Why French Women Still Need to Fight for their Rights and Why


Looking at French news, the notions of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ seem to have been forgotten and replaced by racism, xenophobia and homophobia. Almost from the start, Equality lost all of its meaning (and still did not recover it). Indeed, the Constitution of the Revolution made a difference between active citizens and passive citizens. The latter being the poorest men, men of colour and, obviously, women. Yet, whilst, every men obtained their full citizenship, women had to fight for every single part of their citizenship.

The etymological history of human rights started in the sixteenth century with the development of the concept of natural rights in Europe. The term ‘human rights’ was used for the first time by Voltaire in 1763 in his Traité sur la tolérance. It was one of the many attempts done by eighteenth-century thinkers to define the corpus of rights due to every human being. French thinkers gradually favoured the more reduced ‘rights of man’ introduced by Rousseau in the Social Contrat (1762). Even though the term ‘human rights’ is used since 1948 in most of the official texts, French people still define their country as the ‘nation of rights of man’, dismissing its gender aspect and the implicit gender discrepancies and inequalities.


France has a long lasting tradition of gender discrimination. The French medieval society has its roots in Roman laws, strongly influenced by German tribes invasions, whose laws were more ‘women-friendly’. Even if the society was mostly governed by men, it did not forbid women to inherit money, title and land, or to govern. Gynecocracies were neither impossible, nor uncommon in Medieval France: Brunhilda was regent three times between 570 and 613, Blanche of Castile twice from 1223 and 1252, and the 1529’s Treaty of Cambrai is known as the ‘Peace of the Ladies’ as it was negotiated by Louise of Savoy (mother of the King of France Francis I) and Margaret of Austria (Emperor Charles V’s aunt). Strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, the first blow in the gender balance of power strike in 1316 with the adoption of the Salic law in France, which ensured that no women could become queen of France, or transmit rights on the Crown to their descendants.

During the early modern period, women’s rights were limited to the minimum and virtually had no more political power after the last regency by Anne of Austria. Men controlled the eighteenth-century family: they were kings of their own private and small kingdom. Because of laws and prejudice, women were subordinate to men from their birth until their death, unless they were lucky enough to become widows. However, the Ancien Regime did not have strict boundaries, mostly a set of law with some exceptions. The right of vote, for instance, was given to every person owning a land, regardless of their gender. Women had no political power, but they organized gatherings such as salons and dinners where they received men of letters and politicians and talked about literature, national and international politics.


The breakout of the Revolution in 1789 gave women hope for a brighter future. The Declaration of rights of man and the citizen is an amazing text, the basis of primary rights and of French republic. It is difficult to judge if the omission of women was intentional at first. In the early years of the Revolution, women experienced more freedom than ever before: the removal of censorship allowed them to bloom in the printing world (the number of female authors increased from 78 during the decade prior to the Revolution to 329 between 1789 and 1800), they had more possibilities to express their ideas in the public sphere, the legalization of the divorce allowed them to escape a loveless marriage, they had the possibility to inherit lands and money, and they even could fight in the army.

However, it did not last long. Indeed, revolutionary politicians – regardless of their social background – shared intellectual values inherited from Enlightenment’s philosophers, and especially Rousseau. One of Rousseau’s main ideas was a double standard society with men mastering both the public and the private spheres, and women being confined in the latter, being in charge of the education of the children. Whilst men’s power grew during the Revolution, women’s was slowly destroyed: at the autumn 1789, women are excluded from the right of vote; soon their right to participate to public meetings was removed; and the women’s battalions are dissolved in 1793. The political thinking of the Revolution and its laws inspired and were reinforced by the Napoleon’s Civil Code in 1804, that ensure women’s complete lack of rights for over a century, mostly in France, but also in the countries invaded by the Emperor.


