1848 in France and the United States:
A Comparative Perspective on Feminism

Revolution on this Side of the Ocean, Resolutions on the Other Side


One may wonder, as we have been doing since this morning, whether the world, or at least the Western World, really "turned" in 1848. The only certain thing is that within a few months at the beginning of the year, changes did occur for women, both in France and in the United States. In particular, and that is what I would like to examine today, two crucial events made it possible for feminists in both countries to articulate a collective claim for female suffrage. I will therefore try to demonstrate how two distinct events occurring in widely different contexts and circumstances, were able to produce similar consequences.

Let me first highlight the following fact: prior to 1848, there had been claims for equal political rights in general, and for female suffrage in particular, on both sides of the Atlantic. But they were all claims by individuals, among others: Abigail Adams, the wife of John, during the American revolution, or Condorcet, during the French one. What is specific about the year 1848 is that it witnessed the first demands by groups of people. And I think there is an objective reason for that. My hypothesis is that this was made possible by the two events I have just been referring to (and about which I won't keep you in suspense much longer). Let me just say that while neither of them has gone unnoticed (far from it), the two have seldom been analyzed as two analogous milestones in women's history. The two events are, in France, the decree passed on March 5th by the Provisional Government in Paris, which enfranchised all males, servants included; and in the United States, the Married Women's Property Act, which came into force the following month in the State of New York. What makes the two events analogous is that both provided an opportunity for a change regarding the very structure of the society --and, in turn, regarding the definition of citizenship.

In other words my contention will be that in the year 1848, that is a few decades after their respective national revolutions, a fundamental transformation took place in both the French and American societies: each country did turn, or at least began to turn into a "modern" society: no longer a holistic society, but an individual-based structure. This momentous shift had considerable influence on the two feminist movements, which were then just beginning to emerge.

Some methodological claims

In order to study that transformation and its consequences on female suffrage, I would like to begin with a brief overview of methodology. My perspective is deliberately and fundamentally comparative: I intend to compare two similar claims occurring at the very same time in two different countries. But of course, this does not imply that I am thinking in terms of the "influence" of one movement on the other, or of any kind of "cross-fertilization". It might indeed be possible to speak of an "influence" (the women in Seneca Falls did know about the action of French feminists, e.g.) but there was no connection between French feminists and American feminists (no letters, no meetings...) until 1848.

Which brings me to another semantic point: I have been using the words "feminism" and "feminist", which of course, did not exist in the 1840s, and were later defined differently by the French and English-speaking worlds. I'm fully aware that such a complex lexicological question would deserve a thorough study. However, let me suggest that the difference is reflected in ordinary "dictionary" definitions of "feminism" on the one hand, and "féminisme" on the other: the former is defined as "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes" (Merriam-Webster). This of course resembles the French definition of "féminisme" as (my translation): the "doctrine, or movement, which advocates extended rights and roles for women in society" (Nouveau Robert). But the two definitions are also fundamentally distinct, in that political equality is presented as the first element in the American definition, while the French dictionary does not even mention it.

Still, in spite of important differences between "feminism" and "féminisme", the common factor required for any comparison to be possible is there, and it is female suffrage. Not because it is often seen as an "objective" indicator of feminist achievements (things are obviously more complex). But because, once again, 1848 witnessed the first collective claims in France and the United States. And in my opinion the reason why neither these claims, nor indeed feminist movements in general, were "possible" before 1848 lies in the very structure of Western societies in the first half of the nineteenth century. Which brings me to the next point: a few observations on the "civil organization" of France and America up to the early 19th century. An immensely difficult question of course. But even a brief consideration of that question will make it easier to identify the transformation that occurred in 1848 in both countries.

"Structure" of the societies before 1848

My first preliminary remark will perhaps sound provocative, but it is essential if we want to place the issue of female suffrage in a proper historical perspective: in so far as France and the United States, as well as Britain, were indeed hierarchical societies in the early 19th century, with a strong sense of "rank", one may consider that women were regarded as "inferior". Yet in none of the countries can one actually speak of "male oppression": women were "inferior" not because they were women, but as a consequence of the social structure. That condition did not make it possible for a real sense of "inferiority" to develop, or at least (to be less provocative!), it did not create the collective need, or the "objective" ground to demand an institutional change. Let me be more specific: it is common to think that, until the 19th century at least, women had been subjected everywhere to male domination, remaining unaware of their condition for centuries. My own viewpoint is that if a reaction against "male domination" was born in the second quarter of the 19th century in France and the United States, it was because changes in both countries had created the conditions for a feminist movement to appear. We then shift the perspective from a condition of an "objective and unquestionable difference" between men and women, to an altered perception of "social hierarchy" which, beginning at a given moment, could be felt by women --or at least some women-- as unfair, and thus unbearable. In other words traditional hierarchical differences (as observable in France and America in the late 18th century) should not be mistaken for "inequalities" --as we understand the word in modern, equalitarian and individual-based societies.

