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.
In the summer 1791, Etta Palm D’Aelders, citizen of Holland, and long term resident in Paris, member of the Cercle Social, was the recipient of ‘atrocious calumnies’ from the revolutionary paper ‘La Gazette Universelle’ run by Louise Kéralio Robert and her husband. The couple accused her of being a Prussian spy, and a counter-revolutionary. Etta had been a spy. When she’d settled in Paris, she’d been tasked, discreetly, with finding out what her countrymen felt about the revolution. But she was also very attached to France and the republic. When the accusations came, she felt that the best way to prove her innocence would be to publish the speeches she had given and the ensuing correspondence with various Regional revolutionary clubs. The collection was titled ‘Appel aux Françoises sur la regénération des moeurs et nécéssité de l’influence des femmes dans un gouvernement libre”.
Etta was a member of the Cercle Social des Amis de la Verité, one of the first Revolutionary clubs – run by Condorcet and other Girondins – that had decided to accept women as members. Her first contribution was a speech given at the end of 1790, and defended women’s rights of citizenship. She had been invited because a month earlier, she had stood up and defended another speaker, Charles-Louis Rousseau, who’d argued in favour of women’s political rights. ‘Women!’ He’d said. “Until now you were only mothers. Now you must be citizens too!’ Rousseau’s feminism had its limits, as we can see from the treatise he published a few months later ‘Essai sur l’éducation et l’existence civile et politique des femmes’ where he argues that for women, the duties of citizenships mostly lie in the giving birth to and bringing up citizens!
But the audience jeered, and Rousseau hesitated, and Etta took over. A short while later she received the invitation to talk about women’s citizenship. She did not mince her words. Men were being just ‘by half’ making laws in their favour and against women, simply because the power was in their hands. Women were fated through marriage to a painful and awful slavery, their husbands were despots, and their existence secondary. None of this was deserved, she argued, refuting the common objection that women were suited to slavery. Women were, she granted, physically more ‘delicate’ than men, but they made up for it through moral strength. She cited famous political women: Elizabeth I, Catherine II, Joan of Arc, but asked men to look to their wives and daughters and ask themselves whether they were not just as capable as they of patriotism and courage.
Her talk was printed and shared with regional branches of the Amis de la Verite, who in turn shared it with their wives, and invited them to join them in their clubs. A few months after her resounding success, Etta petioned for, and was granted, the right to found a new society, a branch of the Amis de la Verité, but for women only. The purpose of the Société Patriotique et de Bienfaisance des Amies de la Véritéwas to plan and enact humanitarian projects, especially towards indigent women, widows, or young women who had come from the country to work as wet-nurses and found themselves alone and abused, or putting up school for young women of poor families.
Etta succeeded in rebutting the Roberts’ accusations, but when four years later France went to war with the Netherlands, she was imprisoned in The Hague. She was released after three years, but weakened by the ordeal, she died a few months later at the age of fifty-five.
One of Olympe de Gouges’s role model was Madame d’Eon. Another was Ninon de L’Enclos, philosopher and courtesan of the seventeenth century. L’Enclos was an Epicurean philosopher. In a letter to Saint-Evremont, she wrote:
It would be useless to press the arguments, repeated a hundred times by the Epicureans, that the love of pleasure and the abolition of pain are the primary and most natural inclinations noticed in all people. Wealth, power, honor, and virtue contribute to our happiness, but the enjoyment of pleasure, let us call it voluptuousness, to sum up everything in a word, is the true aim and purpose to which all human acts are inclined. (Letter to the modern Leontium)
She developed her philosophy in her correspondence with Saint-Evremont and the Marquis de Sevigne. She offered a naturalistic and mechanistic metaphysics, ethics and theory of love. In an unsigned 1659 pamphlet, The Coquette Avenged, she argued that one could be virtuous without the help of the church. This view caused as much scandal if not more as her lovers.
Recent biographers, such as Martial Debriffe, Ninon de Lenclos; La belle insoumise. (Paris: France-Empire, 2002) have begun to give Ninon the place she deserves as a philosopher and as a proto-feminist. But as far as the 19thcentury her reputation was divided. Male historians regarded her almost universally as a courtesan first, a libertine, who scandalized France by taking as many lovers as a man in her position would have.
So when Olympe claims her as a model, these same historians understand that she wanted to make her fortune as a high class prostitute:
With her love of adventure she was soon thrown in a whirlwind of romantic intrigues. She became the soul of all the epicurean clubs, and claimed the honour of being called the Ninon of the 18thcentury. She could have succeeded in achieving the same notoriety, says M. Desessarts in his Proces de la Revolution, if her most fiery and impetuous passions had not caused her to wither early.”
There’s a common fallacy here, which comes of judging a woman’s ambitions through a man’s gaze. Olympe did not wish to be like Ninon because men saw her as a beautiful prostitute! Olympe, they say, became a writer because she no longer looked good enough to be a courtesan. But what these historians fail to see, blinded by Ninon’s sexual reputation, is that Ninon was all along a talented author, and that this is clearly what attracted Olympe’s attention.
Her 1788 play Moliere chez Ninon, gives us a better idea of what it was Olympe saw in Ninon, aside from the fact that she was a daring author.
Mlle LE ROI - She does not dissimulate enough, nor is she hypocritical enough, to hide her way of life from us, she does not make of us her confidants yet she is unconcerned by what we may perceive.