Because of the Civil Code, it took longer to French women to obtain rights, comparing to other European countries. They earned the right to vote only in 1944, and it was not granted by the National Assembly, but by De Gaulle’s Provisional Government. Women were allowed to have a profession without the consent of their husband in 1965 – which included the right to be published without their agreement. The power of the father over is family is tempered and transformed in ‘parental power’ in 1970. Laws enacted that men and women should be equals in their profession in 1983. Until the insertion of the idea in the French Constitution (1999), women elected represented less than 5% of all people elected. Even nowadays, statistics from the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (Insee) show a strong disproportion between men and women in politics: in 2012, female deputies at the Assemblée Nationale were 26,9 % and female senators were 25 %; on a local scale, numbers are a bit more equal with 40,3% women local representatives. However, if women are part of the political process, they rarely are the head of an institution, only 16 % of mayors are women and 23,1 % are president or regional councils. To improve these numbers, a 2014 law aims at the ‘true equality’ between both sexes. The future will tell us if it actually makes a difference.


Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse, First Woman Parachutist

On 12th October 1799, Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse, a young french woman of 24, jumped from a balloon from an altitude of 900 meters.. She was the first woman parachutist, and the second parachutiste ever. Indeed, the first jump was made by André-Jacques Garnerin (one of the first balloonist), the 22nd October 1797. That day, Jeanne was among the fascinated crowd watching his performance. Jeanne became his student, and his wife soon after. Their niece, Elisa Garnerin jumped from an altitude of 1,000 meters on 22nd October 1799; she later became the first professional parachutiste and the first female aerialist.

Jeanne did not only jump, she was also a balloonist. Even though she was not the first one flying (the opera singer Elisabeth Thible made it in 1784), she was the first woman flying alone on the 10th November 1798. In 1802, she filed her husband’s patent application  for the first frameless parachute. The couple made many demonstrations throughout Europe, Jeanne own’s record being a  jump of 8,000 feet over London.

André-Jacques Garnerin died in an accident in 1823. After her husband’s death, she met another unusual woman: Marie-Thérèse Figueur, better known as Madame Sans-Gene – due to her bold and straightforward way to speak. Born in 1774, Marie-Thérèse was one of these women soldier who fought in the revolutionary army, and after became a dragon of the Empire. Her soldier career started in 1793 and ended in 1815. At some point both women met, and decided to open a table d’hôte restaurant. Jeanne herself died in 1847.

New Beginnings #2: A New Project and A New Experience: The East End Women’s Museum

The Still Point Journal

sylvia-pankhurst-1909-by-unknown-photographer-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commons Sylvia Pankhurst, 1909. Instrumental figure in the East End women’s suffrage movement. Attribution: Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia commons, 1909

Have you heard about the East End Women’s Museum? Perhaps you remember instead the opening of the tacky Jack the Ripper Museum in 2015, in place of the promised first Women Museum in the UK. Not only does the new museum disregard women’s lives, but it also displays gratuitous details of Jack the Ripper’s murders, including one victim’s bedroom and pictures of the bodies. However, this dreadful opening led to some good things: a collective opposition to the museum (from neighbours, East End women, feminists, and historians), as well as Sara Huws and Sarah Jackson’s wish to create the promised museum. Their idea is to offer the East End and London the museum that was originally proposed, with historical and social information about women’s lives in the…

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Women Writers in Eighteenth-Century France

Most of French eighteenth-century writers and philosophers that were famous during their lifetime, are still famous today. Just think of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, to name but a few. What about women? Except by scholars, they are pretty much forgotten. Were their writings worse than mens’? Not really. Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, for instance, was the second most published and acclaimed writer after Rousseau. Whilst, his work is still studied in high schools, hers had only a couple of publications over the past twenty years.

The discrepancy between men and women writers comes from the eighteenth-century society. Eighteenth-century women did not have access to college and university, and just a few of them received a good education. By the end of the eighteenth century, only 47% of French men and 27% of French women were able to read and write, and most of them were from the social and economical elites. Eighteenth-century rhetoric taught young women how to appreciate style rather than how to use it. Many women had intellectual aspirations but they rejected them, fearing to be negatively qualified as précieuse or femmes savantes. Indeed, women demonstrating too high intellectual aspirations where quickly stigmatized as pedantic and précieuses. They were mocked by their contemporaries, men and women.

Moreover, women were no legal individuals under the Old Regime laws. Under 25, they were under their father’s responsibility and married, under their husband’s. Widow and never-married women over 25 could handle their financial affairs, sign contract freely and represent themselves in court. For married and minor women, they had to have the authorization of their husband/father.

