Napoleon’s Courtesans, Citoyennes, and Cantinières

Author(s) : CONNER Susan P.
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This article explores the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – a transition which saw, according to the artist Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, women deposed as rulers of the age – from a female point of view. Susan P. Conner traces the roles pursued by women following the Revolution and the evolving nature of their place in society as political upheaval saw France move from Republic to Directory to Empire.

David, Madame Récamier, 1800, Louvre, RMN/Gerard Blot

The eighteenth century was an age of women1. “The women reigned then; the revolution dethroned them,” wrote painter Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun.2 Cultural historians Edmond and Jules de Goncourt confirmed what she had said: “[Woman had been] the governing principle, the source of direction, the commanding voice.”3

The Flour Wars of the 1770s were largely the work of women at the local level, the querelle des femmes (a literary debate on the role of women) continued unabated, female heads of religious orders held significant power over their properties, and women like Pompadour and DuBarry were household words. Women staged the annual festival of Sainte Geneviève in the heart of Paris, and fishwives testified to the legitimacy of each new royal birth.

As you have noticed already, my paper must take us back briefly into the eighteenth century as we navigate the serpentine streets of Revolutionary Paris to find ourselves in the more orderly avenues of Napoleonic France. The Revolution of 1789 was, as we know, not a single revolution at all. It was at least a half dozen revolutions, each kicking at the heels of the one before it. The last was, in fact, Napoleonic. In 1799 he and his colleagues of Brumaire revolutionized France with the Consulate and later with the Empire. “The Revolution is over,” Napoleon had remarked in his statement to the people of France in December 1799.4 He was the Revolution. He had brought  order out of chaos.

Within its chaos, revolutionary France did not know what to do with women. On the eve of the Revolution, there were two pervasive theories that had emerged from the eighteenth century. The first proposal had been put forward by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Le Contrat Social and his widely read Emile. According to Rousseau, distinct biological differences between men and women lay at the base of everything else. These essential differences created unalterable abilities and temperaments. Women’s softness, their private virtues, and their sensibilities made them good wives and mothers; women were made for “man’s delight.” As such, men and women would surely be educated differently—men in the arts of governing, fighting, dancing and women in those things that suited them, including handiwork, skills like foreign languages, infant care, and pleasures of the home. In Rousseau’s model there was a hierarchy: males first, females second.5

Counter to Rousseau’s model of the new order was Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet whose “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” was published in July of 1790.  While Condorcet recognized that men and women were different, he argued that the root of the difference was education and how society treated each of the sexes. Hence, Condorcet established no sexual hierarchy. He pointed out, “Why should beings exposed to pregnancies and to passing indispositions not be able to exercise rights that no one ever imagined taking away from people who have gout every winter or who easily catch colds?”6 All French men and women should have the rights of citizenship because all contributed to the state.

As the events of the Revolution unfolded in 1789, women continued their pre-revolutionary public presence. Some even managed to make their grievances known to the king in unofficial cahiers de doléances when he requested suggestions for reframing French affairs. They demanded that some categories of jobs be reserved solely for women, that job training be provided, and that strict measures be taken against prostitution. Divorce, the right to wear trousers (pantalons), the right to vote, and a double tax on bachelors rounded out their lists.7 At least one woman participated actively in the fall of the Bastille, and when the economic malaise of the summer of 1789 continued into autumn, street savvy female activists and other less likely malcontents marched to the halls of government at Versailles. According to reports, after they promised good behavior, the women milled around, sat in the president’s chair, chanted and interrupted the debate. The Journal de Paris reported that while they wore elegant clothing, hunting knives and half swords hung from their belts. Among the alleged heroines was Théroigne de Méricourt, the amazone who popularized women’s battle dress: Turkish trousers or bloomers (although the word bloomers was not used until the mid-nineteenth century), a red riding habit, and pistols and a sword at her waist. These events — the October Days — came to be known as the Women’s March to Versailles. When they were finished, the king, queen and royal children had been taken to Paris. The women chanted, “We have the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s son.” Bread at affordable prices had become their political aim.

