This chapter situates the ‘woman question’ as an expansive and flourishing set of debates within political, literary and social thought in the nineteenth century. These debates represented an interrogation of the basic components of liberal and republican political argument – citizenship, property, access to the public sphere and political virtue. To talk of the ‘woman question’ is perhaps misleading, because there were many such ‘questions’. To name but a few, there were questions of single (or ‘surplus’) women, of the status of married women, of authority and the ‘struggle for the breeches’ in plebeian culture, of political rights, of professional status, of rationality, and of education. This chapter gives a schematic overview of the century, and cannot possibly do justice to the complex debates unfolding in each national context. I aim therefore to show the main currents of argument in Europe and the United States, pointing to national distinctiveness and divergence as well as shared transnational arguments and emphases. As a result, the treatment is only loosely chronological; arguments are grouped together thematically and different dimensions of the ‘woman question’ are discussed in turn. I outline some historiographical trends in examining ‘woman question’ debates, and point to the literature available to those seeking more concrete information. Specific campaigns that were highly influential for the women's movement (concerning property, child custody, higher education, prostitution or suffrage) can only be mentioned briefly, for the ‘woman question’ was a broader discourse than the summed activism of the ‘women's movement’. It represented a space for political argument in which the nature, implications and origins of sexual difference might be debated, and was regarded as intensely significant for both its symbolic and its practical import. In John Ruskin's words, ‘There never was a time when wilder words were spoken, or more vain imagination permitted, respecting this question – quite vital to all social happiness. The relations of the womanly to the manly nature, their different capacities of intellect or of virtue, seem never to have been yet measured with entire consent’ (Ruskin n.d. , p. 49).