Family Anxiety During the French and Industrial Revolution

Anxiety about equality and a woman’s ability to be a good mother has been at the forefront of much debate for a very long time. In the French Revolution, women wanting access to politics and the public sphere were suspiciously viewed by those who believed that women participating in the public sphere were unable to do the duties which were “natural” to them. During the reign of Napoleon, women were again told that because they needed the protection of man, they belonged in the private sphere. And again during the Industrial Revolution, working women were viewed suspiciously and prevented from working on an even playing field, because of anxiety about their ability to be workers and “good” mothers. In this article, we will explore the time periods of the French Revolution, the reign of Napoleon and the Industrial Revolution and show how in all three time periods there is an underlying fear that changes in women will bring change in their “natural” roles in the private sphere, and that as a result, society as a whole will come crashing down.

In 1792, the National Assembly passed laws that were designed to end the patriarchal family structure in France. Many people believed that the patriarchal family was representative of the king and his power over the people. The laws ended distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children and allowed all children to inherit property from the deceased parent. The laws also made divorce easier for women. Citizenship was not determined on these new laws however and women were not given automatic citizenship. The Assembly determined that women needed to continue in the private sphere and not the public sphere.

The underlying argument of not granting women citizenship was because many people believed that it was impossible for women to be mothers and be political at the same time. The private sphere of family and motherhood and the public sphere of politics and warfare had not been mixed prior to that point. All through the rest of the Revolution women tried to argue for their right to citizenship by being active participants in political clubs and salons. Many of these clubs argued that without the citizenship of women, the new democracy was not complete. A pamphlet released by the Cercle Social club says, “Women be a citizen! Until now you have only been a mother.” (French p.281) There was an argument that said women should not be denied their citizenship based off of their ability to have children.

The demand of women to carry pikes during the Revolution is important to look at in terms of anxiety about changes in the social structure of the time. Warfare and civil protection had always been a public matter, with men handling the matters of warfare. To many women, the pike became a major symbol of equality. Pauline Leon says that, “You cannot refuse us and society cannot remove from us this right which nature gives us, unless it is alleged that the Declaration of Rights is not applicable to women and that they must allow their throats to be slit, like sheep, without having the right to defend themselves.”(French p.281) The ability of women to carry pikes would not only allow them to participate in the public sphere which had previously been denied of them, but it would also give them the ability to show that they should be participants in the defense of the nation and be allowed to become active citizens of the nation.

The “Declaration of the Rights of Woman the the Female Citizen” written by Olympe de Gouge is example of women trying to show that their ability to participate in the public sphere should be granted because of their ability to be mothers and not restricted because of it. De Gouge argued that the right of women to be citizens of the nation was stemmed from the fact that they gave birth the all citizens. It was an act that contributed to the state (French p. 285). She believed that the differences between men and women did not justify women not becoming citizens.

Of course, the demands made by women during the Revolution made some people nervous. The traditional roles of men and women were often regarded as something that was sacred and concrete. Although the Revolution stood as a time for redefining the places of men and women in society, women in the private sphere provided a familiar base for the new society to function. There needed to be some sense of normalcy continued during this time of change, and many people believed that women should continue to do what they’ve always done. Some were not ready to view women as active vocal members of the public sphere and they were not ready to see women in roles of soldier or other traditionally male roles. This was further expressed when the Committee of Public Safety passed legislation banning women from participating in public events and organizing meetings. This shows a great deal of fear in the minds of people concerning how their roles were changing. The changing roles of women caused a lot of anxiety during the time of Napoleon as well.

Because of the questions asked about the role of women during the Revolution, there was still quite a bit of anxiety concerning women when Napoleon came to power. Although women had continued to be held in the private sphere after the Revolution, they continued to push those boundaries of the private and public sphere. Napoleon wanted to create a stable base of rules and regulations for the people he controlled, and with his Napoleonic Code, he addressed many of the questions brought up about women during the Revolution. Napoleon believed that the lives of men and women were different from each other and that men and women were different in the eyes of the nation.

Napoleon believed that women could not be citizens and that the spheres of men and women should be separate. He reestablished the patriarchal family structure that was brought down during the Revolution and his Napoleonic codes undid a lot of the gains women were given. He reinstated a more strict set of marriage laws, such as making divorce harder for women and made it difficult once more for women to inherit property from their husbands. The husband was once again the central figure of the family. When Napoleon was asked who he believed was the greatest woman alive or dead, he said “The one who has made the most children.”(Bell & Offen p.37) That statement perfectly states what Napoleon believed the be the proper place of women.