By 1791, the French were fully engaged in their constitutional experience, and they unveiled the first major constitutional change in a millennium: the Constitution of 1791 that created a constitutional monarchy and defined voting rights. The French had thrown off the language of absolutism; from subjects, they had become citizens. But defining citizenship was not so simple. According to the Constitution, only property-holding males were active citizens, meaning that they could vote and participate in the process of government. Passive citizens, on the other hand, had civil protections but the right to vote was beyond their grasp. In this category were children, foreigners, unemployed, destitute, and poor males, insane, felons, and all women, regardless of their wealth or property. To Olympe de Gouges, a provincial actress who had relocated in Paris, the revolution had missed its mark. Paralleling the primary document of revolutionary ideology, she wrote: “Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights….” She continued, “man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question. Tell me, what gives you the sovereign empire to oppress my sex?” If a woman could mount to the guillotine to feel its blade, she should equally have the right to vote.8

As was true later in the American experience with women’s rights, the right to vote was only one among many demands, so citoyennes continued to press for other changes throughout 1792 and 1793. Although they had been defined as passive citizens, there was nothing passive about their actions. Interestingly, the first singlesex political association was formed during these tumultuous years. Chartered by the government, it was called the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. Its platform resonated with many of the demands of the earlier cahiers de doléances, but its female members went farther. Occupational training for girls and women headed the list, but members of the Revolutionary Republican Women also demanded the enforcement of public morality against rampant prostitution and debauchery, government sponsored programs to end unemployment, laws against hoarders, a government-regulated economy, and guaranteed subsistence incomes for all French people. They were proposing a welfare state before the words had even been coined.

It is important to set some context for a program that may sound entirely too radical to our ears. By the first half of 1793, slavery had been abolished in France and French territories, black males had been granted citizenship, equal inheritance had been legislated, illegitimate children were protected under the law, marriage included community property rights, women were granted the custody of their infants, marriage and divorce had been made contractual arrangements as the Catholic Church was desacralized, a plan for coeducation was under discussion, and women had even joined the military.

The language of war was everywhere, even on women’s tongues. According to a Femme Monic, “Women can form battalions, command armies and conquer as well as men.” A petition allegedly from 900 women of Paris envisaged a massive women’s army.9 The writers looked to allegorical figures like Bellone, the sister of Mars, and historical figures like Joan of Arc for inspiration. Amazon dress appeared in publications like Mère Duchesne and other street corner pamphlets. Evidence of women’s interest in the international war was, however, not just literary and pictoral. According to records in the army archives at Vincennes, women actually enlisted. Of the several dozen who can be documented in 1792, most were provincial, most came from families of scarce resources, and several took the place of their brothers. Their age ranged from fifteen to fortyone, and some were married, taking their children with them.10 These women soldiers (femmes militaires) were not in the army train; they were in the army itself. Nearby in the army train, blanchisseuses, cantinières and vivandières (laundresses and sutlers) served the troops. Among them, only laundresses were regulated by army command – four per 900-1000 men. They carried legal authority, sealed and stamped by the commissaires de guerre.

By fall 1793, the French Revolution had entered its radical phase identified with Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Their muse was Jean- Jacques Rousseau; the vision of Condorcet was to be no more. Order was paramount, and order presupposed a hierarchy, i.e. a sexual hierarchy among others. It was males first, females second. Within two weeks in October, Olympe de Gouges went to the guillotine “because she wanted to be a man.” Manon Roland, politically estranged from the Jacobin state, was beheaded allegedly “because she did not know the virtues of her sex.” Marie Antoinette lost her head as a virago, “a bad mother, a debauched wife.”11 In the phrase les droits de l’homme (the rights of man), man had proven to be specific, not generic. It was true of citizen as well. In 1792 property requirements for males had been rescinded as a qualification for citizenship, so even male actors, executioners, and Jews, the pariahs of pre-revolutionary France, had been brought into the state. But, not women. Although women were citoyennes, it was only a name.

