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Women in Enlightenment and Revolution and their Position in the First Modern Civil Codes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2014

Dorothea Wayand
Department of Law, Carleton University


Women did not gain from the Revolution or the Enlightenment as men did. Seeking the cause for this, the paper concentrates upon the period of 1770–1810, and the area of Central and Western Europe. It is found that during the French Revolution a number of persons, mostly women, did fight on behalf of women's rights to freedom and equality. However, even before the Revolution was over, they had lost what little they had gained earlier. With Napoleon's Civil Code, a modern code in many ways, the time-honoured supremacy of the male was reasserted. In Prussia, a less violent struggle went on about women's rights. It was fought by men on both sides and it was occasioned by the lengthy creative process which resulted in the first of the modern codes by 1796. It reflected a few of the arguments made in favour of women, but in principle it enshrined male supremacy. The Austrian Civil Code extended the recognition of female equality a bit further. Both German codes were influenced by Enlightened theories; however, they were unable to overcome the long-established principle of “natural” male dominance.


Les femmes n'ont pas tiré autant de bénéfices que les hommes du Siècle des lumières et de la Révolution. Cherchant la raison de cet état de fait, le présent exposé se concentre sur la période 1770–1810 et sur les régions de l'Europe centrale et de l'ouest. Il est établi qu'au cours de la Révolution française, un certain nombre de personnes, surtout des femmes, ont effectivement livré une lutte en faveur des droits des femmes à la liberté et à l'égalité. Cependant, avant même que la Révolution ne soit terminée, ces personnes avaient déjà perdu le peu qu'elles avaient réussi à obtenir auparavant. Le Code civil napoléonien, un code moderne à bien des égards, a réaffirmé le principe consacré de la suprématie mâle. Une lutte moins violente prit place enfaveur des droits des femmes en Prusse. Ce sont des hommes qui s'affrontèrent de part et d'autre à l'occasion du long processus créateur qui aboutit au premier des codes modernes en 1796. Il reflétait quelques-uns des arguments énoncés enfaveur des femmes, mais en principe, il consacrait la suprématie mâle. Le Code civil autrichien a étendu un peu plus la reconnaissance de l'égalité de la femme. Les deux codes germaniques ont été influencés par les théories du Siècle des lumières mais ils furent néanmoins incapables de surmonter le principe bien établi de la prédominance «naturelle» de l'homme.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Law and Society Association 1992

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