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Legouvé, Ernest Wilfred (1807-1903)

Legouvé, Ernest Wilfred (1807-1903), an influential French dramatist and essayist, and subsequently a member of the Academie Française, delivered a path-breaking series of lectures on the history of women at the Collège de France in Paris during the spring months of 1848. The new republican ministry of public education sponsored Legouvé's lectures, at the instigation of Legouvé's good friend, Jean Reynaud, who had been appointed under-secretary to the minister, Hippolyte Carnot. Hundreds of Parisians flocked to these weekly lectures, which publicly inserted an analysis of gender (or the social construction of sexual differences) and women's history into the politics of the revolution then underway.

Until recently, Legouvé's lectures and his subsequent 450-page book, Histoire morale des femmes (Paris: Gustave Sandre, 1849) have received only passing mention in the scholarship on the 1848 revolution. The political aspect of his lectures, however, deserves further attention, for he raised significant questions about the sociopolitical implications of the relation of the sexes. At the outset he charged that the first French Revolution had failed because it was unjust to women. He advocated that the "virile" republican principles of liberty and equality could not be realized unless complimented by the feminine virtue of fraternity, informed by women's love. In subsequent lectures Legouvé made a protracted argument for "equality in difference," a case for women's emancipation under the republic, grounded in women's distinctive physiological, mental, and emotional differences from men, and on the dignity of their social role as mothers.

In positing a thoroughgoing separation of women's and men's spheres linked through a fundamentally revised institution of marriage, he launched a frontal attack on the Napoleonic Code's heavily patriarchal and authoritarian vision of marriage and family law. He advocated a wide range of legal reforms to improve the status of women as girls, as wives, and as mothers. These reforms ranged from educational reform that would provide girls with appropriate formal education to granting married women full adult legal status with respect to property and person, and for mothers, the rights to a formal voice with respect to the guidance, education, and marriage of their children. He advocated stiffer laws concerning seduction, abrogation of the Napoleonic law forbidding paternity suits, and the reestablishment of civil divorce. He also promoted women's admission to the professions. But in the political climate of 1848, he did not champion the vote for women, even though the new republic had so recently enfranchised all men by eliminating property restrictions. Legouvé's lectures and book (which went through ten editions between 1849 and 1896) put women's history to use in support of far-reaching changes in their status, which he challenged the new republic to accomplish.

Legouve's arguments were greeted enthusiastically by many critics, ranging from Eugène Sue (in La Démocratie pacifique, May 11, 1849) to the British-based Eclectic Review (March 1850), organ of the Evangelical liberals. His ideas were subsequently made much of in the Italian press by Jenny P. d'Héricourt. The women editors of La Voix des femmes praised Legouvé's analysis and conclusions and enthusiastically proposed his candidacy for the constituent assembly as a representative of women's interests.

Many of Legouvé's subsequent works for the theater, including his celebrated Adrienne Lecouvreur (1849), written with Scribe, and Contes de la Reine de Navarre (1850), elaborated on the themes raised by the 1848 lectures and the ensuing editions of his book. Social and political critics throughout Europe, from John Stuart Mill in England to Hedwig Dohm and Lily Braun in Germany acknowledged the significance of Legouvé's ideas. The short-lived Second Republic did not enact his proposals, but during the Third Republic (1870-1940), Legouvé's arguments and reforms became a cornerstone of the organized movement for women's rights. Legouvé himself became heavily involved with the development of women's education, particularly at the École normale supérieure de Sévres , established in the 1880s to train the teachers of teachers for the secular girls' secondary program of the Third Republic.

Karen Offen


Legouvé, Ernest, Soixante ans de souvenirs, 2 vols. Paris: Hetzel, 1886. In English as Sixty Years of Recollections, trans. Albert D. Vandam. London, 1893.

Moses, Claire Goldberg. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Offen, Karen. "Ernest Legouvé and the Doctrine of `Equality in Difference' for Women: A Case Study of Male Feminism in Nineteenth-Century French Thought," Journal of Modern History , vol. 58, no. 2 (June 1986): 452-484.

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