In the seventeenth century, the majority of the women writers were of aristocratic background, it was however reversed at the end of the eighteen century with the French Revolution. The few women who published under the Old Regime were usually unmarried or widowed women from an aristocratic or bourgeois family. the other had to use a man’s name to be published. Condorcet noted that it was quite common for men to sell their name to women authors.

Carla Hesse offers some statistics about women’s presence in print, showing that only 73 women were published between 1754 and 1765, 55 between 1766 and 1777, 78 between 1777 and 1788, and 329 between 1789 and 1800 – due to the revolutionary context that gave at first more freedom to women and the recognition of authorship in July 1793. Well, men’s authorship was recognized; women’s was subjected to the good will of her husband. full authorship for women was only given in France in 1965.



Hans Bots & Françoise Waquet, La République des Lettres (Paris, Belin, 1997).

Elizabeth C. Goldsmith & Dena Goodman (eds), Going public: women and publishing in early modern France (Ithaca; London, Cornell University Press, 1995).

Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: how French women became modern (Princeton, NJ; Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Carla Hesse, ‘Reading Signatures: Female Authorship and Revolutionary Law in France, 1750-1850’ in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 22, 3 (1989), Pp.469-87.

Antoine Lilti, Le Monde des salons.

Jolanta T. Pekacz, Conservative Tradition in Pre-Revolutionary France. Parisian Salon Women (New York, Peter Lang, 1999).

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, Actress and Writer

Madame Riccoboni was born Marie-Jeanne de Laboras, the daughter of Christophe-Nicolas de Laboras and Marie-Marguerite Dujac. Her father was from the minor provincial nobility, and her mother from the Parisian bourgeoisie. They married in Paris on 29th April 1710. The reason for this marriage could be Marie-Marguerite’s dowry, which Christophe-Nicolas used to buy land at Laboras. They had two daughters, Thérèse, born in 1711, who died young, and Marie-Jeanne, who was born in 1713. However, it transpired that Christophe-Nicolas had already married in 1690. Around 1712-3, a complaint was addressed to the Parisian judge Antoine Dorsanne, who annulled the second marriage and sent Christophe-Nicolas back to his first wife. Marie-Jeanne was born 8 months after this.

Marie-Jeanne’s childhood was unhappy; she was considered as an illegitimate child and deprived of love, especially from her mother. Until 1727, she went to a convent, an experience that she despised and used as the basis of her criticism of girls’ education in her novels. In order to escape her mother’s influence, Marie-Jeanne married the actor Antoine-François Riccoboni on 7th July 1734. The Riccoboni family was a powerful theatrical dynasty. Soon after their marriage, Marie-Jeanne’s mother’s came to live with them on the rue des Deux-Portes due to her financial circumstances.

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni started to act in private theatres at some time between 1727 and 1734 and contemporaries, such as the abbé de Voisenon, mentioned her performances. With her marriage to Antoine-François Riccoboni, her debut on the public stage of the Comédie-Italienne was in La Surprise de la haine by Boissy in August 1734. She remained in the troupe for 26 years. Despite her long career, some contemporaries, such as Voisenon and Denis Diderot thought that Riccoboni was not a good actress. Riccoboni’s marriage was unhappy. Although Antoine-François was a talented actor, he was dishonest and a gambler with a violent temperament.

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni started to write in the 1750s and her first three novels (Lettres de Fanni Butlerd in 1756, Histoire du Marquis de Cressy in 1758 and Lettres de Juliette Catesby in 1759) were published anonymously. Riccoboni only revealed her authorship after the success of the third novel. Most of Riccoboni’s novels are short, epistolary and light-hearted, such as Lettres de Fanni Butlerd, Lettres de Juliette Catesby, Lettres d’Adélaïde de Dammartin (1767) and Lettres de Milord Rivers (1777). They were also well acclaimed for their style and their love storyline. In 1766, Riccoboni learnt to read and write English and translated English plays. She was author of translations of five English plays that she published in 1768 in two volumes as the Nouveau Théâtre Anglais.