Legislation soon followed. Deputy André Amar, among others, led the way. His rationale was simple: nature gave women breasts so that they could nurse their children. To lead the armies, to try to debate against men in public was an aberration. “Should women exercise political rights and meddle in the affairs of government?” he asked the Convention. “No, they lack knowledge, have a short attention span, lack devotion, steadfastness, self-abnegation, self-direction, rhetorical skills, and powers of resistance to oppression. Women are constitutionally incapable of government.”12 Even Joan of Arc felt the ire of government leaders. Anaxagoras Chaumette demystified the heroine: “If there was a Joan of Arc, it was only because there was a Charles VII; if the destiny of France was placed in the hands of a woman, it was only because the king did not have the head of a man.”13

Within a two-month period, the Revolutionary Republican Women were disbanded; their charter had been revoked. The right to petition was severely curtailed, and women soldiers were sent home from the military. Generals could be court-martialed if women were still in their employ. The simple rule was whether or not women were utile or inutile. Women soldiers, spouses, and undesignated camp followers were purged. By May of 1795, women were forbidden to gather publicly in groups of five or more. The last few subsistence demonstrations were severely repressed. Even the word citoyennes was heard less and less frequently. In the closing years of the eighteenth century, women quietly retraced their steps. If they were of the working class, they remained water carriers, domestics, wood haulers, wet nurses, seamstresses, flower peddlers, market women and fish wives. If they were of the growing bourgeoisie, they could be seen in the salons, pleasure gardens and parks. But, for all intents and purposes, they had no right to speak and no protection if they did.

As the nineteenth century dawned and a new regime led France, Napoleon Bonaparte confirmed the position of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that had been set by the Jacobins, Thermidorians, and Directoire. “One sex,” he said, “must submit to the other.”14

Many of Napoleon’s quotations on women have become legendary, not surprisingly, because he was a child of the revolution, a product of it, and he brought it to its conclusion. In 1795, as women’s roles were becoming more circumscribed, Napoleon wrote to his brother: “The women are everywhere – plays, public walks, libraries… A woman, in order to know what is due her and what power she has, must live in Paris for six months.”15 His comment was not an encouragement to the Parisian lifestyle; in fact, he found it uncomfortable, disquieting, and disorderly.

By 1800 as Napoleon solidified his base of power and defined the roles of those around him, he began to make clear what he believed women’s roles should be. Mme de Staël bore the brunt of some of his earliest comments. When she asked him “What woman, dead or alive, do you consider to be the greatest?” he replied, “The one who has had the most children.”16 The family, of course, became a recurring theme of his government. Even when the family was not at the base of his comments, he was systematically blunt in his remarks. When Mme de Staël was presented in one of her more décolletage dresses, prior to his establishing a more decorous style for fashion, he caught her off guard and silenced her with “no doubt you have nursed your children yourself.”17 He was heard to tell another guest, “My how red your elbows are,” when he hoped to popularize longer sleeves. When he simply wanted to silence a woman, he asked her if he had seen her in that dress before.18

Government belonged to men, he asserted; “I don’t like women to mix in politics.”19 His instructions for the education of women, confirmed that position. “What we ask of education is not that girls should think, but that they should believe.”20 Yet, in the process of regulating the education of women, Napoleon also aided them in expanding their opportunities and in his support of midwifery.

With the inauguration of the Code Napoléon, Napoleon’s position was even more firm; it was official. To historians of the period, Napoleon’s views on women are not surprising. He was, after all, Corsican where fathers ruled. Just as he was head of state, the father would be head of the family. Women were firmly placed under the control of their husbands. They had no right to speak in court, property fell under their husband’s purview, guardianship of their children was removed, business licenses to women were unknown, and divorce, proposed by the wife, was allowable only if the husband were a felon, insane, or brought his mistress to reside in the home, under the same roof with his wife. For all intents and purposes, citoyenne had permanently left the French vocabulary.

