“Napoleon, the dark side” > Napoleon and women (< 4 min. read)

Author(s) : LENTZ Thierry
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“Napoleon, the dark side” is a section that uses the most recent research and offers you a clear, precise, and synthetic analysis of some of the more contraversial moments of Napoleonic history.

“Napoleon, the dark side” > Napoleon and women (< 4 min. read)

There is a widely held idea that the Consulate and the Empire put an end to the Revolutionary episode of the gradual accession of women to, if not equality with men, at least to a more equable place in society. This episode is often symbolised by the struggles of emblematic figures, such as the famous Manon Roland, Théroigne de Méricourt and Olympe de Gouges, the lesser-known Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe, and even the more surprising Charlotte Corday and Marie-Antoinette. After the women’s march on Versailles on 5 and 6 October 1789, “women citizens” – who were in fact not legally citizens – took part in other “great Revolutionary days”, created clubs, published pamphlets and, more generally, demanded or petitioned for what was still far from being called “parity” or “gender equality”. Limited in numbers, this movement was nipped in the bud by the Convention, which repressed the leaders (several of the aforementioned heroines were guillotined), closed the women’s clubs, even postponed plans to develop education for girls and reversed the weak legislative advances that had been conceded. The first discussions on codification which began at this time confirmed this opposition, despite the maintenance of partial equality between spouses (particularly in matters of divorce) and the reduction, also very relative, of the scope of exclusions from professional life (which were not completely abolished until 1965). Social consensus, essentially created by men who alone had access to education, to the means of communication and to power, was then contrary to any idea of legal and political equality (that equality would not come until the 1970s!!). Any challenges on this point were stifled using an arsenal of different justifications, drawing on science, physiology, history, religious precepts, etc.

Outside from limited circles militating for, if not absolute equality, at least a development less unfavourable to women, these questions and their possible answers were little debated during the Napoleonic government, both before and after the adoption of the Civil Code. Opposition was rare in the legislative assemblies and non-existent in other institutional circles. Embryonic during the Revolution, the literature dealing with ‘gender equality’ disappeared almost entirely. Specialised historians are hard pressed to find examples other than a few articles challenging Sylvain Maréchal’s Projet de loi portant défense d’apprendre à lire aux femmes (1801) or certain passages in the novels of Germaine de Staël or Constance de Salm. In Delphine and then Corinne, De Staël portrayed women trying to defy prevailing opinion by their independence and showing their pain in the face of men’s incomprehension. De Salm produced  poems and historical essays that were more politically engaged, focusing on female heroines. But these demands for emancipation tinged with individualism did not constitute collective demands, even in the very frequented salons of the great ladies (Rémusat, Récamier, Genlis, etc.). Constance de Salm waited until the Restoration to enter into this type of struggle forcefully, with the publication of her Femmes politiques (1817). In this quasi-doctrinal desert, the works of Fanny Raoul are a godsend for researchers. This young woman was thirty years old when she published, in 1801, a pamphlet of a few pages: Opinion d’une femme pour les femmes. Describing herself as a ‘sensitive and reasonable’ person, she did speak of civil and political equality, but without ostentation or violent language. This is probably why her work was politely received, and then not discussed again until the end of the 20th century, when it was rediscovered and republished. A similar fate befell her other publications, including, however, an interesting study of the Charter of 1814, the Idées d’une Française sur la constitution faite ou à faire. On the whole, the reaction of men could be summed up in the derogatory remark made by the poet Ecouchard Lebrun in reply to Constance de Salm’s lines, namely: ‘Inspire, but do not write’.

Napoleon was representative of this prevailing misogyny and, in this respect, his ideas were not what you would progressive. The few words he spoke or wrote on the subject would earn him the worst criticism and furious tweets today. Here is a selection: “Nothing is better than a good, beautiful and tender woman” (1804); “How unfortunate are the princes who allow women to influence political affairs” (1806); “Good, gentle and conciliatory women… these are the ones I love” (1806); “The weakness of women’s brains, the flightiness of their ideas, their distinction in the social order, the requirement that they possess a constant and perpetual resignation and a kind of indulgent and easy charity, all this can only be obtained by religion” (1807); “A woman belongs to her husband like an apple belongs to the owner of the apple tree”; “Society would have been entirely disordered if women had been taken out of that state of dependence in which they must remain” (1816). Finally, and this is by no means an exhasutive list, we know his answer to Madame de Staël who asked him what he considered to be the most important woman: “The one who has the most children”. A wife was to be submissive to her husband and a daughter to her father, in order to devote herself to the home and to the education of the children. And, above all, she was never to attempt to interfere directly in politics.

To Napoleon’s posthumous misfortune, one of the rare reports of the sessions of the Conseil d’État in which he participated during the discussion of the Civil Code that survived the burning of the archives by the Commune concerns, precisely, the status of women. It is therefore known that he approved and even supported the solutions that relegated daughters and wives to the status of minors in a family placed under the authority of the father and husband. But he was not alone. Cambaceres, Portalis and the majority of the Council also defended this solution. On leaving the guardianship of her father, a married woman passed under that of her husband (this system would not be called into question until the 1890s). She only enjoyed full rights if she remained unmarried, but then she had to provide for herself, which was neither well looked upon nor easy in the society of the time. For example, a married woman had to obtain her husband’s permission to enter into a contract, on pain of nullity of the agreement. In legal terms, she was ‘incapable’, like ‘minors, criminals and the mentally retarded’ (art. 1124). Legal inequality – which lasted until 1946 – was still manifested in the rules on adultery (only adultery committed in the marital home could be blamed on the husband; the wife’s adultery could lead to imprisonment, while the husband could be fined) and the strict limitation of divorce. The Civil Code did, however, offer some counterparts to obedience and minority in principle: the ‘good father of the family’ had to protect his wife, and only the legitimate family, formed by marriage, benefited from inheritance.

Women’s struggle for equality was to be a long one. By codifying inequality, Napoleon made it more difficult, but such was the mentality of his time.

Extract from: Thierry Lentz, Napoléon. Dictionnaire historique, Perrin, 2020

Bibliography: Nicole Arnaud-Duc, “Les contradictions du droit”, Histoire des femmes en Occident. IV. Le XIXe siècle, Perrin, coll. Tempus, 2002; Jean Gay, “Capacité de la femme mariée et puissance maritale dans l’élaboration du Code Civil”, Revue de l’Institut Napoléon, 1993-II, p. 33-65, 1994-I, p. 51-64, et 1994-II, p. 19-43; Christine Le Bozec, Les femmes et la Révolution. 1770-1830, Passés composés, 2019; Fanny Raoul, Opinion d’une femme pour les femmes, édition de Geneviève Fraisse, Le passager clandestin, 2011; Eliane Viennot, Et la modernité fut masculine. III. La France, les femmes et le pouvoir. 1789-1804, Perrin, 2016.


Eng. trans  16 April 2021


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