Feminism And Women's Rights

The Effect of the Napoleonic Code on Womens Rights

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"The Effect of the Napoleonic Code on Womens Rights"
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Prior to the French Revolution, women had few or no true economic or civil rights. They were commodities, chattel to be passed from father to husband. Women were beholden to church law, expected to obey whichever male possessed them. Marriage contracts, inheritance laws, tax and property laws, and child custody were always in favor of the husband. A Frenchwoman could not sell property, make contracts, or "bring court action" over any said property, unless it was exclusively hers, and such a situation was exceedingly rare. A woman could not control her own assets, as they were automatically combined with her husband's upon marriage, and he held sole control over them without exception.

There was no such thing as divorce unless physical abuse or "defamation" could be proven. A man's adultery was not grounds for divorce, while a woman's almost certainly would be. She could then be confined to a convent permanently, and any estate given to her children.

When revolutionary arguments for the equality of all citizens began to increase, many insisted that women had to be included in the "all".  Women's groups and the first "feminists" became deeply involved in the evolution of the new France. After the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted in August of 1789, Olympe de Gouges, of the Cercle Social (a front for the women's political group Society of the Friends of Truth), wrote Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in response to the National Assembly's failure to address women's rights. She also wrote a feminist rejoinder to the famous Social Contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which she demanded equality in marriage - another "women's" issue blatantly ignored by the revolutionary front. During those turbulent times, she was very active, publishing endless missives in support of the spirit of the changes taking place in her country, but was vehemently against the reign of terror and the streams of executions taking place, including that of the royal family. Besides being an ardent feminist, she was also an outspoken abolitionist.

The Revolutionary Constitution of 1791 specifically denied citizenship to women, and all women's clubs and gatherings were declared illegal in 1793. Olympe de Gouges was declared an enemy of the revolution because of her criticism of its leader, Maximilien Robespierre, and his bloodthirsty methods, her defense of King Louis XVI and his family, and was labeled a reactionary for constantly demanding equal rights for women. The National Convention unquestionably made their feelings about those matters clear when they guillotined Olympe de Gouges in November 1793.

The Terror of which Olympe de Gouges was so critical did come to an end in 1794 with the execution of Robespierre, but France was still not a land unified in peace and equality as the revolutionaries dreamed. There were philosophical changes slowly taking root - the belief in "liberty, equality, and FRATernity" (note the lack of feminine wording) spreading across the land - but actual codification and universal practice of those ideas had yet to come to pass. Various areas of the country still operated under different sets of laws, leaving chaos and an inability to put the ideas of the Revolution into effective action.

Enter Napoleon Bonaparte, General of the French and Italian Armies, a great hero and conqueror for his country. He sought to bring together Revolutionary concepts, which heretofore had failed to be codified, and set them out as "a complete statement of principles rather than rules." He wanted courts to have guidelines to which they could apply their own reason in each situation over which to rule the people. In 1799, with the assistance of certain members of the Directory, Napoleon staged a successful coup against the remaining ruling bodies (known as the 18th Brumaire), and became Consul for Life in 1800. It was at that time he began to construct his principles (with the assistance of Rousseau, who held an exceedingly low opinion of women himself), which by 1804 were completed and finally put to use throughout the land.

The Napoleonic Code was not a positive change for women. Even what small philosophical strides might have been made during the Revolution, such as consideration of declaring spousal abuse a crime, were lost. While Napoleon declared his desire to integrate the past and the future of law, the only real feminist idea that survived the death of Olympe de Gouges and her sisters was their idea that marriage should be a social contract between a man and a woman, rather than a direct transfer of ownership from father to husband. The Code declared that women were still subject to the control of their father or husband, and they were not allowed to engage in any exchange of "immovable" property without the particular man's consent. Even if her husband was in jail, a Frenchwoman was required to wait until his release to gain permission to engage in commerce. It is interesting to note, however, that the husband was required to keep an accounting of the wife's community property in the marriage, and give it to her upon request. If he was found to be wasting or abusing that community property, hers could be separated from his and she would regain control of her own assets.

Women had more or less control of their own lives depending on the specific area covered by the Code. For example, she could not be forced to marry against her will, or marry at all before age 21 - but then not without the permission of her parents or grandparents. She could write her own will without her husband's input or permission (although how many did can certainly be questioned). Divorce was possible, but extremely complicated. Adultery was still not reason for separation if committed by the husband unless he brought his lover into the marital home. For a woman, however, she could not only be divorced for adultery, but lose her community property and be jailed, as well. Other valid reasons for divorce on either side included "outrageous conduct, ill-usage, or grievous injuries," "either party being condemned to an infamous punishment or mutual consent where the parties had been married at least two years but not more than twenty, where the wife was no more than 45 years of age but more than 21 and where the husband was at least 25. For the last ground of divorce one also required the consent of parents and other descendants of the spouses." It hardly seems worth the trouble! Any woman who wished to marry again after divorce was required to wait ten months.

Guardianship of children in a marriage could be even more grievous for a woman. The father was automatically the guardian and administrator of all  children's affairs while s/he was a minor. If the father died while the mother was pregnant, a conservator would be chosen by a "family council" to make any decisions necessary for the health and well-being of the child until it's birth. The mother would then become the guardian, and the conservator would remain "deputy" guardian. If the mother decided to marry again, she must call the "family council" once more and ask permission to continue guardianship of her own child. If the council decided to refuse, she would permanently lose custody to the deputy guardian.

Napoleon is said to have declared, upon passing his Code in 1804, "Women ought to obey us. Nature has made women our slaves!" An opinion clear in the law he wrote and enforced. His codified misogyny echoed across decades, oppressing women throughout Europe who lived in areas where the Napoleonic Code was either law or the basis for law. In France itself, women couldn't work outside the home without their husband's permission until 1965, and only gained full autonomy and independent citizenship in 1970.

More about this author: Heather A. Fowler

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