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.


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.’