Experimenting with Women’s Rights During Napoléon’s Time
During the French Revolution, the role of women in society, politics, the workplace, and the family had been discussed and debated. By 1799, when Napoléon assumed power, the revolution had dramatically changed women’s status. Women had been declaredcitoyennes (citizens) by the government of France, and, in some cases, their options in life were greater.
French revolutionaries found the querelle des femmes(or the “woman question”) interesting, intriguing, and often baffling. What did citizenship really mean? Two philosophies guided the debate on women in France. On the one hand, liberals like the Marquis de Condorcet recognized women as the mental equals of men. He recommended, therefore, that women be granted the right to vote (civic rights).
On the other hand, social philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau said that society must have strict order to prosper. He thought men should govern public affairs and make significant societal decisions, while women should create an “empire” of softness and warmth within the family. To Rousseau, public space was for men and private space for women.
Early writings during the Revolution generally took the liberal position. Women demanded divorce, job protection, job training, a minimum standard of living for all families, custody of their children, and even the right to wear trousers. Actress Olympe de Gouges penned the now famous “Declaration of the Rights of Woman.” It demanded that women be allowed to participate in the government since they already could be put to death by the government. She is famous for saying, “If women can mount to the guillotine, they should be able to mount to the tribune (government).” When the republican government completed its major legislation, it granted many of the demands. Divorce was confirmed, illegitimate children were recognized, and women received guardianship of their infants. Women also joined the military, demonstrated (sometimes violently) with men for further change, and formed political associations.
Even before Napoléon came to power, France’s republican government came to believe that the revolution had brought change too quickly in some arenas, including women’s rights. Women’s rights had been uncharted territory for the French. What was happening appeared to be weakening the social order.
As Napoléon became First Consul of France, he confirmed the Rousseauist position on women. He would bring “order out of chaos,” as he stated. Women, he remarked, were outrageously dressed in off-theshoulder garments and flesh-colored tights. They spoke out on matters that did not concern them, and Napoléon feared that they were ignoring their families and their singular profession to be mothers. “Who is the greatest woman?” he had been asked. He replied that it was the woman who had borne the most children, just like his mother who had thirteen pregnancies with eight surviving children.
With the Civil Code that Napoléon personally oversaw, he severely restricted divorce, radically narrowed women’s legal identities, and took the remaining meaning from the status of citoyennethat the Revolution had granted women. The military already had excluded women in combat and restricted their employment in the supply train. Order was paramount. Napoléon believed in a strong system of family values that placed the male at the head of the public sphere (politics and the workplace) and the household.
But Napoléon was not immune to some of women’s needs. With a firm commitment to women’s training in the domestic arts, he established schools to teach cooking, the needle trades, and religion. He also wanted to lessen infant mortality and safeguard the health of mothers as they delivered their children. To that end, he created schools for midwifery training. His first wife Joséphine was certainly an ornament at the Napoléonic court where she was not allowed to speak about political or public affairs, but he turned to her for confidences and advice throughout her life.
Napoléon simply could not reconcile his military state with broadly based women’s rights. “I have always loved to analyze,” he wrote. In his analysis, the government was paramount, order had to be preserved, and a strict hierarchy of the sexes undergirded social order. As structured as he was as a military commander and as judicious as he was as a head of state, women ultimately baffled him his entire life.
Dr. Susan P. Conner Department of History, Florida Southern College