I can be argued that because Napoleon was the male central figure of France, and he believed that the family structure should follow that same male centered design. The patriarchal structure of the family had come under fire during the Revolution, because it reminded the people that the king was their father and they were his children. The king’s decision was final and he used a heavy hand when the children did not obey. If Napoleon had allowed the non-patriarchal structure of family to be the dominant structure, it most certainly would have contradicted him as emperor or father of the people. There is not much difference between emperor and king. By reinstating the patriarchal family structure, he solidified himself as father of the people. The very thing the people had fought to remove from their lives was now being reinstated by Napoleon’s codes.

Women continued to fight for equality and access to the public sphere during the years of Napoleon, but the strict centralized rule from the Codes restricted a lot of the activities that women could do. Writing was an effective method in which some women would continue to voice their opinions and concerns of the time. Men who believed in the rights of women would also use literature to voice their opinion on the matter of women’s rights. Charles Fourier wrote in 1808, “We have seen that the best nations are always those that accord women the greatest amount of liberty…the extension of women’s privileges is the general principle for all social progress.” (Bell & Offen p.40)

Napoleon’s focus for family was to keep women in their “natural” place in the private sphere. He feared what he saw of women during the Revolution, and he feared that liberated women would undue to fabric of society. Women and men who supported equality and liberty for women continued to say what they’ve always said, that women are capable of participating in both the private and public spheres without the destruction of one or the other. The fear of women’s participation in the public sphere and their struggle for equality would also come in to play during the Industrial Revolution.

The lives of men and women changed greatly during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization moved the economy away from agriculture and the farm, and moved it towards cities and factories. Women were given opportunities to work, and single women often found themselves capable of working and living on their own. This gave some single women an interdependence they had never had before. This caused some concern among traditionalists, because traditionally, women had to marry and rely on her husband to live. Married women who worked in factories didn’t have it any easier than the single women. Single women were viewed with suspicion as factory workers, because of the freedoms they enjoyed, but married women who worked in the factory were view as abandoning their families and ignoring their duties in the private sphere. This made a lot of people with traditional views anxious, because women were intermingling in the public sphere and thought to be ignoring their duties in the private sphere.

Tailor delegates to the London Exposition of 1862 noted that “no, children are not better cared for and watched over by their parents…while the wife rests the husband does his share and prepares the wife’s tasks…how can a woman in these deplorable circumstances educate and raise her children decently?” (Joan Scott p.101)

Friedrich Engels had this to say about working mothers, “…it is inevitable that if a married woman works in a factory family life is inevitably destroyed and in the present state of society, which is based upon family life, its dissolution has the most demoralizing consequences both for parents and children. A married woman cannot really be regarded as a mother if she is unable to spare the time to look after her child…” (Bell & Offen p. 215)

Politicians in most of the industrializing nations saw that women workers were demanding improvements to their places of work, but as had been done to women all throughout time, they lumped improvements in with the women’s ability to function in the private sphere. Women were restricted from working in mines, because women were supposedly working shirtless in close spaces with men. Others believed that dirty mines would inhibit women from properly cleaning her house. Concerns over the working woman’s ability to mother would often foster restriction in how she could work.

Many laws were passed in many countries restricting where and how the women could work while often taking a stance that the laws being passed were improving the conditions of the women. Anxiety was once again at the forefront over whether a woman could properly do her duties in the private sphere while working in the public sphere. Many working women just wanted to be afforded the possibility to earn a decent wage, like their husband, while working in a safe environment. They had little doubt as to their ability to raise a family and be a worker at the same time.

As we have seen, anxiety about equality and a woman’s ability to be a good mother has been at the forefront of much debate for a very long time. In the French revolution, women wanting access to politics and the public sphere were suspiciously viewed by those who believed that women participating in the public sphere were unable to do the duties which were “natural” to them. During the reign of Napoleon, women were again told that they belonged in the private sphere and that because women needed the protection of man, they were unable to participate in the public sphere. And again during the Industrial Revolution, working women were viewed suspiciously and prevented from working on an even playing field, because of anxiety about their ability to be workers and “good” mothers.

In the three time periods we have explored, women seeking changes have always maintained that they are capable of being in the public sphere and the private sphere which is expected of them. All three time periods show examples of women desiring to function outside what has traditionally been expected of them, and all three examples show that either society at large or the leaders of the society find the idea of women’s liberty and equality terrifying. There is an underlying fear that change in women is a bad thing and that if women aren’t maintaining their “natural” roles in the private sphere, that society as a whole will come crashing down.

About Matthew Schroder

There is no shortage of science fiction reading here. No lack of appreciation for beards, love of coffee or obsession over blueberries.