In her ‘Unofficial Defence’ of Louis XVI, Olympe de Gouges concludes her argument with the following:
Louis Capet’s greatest crime, it must be conceded, was to be born a king at a time when philosophy was silently laying the foundations of the republic.
What did Olympe mean when she said that philosophers had laid the foundations of the republic? Though we often hear that Rousseau and Voltaire were great influences for the French Revolution, it often feels as if we’re reading them back into history while they probably weren’t all that significant. Why would a mostly uneducated people – those who took the Bastille, or marched to Versailles – know or care anything about the philosophers of the Enlightenment?
But if it is a myth that Rousseau and Voltaire had laid the foundations for the Revolution, it is not a recent one. In 1817, two years after the restoration of the Bourbon family on the French throne, the church issued a pastoral letter, to be read at mass throughout the country and posted on church doors.
This document denounced two new editions of the works of Voltaire and Rousseau and went on to argue at length that the works of these philosophers were mostly responsible for the Revolution:
Their writings have perverted public character and morals […] it is to the principles of incredulity, immorality and rebellion they present so seductively that France owes the first attempts of those who provoked its revolution, the prestige of so-called rights of the people, which led so many crowned heads to the scaffold, and threatened all nations with a universal upheaval, civil wars, an armed confusion, which, abandoned to its fluctuations will have been for humanity nothing short of a first hell, which would have continued, and grown more terrible each day, until the end of days.
(Mandement de messieurs les vicaires généraux du chapitre métropolitain de Paris, 9 Fevrier 1817. (20))
We might be tempted to dismiss this pastoral as an isolated eccentricity but it did not go unnoticed by the French people.
In March 1817 The popular satirical song writer P.J. de Beranger composed a song with the title of the edict: ‘Mandement des vicaires generaux de Paris to be sung to the tune of another song: Allez voir a St Cloud’. The song was reported and printed in L'Esprit des journaux franc̜ais et étrangers, Volume 468 April 1817 alongside a review of a volume of Voltaire’s complete works. (p266).
The song, which was still being printed 50 years later is composed of 20 verses of 8 lines each, with the refrain (in the 6thand 8thline): 'C’est la faute de Voltaire, C’est la faute de Rousseau' (It’s Voltaire’s fault, it’s Rousseau’s fault).
The song remained popular, and when Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables four decades later, he gave a version of the song to his young hero, the street boy Gavroche.
Here’s a version of the song with the lyrics translated into English.
But the best version of this song was sung in 1980 by 12 year old Fabrice Ploquin, who played Gavroche in the original musical Les Miserables, by Claude-Michel Schönberg. (The lyrics were unfortunately lost in translation when the musical became a Broadway success)
On 12 Pluviose, An VI, or 31 January 1798, Sophie de Grouchy wrote a letter asking for her name and that of her deceased husband to be struck off a register of the French people who had emigrated during the Revolution.
Being on that list meant that all of one’s property could be confiscated. At that time Sophie was struggling to make ends meet for herself and her extended family.
Their names had been added to that list after Condorcet’s disappearance, following his being proclaimed an outlaw. Because Condorcet was in hiding, and because his death went unreported for several months, it was assumed that he’d left the country.
On the other hand, Sophie had officially divorced him, and she was a registered occupant of a house in Auteuil, where she been nearly arrested on more than one occasion.
In the letter, Sophie stated that she could provide ample evidence for the fact that neither she nor Condorcet had left the country. She submitted 13 pieces, including certificates of her residence in Auteuil, a passport for her to travel to Villette to visit her father, and a report on the death of Condorcet.
Sophie’s letter was then forwarded to the Minister of the Police so that he could make a very prompt report.
The report was indeed prompt – the decision is dated two days later - but it was not succinct: and the same dossier containing Sophie’s letter, also has several lengthy documents detailing the request that hers and Condorcet’s name be taken off the list. The decision states that there is no need to call forward witnesses (she had provided a long list, with Cabanis listed first) and that the presence of Grouchy and Condorcet’s names on the list was clearly a consequence of the persecution Condorcet had been subjected to during the Terror.
It must have helped that the Directoire was in power at the time of her request, the government in which her friends, the ideologues, played an important role. It’s also likely that this was how she eventually found out that the reason she could not reclaim her or Condorcet’s property was that they were listed as immigrants, and therefore, in debt to the government.
Sophie’s bout of poverty is what led her, according to her daughter, to publish her translation of Adam Smith, the translation to which she appended her letters. So without this particular injustice, we may never have known the Letters on Sympathy.
