French classical liberals and the issue of women’s rights

French classical liberals and the issue of women’s rights 

by Benoît Malbranque


It is tempting for a liberty-minded historian to leave untouched the comforting presumption that French classical liberals, who championed freedom for the individual in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, must have upheld women’s rights too. Contemporary studies, while often obliterating the role of men in the development of feminist rhetoric, have found occasionally in the history of ideas some remarkable advocates well ahead of their times, and they have offered them as objects of uncritical admiration, in a sort of reconciliatory carnival. One easily concludes that feminism was burgeoning in every century, and that the rising tide was lifting up all boats.

Another danger would be to reconstruct French classical liberalism to encompass the actual promoters of women’s rights, who did not always extend their appreciation for liberty to a great number of areas. Olympe de Gouges did defend the freedom of the grain trade and attacked slavery (1792, 7), but other figures have sometimes walked very different paths.

The particularities of the history of France, regarding women, seriously weaken the general presumption, that among classical liberals, proto-feminism was prevailing. Well before the time of Mme de Pompadour or Queen Marie-Antoinette, any participation of women in the political arena was considered improper if not disastrous, even by the most advanced of intellectuals. The sight of uneducated females debating politics, censoring laws and sending off ministers at their will, all owing to their sex appeal, was infuriating. “In my own day”, writes Montaigne, “I have seen the wisest heads in this kingdom assembled with great ceremony and at great public expense to make treaties and agreements, while the details of them depended on sovereign chatter in the ladies’ drawing-room and on the inclination of some slip of a woman.” (1991, 1151). Turgot himself, while recognizing that women who have succeeded assets, estates or titles, have been generally found worthy and capable, cannot help showing distrust, adding that “no queen or empress has ever appointed a woman as minister, ambassador or Army general.” (2018, I:291)

Up to the 18thcentury, the prevailing notion was that men and women were complementary forces, much like the Asian yin-yang. They were essentially different, and had to be treated differently. Dupont de Nemours, examining the issue of education, provides a good example of this trend. “None of the ideas put forward here”, he claims in the conclusion of his booklet on that topic, “can be applied to the education of girls. To wish to assimilate it to that of boys would be to ignore human nature and the principles of human society.” (1793, 45)

Where are the feminists?

Following the French Revolution and amidst the development of an industrial society, the most advanced French classical liberals of the time tried to reshape the whole discussion. “It seems to me”, claims Jean-Baptiste Say, “that our moral philosophers belittle women when they discuss jointly women and love, as if women were only fit for love-making. They are also our mothers, our daughters, our companions through good and bad times; they are a fundamental part of society.” (1839, 81) In fact, he argues elsewhere, the influence of women on the morality of societies is so great, that they should be given paramount attention. “The education of men starts with the education of women”, he claimed (1799, 44).

However, most of his immediate followers did not make the case in similar terms. Destutt de Tracy maintains that “women are most certainly destined to domestic duties, as men are to public duties” (2016, 149), and according to Daunou there is nothing wrong in excluding them from the polling stations, because “the necessary conditions for the exercise of political rights are to be determined according to the circumstances of each country and each people.” (1819, 189) Around that time, Charles Comte equals the authority of a father over his children, with that of a husband over his wife, as “of all the exercises of power, the most natural, the most indisputable and the most beneficial” (1826, I:152). In his Treatise on Legislation, he does mention the protection of women against domestic violence, but it is to assert that the intervention of the law in such cases is useless. “Actions happening inside families are out of the reach of judges, unless they leave marks by which one can clearly recognize them, like severe violence does.” (1826, I:478).

A few decades later, Gustave de Molinari traveling to America mentions what appears to be a case of sexual assault, and remarking that the officers did not search for the culprit, he simply says: “There is no perfect institution.” (1876, 64) He later witnessed a judiciary hearing, in which a 10-years-old child was sentenced to detainment until he will reach majority for having stolen chocolate and tissues, and persistent drunkards sentenced to 10 days of prison and a 10 dollars fine. Then appeared the case of a man who had beaten his wife “harshly”: he will be put on bail, and sentenced to a fine of 15 dollars. “The decisions that I have heard being taken in such a hurry are not unreasonable”, Molinari then concludes. (1876, 342) His writings, in fact, are filled with a similar disengaged narrative. During the revolution of 1848 he had mocked the first associations for women’s legal rights (2020, V:90), and later he sneered at the emergence of bloomerism—women wearing trousers—, and he kept condemning early feminism as “idle talk” and “eccentric theories”, arguing that their guardianship “has its advantages and its disadvantages”. (1868, 1)

The disturbing part of this casual anti-feminism, so prevalent in the ranks of 19th century French classical liberals, is that their leading inspiration had been perfectly clear on the matter. Richard Cobden, the main figure in the Anti-Corn law league, was arguing for extended rights for women. Addressing an audience in 1845, he rejoiced at the presence of many ladies, and added: “it is a very anomalous and singular fact, that they cannot vote themselves, and yet that they have a power of conferring votes upon other people. I wish they had the franchise, for they would often make a much better use of it than their husbands.” (1870, I:256-257) Frédéric Bastiat was somewhat more hesitant. “Why are they prevented to vote?” he asks in The Law(1850). “Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a reason for exclusion? Because the elector does not reap alone the responsibility of his vote; because every vote engages and affects the community at large; because the community has a right to demand some assurances, as regards the acts upon which its well-being and its existence depend.” And then he curiously closes the discussion by stating: “I know what might be said in answer to this. I know what might be objected. But this is not the place to settle a controversy of this kind.” (2007, I:56)

