Rethinking the Limits of Revolution: Family and the French Revolution

In our symposium and seminar on the topic of the “limits of revolutions”, we talked about the limits of revolution at length- especially in relationship to race and gender. While it is important to recognize the limitations of the Atlantic revolutions, I tend to agree with Jane’s comment that the concept of limits can itself be “limiting.”

For example, until recently historians of the French revolution have debated whether the revolution was “good or bad for women”, thus framing the revolution as either an entirely positive or an entirely negative event. This question necessarily calls for responses that lack nuances and fail to take into account the multiple identities of women and the different aspects of their lives. In fact, during the symposium, Suzanne Desan, the author of a fantastic book about the ways in which French revolutionaries sought to change the family, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France, referred to the “complexity and fluidity of women’s position” during and in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Even though women were denied full citizenship, they participated fully in the French revolution, and the revolution did improve some aspects of their life.

One area in which revolutionary changes did benefit women was that of marital law, and the introduction of divorce in particular. On September 20, 1792, the French National Assembly passed a decree regulating divorce, which for the first time in France opened the possibility of completely severing marital relationships. For the authors of the decree, divorce was inextricably linked to the concept of liberty: it was “a consequence of individual liberty which an indissoluble engagement would destroy”. More specifically, by making marriage a civil contract that could be terminated by either party, the French revolutionaries sought to give more power to women and give them the possibility to end relations which were harmful, not only for the women themselves, but also for the nation.

As several of its clauses demonstrate, liberty and equality stood at the center of the divorce decree. In particular, its authors postulated an unprecedented level of equality between husbands and wives:

I.2 “Divorce shall take place by mutual consent of the husband and wife.”I.3. “One of the spouses may have a divorce decreed by the simple allegation of incompatibility of disposition or of character”

IV. Effects of divorce with regard to children: “In the case of divorce by mutual consent or by the request of one of the couple for simple cause of incompatibility of disposition or of character, without any other indication of motives, the children born of the dissolved marriage are confided accordingly: the girls to the mother, the boys, aged less than seven years also to the mother; after that age they are sent to and entrusted to the father, nonetheless the father and the mother can make on this subject another arrangement that seems proper to them…”

Thus, with this decree, women were granted the possibility to end their marital relationship, and husbands and wives shared equal responsibility in deciding who would take care of the children following a divorce.

So, what do we do with this evidence, and what does it suggest about the impact of the French Revolution on women and gender relations? Instead of answering these questions, I want to suggest a set of questions that would allow us to fully capture the (positive and negative) consequences of the Revolution for women, by avoiding the question of whether it was “good or bad” for them.

1. What was the decree of divorce for? What were the revolutionaries’ motivations for passing such a law? And what does it reveal about the relationship between gender and nation-building?

2. What is the relationship between law and practice, and more specifically, what was the impact of the divorce decree on the lives of women? Did women take advantage of it, and if so, who, when and how? What were the immediate consequences of the decree?

3. Did the introduction of divorce help reconfigure the French family according to the revolutionaries’ vision?

4. What was the intellectual legacy of the divorce decree? Considering that divorce was abolished in 1816, not to be reintroduced until 1884, did the effects of divorce on women and gender relations persist even during the time when divorce was suppressed?

5. Did this law have an impact abroad? And how does a global perspective of family law look like?

These questions point to several lines of inquiry; about the revolutionaries’ motivations and the pace of social and cultural change, in particular the short-term consequences and long-term legacy of divorce. The answers to these questions would certainly show the complexity of the impact of the French Revolution on women, which ultimately suggests that if we want to fully understand the age of revolution and its impact on race and gender, we need to start with “good” questions.

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3 Responses to Rethinking the Limits of Revolution: Family and the French Revolution

  1. Jane Kamensky says:

    While I think you overstate both the recentness and the categorical nature of historians’ debates about the “entirely positive or … entirely negative” impact of the French Revolution on women, this post offers fascinating insights on the revolutionary nature of divorce French style, after 1792. The relationship of the decree to Catholic strictures on marriage and divorce is worth exploring, as is the specific timing, and, as you say, its legacies. I wonder, too, whether le nouveau divorce became the subject of graphic satire, which might be investigated via the Stanford/ BnF’s recently released cache of French Revolutionary images in the French Revolution Digital Archive. What do you make of this image, for example, titled Le Divorce, from 1793? See

  2. Jeanna Kadlec says:

    I am interested in the idea you raised very briefly, Geraldine, that divorce was a right granted to women not only because it was in their individual best interest but also because it was in the best interest of the nation. This suggests that some marital unions might be more profitable/fruitful for furthering “the nation” than others, and that by allowing women to divorce – and thus, in theory, to remarry a more suitable partner with whom a more viable livelihood may be pursued – the state is ultimately furthering its own interest. This tension between individual liberty and national interest, when it comes to women, seems at its height in the subject of divorce, because the “right to divorce” also seems to hinge on the idea that women will remarry. After all, there weren’t social structures in place that encouraged women, particularly women with young children, to remain single, and they would have been exceptional financial burdens on extended family (unless they were of a particularly high socioeconomic status, and perhaps not even then). Given how restricted women’s rights remained in other capacities, and how much the “right” to divorce can be extrapolated as the “right” to find a more suitable (and viable) economic/domestic partner with whom to further “grow” the nation, it seems that there are limitations (again, that word!) as to how far we might go in terming this a “right.”

  3. Cassandra Berman says:

    You raise some really interesting questions, Geraldine, and particularly in light of your prospectus defense tomorrow (when I look forward to hearing much more on divorce post 1884!). I’d love to know more about the documentation of divorce prior to 1816, and especially what broad insights into family life and gender roles might be gleaned from such archives. I’m also thinking back to Emma Rothschild’s exploration of family records during our last mini-symposium. It was fascinating to have her walk the audience through an analysis of family records, and if I remember correctly the topic of divorce did come up several times. In your current research, have you gotten a sense of the prevalence of divorce in the revolutionary period, as opposed to post-1884? I’d be curious to know in what ways the statistics reflect broader political and social tumult.

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