As I'm still catching up with a mound of 'stuff', this week I'm sharing another one in my series of portraits of women philosophers at work, paired with fictional extracts from their diaries. This week it's Olympe de Gouges, proofreading her Rights of Women (which she did and which is evidence against the 'mauvaises langues' that she could read and write perfectly well) with a fictional extract from a diary from the spring 1792.
Standing at the printer again, and again, as I read my proofs, I think of more to add. The printer grumbles, but really he doesn’t mind. He’ll just charge me more, and I’ll be poorer and my text will be full of mistakes, because these words will be set and printed along with the proofs.
I am incensed against the driver who brought me here. He wants to charge me three times what the normal cost is. Just because I am a woman, well-dressed and coming from Auteuil, he thinks he can lord it over me, and threaten me with the lantern if I protest. But I know my rights - I too am a citizen and he’ll answer to the authorities. I’ll see to it even if I have to waste the entire day.
As I scribble furiously, the printer’s son is looking at me, from the corner of his eye. No doubt he’s heard the rumor that I can’t write. Why else would I have a secretary after all? Well, any idiot who checks my handwriting against the neat letters that Jean produces will know: I write messily. And it’s true, I never did learn to write well. The sisters at the school were much more interested in teaching us to embroider, or just keeping us out of trouble. But how dare they assume I can’t write! It’s not even as though I’m only writer who uses a secretary - Condorcet does. His handwriting is not so messy as mine, perhaps, but try copying his tiny dry script, with lines crossed out in thick ink and illegible scribbles in the margins! Except that they know he can write, that he was educated by the best. How could an Academician not know how to write!
I pause and I stare hard at the boy. He looks down and scuffles off to the back of the shop. My reputation maybe that of an illiterate, but a scary illiterate!
Because I'm very jet=lagged from my trip to the APA in Vancouver, this week instead of a post I will share part of a less philosophical project - a series of portraits of women philosophers at work, paired with fictional extracts from their diaries. So here is Sophie de Grouchy, depicted writing her Letters on Sympathy and with a fictional extract from a diary from January 1794.
Silk stays, linen shifts, neck ruffles. It’s all in order. Cardot clearly has a way with women’s underwear. He has a way with the customers too - charming, and not intimidating, so that they feel they can ask him for their intimate needs, or that of their mistresses in some cases still - not all class privilege is gone! I must remember to pick up a new shift for my old nanny before I go. And shirt sleeves for my sister, Charlotte. None of us want stays - one good thing about the revolution is that we have loosened our underwear! Also, I could not possibly walk all the way from Auteuil dressed like a lady. I will take off my peasant dress, now I’m here, and put on my work clothes which are waiting for me upstairs, in the studio. I have three commissions to catch up on. Two that pay, and one for free, a portrait of a young girl who is at the Conciergerie, for her mother. I could not bear to charge her for it. I am late though, and I wouldn’t be if it were not for those men who came to arrest me and Cardot last week. I spent days painting their portraits, just so they would leave us alone. Not that they had any grounds to arrest us. I am no longer married to Condorcet, and Cardot is working for me, not for my husband, nor for his brother, my husband’s secretary.
I do enjoy the painting - when it’s not for a brute of a police man. I miss the writing. Of course, I help my husband (I still call him that - the divorce is on paper only). Everyday I see him, which is most days except when I think I might be followed, or at the weekend, I spend an hour or so reading what he has written, and discussing it with him. I dare not take it with me - I don’t want it discovered in a search and destroyed. But I know I will have to look after it, eventually, and keep it safe until it can be published and until Condorcet can come out of hiding.
I say we work together - and we do - but of lated I feel most of my efforts are directed to helping him feel better. He is not looking after himself, and his spirits are depressed. His landlady, his saintly landlady, is helping of course. And most of the time, he dares not refuse the food she offers him. But there is only so much she can do. Only so much I can do too. I keep telling him that soon it will be over, and that he'll come back home to me and our daughter, but it seems he does not have the patience to wait any more.
The Code Napoleon, first modern civil code which spelt out the laws regarding marriage, and inheritance in its first part and, although it has been revised several times since its publication in 1804, is still very influential in French civil life.
One of the principal aims of the new code was to free the family from the shackles of the church and prejudice. Marriage is described as a contract whereby men and women acquire certain rights and duties pertaining to each other and their children. It is possible to see this project as in part defending women’s positions, by making it a public, rather than a private matter. In particular the reforms of the divorce law, while making it harder for a marriage to be dissolved by mutual agreement, also made it nearly impossible for a man to divorce his wife once she was no longer young.
