How Power Came to Men

Éliane Viennot continues her reflection on the history of inequalities, hierarchies and disqualifications that have affected women. Legally organizing their subjection is not enough; it must also be legitimized.

With his new work The golden age of the masculine orderÉliane Viennot continues the research that she herself called “France, women and power”, a journey through the history of France from the Ve century from a precise angle, that of male domination, starting – this was the first step – with “The invention of the Salic law”, a work published in 2006 and which runs from Ve At XVIe century.

Then came the exploration of “societal resistance” (2008), from the reign of Henry IV at the end of the Ancien Régime, then in 2016 a third approach under the title “And modernity was masculine”, which showed how, in the first years of the Revolution marked by advances in gender equality, quickly followed by a “bringing into line” of women, who, to use the words of Olympe de Gouges, were not able to “climb to the podium”, but on the other hand to the scaffold.

From the Napoleonic Code to the first female bachelor

The fourth work begins where the previous one left off, in 1804, the year of the proclamation of the First Empire and the Napoleonic Code, and ends in 1860. Why 1860? Because a year earlier, in June 1859, the schoolteacher Julie-Victoire Daubié won first prize in the competition of the Academy of Sciences, Belles-Lettres and Arts of Lyon for an essay on The poor woman at XIXe century. And because a year later, in 1861, she will be the first woman to register for the baccalaureate and to be accepted.

Considerable change and the effect of a fierce struggle led by women who, throughout the preceding decades of their century, had to face a “masculine order” which was more consolidated each year.

The thread drawn by the historian takes the opposite view of what she calls a doxa and which she largely attributes to the “school of the Republic” (p. 7), according to which the contemporary era begins with the French Revolution, the continuation, that is to say modernity, not then being than a story of social and political progress. For women too? No, not for women, replies Éliane Viennot, whatever, over the six decades examined, the regime in place, empire, monarchy, republic. This is because, decade after decade, it was a question of “containing women”, of “exempting them from circles of power”, of “making them dependent on men, legally, materially, sexually”, of “denigrating them without interruption” (p. 345).

The immense interest of the work carried out here lies firstly in highlighting this continuity, with an unraveling, stitch by stitch, of the construction and legitimization of male domination in multiple areas.

Construction and legitimation which, ideologically, are based on a differentialist fundamentalism which justifies the separatism between women and men. But the difference between the sexes is constantly renewed to mask the real issue, namely that of the perpetuation of a masculine power and the refusal of a sharing of this power, whatever its field of declination and exercise: family, politics, education, medicine, literature, science, etc. Power of the father, the husband, the emperor, the king, the deputy, the professor, the scholar, the writer…

The organization of the subjection of women

A decisive act at the beginning of the century was the legal organization of the domination of men and the subjection of women with the Civil Code promulgated in March 1804, a few weeks before the proclamation of the Empire. “Legal straitjacket for women” (p. 46) in both the private and public domains, it institutionalizes the omnipotence of the husband and father.

This subjection will also be played out in many aspects of the social and intellectual life that Viennot explores, for example education. If the first part of the XIXe century is rich in “progress for male education”, it is not the same, she emphasizes, for girls. The “disinvestment of the State is total from one regime to another (p. 57), with the exception of the “educational houses of the Legion of Honor” created by Napoleon and intended for the poor daughters of those who have “deserved the Empire”. Otherwise, the education of girls, and even a small number of them, was left to private initiatives, mainly religious, until 1836, when municipalities were invited, but without strict obligation, to open schools. some girls. And in 1860, Julie Daubié registered illegally for the baccalaureate exam.

Subjection also in the field of work, which sees “the concentration of women in unskilled jobs in the social sector” (p. 61), that of teaching, where women have neither the status, nor the salaries, nor the recognition, nor the training that their male colleagues benefit from, or even that of looking after young children.

Subjection in the field of politics: “two emperors, three kings, a President of the Republic and the group of men representing the provisional government of 1848” (p. 25), but the same horizon is blocked for women. The revolution of 1848 extended citizenship to all men, which was undeniable progress, but left women outside the right to vote and outside the universal system, the suffrage thus qualified being only male. The fraternity lives up to its name, being in fact that of brothers.