The phrase ‘a good man in the guise of a woman’ recalls Olympe’s admiration of Madame d’Eon, the 18thcentury trans-woman who fought and won duels in London. But the qualities of honesty, and straightforwardness, the lack of concern for gossip and the ability to relate to all, regardless of class are almost certainly also what Olympe admired and sought to emulate. Many of her writings enjoin the readers to take her as she is, and warn them that she will not pretend to be otherwise than nature has made her.
If women philosophers of the 17thcentury are occasionally brushed off as being not ‘proper philosophers’, but ‘learned maids’ , those of the 18thcentury, at least in France, were from the earliest records, classified as salonières.
So Madame de Stael, the author of 30 published works, novels, plays, philosophical and political reflections is best known for the fact that she held a salon in which famous men came to talk. In fact, her output was a little bigger than that of her lover and most famous associate, Benjamin Constant. As to the difference in quality – who knows? Until recently her works have not been studied by philosophers, whereas Constant’s have.
A look at Jules Michelet’s Women of the Revolution (1855) shows what the implications of calling women salonières were. This volume is comprised of portraits that Michelet had sketched in his History of the French Revolution (1847-1853, 9 volumes).
Sophie de Grouchy is described as a Salonière, a beautiful woman who was skilled at entertaining republicans, and who, moreover, was the dutiful wife of one of the revolution’s greatest intellectual, Condorcet. One senses that Michelet thinks we should be grateful that she looked after this national genius, and enabled him to shape the future of the republic. But to him she was no more than that.
Manon Roland, a ‘femme de coeur’ is given an example of womanly republican virtue. She is just as Rousseau wanted women to be – domestic, ruled by their heart, and entirely given to nurturing the virtues of the republic in their family. But Manon, Michelet adds, is rather more muscular and less ethereal than Rousseau’s Julie, for instance. And when she sees that being nurturing and domestic is no longer enough, she acts – she exerts her political influence through her salon.
Michelet does not mention Olympe’s salon, and does not seem to be aware of it, picturing her in crowds, among the women of the people and making much of her supposed ignorance: “She was quite illiterate.” He wrote. “It was even said that she could neither read nor write at all.” However noble he may have thought her, this is what stands out. Olympe, the writer, could not read or write.
But the most telling chapter in Michelet’s book is not on individual salons, or famous women, but on the moral downfall of the Girondins. This is towards the end of the volume, whereas the more flattering descriptions of individual women are closer to the beginning. In 1793, Michelet said, the Girondins were giving in either to suicide or to depravation: gambling, and orgies. Many women, whether professional prostitutes or milliners were involved.
But it was not just the lowly prostitutes who finished off the brave Girondins. Michelet goes on to elaborate on the way women can and did cause the downfall of men.
“women, especially, and even the best, in such a case, exert a dangerous influence to which there is no resistance. They influence by their graces, but still more often by the touching interest they inspire, by their frights which they wish calmed, and from the happiness they really feel at receiving support from you. […]
These ladies were very skillful, being careful not to show the after-thought. The day, good, moderate, and mild republicans would be seen in their salons. The second day, Feuillants and Fayettists would be presented to you.”
And before you knew it, he continues, the charming salonist had turned your royalist.
And even ‘true love’ Michelet continues, contributed to the downfall of the Gironde: “The love of Mademoiselle Candeille was conducive to the destruction of Vergniaud. This pre-occupation of the heart increased his indecision and his natural indolence. It was said that his mind seemed to be wandering elsewhere, and they were right. This mind, at a time when the country should have claimed it entirely, inhabited another soul.”
Julie Candeille was a successful composer and famous actress – who had taken on the role of Mirza in Olympe de Gouge’s abolitionist play. Her acting career ended in 1798 and she concentrated on music till her death in 1834. Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud was an orator for the Gironde. He was the last of the 22 Girodins to be executed on 31 October 1793.
The text below is extracted from Manon Roland’s second letter to her lover Buzot, on 3 July 1793, from the prison of Sainte Pélagie.
Do you know a greater advantage than that of being superior to adversity, to death, et to find in one’s heart the means to enjoy and embellish life until one’s last breath? – Have you ever felt these effects from the attachment that ties us together, in spite of all the contradictions of society, and the horrors of oppression? – I told you so: this is why I enjoy my captivity. – I am proud to be persecuted in those times where good character and honesty is proscribed, and even without you, I would have born it with dignity; but with you, it becomes sweet, and dear. The villains think to hurt me by putting me in irons… Insane! What do I care whether I live here or there? Don’t I go everywhere with my heart, and isn’t my constriction me in a cell meant that I am his entirely? […]
The rest of the letter casts some light on how she dealt with the fact that she was still married and that her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, was broken-hearted by her emotional desertion. She describes her state of mind when she was arrested:
I won’t say I went out of my way to meet them (the men who came to arrest her), but it is very true that I did not run from them. I did not stop to think whether their fury would extend to me, but I thought that if it did, it would give me an occasion to serve X (Roland) through my statements, my constancy and firmness. I delighted in finding a way of being useful to him while at the same time being yours more completely. I would like to sacrifice my life to him in order to earn the right to breathe my last breath for you alone. Except for the terrible unrest when I learnt of the decree against the proscribed, I have never enjoyed such great calm than in this strange situation, and more completely once I learned that nearly all were safe, and once I saw that you were working in freedom to liberty at preserving that of your country.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.