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Women's Rights in France

Women's Rights in France In February 1848, the provisional government recognized three rights essential to the new democratic and social republic: universal suffrage, education, and employment. Parisian women immediately demanded the inclusion of women in the democratic and social restructuring of the state. The most active advocates for women's rights were women who had been associated with the Saint Simonian and Fourierist movements of the 1830s: Eugenie Niboyet, Jeanne Deroin, Suzanne Voilquin, Desirée Gay, and Pauline Roland. Their arguments were supported by some socialists and republicans who promoted general democratic and social change and by working women who petitioned specifically for economic reform. These advocates of women's rights accepted the prevailing concept of women's unique affective nature and moralizing role, but rejected limiting women to the private sphere and based their arguments for women's rights on their domestic duties. Their appeal for the emancipation of women meant freedom for the full public and private exercise of these responsibilities rather than liberation from them.

Proponents of women's civil rights advocated marital reforms, but they concentrated more on suffrage. They argued that women's moralizing role in the family and an egalitarian family as the basis of a democratic state required equality in marriage. When divorce was discussed, it was presented as a means of protecting women's morality. The most radical revision of marriage was presented by the Vesuvians, a group of working-class women, who made marriage obligatory for both sexes but allowed the prudent use of divorce, demanded that men share the housework, and deprived wives of civil rights for deferring to their husband's political opinions.

Supporters of women's political rights argued that the inspirational, maternal, and managerial roles of women as wife and mother ordained their active public participation. Since the social individual was a couple composed of distinct but equal natures, the republic would fail without women's moralizing influence. As a "grande famille," the state needed mother love; as a "grand menage," it required a wife's organizing talents. Roland immediately tested the meaning of universal suffrage by attempting to vote in a municipal election. Women signed petitions and formed societies requesting the right to vote for representatives in the April 1848 election of a constitutional convention. Niboyet founded the Voix des femmes as a socialist and political newspaper in the interests of all women and was quickly supported by Deroin, Gay, Voilquin, and other socialist or republican women. After the provisional government refused to grant women voting rights, the newspaper called upon women to exert their influence in favor of sympathetic male candidates. However, when the assembly debated the qualifications for suffrage, the proposal that women be included was met with derisive shouts. After the June 1848 insurrection of the workers, the assembly placed political clubs under police surveillance and barred women from membership and even attendance at the meetings on the grounds that women's proper place was in the home. In November 1848, the newly-drafted constitution set elections to the legislative assembly for the following May. Encouraged by an alliance between democratic and socialist groups seemingly favorable to women's rights, Deroin sought their support for her candidacy. The electoral committee, however, considered her request inopportune and unconstitutional.

Working women achieved limited political rights in short-lived economic associations. In the Parisian municipal workshops, they elected delegates to represent their interests to the local mayors and chose their own groups leaders, although the shop directors were middle-class women appointed by the mayors. When the workshops were closed following the June Days, Gay, a delegate and a group leader, warned that women would remember that for a moment they had possessed the right of election. Deroin's proposal for a fraternal and solidary association of all associations gave women equal voting and representative rights. When delegates of over 100 associations accepted a modified version of her plan, Deroin and Roland were elected to the central committee. In May 1850, the group was arrested for political conspiracy and Deroin and Roland were later sentenced to six months in prison.

Denied the national vote, prohibited from joining political clubs or attending meetings, barred from candidacy, and imprisoned for political activity, women suffered additional political indignities in 1851 when the conservative legislative assembly attempted to deny them the right to petition and called a proposal for women's municipal suffrage an inconceivable improvisation.

Advocates of women's educational rights appealed to morality and family stability. As a future "educating mother", a girl would have to learn republican values in order to teach them to her children. Equal instruction in professions and vocations would insure a marriage based upon moral choice, rather than economic necessity; it would not provide an alternative career. The Voix des femmes called for women instructors, equal primary and secondary schools, and a reading room at the national library. Faced with government inaction on women's public education, Gay and Deroin founded the Society for the Mutual Education of Women, a working women's association that published a newspaper, the Politique des femmes, provided free courses for working women, and printed Deroin's course on social law. Plans for working women's economic associations often incorporated education as part of their projects. Voilquin's Fraternal Society of United Working Women proposed an adult school with a three-year curriculum, including the history of women; Gay's Association of Workers of all Professions and Regions included an article on the education of children of both sexes.