Through her attendance at salons in the 1760s, Riccoboni started to develop an international network, especially among the British intellectuals, such as Adam Smith, David Hume, David Garrick and Robert Liston. Riccoboni stopped visiting her friends’s salons around 1764, and claimed she saw them as artificial and insincere. She and her close friend the actress Thérèse Biancolelli organised a small salon on Thursdays and Saturdays, which they defined as a ‘petit cercle’ or also ‘compagnie’, which avoided the artificiality of other salons.

By 1760, Riccoboni was a famous and bestselling author. She and her friend Thérèse Biancolelli decided to retire from the stage both with a pension of 1,000£ and to live together in an apartment on the rue Poissonnière. Riccoboni’s mother also came with them. Due to the well-known misconduct of Antoine-François Riccoboni, this decision to leave him seems to have been tolerated – if not accepted – by society. The two women created a home, a working place and an informal salon. In 1769, Riccoboni’s mother, Marie-Marguerite Dujac, died after a long sickness. Three years after, at the beginning of May 1772, Antoine-François Riccoboni was paralyzed and died shortly afterwards. As Riccoboni was too poor to afford her husband’s burial, her friends financed it. Soon after, she inherited the remaining goods and assets of the Riccoboni family, which included 6,400£ and an annuity of 350£, enough to settle her debts. A few weeks after, on the 2nd of June, thanks to the intercession of Madame du Barry, Riccoboni received a royal pension of 2,000£ from Louis XV. Riccoboni’s final years were difficult. In spite of the several editions of her novels and her pension from the Comédie-Française, her assets and her royal pension were cut at the beginning of the Revolution. She died in poverty on 7th December 1792. She destroyed most of her private papers and letters (including Diderot’s letters). After her death, Thérèse Biancolelli destroyed those remaining.

Public women and public opinion

As written in a previous post about prostitutes, they were despised by public opinion for their immorality and kept-women were ignored. It was though a bit more complicated than that.

After the austerity of the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the Regency saw the rise of libertinism, which lasted until the Revolution. However, libertinism was only (even though privately) allowed for elites. Women from lower class could be imprisoned with the common prostitutes if they were denounced or caught as libertine: there was no difference during the Eighteenth century between paid sex with a prostitute and free sex with an easy girl. Moreover, at the end of the century, public women had been the object of debates in the public opinion because of the sexual trade they were doing and its immorality.

Beyond the focus on prostitutes by contemporaries, there was a strong one on women performers, and especially actresses.  In the Eighteenth century society, performers’s behavior was considered as more shocking than men. Not that they did more or worse, but as women they were not authorized to act like that. Actresses were physically described and judged; actors were described with their acting ability and the comments about them were less acrid. Actresses were expected to be behind intrigues by the public. Because actresses, their lovers and their behaviour (like the long standing quarrel between the Vestris and the Saint-Val sisters) were more publicized than actors, contemporaries attributed to them in particular the “intrigues if the wings” which made the Comédie-Française a veritable snake pit.

What was more disturbing the contemporaries, was not the “casting couch” practices (extorting sex for career advancement) but much more the fact that actresses could be mistresses of powerful men. ‘Instead of focusing on a director’s priapic demands, the interest was in what influential protectors could do for their lovers.’[1] And this possible influence of actress on powerful men merged with the general feeling in the eighteenth century that politics had fallen under the influence of women, and as expressed by numerous writers, women did not have a good influence. The idea started in 1721 with the Lettres persanes of Montesquieu and had been developed throughout the Eighteenth century. The real influence of women such as the Marquise de Pompadour or Madame du Barry reinforced it and most of these women had a reputation of perfidy. All of those women represented for their contemporaries the abuses of the Old Regime. ‘Writers came to think about the consequences of women having authority partly through the prism of actresses.’[2]

Every woman evolving in the public sphere was likely to be criticized, for, the place of a woman was, for the time, in the private sphere; therefore, only unworthy women would want to be involved in the public one. Prostitutes, courtesans and actresses for their obvious sexual displays and corruption of mores; female writers for their corruption of morals; noble women and women involved in politics for the bad decisions they encouraged men to take.

[1] L. Berlanstein, Daughters of Eve : a cultural history of French theater women from the Old Regime to the Fin de siècle. P.26.

[2] Berlanstein, “Women and Power in Eighteenth-Century France.” in Feminist Studies. P.478.