But the code is nonetheless very asymmetrical – husbands owe wives protection, but wives owe husbands obedience (article 214) and a wife is obliged to live where her husband decides (215) and cannot plead in her own name unless she has her husband’s permission (216). A woman, but not a man, must wait ten months to remarry after the dissolution of a first marriage (228). While both husband and wife can ask for divorce on grounds of adultery, a woman can only ask for it in case where her husband had moved his mistress into the common home (230). In cases of divorce, the father is given the management of the children (287) except in special circumstances decided by the court. And although many articles refer to both paternal and maternal authority over minor children, there is a whole section dedicated to Paternal Power.
One of the main writers of the Code, and the one responsible for the section of family law (I Of Persons) was Jean Etienne Marie Portalis (1746-1807). Portalis, a lawyer from the South East of France, was chosen by Napoleon to help carry out the project begun by Cambaceres under the Directoire of codifying civil law. Portalis was very concerned that the mew Revolutionary laws should not overturn the laws of nature and morality, and this was particularly clear in his treatment of the family part of the civil code. In his Preambule he talks of marriage as a ‘natural order’ that had been in the past sanctified by religion and needed to be recognized by the law. Part of this natural order was the need for one party in the ‘marriage contract’ to be in charge, and that had to be the husband, who was naturally superior to his wife and naturally destined, through his experience and wisdom to have authority over their children.
In discussions of the code at the Council of State, Portalis worried about any addition to the marriage law that would have the effect of placing ‘the wife above the husband, or put the power over children into the wife’s hands instead of the husband.’ He concluded that ‘any stipulation against the authority of a husband on the person of his wife or children must be forbidden’, that public right must be confined by public order and morality, and that the main object of family law was to confirm the husband’s rightful place as the head of the conjugal society.
After Condorcet's death, Sophie kept up her salon, first in Auteuil, in the house next to Madame Helvetius, and later in Meulan, close to the castle of Villette where she had grown up.
The house she bought had been built in 1642 by Anne of Austria for the religious order of the Annonciades. It was several storeys high and set in the countryside, between the town and the castle of Villette. The nuns who’d occupied it had been evicted 5 years previously and the house had already exchanged hands a few times. Sophie called it the ‘Maisonnette’ or little house, despite its generous size. One of the rooms was a large salon where she could host her philosophical circle, and there were several bedrooms upstairs for guests. (for more on the purchase and the set up of the house, see Madeleine Arnold-Tetard's excellent blog.)
Sophie’s salon was a place where she could discuss her ongoing work with close friends such as Cabanis, it was a meeting place for the Ideologues, and it also played a role in facilitating other’s literary careers. Karl Benedikt Hase, a Byzantine expert who came to play an important role in the literary world of 19thCentury Paris, was first introduced to this world by a chance meeting with Sophie de Grouchy. Having walked on foot to Paris from Weimar, and arriving a poor student, he was recommended to various people for his knowledge of Ancient Greek, and brought to Meulan by Sophie’s lover, Fauriel:
I already talked about Madame Concordet in one of my letters. I got to know her by chance; she wanted to learn German and a certain Fauriel, private secretary to the police minister, with whom I sometimes spend the evenings, sent me to her. It was the 28th Frimaire; look up the date and underline it, it is one of the most important in the life of your friend. I’ll admit it – the clear mind of this wonderful woman, her joy in the all-pervasive progress of humanity to a marvellous goal, her knowledge of the great moments of the revolution, in which she herself played a not insignificant role (on the day before the 10th August, when Concordet, her husband, played host to 400 Marseillese, she was the queen of the party), perhaps also her friendly attitude towards me – for my significant progress in French pronunciation, which has astonished everyone, was thanks to my reading French tragedies aloud to her – could not fail to have an effect on me.
In the Ancient Regime, a French marriage could only be annulled through a special dispensation from the pope. In 1792, divorce became legal. It was possible to divorce in two ways. First, a couple could decide they simply no longer wanted to be married. In this case, they simply had to wait six months after submitting a demand for divorce, and the divorce would be accepted after that period. One spouse could also ask for divorce for cause of cruelty, desertion, infidelity. Until the Napoleonic period, divorce was quite easy to obtain. Napoleon made it harder, and by 1816 it was no longer legal.
The first divorce laws were drafted after 10 August 1792, when the republic was proclaimed. This was in spite of the Constitutional committee having decided that the Constitution of 1791 would remain, only with amendments pertaining to the King’s role (which would be deleted). But divorce was very much on everybody’s minds, and had been since 1789 when the freeing of France from despotism was likened to the freeing of a woman from marriage to a tyrannical husband. One defender of the Revolution wrote that France, ‘a nation for so long oppressed by despotism and its laws, all of a sudden becoming mistress of its own destiny, aspires for liberty…” (Comte D’Antraigue, quoted in Suzanne DesanThe Family on Trial in Revolutionary France. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2004, 15). So from the beginning the French saw strong connections between the state and the family, the public and the private. As soon as the revolution started, the public debate on marriage laws, which had already existed but been contained by the laws and the all powerful clergy, amplified. Women’s clubs throughout France discussed divorce, and the Cercle Social in Paris, and its women only offshoot, Le Club des Amis de la Verité, led by Etta Palm d’Aelders, spearheading the discussion.