The legitimization of women’s subjection

Organizing the subjection of women with constitutions, laws, regulations, and institutions is not enough. It must also be legitimized. And many are those who are doing so. In Éliane Viennot’s work, we find a precise inventory of the various contributions, whether they come from lawyers, doctors, anatomists, linguists, historians, philosophers, writers, literary critics, publishers, an “intellectual class at work” to “justify the distribution of roles and powers” (p. 131). The axis of legitimation of this distribution is the difference between the sexes, a naturalized, essentialized, and therefore unavoidable difference.

Woman is first the body. We should even say the uterus first: through their sex and their belly, women are born for marriage, for motherhood, for the “domestic home”, not for “public life” (except for prostitutes), even less for “an effort of the mind” (p. 90) for example that which philosophy requires as underlined, among many others, by Eugène Lerminier, professor at the Collège de France. Or again in the pen of Proudhon, for whom in women, there is “in the brain as in the belly a certain organ incapable by itself of overcoming its native inertia and which the male mind alone is capable of making function, which it does not even always succeed in doing” (p. 116).

The difference between the sexes justifies inequalities, hierarchies, disqualifications. It’s impossible to detail everything here, but let’s focus for a moment on the main target: “women of letters”. “The most mistreated women in the speeches of the XIXe century are those who publish their writings, whatever genre they practice” (p. 84). Why? Because they dare to venture into a field that men consider to be theirs and, above all, because they can also succeed there.

Germaine de Staël, Félicité de Genlis, Louise Colet, Marie d’Agoult, George Sand are the best-known figures. But there are many others, cited throughout the pages by Éliane Viennot, who is doing considerable work to raise the profile of both women who have managed to have their writings published as well as authors of misogynistic, sexist and anti-feminist texts who range from the “vituperation of novelists” to the creation of the “blue stocking”, that is, the woman who writes and who consequently has never known love, according to Jules Janin, because “love was afraid of these pursed lips which incessantly vomit the rhymes of both sexes; love has shrunk before these awful ink-stained fingers…” (p. 100)

But unfortunately there are not only the criticisms of Jules Janin or Gustave Lanson. Others are also working on it, and we are filled with sadness at having to mention the names of Balzac, Lamartine, Stendhal. Yes, Stendhal, who depicts such beautiful female figures in his novels, but who is not, according to Viennot, one of the least active in the business.

The share of feminists

A little breather, however, with the last chapter of the book, the one that turns to the side of those who resist “the extraordinary offensive led in XIXe century against the possibility of equality of the sexes, that is to say against women” (p. 263): the feminists, still few in number, but nevertheless stubborn fighters, writers, teachers, workers, political activists, who face contempt, opprobrium, insults, violence of words and gestures, sometimes even imprisonment.

But they are there, more and more determined. They organize themselves, they create clubs, such as the Athénée des Dames, or the Club for the Emancipation of Women, or even the Fraternal Club of Lingères. They launch appeals, create newspapers to make themselves heard, The free woman, The women’s tribune, The women’s newspaper, The women’s gazette, etc. How can we not think, when reading these pages, of the flowering of newspapers and magazines that their descendants would create decades later, in the 1970s, or of those of the blogs, sites, podcasts produced by today’s feminists!

So we must cite the names, in addition to those of the writers mentioned above, of these tireless activists, Claire Démar, Jeanne Deroin, Flora Tristan, Eugénie Niboyet, Désirée Gay, Pauline Roland, Reine Guindorf, Suzanne Voilquin, Fanny Richomme. All denounce the power given to men in marriage, the exclusion of women from citizenship, or even “the devaluation that the label entails female author “, like Balzac’s younger sister, Laure de Surville (p. 284).

But all demand first and foremost the development of girls’ education. If girls were almost as likely to be educated at the primary level as boys during the Second Empire, we would still have to wait many years for the same to happen at the secondary and higher levels.

To those who today like to present France as a “feminine homeland” or who affirm that equality between women and men is an essential component of French identity, we can only recommend reading of this book. It will allow them to understand where we come from and especially why it took so many years and battles for women’s equality and freedom to be won – a conquest that is still unfinished.