The new generation of French classical liberals emerging around 1870 had more “progressive” views on the rights of women, and they faced rejection and criticism from the still dominant “conservatives”. Very cautious and balanced in his study on Women at work in the nineteenth century, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu had to refute directly the widespread claim that the sole place for women was at home. “No, among us, the family institution does not and cannot have the power to diminish so much one of the two genders, as to belittle one to the state of ever-lasting minority. Such a conception can only be found in ancient history or in the East. In our civilization a woman is not an incomplete, inferior creature: once an adult, she has equal rights; having the same capacity to possess, she has the same capacity to work. If she is physically weaker than man, nothing proves that she is morally or intellectually inferior.” (1873, 200) He nonetheless points out that in education, teaching girls how to be good mothers and wives is more important than theoretical knowledge (1873, 147), concurring with the views of many, such as Jules Simon (1861, 172) or Frédéric Passy (1895, 75).

The overall domination of anti-feminism rhetoric in French classical liberalism in the second half of the 19thcentury is surely disturbing, and for another reason, not yet mentioned. For decades, the main publishing house for French classical liberals was in the hands of a woman, namely the daughter of Gilbert Guillaumin. She did publish several feminist books, such as L’émancipation de la femme(1871) by Julie-Victoire Daubié, but did not received much assistance. In 1869, when the French translation of J.-St. Mill’s Subjection of Womencame out, no one could be found to write a forward or an introduction, and the book was not reviewed in the Journal des économistes, like most other titles did, even when coming from the dirty hands of the likes of Proudhon or Léon Walras. The only mention there is of it can be found in 1890, when Henri Baudrillart asked rhetorically: “Did the author claiming in his Subjection of Womenthat women have the same abilities and destiny as men, really knew human nature at all (not in the future, but nowadays)?” (1890, 448)

An outright feminist: Yves Guyot

In the 1870s, a distinct and even radical defense of the rights of women was nonetheless starting to appear inside the progressive wing of French classical liberalism, most notably with Yves Guyot. “Mr. Guyot is probably the forefather of feminists”, said Avril de Sainte-Croix, a leading promoter of women’s rights, in 1922. “He was a feminist when this label was the subject of mockery from so-called serious intellectuals.” (Malbranque 2020, 214) In numerous writings he upheld the cause of women and their equal right in the economic, social and political areas, never tired, it seems, to refute arguments made against it. “Before recognizing women’s rights, do we have to wait until women are actually able to exercise them?” he once asked. “Replying in the affirmative would only mean dismissing any demand made throughout history by the oppressed against their oppressors. It was the answer of the slave owners to the abolitionists: when the negroes will prove able to be free, we will set them free! Only, since our interests force us to condemn them to a perpetual incapacity, we will never set them free.” (Malbranque 2021, 97) The whole argument was based on the erroneous assumption that suffrage was a function, not a right. “What is the argument of opponents of women’s suffrage? Their incapacity, their feeble mind, their ignorance! They proclaim, by this very fact, that universal suffrage is a function. Men are sole responsible for regulating it. They establish themselves as the sovereign judges of the aptitudes of those who are to fulfill it. They claim to be the only ones capable of doing so; all of them are capable; and being the strongest, they exclude all women. After having banned half the nation from that role, they pompously declare that they have established universal suffrage. It is the oligarchy of sex substituted for the oligarchy of money.” (Malbranque 2021, 91) Therefore the right stand for a liberty-minded intellectual was absolutely crystal clear: “We, French Republicans, we who have taken as our motto: liberty, equality, we cannot use with regard to women the same language that the American planters used regarding negroes, and therefore we must admit women to the practice of all political rights, which until now have been the monopoly of men.” (Malbranque 2021, 97).

Progressives like Yves Guyot never constituted anything else than an active and brilliant minority. In 1903, when an outright feminist ask, before the Société d’économie politique, if economists were going to support or fight against the growing recognition of the rights of women, reluctantly and moderation was still dominating. “This development of feminism” said Alfred Neymarck, “has its advantages in terms of the productivity of modern society, but cannot it be said that it is a major factor in the low birth rates?” (1903, 153) He argued for women working at home. (1903, 154). Frédéric Passy was more sympathetic, yet he claimed that “Family is and will always be, by destination, their main focus, and the real stage on which their influence is to be exerted.” (1903, 161).

On the eve of the 20th century, everything was still to be done, and the forces to lead the fight were declining. “You are the only one who at this hour is still defending the good principles” wrote Gustave Schelle to his colleague Yves Guyot, in 1924. “With few exceptions, every one else is clueless.” (Malbranque 2020, 214-215).



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