In 1792, the divorce law was pronounced. Between January 1793 and June 1795, the assembly received large quantities of petitions – two thirds of which were written by women (sometimes badly written, depending on their social class and level of education) for divorces. 6000 divorces were pronounced during the course of these two and a half years. Women who petitioned typically expressed their wishes in terms of oppression and tyranny, and all those who petitioned were determined, one way of another to free themselves from the marriage chains. Republican freedom truly took its place in the family.
In 1789, Keralio wrote Brissot the following letter:
Mademoiselle de Keralio is very satisfied by what [Monsieur Brissot de Warville] said today about the influence of women. It is very much part of Melle de Keralio’s principles that women should not make a great spectacle of themselves. […] A love of publicity is bad for modesty, from the loss of that comes a distaste for domestic work, and from idleness, principles are forgotten and from lack of morals arise all of public disorders.
What did Brissot write to Keralio to make her thank him for his ‘little lesson’ and assure him at length that she did not think women should do politics? Vicky Mistacco suggests that we can guess somewhat what he said from his published response to women’s presence in the Assembly where he describes the women who walked to Versailles as 'revolting' and their entering the Assembly to deliver the King as a religious transgression.
Brissot’s sexism was particularly insidious because he was a great supporter of individual women, an admirer of their work. He was close to Keralio, but also to Manon Roland, and had been very interested in Olympe de Gouges’ s work, promoting her play on slavery, and invited her to join his Society for the Friends of the Blacks. When such an ally also argues, politely, with restraint, that women should not do politics openly, then it is difficult not to listen.
We are often led to wonder why a person who is politically sound, and who is apparently unthreatened by strong and talented women, can turn out to hold sexist views. In most cases, we have no way of knowing. But Brissot, in the Memoirs he wrote in the prison de l’Abbaye (in the cell Manon Roland had just vacated, and where she’d begun her own Memoirs) gives us an insightful account of his own sexism. He describes his attitude to politically engaged women in 1782, when he was visiting Geneva. Because it is such a rare moment of clarity coming from someone who was sexist, I reproduce it entirely:
[…] politics seemed a heavy and boring science, unsuitable for a pretty woman. To please and to entertain was the great art that women were to learn their entire life. And if the philosophy I professed forced them to take up other studies, it was of the virtues that could render a wife or a mother’s company useful and pleasant for her spouse and children. In a word, a woman given to politics seemed to me a monster, or at least, a new kind of ‘precieuse ridicule’.”
So Brissot tells us that his views were absurd – he might have said they were also harmful, dangerous, even. And he attributes them to a weaker commitment to the truth than was needed, but also to his fashionable love for Rousseau – either way, he was carried by the whirlwind of prejudice.
Louise Keralio, historian, novelist, and journalist has been accused of sexism because of her emphasis on domestic virtues and political silence for women. (She has also been accused of misogyny because of an anonymous tract that we have no reason to think she wrote The Crimes of Queens). *
Keralio emphasizes that women have a duty assigned them by nature to prefer domestic work to politics, and that this is essential to the well-being of the nation. In a letter to Brissot she wrote:
A great love of publicity harms modesty. And from the loss of this great good comes distate for domestic work, and from lack of work, the forgetting of principles, and from loss of morals, all public disorders.
But Keralio was definitely also of the opinion, at least in 1789, that France could only gain from letting her help shape the revolution. And she did not wait to be asked, but started a newspaper, Le Mercure National.
Before that, she had been working on an anthology project, intending to publish forty volumes of works by French women writers, starting from Heloise. She had to give up after 6 volumes, due to lack of funds. But what she says in the early volumes is significant. Her account of Heloise, in particular, sheds light on her own ambitions.
Heloise, she says, was a natural genius, superior in intellect to everyone of her contemporaries, regardless of sex.
Yet, there was another account of Heloise from a strong influence on Louise Keralio: Rousseau’s.
Rousseau’s heroine, in Julie or the New Heloise, starts off, like the real Heloise as the bright student of a philosopher. But when she discovers her true purpose, domesticity, she gives up all thoughts of feeding her intellect and devotes herself to her children, husband, and the neighbours, becoming the guarantor of virtue and stability at home and in the village.
