Anne Verjus : What did it take to be a radical and pragmatic feminist two hundred years ago? The strange case of the Chevalier Lawrence (1773-1840)

On The March 18, 2020

Postponed due to the pandemic

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Between 1773 and 1840 lived a man called James Henry Lawrence. The son of Jamaican planters who owned hundreds of slaves, he was born and educated to be a member of the British gentry: writing poetry, traveling and living off the wealth inherited from his parents. He could have ended in the army, like his younger brother, or he could have been a rich merchant, or a politician, like another of his brothers. But Lawrence decided he would do something very different: at the age of 20, he would write a feminist utopia. Whether he wanted it or not, this utopia, called “The Empire of the Nairs”, would become the most radical feminist utopia of his time. We’ll follow Lawrence in his utopia, trying to understand what it took, not so much to be so radical, but to think out of the box while dealing with humans as they are.

In this society, women would no longer need to be married, meaning, dependent on a man, to raise their children ; they would be their own masters, with their own resources and name ; they would no longer have to obey any man. Children would be raised by their mothers, and would no longer know the world “father”, etc. Men would be free from family burden, free to travel, free to be soldiers or legislators. They would be uncles, with no rights on their sisters’ children.
Lawrence did not only write this utopia : he would do almost nothing else but write, translate or rewrite it over the next 45 years. So we cannot say it’s an early work. This utopia is his “grand oeuvre”, it’s a lifetime belief, something he would bear in mind (and among his weary friends) until his death.
One question then is the following: how could a member of such a privileged class, in addition to being a man, write such a book? Was it just a matter of imagination? of being the most radical writer of his time?
The Empire of the Nairs was certainly an imaginary work. But unlike many other utopias of his time, it is not based on a different man, a more moral one for example, like the “homme régénéré” of the French Revolution. It is grounded in reality. First, it deals with anxiety, individualism and the inherent instability of humans. And second, it draws inspiration from examples around, finding women’s liberties and matrilineal habits in the European upper classes, especially among the Jamaican families.

Anne Verjus is a socio-historian, CNRS researcher and member of the Triangle Laborator. She has mainly published on the political situation of the women during the revolution. See for example Le Cens de la famille. Les femmes et le vote, 1789-1848 (Belin, 2002) ou Le Bon Mari (Fayard, 2010).

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