Karen Offen, “Women, Citizenship, and Suffrage in France Since 1789”

French women obtained   the vote  just over  fifty  years  ago, in 1944-1945. As the French political scientist Janine Mossuz-Lavau recently remarked, "France  is one of the last countries  in Europe  to have accorded  women the right to vote and to run for office  (éligibilité), just before  Italy, Belgium,
Greece, Cyprus, Switzerland , and Liechtenstein." The American  historian  of French suffragism [i.e. of the right to vote], Steven C. Hause,  framed  the French case in even broader world comparative terms, again underscoring the astonishing  backwardness of a  nation  whose leaders portrayed  it as the vanguard  of civilization: "By the 1930s, while the French  Senate  stood intransigent,  women  were  voting in Palestine, parts of China, and several Latin American republics. Women voted in Estonia, Azerbaijan, Trans-Jordan  and Kenya but not in the land of Jeanne d 'Arc [Joan of Arc] and the Declaration  of the Rights of Man."  After World War I, suffragist advocate  Cecile Brunschvicg posed the issue in terms of national  honor: "It is humiliating  to think that we are Frenchwomen, daughters  of the land of the  Revolution, and that in  the  year  of grace  1919 we  are still  reduced  to demanding  the 'rights of woman."'

How  can this be? Paradoxically,  the issue of votes for women (not to mention their eligibility for office) was articulated  earlier in France than in virtually any other nation  in the world -- in  1789, at the outset  of  the mighty  French Revolution.  Moreover,  in 1848 France became the first major nation in Europe to institute universal   manhood suffrage without  property qualifications -- that is, for male individuals.  Following enactment  of Napoleon's  Civil Code of 1804, a  law code  whose  provisions  (including  those  that subordinated   women  in marriage)  were imitated throughout  Europe, France became the site of perhaps the most radical and  thoroughgoing  critique of women's subordination in all Europe;  by the 1890s, French women's rights activists had launched the term feminisme throughout  the world. Thus this long delay in according the vote to women seems startling,  a dissonant  historical  fact that cries out for explanation. . . .

Women in the French Revolution



The demand for woman suffrage arose again in the later 1860s, framed as an issue of political rights (droits politiques). This time, the French debate resonated with the contemporaneous debates in Britain (following introduction of the Second  Reform  Bill in March 1865) and the United States . . . This phase of the French campaign for woman suffrage was spearheaded  by Julie-Victoire Daubie, who revived the case for single adult women's suffrage, first in her book-length  study  La Femme pauvre, then in L'Emancipation  de Ia femme en dix livraisons (1871 ). Daubie's crusade  was accompanied  by an extended  debate  on  the issue of women's  political  rights  within  the Paris Law School, capped  by Professor Alexandre  Duverger's decisive conclusion  against giving the vote to women on the grounds  that previous instances of women meddling in French political life had proved pernicious!  No one suggested that French women were nor capable of exercising the suffrage; instead, opponents implied that letting them do so was simply inopportune, inappropriate, or alternatively, dangerous!

The political context changed abruptly, however, following the sudden defeat of French armies by Germany in late 1870,  the collapse of the Second Empire, the occupation of Paris, the Commune, and the founding of the Third Republic. With the election of a new National  Assembly in 1871,  in which republicans were very little represented, ambivalence about the practice of universal suffrage by men continued  to cloud further discussion of the woman  suffrage issue; such ambivalence  would plague advocates of women's vote throughout  the French Third Republic.

In the mid-1870s  freedoms of the press and association  (opened  up briefly during  the late Second Empire) were again sharply curtailed. Seriously compounding the political situation was the severe polarization of partisan political life between anticlerical republicans and monarchist Catholics. The former hesitated to champion woman suffrage for fear that women would support  the monarchist  Catholic  factions  that opposed  the Republic. Even after 1880, when the republicans attained control of all branches of the new government, no major republican faction knew for certain  just how women's votes might affect its fragile hold on power; both republicans and monarchists continued to insist on the significance of women's influence. The republicans established state secondary schools for girls to contest Catholic hegemony over women's education. With the notable exception of Hubertine Auclerr, who did spearhead a woman suffrage campaign from 1878 until her death in 1914, republican  advocates  of  women's  rights  thought  it  best  to postpone the suffrage question  until the new and fragile Third Republic was more firmly established.

Hubertine  Auclert, however, challenged French republicans to realize political equality for women as individuals, arguing that a republic in which women (including  married  women)  were not considered  full citizens was  no "true" republic; she continued  her campaign  by founding a periodical provocatively entitled  La Citoyenne [Female Citizen]. Such criticism was not welcome among republicans, for it confronted  them squarely on the lack of inclusiveness of the very principles to which  they subscribed!  But the various republican factions, including the Radicals, resisted the implications of Auclert's charges.  Before 1900  only the Socialists, who were very far from holding power and had little to lose, were willing to risk endorsing  the principle of the female vote.