What about women in the military? For the most part they had been drummed out of the armies by December 1793, although a few women remained-cross-dressed and clandestine. According to the records of those who later petitioned for veterans’ benefits and admission to veterans’ hospitals and homes, the regime of Napoleon I was severe. Even though some had been recognized by revolutionary governments, their petitions initially went unanswered; their pleas often languished in army files. Thérèse Figueur, who had joined the armies in 1793, finally resorted to publishing her memoirs. They were titled La Vrai Madame Sans-Gêne, in an effort to recapture the title that had been, she believed, co-opted by la Maréchale Lefebvre, whose candor, drinking habits, and sometimes unseemly behaviors were legendary. She had continued to serve throughout much of the Napoleonic period, unbeknownst to Napoleon. Angelique Duchemin, married with two children, who served for five years beginning in 1792, continued to petition and petition and petition, until finally she was admitted to Les Invalides. In 1853, she received the Légion d’Honneur for her service to the revolutionary armies.

Under Napoleon, cantinières continued to perform their duties to the armies that were being restructured and profes- sionalized. The “Marie Tout- Troussés,” or camp followers in the vulgar sense of the term, continued to be unceremoniously sent packing. Authentic sutlers and women in provisioning, who received patents from divisional generals, remained in the army train, their most notable mark of distinction being their canteens of eau-de-vie strapped over a shoulder. Their tents were among the few spots of conviviality in the otherwise dire circumstances of campaigns. The nature of war frequently put them in harm’s way. So it was for Marie Tête-de-Bois who was born at Les Invalides, grew up there, and then followed the army as a cantinière. Pregnant at Marengo, she gave birth near the battlefield. A passing soldier yelled, “Hey, Marie, you dropped something.” Allegedly she was later seen at Waterloo. She remarked that she was the daughter of a soldier, the wife of a soldier, the mother of a soldier, and the widow of a soldier.21

Women in Napoleon’s court, however, were to be the diamonds in his crown. These female courtiers or courtesans included Laure Junot, later duchesse d’Abrantès, whose good breeding brought her to Napoleonic notice, but whose acerbic tongue and politically inappropriate liaisons sent her away. The youthful Laure, of Byzantine nobility, was entrusted, along with others, of constructing the système that would merge Napoleon’s new nobility with the ancienne noblesse of France. Alongside Laure Junot, Napoleon recruited Claire-Elisabeth de Rémusat, whose aristocratic fortune had been destroyed by the Revolution. As lady in waiting to Joséphine, she was indispensable. And finally, there was Joséphine herself, widely regarded as one of the most attractive women of her day. For all of the peccadilloes of her early years, she was also indispensable in consolidating his empire. What Napoleon wanted was splendor, glory, gilt if not gold, and glamour: “Nothing is beautiful unless it is large. Vastness and immensity can make you forget a great many defects.”22 His vastness was the creation of a new nobility that he intended to be unrivaled. Around Empress Joséphine a certain cult was born. Everyone wanted to know where she found her garments, where her hair was coiffed, and from where her jewels came. Au Grand Turc became the rage for silk scarves. Her perfumer was A la Cloche d’Argent, and only the best lace from Chantilly and Brussels would do.23 But when Joséphine did not bear him the child that he so desired, Napoleon found no difficulty in moving on. “All being said,” he wrote at St Helena, “I like only those people who are useful to me, and only so long as they are useful.”24

In 1810, after significant international negotiations, he married Marie Louise of Austria who had fled from the French armies twice and who was a representative of the old order of Europe, at its best or worse, depending on how one viewed the house of Austria. She was a terribly naive blonde whom Napoleon married late in life to have his child and from whom he wanted thoughtful counsel, the type he had received unassumingly from Joséphine. Circumstances, however, made the relationship short-lived.

Women consistently baffled Napoleon. “I have always loved to analyze, and if I ever fell seriously in love I would take my love apart piece by piece.”25 As he dissected the pieces of his empire and the workings of his government and his mil-itary, he also dissected the sex that he never quite knew what to do with. In the shadow of the Empire, he continued to think about them. On his deathbed, the name Joséphine was on his lips.

