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Liberty, Equality and Domesticity: Women in the French Revolution

Both Joan Landes and Susan Desan agree that the French Revolution produced the West’s first mass feminist movement as well as the first anti-feminist backlash after 1794. Women did not receive the vote or fully equal citizenship rights, but their political participation in political clubs, protests and marches was unprecedented, at least for a time, and provoked great male anxiety that forced them back into purely domestic roles as revolutionary mothers. As the Revolution took a more conservative turn after the overthrow of the Jacobins, it became less democratic and egalitarian for both men and women, as even universal male suffrage was withdrawn. Under the dictatorship of Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration after 1815, voting rights and political participation became mostly irrelevant, although the Revolution of 1789-94 provided a political model for the larger feminist movements that revived in the 1830s and 1840s. As Landes points out, though, even the most radical and democratic of the male revolutionaries of the 1790s followed a highly gendered and masculinist model of politics and public discourse that left no space for women outside the domestic sphere. At the same time, though, women were also attempting to radically change domestic and family life away from the authoritarian and patriarchal norms of the Old Regime. At least in the commercial towns and cities, there were widespread demands among women and children for making marriage a civil contract rather than a sacrament of the Catholic Church, for reductions in the authority of fathers and husbands, easy divorce, and equal inheritance for sons and daughters. For a time, many of these changes were actually implemented in the domestic sphere, although here too there was a conservative backlash against emancipated women, divorce and rebellious children that was finally codified in the 1804 Civil Law of the Napoleonic regime.

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Joan B. Landes found that women were even less liberated after the French Revolution than under the Old Regime, and that the politics, public discourse and culture of the bourgeois state were heavily gendered in favor of men. Women were not considered part of the public sphere but the private, domestic one, while the Revolution substituted the “Law of the Father for the father’s rule.” This was not simply a reactionary holdover from the traditional, patriarchal society, but a kind of counter-Enlightenment and counterrevolution for all women. From 1750 to 1850, there was a systematic denial of women’s rights under bourgeois law and public administration, so much so that the feminist movements in Western Europe and North America the latter half of the 19th Century developed expressly in protest against it. Even as the older, more openly authoritarian version of patriarchy disappeared, women had actually been more influential in public life under the Old Regime, at least those in the aristocracy and upper classes. For women under bourgeois liberalism or republicanism, however, life was carried on under “the bourgeois norms of domestic propriety.”

Under the Old Regime, most men and women had been excluded from the public sphere and formal political power, but after the liberal revolutions in the 18th Century, these became far more open to men, even those from the lower and middle classes. Indeed, from the time of the Renaissance in the northern Italian towns, the revival of classical republicanism and the ideals of civic virtue “invested public action with a decidedly masculinist ethos.” It was not accidental that women were excluded from the bourgeois public sphere, given that all the new ideals of science, universalism, natural rights and equal citizenship were assumed to apply to men. Prior to the French Revolution, elite women in the salons and at the royal court did have influence in the public sphere, although the male revolutionaries later dismissed their contributions as artificial, “excessively stylized discourses and to the emasculating effects of monarchical power.” Men in the bourgeois opposition to the monarchy based their views on more abstract forms of law and public discourse based on reason and theories of social contracts and human rights. All of the ‘modern concepts of individualism, personal autonomy from authoritarian and patriarchal families and communities, and choice of marriage partners in the ‘Romeo and Juliet revolution became political issues during the French Revolution. (Hunt, 2007: 10).

One of the leading social contract thinkers in the French Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, was also hostile to women’s involvement in the public sphere and argued that nature intended them for domestic work. This view was certainly not shared by every writer in the revolutionary era, and Olympe de Gouges, the Marquis de Condorcet, Etta Palm d’Aeldiers and Mary Wollstonecraft were well-known exceptions, even though the issue of political and voting rights for women were still “in the shadow” at the time. Even so, Olympe de Gouges accomplished an important first in history by writing a Declaration of the Rights of Women in 1791, which was actually discussed in the National Assembly but voted down. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was also inspired by the events of the French Revolution. Women had marched on the royal place at Versailles, after all, and during the radical or Jacobin phase of the Revolution had formed a political club in Paris called the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. This was a unique “cross-class radical organization of women” that supported the Terror, but it did not survive the Thermidoran reaction. It was banned after the fall of the Jacobins along with all political clubs and public participation for women. With some extraordinary exceptions like these, Landes argues that in public life the role of women depicted in the famous painting The Oath of the Horatii was more typical of the revolutionary state. This work came to symbolize “the opposition between family and state, private and public life, characteristic of the new republic.” Under these new arrangements, women were relegated to the private sphere, with special emphasis on their role as revolutionary mothers and examples or virtue and morality. They were therefore not fully freed and made equal citizens of the republic even in the most radical periods of the revolution, and certainly not by the more conservative and traditionalist Napoleonic Civil Code.

