The road to the emancipation of women has been long and fraught with danger! And yet in the beginning, society seemed ready to support women’s rights. Our homo sapiens ancestors were fascinated by our ability to bear children, and long considered women to be “goddesses.” Alas, with the understanding that women were essential to the reproduction of the species, mankind shifted from devotion to mistrust, and believed that submission was a more appropriate condition.
Of course, some women have managed to exert a certain power throughout history, such as the Amazonians who stood firm against men’s attempts at domination. But the so-called “weaker sex” were generally considered to be children for many centuries. Seen as fragile in both body and mind, they were long judged “irresponsible” in the eyes of the law. As a result, women were refused the right to inherit, own property, work, and even vote up until 1945! However, they were also burdened with the duty to become exemplary wives, mothers, and homemakers. Unbreakable marriages subject to paternal approval were the sole objective of all self-respecting women.
Head of the family
Nothing seemed capable of undermining patriarchal rule – not even the French Revolution. “Women must be respected, and we shall force them to respect themselves,” said the “battleax” Olympes de Gouges in her declaration “on women’s rights.”
The Napoleonic Code undid a number of minor advances made for the cause in 1789, by placing women under the authority of their husbands instead of their fathers. The idea of a “head of the family” persisted until 1970, and equal parental authority in cases of separation was only introduced in 1992. It should also be noted that the Napoleonic Code instated a three-year prison sentence as punishment for unfaithful women. On the other hand, unfaithful men were merely asked to pay a fine, and only if they were proved to have done anything wrong… and only in the family home! The crime of unfaithfulness was only written out of law in 1975 when divorce by mutual consent also became legal. However, it was not until 1992 that a law was passed against domestic violence.
What’s more, after being defined as a criminal infraction in 1920, then a state crime in 1942, contraception and abortion were not made legal until 1967 and 1974 respectively.
Excluded from school
As the emancipation of women was seen as dangerous for society at large, it was unthinkable to allow girls to have an education. Girls and women were excluded from school until 1870, and a draft law in 1801 was even put forward forbidding women from “learning to read.” French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau even stated that “girls have no desire to read or write.”
Young girls in France had to wait until the Ferry Law of 1882 to be given access to primary school, until the 1920s to receive the same high school education as boys, and the 1940s before many of them dared pass their high school diploma.
If my husband says yes
Married women in France were granted the right to spend their own wages in 1907. The same year, a successful French novelist wrote that “work is reserved for poor, sickly, and abandoned women.” Up until 1965, women were unable to open a bank account or have a job without the permission of their husbands. Equal access to employment was not instated until 1983 when the Roudy Law introduced sanctions for professional discrimination. This was then developed in 2000 with another law in favor of gender parity in the workplace.
Despite the fact that inequalities still exist today, several surveys have shown that most believe they are “fortunate” to be women. And for those who strive to be as “feminine as they are feminist,” our time now offers a new challenge: reaching out to men and helping them understand that the world changed profoundly and irreversibly.