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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Women in Napoleonic France

Frederick Ober, author. Josephine, Empress of the French. 1895. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The swift rise of Napoleon Bonaparte after the French Revolution of 1789 brought sweeping changes. Napoleon as General and then First Consul was in many ways a man of tradition. But he was modern minded in terms of the equality of men regardless of their origins. An advocate of meritocracy, he had no patience for the ineffective institutions of the ancien régime or the abuses of the privileged classes that rewarded neither abilities nor accomplishments. Napoleon was masterful in taking elements from both the Old Regime and the Republic and incorporating them into his new vision of a modern centralized France. Called by many the most enlightened of despots and a true son of Voltaire, he believed in talent and valued loyalty. A skeptic and a pragmatist, he sought to keep the absolute authority of the ancien régime without the wasteful trappings of the old nobility. With this aim in mind he carefully reintegrated the Catholic Church, seeing it as a tool to unify and control the population. A man who did not look kindly on independent thinkers, Napoleon put a ban on political clubs and did not hesitate to banish those who opposed him.

Napoleon was particularly scornful of the liberal and educated women of the day who often ran salons. The great salonnière, Madame de Staël chose to leave France rather than be subjected to the self-censorship required by Napoleon. He is reputedly to have said to her that "The leading lady of the world is she who makes the most children." In order to reestablish absolute patriarchal control of France, Napoleon methodically obliterated the financial and legal gains women had achieved during the Revolution. After 1803, divorce laws that had been greatly relaxed during the Republic were revamped to give men enormous latitude over the lives of women. Whereas a man could divorce and at times imprison a woman for infidelity, women could only sue for a divorce in cases where the husband wished to bring his paramour into the family home. In instances of extreme physical abuse women could sue for a divorce, but the odds were against her. Property inheritance by a woman, indeed any financial means she might have, were entirely controlled by her husband — or lacking a husband, her father. Scholar Mary Trouille's detailed analysis of Wife Abuse in 18th-Century France leaves no doubt that while the Napoleonic Code did open up paths to advancement for men based on merit and service to the state, it was disastrous regarding not only the independence, but the physical and emotional well-being of women.

Napoleon as Emperor (1804) became even more fixated on his "Grand Empire" and his desire for an heir prompted him to divorce his once beloved wife Josephine Beauharnais. His marriage to Archduchess Marie-Louise in 1810 produced the heir he desired, but only two years later he embarked on his foolish expedition into Russia. Heir or no heir, this is seen as the beginning of the end to the remarkable reign of Napoleon I. Napoleon abdicated in 1815 after his famous defeat by British and Prussian forces at the Battle of Waterloo. Not only did France's boundaries revert to the frontiers of 1792, but the Bourbon dynasty was restored with the installation of Louis XVIII. As for Napoleon's legacy concerning the status of women in France, the so-called Restoration of the constitutional monarchy kept most of Napoleon's administrative policies in tact. This left women almost entirely under the thumb of the financial head of the house. At this time women's political leanings were usually in keeping with those of her family and more broadly, her social class. While opinions ran the gamut during this time, both the elite and the population at large tended to echo the sentiments of their milieu. This influenced women's opinions on how much freedom they felt entitled to, and what role they deemed appropriate or even appealing. Royalist believed that the freedoms afforded women during the Revolution had been responsible for the chaos and as a result their views tended to be highly conservative and there were actually many women of the nobility that embraced this Ultraroyalism.

The Revolution of 1830 ended the reign of Charles X and the Bourbon dynasty. During this new "Bourgeois Monarchy" that lasted until 1848 there was a relaxation for women concerning class and indeed the idea of Liberté was personified (as with during the Revolution) by the female figure Marianne carrying a scepter (indicating autonomy) and wearing the famous red Phrygian cap. The emerging women's press began to debate issues affecting women such as an end to the legal requirement to obey their husbands, the end to legal penalties against women for crimes such as adultery, the right to divorce, and their natural prerogative to have equal rights with their husbands over the lives of their children. While the Gazette des Femmes and the Journal des Femmes both attacked the marriage system in general, some of these publications also seemed to enshrine women — perhaps unintentionally — in rather domestic roles. The 1848 ruling in favor of suffrage for all men underscored the sex-based discrimination around the right to vote. Former Saint-Simonians such as Eugénie Niboyet and Jeanne Deroin lobbied for women's suffrage — an act that would bring into question the nature of women's roles as citizens. The second half of the century would see an uptick and evolution of what we consider to be modern feminism.

For further historical context see Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones.

Print Resources

Finding Additional Materials in the Library's Online Catalog

The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find general materials about French Women in History it is useful to browse by authorized subject headings. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections. Keep in mind, no single subject heading is comprehensive. Some headings, for example, will leave out women, and some may leave out France, so it is imperative to do a variety of searches.

For biographies or monographs on individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).

For example, to find all books on Joan of Arc, browse "SUBJECTS (beginning with)":