, it will regenerate them, silence the sources of corruption and reform with one blow education and morals with the single fact that results naturally from the associational principles of his system: a common education and the independence of women assured by the right to work [employment]; independence rendered possible by the association of households, attractive and harmonious work, and the multiplication of wealth.”

Clio asks you: do you think this is a “utopian” dream or a program for action? What elements can inform our action today?

Source: Zoé Gatti de Gamond, Fourier et son système (Paris: Capelle, 1841-42). pp. 247-66 ff. As translated in Bonnie G. Smith’s text Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700 (1989), pp. 174-75.