Utrecht Forum for Memory Studies


“La femme esclave:” Afterlives of Slavery and Abolitionism in Women’s Rights Movements

Sophie van den Elzen is a PhD candidate, funded by the Dutch Research Council. Her project examines how first-wave feminism mobilised the cultural memory of slavery and abolitionism.

The project entitled “La femme esclave:” Afterlives of Slavery and Abolitionism in Women’s Rights Movements in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, 1832-1914 examines the ways in which women’s rights discourses in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth were informed by the cultural memory of the antislavery struggle. Over the course of the long nineteenth century, the model of slavery and abolition was routinely invoked to express injustices suffered by women and mobilize for change, starting in 1832 when Saint-Simonian women in Paris invoked the language of abolitionism to legitimate their campaign for women’s rights, inciting public indignation.

From the “slavery” of married women to the “white slavery” of prostitution, this project seeks to answer the question: How did the cultural memory of the abolitionist movement in the Anglo-American world, carried into Europe by narratives in text and images, inform and help shape the discourse of women’s rights movements in Germany, France and the Netherlands? At the empirical level, the project will provide a new understanding of the international entanglements of social movements over a longer period; theoretically, it will add to our understanding of the transnational dynamics of cultural memory and reception processes by examining the unexpected ‘afterlives’ of the particularly evocative cultural narrative of antislavery as it changes over time and moves across space; methodologically, it seeks to mobilize methods of literary research to better understand discourses of social activism, developing a model for mapping reception through processes of dissemination, translation, and appropriation across borders.

This project is supervised by Prof. Dr. Ann Rigney and conducted in connection with the Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICON) at Utrecht University.