On the other hand, Suzanne Desan argued that the French Revolution did create significant changes within the private or domestic sphere that made it more egalitarian and less authoritarian and patriarchal, even if admittedly it did not grant women equal citizenship and voting rights in public life. According to petitions at the start of the French Revolution in 1789, many young men and women were calling for a more democratic form of family life and demanding that the new government “curtail the authority of despotic fathers, secure equal inheritance for all sons and daughters, and foster ‘mutual esteem; within the family.” Family and domestic large were radically altered and reordered in the 1790s by more liberal and democratic concepts, both within the family itself and in its relationship to the state. A more democratic state and more democratic family actually tended to mutually support and reinforce each other, as the leaders of the French Revolution understood very well.

In the past, the patriarch or paterfamilias within the household had been expressly compared to a miniature monarch whose power was absolute. Jean Bodin had compared the Bourbon kings to fathers within the household, who were the lords and masters over women, children and servants because it was God’s will. Going back to the times of Plato and Aristotle, political philosophers had simply taken it as a given that fathers had a natural authority over women and children, just as masters ruled over servants and slaves. Under the Old Regime, fathers could have their rebellious wives and children imprisoned without trial, subjected to corporal punishment, and treat illegitimate children as outcasts with no social standing. Adultery and fornication were considered crimes and divorce was not permitted. During the 18th Century, various reformers, feminists and Enlightenment philosophers had regularly denounced this “domestic despotism”, which was an apt term.

New ideas about all persons being citizens with equal rights did challenge and transform the paternalistic, patriarchal and authoritarian structures of the Old Regime at all levels of society. All the available records also show that it was not simply a Revolution brought about from the top-down, but through public demands and pressures on the revolutionary leadership from below. Popular demand led to the legalization of divorce and for turning marriage into a civil contract rather than a Catholic Church sacrament that could never be dissolved. Revolutionary governments reduced the legal authority of fathers, lowered the age of majority, allowed children to marry against their parent’s wishes, and allowed illegitimate children to become family members. Desan describes a popular revolution against the traditional authoritarian family, particularly in the cities and towns. Family members who felt oppressed by the old order “invoked revolutionary ideals both in their personal attempts to recast their relationships and in their appeals to the state to reform domestic laws and policies.”

Desan‘s book, based on numerous primary sources, offers a distinctive picture about what actually happened on the ground level in France in the 1790s. Her book is a social and cultural history of ordinary people, based on petitions, letters, popular pamphlets, court records, legislative debates, speeches and the records of political clubs. For example, the revolutionary government created a new system of family courts in 1790 that dealt with cases of divorce, illegitimacy, inheritances and conflicts between children and parents. Particularly in urban areas, changes in family dynamics and relationships were undergoing a major upheaval at this time, while the rural regions remained more conservative, traditional and resistant to change. In Normandy, for example, which was a more commercialized area when many women traders, artisans and shopkeepers, daughters obtained the right to equal inheritances and also lobbied “for a more affectionate and equitable model of parent-child relations.” This province had a high level of literacy as well, and like in most areas in northern France, the nuclear family was already the norm long before the French Revolution. Yet it also had a highly patriarchal legal and social structure prior to 1789, with all daughters combined permitted to inherit only one-third of an estate. In the commercial towns during the Revolution, these traditional practices were changed and modified to the benefit of wives and daughters.

Women did not simply embrace their domestic duties during the Revolution, and in fact the actual record proves the exact opposite, although the creation of a new order of bourgeois domesticity still remains the most common theory about the fate of women in the French revolution. Desan found that “women of the middle or lower middle classes, those with at least a small amount of property, were most able to take advantage of the changes in family law”, while certain legal changes like the abolition of paternity suits for women, fell hardest on poor, unwed mothers. Women did understand and make use of their new rights whenever possible, and were not all influenced by Rousseau’s visions of domesticity, inasmuch as they had even heard of this at all. While she agreed that women did not receive the vote or the right to be elected to public office even during the most radical phases of the Revolution, they were often very highly active in public life and in attempting to improve their own situations within the domestic and private spheres.

