Translated by Léonie Jedyniak and Maryame Camara

The 19th century: from regression to improvement

The 19th century was a period of great contrasts. The first part of the century was so austere and restrictive towards women that it was even said to be a time of regression.

Women’s professions were still rare and discredited, there was a very marked difference between the sexes and the female psyche was considered « weak ». Hippocrates’ theory in Diseases of Women (1544) sums up this dominant thought: “The female sex is punctuated by pregnancies reputed to be debilitating and menstruation, which causes mood swings that justify their being excluded from any public role, neither urns nor platforms for those who bleed every month and bear children.” (Hippocrates, 1544).

Napoleon did not depart from this line of thought and in 1804, he established the Civil Code. Paternal power made the married woman a minor, weighing down her future as a citizen. He issued laws drafted through various articles such as article 213: “The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband”. This code gives women a discriminatory status and unequally regulates relations between the sexes. Thus, to the question: “What is a woman?”, this code claims that she is a second-class being if she is not married, and a minor and an incapable being if she is married. No political or civil rights are granted to her. Moreover, in 1816, divorce was again prohibited until 1884. However, there was still total equality in terms of taxation and prison. It was not until the Duruy Law of 1867 that the State made an educational effort to provide a girls’ school for communes with more than 500 inhabitants.

Another important feature to highlight is that in the 19th century there was a strong distinction between the dominant bourgeois classes and the working classes. According to the definition that appeared in the Journal des Débats in 1847 “The bourgeoisie is not a class, it is a position; one acquires this position, one loses it. Work, thrift, and ability give it; vice, dissipation, and idleness cause it to be lost.” (Journal des Débats, 1847).

This duality can be seen in particular by comparing several works such as Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami (1885), in which the typical 19th-century bourgeois woman is represented by Clothilde de Martelle, Georges Duroy’s second wife. She is rich but does not care about money, she is beautiful and likes to have fun without worrying about politics or public affairs.

In contrast, women from lower classes are overexploited and often condemned to unskilled work. The nineteenth-century working woman was primarily a peasant. The modest woman had to reconcile her role as a woman, wife, mother and worker. Emile Zola, the leader of the naturalist movement, depicts the working-class condition of his time with great accuracy in his works such as Germinal (1885), which is part of the series Les Rougon-Macquart. Zola highlights the social determinism faced by working-class women and men.

The 19th century was also marked by the French Revolution of 1789, and in particular by the application of new laws resulting from this Revolution. From the very beginning, the issue of women was raised by men such as Condorcet, with his Essay on the Admission of Women to the Rights of the City, or women such as Olympe de Gouges, who in 1791 proclaimed a Declaration of the Rights of Women and the (Female) Citizen. The status of women then tended to improve. The appearance of the marriage contract or the possibility of divorce was a great advance, but women were still excluded from citizenship.

The 19th century was pivotal, one of slow change in mentality. It was a privileged witness to the gradual emancipation of women. From the second half of the century onwards, with the help of great authors, feminist women or simply women who wanted freedom, the place and status of women in France changed for the better. The female reader was considered highly intelligent. Great authors took a stand for women and their condition, such as Victor Hugo in a poem entitled Oh! N’insultez jamais une femme qui tombe (1835) in which he delivers a message of love and hope. Many years later, in Les Misérables (1862), he again defended the women of the people. This change of mentality concerning women tends to show us improvements in their rights or their condition in society.

The 20th century: the conquest of a new Eldorado

The 20th century was marked by a greater visibility and a prodigious improvement in the status of women in French society. After the Second World War, the importance of Marxism in the French social sciences explains the success of the term “female condition”. Indeed, since Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), the subjugation of women and the sexual division of labour concerning capitalist society have been reinforced. The world wars put French women at the forefront of the labour market, making them bear the heavy burden of running the country’s economy. Some women worked in factories to make up for the lack of labour. Others were very involved in the resistance, where they represented 20 to 30% of the workforce. Among their ranks was Lucie Aubrac told her story in her book They shall leave in drunkenness (Ils partiront dans l’ivresse, 1997).

Some historians have thus considered this period to be conducive to the emancipation of women because gender relations were profoundly modified. Women’s literature became more and more widespread with the appearance of new talented female authors. Thus, more and more women writers asserted themselves in this discipline, which had long been dominated by men, as in the case of Simone de Beauvoir and her book The Second Sex (1949), known as the “bible of feminism”. We can also mention Marguerite Duras for her reworking of twentieth-century literature or Dominique Aury for the creation of women’s libertine literature. All three are known for having firmly supported their position within French literature and the writing profession.

During this century, new rights were also granted to women. The French Union for Women’s Suffrage was founded in 1909 by Jeanne Schmahl with the support of the newspaper La Française, an association of militant republicans demanding the right to vote and to stand for election in municipal elections. In the 1930s, Louise Weiss and her association La femme nouvelle held numerous demonstrations in favour of women’s rights. These demonstrations culminated in 1936 when Léon Blum, head of the French government, appointed three women to his Front Populaire government: Suzanne Lacore as Under-Secretary of State for Child Welfare, Irène Joliot-Curie as Under-Secretary of State for Scientific Research and Cécile Brunschvicg, President of the UFSF, as Under-Secretary of State for National Education. The right to vote was finally granted to women by De Gaulle and the GPRF on 21 April 1944. In terms of sexual freedom, the Neuwirth law of 1967 legalised contraception and the Veil law legalised voluntary termination of pregnancy (IVG) on 17 January 1975.

There was also an epistemological break introduced by feminists of the 1968s such as Christine Delphy who put forward the notions of patriarchy, oppression and gender class. Although women today occupy a place that is rightfully theirs, other battles have yet to be fought, as noted in the 1992 book Let’s Go Girls (Allez les filles) by Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, which shows the unequal pay between the two genders in the workplace, or Pierre Bourdieu’s essay On male domination (1998), which testifies to the immobility of our society.

The status of women has thus evolved in different ways over the centuries, both in society and in literature. Today, women enjoy moderate equality and many rights have yet to be acquired; for example, equal pay, bodily integrity or the right to use contraception and to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy. Moreover, although parity has evolved considerably, it is far from being implemented in all areas, particularly in the workplace. 

Women can therefore be proud, continue their struggles and their advances and transcribe their victories into literature so that they can live on throughout history.

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