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Divorce and Women in France

Divorce and Women in France Divorce first became legal in France on September 20, 1792. It was abolished in 1816, and, despite divorce bills presented by legislators in the 1830s and in 1848, it was only re-established in 1884 under the Third Republic. Throughout this period, France's political climate shaped its divorce laws; divorce was regarded as a republican, and even a revolutionary institution throughout the nineteenth century.

The divorce law of September 20, 1792, was indeed a revolutionary departure from what had come before. Under the ancien r‚gime marriage was indissoluble; after 1792, couples could divorce quickly and easily. This law acknowledged both the principles of marital breakdown, in which neither spouse would be named the guilty party to the divorce. In the former case, couples could divorce by mutual consent, or one spouse could sue for divorce simply for incompatibility of temperament. So that unilateral divorce would not be used carelessly, a waiting period of six months was imposed. In divorce for a specific cause, grounds included immorality, cruelty, insanity, condemn ation for certain crimes, desertion for at least two years, or emigration. Even by modern standards, this was an extremely liberal divorce law. It made divorce affordable even to the very poor, it was equally available throughout France, and it was not based on any double standard of sexual morality that would have put women at a disadvantage. This divorce law reflected the Revolution's commitment to the rights of the individual and its antipathy to Roman Catholicism.

Under Napoleon, div orce became much more difficult to obtain. In 1803, as part of the establishment of the Civil Code, the law was made more restrictive: grounds for divorce were reduced to adultery, ill-treatment, and condemnation to certain degrading forms of punishment. Divorce by mutual consent now required the permission of family members, and the grounds of incompatibility were eliminated completely. In addition, the sexual double standard was introduced into the law: women could be divorced for simple adult ery, while a man could be convicted of adultery only if he brought his mistress into his home. Divorce as also made more expensive and more difficult procedurally. These changes in the law had the desired effect: they strengthened patriarchal authority with the family and they drastically reduced the number of divorces to roughly a tenth of their number under the 1792 law. In spite of their disadvantaged position under the new law, women continued to outnumber men as petitioners in divorce cases a fter 1803. Women appear to have had more cause to be dissatisfied with marriage -- not surprisingly, since it place them socially, economically and even physically under the tutelage of their husbands.

With the return of the monarchy to France in 1816, divorce was abolished entirely. Under Louis XVII, Roman Catholicism became once again the state religion, and, in accordance with its doctrine, judicial separation became the only option for unhappy couples. After the fall of the Bourbons in the July Revolution of 1830, several attempts were made to reestablish the Napoleonic law. In 1831, 1832, 1833 and 1834, a divorce bill was introduced and easily passed by the chamber of deputies. However, each time, the chamber of peers rejected even the far more restrictive law of 1803 that was proposed. France's aristocracy clearly rejected any return to the revolution; their vote against these divorce bills was as much a rejection of the revolutionary heritage as of divorce's social effect s.

The revolution of 1848 brought a new attempt to reinstitute divorce in France. In May of that year several members of the Executive Commission deposed, in the name of the government, a divorce bill to be considered by the constituent assembly. Adolphe Crémieux, the minister of justice, along with Arago, Lamartine, Marie, and Garnier-Pagès, proposed that the law of May 8, 1816 be rescinded, and that the Napoleonic law, title VI of the civil code, be brought back into force . They offered only two modifications: any judicial separation could be converted into a divorce after three years, and a spouse convicted of adultery would be prohibited from filing for divorce.

The restitution of divorce met with opposition as early as the beginning of April 1848, nearly two months before a proposal reached the national assembly and even before the women's club took up the issue. Critics of divorce maintained that the only moral foundation for marriage was its indissolu bility. The reintroduction of divorce into French society would challenge the purity and strength of all marriages, even those which it would not dissolve. In their view, indissolubility was not just a religious principle, but also the cornerstone of social order and stability.

