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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La Révolution et l’idéal bourgeois de la famille

by Jean Bart,

The French Revolution and the Bourgeois Family Ideal

The Good Husband – A Political History of Men and Women At the Time of the French Revolution

Translated Thursday 4 March 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Le Bon mari, une histoire politique des hommes et des femmes à l’époque révolutionnaire, by Anne Ferjus, Fayard pub., 2010

French historian Anne Ferjus traces the social and legal construction of the legitimate couple as subjected to the husband’s authority back to the revolutionary movement.

The title of this work is borrowed from a tale by Marmontel, an encyclopedist and a follower of Voltaire; in a few pages written under the reign of Louis XV, the tale exalts bourgeois household virtues, the better to oppose them to the aristocracy’s characteristic amorality and dissipation - the occasion being the marriage of a young widow, a ruined and rather free-spirited widow, to a magistrate, himself a widower, but a wise and rather austere person, whose union was to establish the triumph of reason over lightness.

The ideal of “the good husband” was followed a few decades later by “the good family man”
dear to the authors of the Code civil [1], through “the good citizen”, whom the Déclaration des devoirs (declaration of duties) that followed the Déclaration des droits (declaration of rights) in the prologue to the constitution of the third year of the Republic defined as being essentially “a good son, a good father, a good brother, a good friend, and a good husband”.

The originality of Anne Verjus’ approach in her rejection of the separation between public life and the private sphere is that she will not consider women independently of men: the woman is regarded only as being part of an indissociable unit, the legitimate couple. This leads her to borrow a concept that appeared in the 19th century (with a different meaning), that of “conjugalism”, i.e. “a way of ideally organizing the conjugal, man-and-wife relationship, to define the couple as an indivisible unit, homogeneous in its economic interests, a living unit materially as well as immaterially”. Another concept is used, with the term “familialism”, conceived as “the will to establish the citizen as family head, and the family head as citizen”, which makes it possible to qualify this as being an “egalitarianism”. (Indeed, words ending with –ism abound, some of them even coined by the author, like “patriarchalism”, as opposed to paternalism).

And so the author moves resolutely away from “those women theoreticians of feminism”, as well as from “the women historians that take a special interest in the gender issue.” To the notion of women’s “exclusion” from political life or action, she prefers that of “non-inclusion”, like minors, wards, servants, who, together with the spouses, constitute the household, whose members are all politically represented by the vote of the person at its head. Such is, for women, the postulate of “conjugalism”: “the postulate that spouses acquiesce in the same objectives as a consequence of their being part of an indivisible, non-individualized conjugal unit, where conflicts are supposed to be soluble thanks to the authority of the husband and submission of the wife.”

The demonstration falls into four stages: the first is based on legislative or statutory documents that pertain to elections during the first years of the Revolution. It ends in “the victory of the Son” in August 1792. The second, very short stage, is devoted to “the government of women”, i.e. their influence on men (mostly). Anne Ferjus in this part often draws upon texts by Rœderer who is known to have been prejudiced against equality. Then comes a study on “the family man’s authority in a Republic”: this third part is essentially based on the analysis of the answers to the question set by the Institute in 1798, namely: how far should a family man’s authority extend in a well-constituted Republic? The final part is entitled “the parental society”, a phrase coined by Rœderer himself earlier in 1793, by which he defined the relation between a father and a mother, and contains the analysis of the “Spouses’Day” imposed by a law in the sixth year of the Republic (1797) and the fiasco of this initiative on the one hand, and, on the other hand, “the conjugality of the civil and electoral laws” at a time when the Code civil was being drafted and the days of the Empire were drawing closer.

This explains how a model was constructed – the bourgeois family – which for more than a century and a half became the dominant model and tried to impose itself on the whole of society. In this respect, Anne Verjus’ conclusions are incontestable. Not so the subtitle of the book; “A Political History of Men and Women at the Time of the Revolution”. The study often skips from the end of the Legislative Assembly to the Thermidor Reaction [2], or to the Directoire. Is this because (as is suggested) the work of the Montagnard Convention is already well-known? In my view, the Montagnard Convention is fundamental, if only because of its inventiveness, and because it anticipated the legislation of 1793 and the second year of the revolution, which were dropped immediately after Robespierre’s fall, to resurface two centuries and a half later when divorce was facilitated, heirs made equal, testamentary freedom drastically limited, illegitimate and legitimate children were all but undifferentiated.

Even if the principle of the common management of the household’s property, and so of the spouses’ equality in this respect, as guaranteed by the second draft of the Code civil in the second year of the Republic was eventually rejected, did it not deserve more than a brief footnote? Especially as the principle could actually be chosen and specified in the marriage contract. And then it is unfair to ignore the role played by women as individuals in the revolutionary movement. The research work done for the two bicentenaries – for the Revolution and the Code civil – could have been drawn upon in order to avoid a number of inaccuracies and unwarranted parallels. For instance the parallel, as concerns the way to determine the electoral census, between the hesitations of the Constituante (National Constituent Assembly) [3] in making a distinction between active and passive citizens and the Restoration law that drastically reduced the electorate by setting up a very exclusive poll tax: the political and ideological contexts being so drastically opposed, comparison was simply impossible.

Yet this remains a very interesting, and a thought-provoking study indeed.

Jean Bart is a law historian.

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