Natural rights in Eighteenth-Century France


Eighteenth-century people emphasized the idea of natural right: Nature and its laws became the basis of all the vindications made by literate people in private correspondence, novels or treatises. The concept of natural right was foreign to French jurist tradition, but started to arise from 1771 through literature, rather than juridical treatise. Finding its roots in the Renaissance, the modern concept of natural right refers to human nature, and especially human nature before the creation of the State. Therefore, ‘the only laws that they recognized were the unchanging laws of nature’ and citizens did not need to have a constitution as they were governed by Nature.[1]

Hugo Grotius[2] was the first philosopher to develop the natural right in relation with international law and commercial law. He was also the first to develop the idea of social contract, stressing the idea that, with the natural rights, people are under their own jurisdiction, a concept linked with the questioning of the legitimacy of the Catholic Church. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes[3] combines the concept of ‘state of nature’ with the natural right theory and offers a very detailed contract theory, arguing that there was not any order in the state of nature. As a result, he puts forward that men had to cede some of their rights to create a state.

Subsequently, John Locke[4] with his Second Treatise of Government (1690) shows similarities between state of nature and Golden Age, but for him it is not sufficient. People needed a state to protect them. Finally, Jean-Jacques Rousseau develops his own theory based on popular sovereignty. Indeed, he believes that citizens should write the laws together and abide to them. His theory is based on the notion of general will that implies the free subordination of citizens to the laws in order to be in peace. However, even if the term ‘natural right’ is widely used by eighteenth-century writers, their attempts to define it are rather weak. Just to use the example of the definition of ‘droit naturel’ by Diderot in the Encyclopédie, it is striking to see that the philosopher did not give any definition:

Le philosophe commence à sentir que de toutes les notions de la morale, celle du droit naturel est une des plus importantes et des plus difficiles à déterminer.[5]

Since the beginning of the eighteenth-century, writers and philosophers had developed different versions of the same idea until the adoption of the term ‘rights of man’ in 1763. Considered as too general, the term ‘human rights’ was rarely used during the eighteenth-century. Nicolas Lenglet Du Fresnoy[6] used the term ‘rights of humanity’ for the first time in 1734 in a satiric comment:

That is what happened to those good, those saints, those incomparable Monks of the sixth-century who renounced so well to all of the rights of humanity that they started to graze like animals.[7]

As for the term ‘human rights’, it was used for the first time by Voltaire in 1763 in his Traité sur la tolérance,[8] but was never really used by writers. The term that was actually adopted, ‘rights of man’[9] can be find for the first time in Rousseau’s Contrat Social[10] and was already widely used in 1763.





[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social Ou Principes Du Droit Politique, 1762.

[2] Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2009). P.11.

[3] Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch jurist and philosopher.

[4] Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher.

[5] John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher and physician.

[6] Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Paris, 1751). Article ‘Natural right’ : ‘the philosopher starts to feel that among all the ideas of morality, the natural right is one of the most important and one of the most difficult to define.’

[7] Nicolas Lenglet Du Fresnoy (1674-1755) was a French scholar passionate by history, geography, philosophy and alchemy.

[8] Nicolas Lenglet Du Fresnoy, De L’usage Des Romans, Où L’on Fait Voir Leur Utilité et Leurs Différents Caractères: Avec Une Bibliothèque Des Romans Accompagnée de Remarques Critiques Sur Leur Choix et Leurs éditions (Amsterdam: Vve de Poilras, 1734). P.245: ‘C’est ce qui arrivait à ces bons, ces saints, ces inimitables Moines du VI. Siècle qui renonçaient si bien à tous les droits de l’humanité, qu’ils se mirent à paître comme les animaux.’

[9] Voltaire, Traité Sur La Tolérance, 1763. The term is used twice in the treatise: p.29, ‘the human right cannot be founded on anything else than the right of nature’ and p.30, ‘if it was of human right to behave like this, the Japanese would have to hate the Chinese, who would have executed the Siamese.’

[10] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social Ou Principes Du Droit Politique, 1762. The term is written once, p.109: ‘except the only nation that follows it [the religion], everything is for it unfaithful, foreign, barbaric; it only extends the duties and rights of man as far as its alters.’