What was required to institute votes for women in Third  Republic France? Literally,  nothing  more  than  a change  of wording  in a regime of textual  law. The  French electoral  law of 1848  (and  its 1884  amended  version, the law of April 5) read:  Tous  les  français [all the French]. This  was equivocal, since in civil and  penal law, the masculine form tous les français  was deemed  to encompass  women. The British earlier, and  before them the Americans  in New Jersey (1807), had clarified  the situation by stipulating  "men,"  in line with the electoral  laws of other states. In the 1860s England, John Stuart Mill proposed effecting the change  by amending the term "men"  to read "persons,"  which would include women. Could  the same tactic be applied in France? The elasticity of tous les français was tested  several   rimes in court by small groups of women and their male supporters.  In 1885, two women, Louise Barbarousse and Marie Richard Picot, attempted  to register to vote under the new electoral  law of 1884; the Paris Municipal Council denied their request, and their appeal  was heard  by a justice of the peace. Two male lawyers, Jules Allix and Leon Giraud,  represented  their  case, pleading  on  the  high  ground   of "imprescriptable  rights"  of  the individual  as well  as national  prestige that women  should  vote in France:

It  is necessary to the glory of the French laws that they leave a place  to woman  in this sphere of public  power, and it will  be to the honour  of the declaration   of the rights of man to acknowledge also the rights of woman.... Does not tous les français encompass every individual of the French nationality, without exception of sex?

The judge handed  down  his denial  of the appeal, framed in terms of legal- historical  precedent that dodged the issue of  principle.  Even issues of grammatical gender were freighted with contextual  precedent. Judge Carre insisted that since the Revolution, voting citizens had been males only; indeed the Constitutions of June 1793 and August 1795 had expressly spelled  out this point. He noted further that the most recent laws stipulate  that "in order to be an elector, one must be a citizen" and that "the citizen is the Frenchman who has full  political  and civil rights";  therefore  since women  have  neither, and are therefore not citizens,  they cannot  be electors.  In concluding,  however, the judge abandoned  his air of juridical neutrality:

Whereas,  finally, if women repudiating their privileges and inspiring themselves with certain modern theories, believe  the hour has come to break the bonds of tutelage with which tradition,  law, and custom have surrounded  them, they must bring their claim before the Legislative power, and not before the Courts  of Law.



An intriguing aspect of the subsequent French suffrage campaign was the mobilization of  historic  precedent  on the  side  of  women's  citizenship  and women's suffrage,  and the way in which it was done.  An important  contribution to this effort was Leon Giraud's study on the comparative status of women with  respect to public and political  rights, which  won a prize from  the Paris Law Faculty in 1891.  Giraud shared the prize with a widely translated  treatise by Moïse Osrrogorski,  who  had argued  that the question  of determining  who would  vote was a political  question  above all else. With such scholarship  at hand, feminists such as Eliska Vincent again attempted  to register to vote, while Hubertine  Auclerr reminded her readers (and their legislators) of women's participation  in political  life during  the ancien regime [the period before the French Revolution began in 1789].  These advocates  of woman suffrage  insisted, on the  basis of incontrovertible  evidence, that women  had repeatedly voted in earlier periods of French history, when votes were tied to fiefs  or landed  property,  not to individuals. The Rennes judge Raoul de Ia Grasserie argued  for woman suffrage  in the Revue politique et  parlementaire (1894)  in terms  reminiscent  of those  used over a century earlier by Condorcet: "Half  humankind   is not represented  in the  vario s parliamentary  assemblies; the laws are made without her and often against her." Her sex places her outside the class structure; "the worker, the most illiterate peasant have that choice [to  select  their representatives],  and the  most  intelligent,  most  experienced women cannot.... She cannot  eve n  choose among  those of the opposite sex who  will be her masters."  The judge went on to advocate (in principle)  that women  be permitted  to run for office as well -- but not right  away.  But the measure must and inevitably would come. Woman su frage was, in Grasserie's eyes, a question  of social  justice.

In fact, the 1890s witnessed a tremendous outburst  of public debate over the woman  question, and Hubertine  Auclert's  term  feminisme became common currency  to describe  the burgeoning movement for women's emancipation. Despite  the  visibility of  the issues -- reform  of women's situation in the Civil Code, including married women's property  rights; demands for women's right to work and equal pay; issues surrounding maternity and sexuality -- few  of the numerous civil and economic reforms advocated  by and for women were realized. Male legislators seemed more absorbed  in protecting -- and controlling­ women than in emancipating   them, in spite of  the valiant  efforts  by Julie­ Victoire Daubie, Hubertine  Auclert, and their allies to place the suffrage question before the lawmakers. It was only after 1900  that woman suffrage arrived on the agenda of the Chamber  of Deputies.

When, in  1900, the reformer and newspaperwoman  Marguerite  Durand convened an international  congress on women's  rights  in Paris,  the suffrage question  occupied a prominent  place. By this time many members of the new generation  of women's movement  leaders  had come around to the position long asserted  by Auclert; they now agreed that the main reason why substantive and sensible reforms  in the laws governing  women's situation   were not forthcoming  was  because women bad  no political  power.  As Rene Viviani, deputy and future  prime minister of France,  declared  to the assembled  delegates at the  women's  rights  congress:  "In the name  of  my  relatively  long political and parliamentary experience, let me tell you that the legislators make the laws for those who make the legislators." There was no getting around it­ women  must have the vote in order to realize the feminist program.