While this divorce bill differed only slightly from those proposed by liberal legislators in the 1830s, men of all classes found it threatening because radical women demanded the right to divorce in 1848. The wome n's club, presided over by Eugene Niboyet, held a meeting to discuss the divorce question in early May 1848, and published articles supporting divorce in their newspaper, La Voix des Femmes. The Vésuviennes, a quasi-military organization of Parisian working women, also advocated the return of a conservative divorce law. It was part of their plan for a new egalitarian marriage, in which men and women would share domestic duties and public service. In a series of lec tures given at the Collège de France, Ernest Legouvé also advocated the reestablishment of divorce. Well-known for his support of women's rights, Legouvé argued that women in particular would benefit from divorce, since its only alternative under the present law, separation still left wives under their husbands' control. A few days after Crémieux presented the constituent assembly with his committee's divorce bill, a group of 200 married women gathered at the Plac e Vendôme to congratulate and thank him. Many critics portrayed divorce as the first step toward the political and social emancipation of French women, and perhaps even toward sexual freedom for women. Both radical women and their male opponents viewed divorce as one of many demands that could be the first step in completely transforming relations between the sexes, although such a conservative law was unlikely to prompt any drastic changes. Even many socialists, notably Proudhon, d oubted whether women should be politically emancipated, but men across the political spectrum knew that they did not want to promote women's sexual liberation. They resurrected criticism of the 1792 law, some of it dating back to 1796, in order to show that divorce would result in social disorder. On April 9, Charivari published several jokes of this kind, one about a couple who divorced and remarried eleven times, and another that showed a man who had remarried so many times that he called his wife by her number -- 14 -- because he could not remember her name. Critics also warned that divorce would disrupt more marriages than judicial separation; one cartoon showed a middle-class husband and his unattractive wife in their drawing room; the caption reads: "But what are you waiting for before you buy me a new hat?" to which her husband replies, "Heavens! I'm waiting for chamber's decision on divorce!"

Other critics of divorce concentrated on making supporters of a new law appear ridiculous. One article on the women's club claimed that divorce would interest widows and old maids the most, because it would bring a large number of men back into the marriage market. According to this article, the women's club would decree that a husband was a privilege. Since all privileges were theft, married women would be required to relinquish their husbands to the club, which would then hold a lottery, in which each man could be won for a one-year marriage. Such descriptio ns of promiscuity referred back to the sexual radicalism of Père Enfantin and the Saint Simonians of the 1830s, and they made many feminists cautious in their support of divorce. Pauline Roland, who had been an advocate of free love in the 1830s, recognized divorce's legitimacy, but she saw it as a failure on the part of the couple, and recommended that their children be taken away to be raised by "blameless" parents. According to Roland, marriage must be based on fidelity, and the emancipat ion of women would not include sexual freedom. In the end, the reestablishment of divorce was never even debated by the assembly. On September 27 this bill was formally withdrawn. In late October, Crémieux announced definitively that divorce would not be reestablished.

The issue of divorce disappeared until the last years of the Second Empire. With the political liberalization of the late 1860s came a few calls for the reestablishment of divorce, but only from self-proclaimed radi cals and feminists like Olympe Audouard, André Léo and Léon Richer. With the establishment of the Third Republic, interest in a new divorce law rose. Between 1875 and 1884, Alfred Naquet, a former radical socialist and now deputy from the Vaucluse and other supporters of a new law went on the lecture circuit. They organized conferences in towns throughout France, during which they explained the desirability of and even need for a new divorce law. In contrast to 1848, women p layed a relatively small part in number of pamphlets and books published in the 1870s on divorce. Significantly, Naquet himself was enforced to renounce his earlier support of free love and the abolition of marriage during the campaign.

In 1876, Naquet introduced a bill in the chamber, modeled on the original law of 1792. The deputies laughed at the idea that divorce's reestablishment was either needed or wanted in France, and they refused even to form a committee to discuss it. Naquet reintroduced the bill in 1878, and it was again defeated. He then gave up on passing a law similar to that of 1792. He turned to the Napoleonic law, title VI of the civil code, and modeled a new, more conservative bill on it. It was narrowly defeated in the chamber of deputies in 1881; however, it was reconsidered and passed by the chamber in 1882 and sent on to the senate. The senate modified the bill by eliminating divorce for their husbands' adultery, thus eliminating the sexual double standar d in the law. This version was agreed upon by both chambers, and, after 68 years, divorce was reestablished in France on July 27, 1884.
Michèle Plott


Phillips, Roderick. Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Phillips, Roderick. Family Breakdown in Eighteenth-Century France: Rouen, 1780-1800, Oxford, 1980.

Desser time, Dominique. Divorcer à Lyon sous la Révolution et l'Empire, Lyon, 1981.

McGregor, O.M. Divorce in England, London, 1957.

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