Unlike the eighteenth century, no historian would ever suggest that the nineteenth century was an age of women. French women, who remained under the control of the Code Napoléon during the decades that followed his defeat, invested their lives in the church, education, the needle trades, child care, nursing and ultimately industry. Passive under the law, but always active in French history and French affairs, only in 1945 did they receive the right to vote. Women of the court (courtesans) were long since gone, and the changing nature of war and of the military had made cantinières obsolete. What Napoleon would never have imagined, citoyennes had come out from behind his shadow.

Notes

Delivered at the 18th Annual Conference of the Napoleonic Society of America, September 28, 2002, Philadelphia, PA
 
1. See works like Léon Abensour's La Femme et le féminisme avant la Révolution (Geneva: Slatkine-Magariotis Reprints, 1977) and a wealth of literature in English and French published since the 1970s.
2. Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1903), p.49.
3. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, La femme au dix-huitième siècle, 2 vols. (Paris: Flammarion, 1929), 2:97.
4. "Proclamation of the Consuls to the French People", December 15, 1799, quoted in John Hall Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York: The
MacMillan Company, 1951), p.780.
5. See Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: the Language of Politics in the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
6. "On the admission of women to the rights of citizenship", in Lynn Hunt, The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996), p.120.
7. Elizabeth Racz, "The Women's rights movement in the French Revolution", Science and Society 16 (1951–52): 155; "Petition of women of the Third Estate to the King", in Hunt, The French Revolution and Human Rights, 60–63. See also Darlene Levy, Harriet Applewhite and Mary D. Johnson, Women in Revolutionary Paris (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979) and Cahiers de doléances des femmes en 1789 et autres texts (Paris: Des Femmes, 1981).
8. Olympe de Gouges: Oeuvres. Edited by Benoîte Groute (Paris: Mercure de France, 1986), pp.101–112.
9. "Départ de neuf cent citoyennes de Paris qui sont enrollées déguisées en homes, pour partir aux frontières combattre les tyrans des nations" (1793), Bibliothèque Nationale Lb41.2791.
10. Susan P. Conner, "Redefining the Boundaries of Tradition: Women, War and the French Revolution", unpublished manuscript based on documents in the collection XR48–49 at the Service historique de l'Armée (Vincennes, France).
11. Le Moniteur (no. 59), 19 November 1793. The speech was given to the Commune of Paris on 17 November 1793 and first reported in the Feuille de Salut public; Les Révolutions de Paris, 19 November 1793.
12. Le Moniteur (no. 39), 30 October 1793. See also Paule-Marie Duhet, Les femmes et la Révolution, 1789–1794 (Paris:Gallimard Julliard Collections Archives, 1971), 153–155.
13. Chaumette to the Commune of Paris (17 brumaire II) in Le Moniteur, 17 November 1793.
14. Napoleon in conversation (1817), quoted in Christopher Herold, The Mind of Napoleon (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), p.16.
15. Napoleon to Joseph (Paris, 1795), quoted in Ibid., p.13.
16. Napoleon (c. 1800), quoted in Ibid., p.14.
17. Napoleon (c. 1799), quoted in Ibid., p.14.
18. Susan P. Conner, "Laure Junot, duchesse d'Abrantès, 1783-1838" (unpublished dissertation, The Florida State University, 1977), p.59.
19. Anecdote related by Mme de Staël, quoted in Ibid., p.14.
20. J. M. Thompson, Napoleon's Letters: Selected, Translated and Edited by J. M. Thompson (London: Prion, 1998), p.168.
21. Jean Paul Bertaud, La vie quotidienne des soldats de la Révolution (Paris: Hachette, 1985), pp.165–166.
22. Napoleon to the Council of State in 1806, quoted in Herold, The Mind of Napoleon, p.144.
23. Jean Tulard, Dictionnaire Napoléon (Paris: Fayard, 1987), p.536.
24) Napoleon (c. 1818), quoted in Herold, The Mind of Napoleon, p.9.
25) Napoleon (early 1800s), quoted in Ibid., p.9.

Publication Title :
Members' Bulletin of the Napoleonic Society of America
Review number :
Bulletin 73
Page numbers :
21-25
Month of Publication :
Spring
Year of publication :
2003
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