We tend to think that the shackles of domesticity have always held us back, that we are fighting the same gender stereotypes that our foremothers fought, from prehistoric times onwards. That we are fighting stereotypes is true, as it is that we are fighting off male domination. But the stereotypes were not always what they are.
In the 18thcentury, women were not necessarily thought of as ideal mothers, or virtuous wives. This is something that came from Rousseau, who revived the ideals of motherhood (making sure also that it couldn’t reach too great heights). This, as also his claim that mothers should feed their children themselves instead of employing the services of wet-nurses, was felt as liberating by some women. They were given a role in society that they didn’t have before. They were no longer just an extra pair of hands in the family business, or an ornament for the rich. They were the guarantors of virtue in the home and the republic.
So it's no great wonder that a woman like Keralio who admired both the historical Heloise for her intellect and Rousseau’s New Heloise, for the advance in women’s place in society she represented at the time, appears somewhat muddled to 21th century feminists!
* Thanks to Vicki Mistacco for sharing her research on Louise Keralio, and in particular for pointing me toward the letter to Brissot and the influence of Heloise of Argenteuil.
In 1788, when he first presented his ‘What is the third estate’, the Abbé Sieyès declared that : “inequalities of sex, size, age, colour, etc. do not in any way denature civic equality” (Sieyes, Political Writings, 155). These, he said, like inequality of property, are incidental differences and cannot affect civic rights. But Sieyès, it turns out, was not so committed to equality, however, that he wanted to extend rights active citizenship to women. In his Préliminaire de la Constitution, written on 22 July 1789, he writes:
All of a country’s inhabitants must enjoy the rights of passive citizenship: all have the right to the protection of their person, their property, their freedom, etc. But not all have the right to take an active part in the formation of public powers, all are not active citizens. Women, at least in the current state of things, children, foreigners, those that contribute nothing to supporting the public establishment must not actively influence the republic.
Women did not remain silent.
Then journal editor, Louise Keralio, responded four weeks later:
We don’t understand what [Sieyès] means when he says that not all citizens can take an active part in the formation of the active powers of the government, that women and children have no active influence on the polity. Certainly, women and children are not employed. But is this the only way of actively influencing the polity? The discourses, the sentiments, the principles engraved on the souls of children from their earliest youth, which it is women’s lot to take care of, the influence which they transmit, in society, among their servants, their retainers, are these indifferent to the fatherland?... Oh! At such a time, let us avoid reducing anyone, no matter who they are, to a humiliating uselessness.
Keralio is clearly angered by Sieyès’ formulation: in what sense are women not active, she asks? What is there of passivity in the work they conduct from the home, nurturing republican values and giving birth to new citizens? Like Manon Roland, she was a reader of Rousseau, and was convinced that there was a place for women in Republic that was central to the flourishing of the nation, even though that place was in the home rather than in the assembly. So she does not disagree with Sieyes that women should stay home, rather than participate in debates taking place in public fora, but she believes that the home is just as important a place for the making and cultivating of the republic than the assembly.
Olympe de Gouges’s famous response was printed at the same time as Louis XVI ratified the constitution drafted by Sieyès, in September 1791.
Man,” she asks “are you capable of being fair? A woman is asking: at least you will allow her that right. Tell me? What gave you the sovereign right to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the creator in his wisdom, examine nature in all its grandeur for you seem to wish to get closer to it, and give me, if you dare, a pattern for this tyrannical power.
On behalf of women in general, she expresses her outrage that women have been exclude from active participation in the city, with no argument, other than that they belonged to the class of those who ‘contribute nothing to supporting the public establishment’. Women, she knows, contributed both physically – by fetching the royal family from Versailles – intellectually – by debating new ideas in circles and political societies, publishing pamphlets proposing reforms (such as her proposal for a voluntary tax) – and materially – by giving money and jewels to relieve poverty and help pay off the national debt. Unlike Louise Keralio, she does not even feel that she needs to appeal to women’s contribution to the republic quamothers. Yet, she does not hesitate to remind the public that women are also mothers:
Mothers, daughters, sisters, representatives of the Nation, all demand to be constituted into a national assembly. Given that ignorance, disregard or the disdain of the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments [they] have decided to make known in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of woman; this declaration, constantly in the thoughts of all members of society, will ceaselessly remind them of their rights and responsibilities, allowing the political acts of women, and those of men, to be compared in all respects to the aims of political institutions, which will become increasingly respected, so that the demands of female citizens, henceforth based on simple and incontestable principles, will always seek to maintain the constitution, good morals and the happiness of all.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.