Women in 18th Century France

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Many changes occurred during the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century.  For instance, more and more emphasis was placed on the family as the eighteenth century passed.  There were three groups of urban women in eighteenth century, lower-class, middle-class, and upper-class.  This essay will discuss the experiences of the lower and middle class urban women.  It will also cover Olympe de Gouges’, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman.

The changes were different for lower-class women as opposed to middle class women.  “Only those wealthy enough to afford to dispense with women’s work could partake of the new domesticity.” Our textbook, does not spend as much time talking about the lower class as it does the middle class.  None the less, it seems that in the cities, the condition of the poor was as desperate as it ever had been.  Mothers abandoned their children to foundling hospitals because they could not raise them properly themselves.  It was thought that they would live a better life at the hospitals, but hospital death rates were close to 80 percent.  Women who had a job could not afford the material needed to educate their own children, nor did they even have time to educate them if it were possible.  Working women now used wet nurses, which in the past had only been used by the wealthy.  Lower-class women had no privacy whatsoever as large families often lived in one room.  Wives were still beaten by their husbands. Having a large amount of suffering was nothing new, however, the urban poor blamed the government for all of the economic hardships.

Women fought alongside men in urban revolutionary activities.  In October 1789, a group of women, acting on their own, forced the king to leave Versailles for Paris.  It was the job of women to buy food for the family, and when they became unable to do this, the situation became intolerable.  They wanted the king to deal with these problems himself.

For Bourgeois women there were many changes.  Marriages that had been arranged in the past, became more of a romantic relationship as well as economic.  Mothers stayed at home and cared for their children more.  “The image of the doting mother replaced that of the domestic drudge.”  Female education and the intellectual pursuits of females became more accepted and common.  Although Men were more likely to be literate than women were, over one quarter of French women could read at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and towards the end of the century that number had doubled.  With the increase of female literacy, the overall rates also increased as women began to teach children.  The leisure time of bourgeois women increased greatly and more entertainment and literature was available to them.  Women began to read more and a vast number of books were available to them; a teach-yourself book, fanciful romances, and books of moral instruction.

Domestic life also began to change.  In the past, marriages had based on economic partnership and “a means to carry on lineage” .  Husbands ruled over their wives and made all of the family decisions.  Even in the middle of the eighteenth century, the “rule of thumb” was passed; it said that a husband could legally beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb.  During the second half of the eighteenth century, all of this began to change.  Although economic elements of marriage were still very much a factor, many other elements came into play.  “A new desire for individual happiness, romantic and sexual attraction developed into a factor in marriage” .Courting became a more common occurrence as “prospective partners could dance, dine, and converse with each other to determine compatibility”. Young people were now able to search for their own marriage partners and could turn down unsuitable ones.  Married couples began to spend more time together and personal lives changed dramatically.  Houses were built so that husbands and wives could have privacy from their children and anyone else who may bother them.  Sexual activity outside the marriage and premarital pregnancy rates were on the rise as well.  Village festivals still shamed husbands whose wives were unfaithful or women with bad reputations.

Furthermore, Women began to bear fewer children, which had a great impact of the lives of women.  Few children reduced the danger of death and gave them more leisure time to use at their discretion.  The early part of a woman’s marriage was devoted to her children.  People had a new attitude towards raising children.  Mothers began spending more of her time to raising her own children.  The use of wet-nurses steadily declined, as mothers wanted to nurture their own infants.  Women also began to teach their own children.  Childbirth also changed dramatically.  In the past, midwives had been predominately female, but as time passed, more and more males became involved.  Childbirth had been a completely female encounter, as it was experienced by and with other females.  However, it became a private event experience only by the woman giving birth and her doctor, which was usually male.

Women also demanded their place in politics, but they continued to be excluded even “though the importance of their participation in the revolution was indisputable”.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was released on August 26, 1789.  No references to women or their rights appeared in this document.  Women were not thought of as being fit for participation in politics because of their “biological functions of reproduction and child-rearing”.  Wives were not independent or equal to their husbands in owning property, access to divorce, and the custody of their children.  When a woman by the name of Madame Germaine de Stael asked Napoleon whom he considered the greatest woman, dead or alive, he responded “The one who has had the most children.”

Dissatisfied to how women were treated and in response to The Declaration of the Rights of Man, Olympe de Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman.  In her first two paragraphs, she asks men, as a whole, what gives them the right to oppress women.  “Your strength? Your talent?” She then asks men to observe all of nature and find another example of how the female sex is treated the same way.  De Gouges then states that it will never be found, everywhere males and females cooperate in “harmonious togetherness”.  In the next paragraph it is stated that man alone is this way.  She basically states that man, blind with science, wants to control and command the woman and he claims rights to equality only so nothing else has to be said about it.

Article IV of her document declares that liberty and justice consist of giving back to people everything that belongs to them.  The only limit on women’s rights is male tyranny and this limit is to be reformed by the laws of nature and reason.  Article VI states that the law must be the same for everyone, regardless of gender.  Both males and females must contribute to the law some way, whether it is personally or by someone who represents them.  Just as both men and women are equal in the eyes of the law, both must be “equally admitted to all honors positions, and public employment” without and other distinction except virtue and talent.  Article VII further goes into law and declares that no woman is an exception and all are subject to the law equally.  Women should be accused, arrested, and detained just the same as males.  Article XI pertains to children.  It states that communication of thoughts and opinions are one of women’s most precious rights.  Fathers can declare their children, and so women should be able to do the same without barbaric prejudice for hiding the truth.  Article XIII declares that the contributions of women are equal to those of men.  Females share all of the painful tasks and duties and therefore should share the same “distribution of positions, employment, offices, honors, and jobs”.

Article XII says that guaranteeing rights to women implies a major benefit and that this guarantee should be instituted for everyone’s sake, not just for those who it helps.  Article XVII pronounces that property can belong to both sexes, whether they are married or single because it is a sacred right and no one can be deprived of this right.  The only way one can be deprived of this right is if public need obviously prescribes it, and then it can only be done with just reimbursement.

In her postscript, de Gouges begs women to wake up and discover their rights.  She states that men have become much stronger and needs women’s strength to be complete.  She declares that when men became free, they became unjust to women.  De Gouges also asks what advantage for women have come from the revolution?  Only more pronounced scorn.   She wants women to reclaim their estate based on nature.  In de Gouges’ final statement, she asks women what the have to lose?

I believe that in the beginning of the eighteenth century, women were treated very unfairly.  In no case should there be a law passed that a man can beat his wife as long as the stick he used is smaller than his thumb.  Perhaps I have this belief because of the time period I live in, but I can’t help to think that all men in eighteenth century felt this way.  I also learned that the middle-class progressed much faster than the lower-class.  The obvious reason for this is the extra income that a middle-class family would have.  I am happy to learn that more emphasis was placed on the family over the period of Enlightenment.  As far as de Gouges document, I can see why she would be so upset over the lack of women’s rights.  I think that today, some women take the rights that they have for granted.  I agree with de Gouges in some parts, yet disagree elsewhere.  I agree with the fact that women were discriminated against.  I somewhat disagree with the extent that de Gouges’ documents depicts.  However, if the document had not been as powerful as it was, women’s rights may have taken longer to achieve.  I really learned a lot about the rights of women during this time period and surprisingly, enjoyed doing it.

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