In June 1848, Hippolyte Carnot, the minister of education, presented the constituent assembly with a proposal for free, secular, and compulsory education for children of both sexes until age 14. Opposition in the assembly led to his resignation and the shelving of his program. In 1851, the legislative assembly passed the Falloux Law which required communities with more than eight hundred inhabitants to establish a girl's school, but stipulated clerical staffing and a domestically-oriented curriculum and provided no state funding.

Supporters of women's economic rights based their arguments on the necessity of women's work, women's morality, and their domestic responsibilities. The organization of women's work would provide subsistence for the mothers of family who were the sole or principal wage earners in the family and eliminate chronic unemployment and underemployment that forced women into prostitution. Shorter working hours would insure that women had time to perform their domestic functions. Plans for women's workshops often proposed attached day care, infant schools, and common kitchens and laundries to allow women to perform their maternal duties and wifely tasks. Petitions to the Provisional Government called for the organization of women's work, the abolition of competitive prison work, higher salaries, and shorter working days. The Voix des femmes supported women's national workshops and encouraged women to establish economic associations. Voilquin founded the Society of United Midwives; Niboyet the Fraternal Association of Female Domestics. When the government failed to fund national workshops for women, Parisian women forced the mayor to establish municipal workshops. From its inception, this municipal plan for the organization of women's work suffered from insufficient funds and supplies, government suspicion, and working women's dissatisfaction with middle-class women directors. Proposals to the constituent assembly for financing specific workshops were not funded. However, the failures and final dissolution of the women's workshops and state inaction stimulated efforts for alternative methods of organization. In the Politique des femmes, Gay appealed to working women to organize themselves; she also founded the Fraternal Association of Seamstresses. Middle-class women formed the Association of Assistance and funded and supervised a small workshop. Voilquin co-founded a workshop that briefly employed over 200 women. In the Opinion des femmes, Deroin called for middle-class women to help fund associations. Her plan for a general union provided economic equality for both sexes by abolishing wages, controlling distribution, consumption, and production, and raising credit. The general union, not failing republic, would embody true liberty, equality, and fraternity by guaranteeing both sexes the right to live; that is, the right to complete moral, intellectual, and material development. For Deroin, women's rights could only be secured from the bottom up and she appealed to all women to join the ranks of the working class in order to gain the equality on which the happiness of the world depended.

By the end of the republic, the attempts to gain women's economic rights through association were defeated by insufficient funds, the fragmented nature of women's work, assumptions about women's natural sphere, arguments that women's position could be improved by raising women's wages, and government actions against economic associations.

Between 1848 and 1850, arguments for women's rights were morally rejected by those conservatives, republicans, socialists, and workers who accepted only a domestic role for women, and legally repressed by a conservative government whose general opposition to the democratic principles and social reforms of the republic specifically condemned women's rights as destructive of the family and society. Supporters of women's rights, while never forming a cohesive movement, did share a common image of women's potential for effecting change rooted in but extending beyond prevailing cultural values. Unlike later women's rights groups who focused on suffrage, placed social revolution above women's emancipation, or advocated equality as an autonomous right, they saw the vote only as a means to an end, emphasized that the full equality of women was a necessary prerequisite to social reform, and viewed women's individual rights in terms of their familial and social duties.
S. Joan Moon


Riot-Sarcey, Michèle "le Parcours de femmes dans l'apprentissage de la démocratie : Désirée Gay, Jeanne Deroin, Eugénie Niboyet, 1830 - 1870" Paris, Univ., Diss., 1990.

_______. La démocratie à l'épreuve es femmes : trois figures critiques du pouvoir, 1830-1848 Paris : A. Michel, 1994.

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