Desan found that by the time of Napoleon, society and politics had taken a more conservative and traditionalist direction, particularly with the restoration of so many powers to the Catholic Church. She accepts the commonly-held view that the Napoleonic Civil Code of 1804 was reactionary and patriarchal, but in fact it was a reaction against “the social revolution within the home” that had occurred within the previous decade. This had resulted in real changes in the domestic sphere that made it less patriarchal and helped liberate many middle class women in the cities and towns from traditional controls of husbands and fathers, which of course the Napoleonic dictatorship preferred to restore. Nor would this be the last time that revolutionary change in France would end up in dictatorship of a revival of traditional authority, the Church and conservatism.

Both authors agree that the conservative reaction after 1793 severely limited any political and public rights of women, and also attempted to restore more traditional, patriarchal relations in family life. According to Landes, in the political sphere “the militant participation of women produced a violent and fearful response on the part of most men”, and they took steps to prevent it in the future. Under the Civil Code of napoleon, which promises equal rights for all, women were not even granted citizenship rights, while voting and political organization had become very limited even for men under the Napoleonic dictatorship and the Bourbon Restoration that followed. Not until the revolutions of the 1830s and 1840s would feminism revive again, although by that time it was much broader in scope and mass participation than the handful of upper class people who had called for women’s emancipation before 1789. In the domestic sphere, the conservative reaction after the Jacobin phase of the Revolution constantly dwelled of the social disorder and family breakdown that had supposedly occurred since 1789. Petitions to the authorities now revealed that “a mood of backlash permeated popular outcry on the family”, and the post-Jacobin regimes in 1795-99 abolished the family courts and started to limit the rights of divorce and equal inheritance for sons and daughters. After Napoleon came to power in 1799, the Civil Code prepared under his auspices reflected all of this conservative criticism of the radical changes that had endured very briefly during the Revolution. Divorce was widely condemned even in the towns and cities and in Normandy, where it had become most common, as was the increase in illegitimacy and equal inheritance. Most of the petitioners were male, and they revealed their extreme anger and anxiety about the dangers they perceived in liberated women freed from the control of husbands and fathers. Indeed, this period was the first anti-feminist backlash in Western history. In the rural areas, the Jacobins were also held “responsible for easy divorce” and the increasing defiance of women and children for the traditional family.

In both the public and domestic spheres in 1789-94, radical changes were at least attempted or contemplated that posed a serious challenge to the authoritarianism and patriarchy of the Old Regime. Women’s participation in politics had been almost unheard of at that time, and even many of the male theorists and political leaders of the Revolution simply had not considered this a serious possibility and provide no real space for it. Their version of a republic with equal rights and citizenship was distinctly masculine, and they also took a negative view of the handful of upper class and aristocratic women who had been involved in public life before 1789. Of course, the public and political sphere had been extremely limited for most men under absolute monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right, as it would be again under Napoleon and the revived Bourbons. Democracy itself was a new concept in the West in the 1790s, as was universal suffrage, and if these were not even extended to lower class men, women would have even less opportunity in the public sphere. In the post-1794 backlash from the Right, every policy associated with the Jacobins was suspect and subject to reversal, and that included the radical reforms that had occurred in laws, rights and duties in the domestic sphere. Not only were many women opposed to being limited to domesticity, they sought to redefine the family in a more democratic and egalitarian direction that would reduce the powers of the patriarchs. For a time they succeeded, but perhaps it was at least100 years too early for these changes to endure. They did at least provide a model for the demands of future radical, democratic and feminist movements for the types of changes they expected in both public and private life. In fact, as the 1789 Revolution had shown for the first time in history, the ‘personal was political’ and changes in both of these spheres reflected and reinforced each other, while a conservative backlash against women in one area also had ramifications in the others. It would not be the last time that this occurred in history, but the French Revolution of 1789 was certainly the first time it had.


Desan, Suzanne. The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France. University of California Press.

Hunt, Linda. “The Paradoxical Origins of Human Rights” in J.N. Wasserstrom (eds). Human Rights and Revolutions, 2nd Edition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 3-20.

Ishay, M. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. University of California Press.

Landes, Joan B. Women in the Public Sphere: In the Age of the French Revolution. Cornell University Press.