Now if we take a closer look at the French and American social structures in the early 19th century, we find that in France, the pattern was quite clear: under the July Monarchy, the voting system was based on the poll tax, so that the head of the family would vote for the whole family, sensu lato, i.e. himself, his wife, children, AND servants. Women were "inferior" insofar as they did not have political rights. But many males did not enjoy those rights either, especially members of the same household. Hence, French women were not "inferior" because they were women but because the main political unit was the household: the political society was not composed of individuals but of collective "cells". Another telltale fact can be found in the attitudes of female Saint-Simonians, who were typical working-class early feminists and whose network dated back to the end of the Restoration: before 1848, whenever they mentioned the extension of political rights (that is in the late 1820s, early 1830s), they never included women among the population they would have liked to see go to the polls.

Quite similarly, in colonial America as well as in the early Republic, the unit was not the individual, as it is today, but the family ("by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law"). Mutatis mutandis, children or slaves shared the same status as wives (in a society when people "found it impossible to imagine respectable adult women as anything other than wives", according to Linda Kerber). Things began changing in the 1830s and 1840s, when, in addition to general factors enabling women to get better organized, a few laws passed at the State level gave women some property rights (e.g. Mississippi, 1839).

In sum, both in France and in the United States, the social structure of the early 19th century was a traditional one --a holistic one if you will. Now a feminist movement, in order to be able to produce collective claims, needs "prerequisites", among which, and that is essential, an (organized) oppression directed against women as such and the possibility to think of women, to represent them in the social or political sphere, as individual and distinct human beings. These conditions arose in 1848 in both countries, for different reasons, and that is what I would like to consider now.

So, what did happen in 1848?

What were the two distinct events that had similar consequences in France and in the United States?

In France, on March 5th, a decree on suffrage was issued by the Provisional Government. It enfranchised "all the French over 21, having resided in their district for six months, and not legally deprived of or suspended from their civic rights". A crucial change --with immense implications as regards women-- is that the very notion of "household cell" no longer existed, or better say it was no longer the political unit used to define citizenship. The unit now was the individual. Then, and only then, did the fact that women were not granted suffrage become unjust; was perceived as unjust now that all adult males were enfranchised. It became possible for women to think that it was only because they were women that they were not allowed to vote. And some of them did begin to think in those terms.

This was brought to light by Delphine de Girardin, an educated woman who criticized the new administration for their conception of the Republic in a letter dated March 13, 1848: "They enfranchised all servants in the household, those who are employed []; they did not even consider enfranchising the mother of the family, the housewife." Women, she added, "have become aware they were deprived of the right of suffrage only since the day when this very right was granted to the servants they [themselves] pay and command."

This quotation illustrates the injustice felt by wealthy women, who could afford servants. But all women were concerned: former Saint-Simonians, who had never supported female suffrage under the July Monarchy, demanded it for the first time in the spring of 1848. They also intimated that George Sand, the well-known female writer, could stand for election, a suggestion Sand rejected, on the grounds that women should first gain extended civil rights before being in a position to demand the suffrage. At that time, the Civil Code did not allow French women to be autonomous individuals --and change was still a long way ahead.

Sand's reaction proved difficult to understand for those French feminists who were in favor of female suffrage. But she had a point, as is suggested by the situation in the United States, more specifically in the State of New York, where the town of Seneca Falls is located. And the famous conference which was held there in July 1848, resulting in the founding of the Woman's Rights Movement, might arguably not have been organized in any other State. For New York then was the only State of the Union whose legislation gave full economic status to American wives. After a long procedure, a comprehensive law, known as the Married Women's Property Act, passed the State legislature in April 1848: married women were then granted the actual protection of their property. The law thus made it possible for women to stop thinking of the family as an indivisible unit, seeing it instead as the addition of distinct elements. That in turn marked the beginning of the shift to a more "individualistic" society, one no longer based on "the family" as the only possible civil unit, one where wives had become equal to their husbands regarding property rights. From then on women could believe that the only reason why they did not vote lay in their being women... and participants included the claim in the "Resolutions" they agreed on at Seneca Falls in July, three months after the Act passed. A "resolution" which thus coincides with a "revolution".


Female suffrage and feminism in 1848 are of course much more complex issues than I have been able to show in this short presentation. Be that as it may, I would like to make two final points.

The first one concerns the usefulness of comparison for a study of this kind. Scholars who work from a national viewpoint have often stressed the impact universal suffrage had on French feminism, or the significance of both the Married Women's Property Act and the Seneca Falls conference (even though those two moments in the history of American women were seldom connected analytically). The monographs written on both sides of the Atlantic are invaluable in that they have undeniably deepened the knowledge we have of early feminism. But considering several similar situations at the same time may be a way of broadening the scope. For instance, as far as female enfranchisement is concerned, few people have wondered why everything occurred during a single year, and only in France and the United States. I would like to suggest that a comparative method may offer a fruitful approach at the point where research now stands.

The second, and final remark, also has a general bearing: the Decree of March 5th and the Married Women's Property Act in the State of New York, these two events which occurred in 1848 in France and the United States respectively, produced the same kind of indirect consequence: they both modified the structure of the societies in which they took place, and they drew the framework within which women could elaborate a legitimate claim for suffrage. Nevertheless, the French decree and the American act had been distinct from the very beginning, in their nature, as well as in their origins. In spite of an identical claim which may have made people think that the same movement was born in two countries in 1848, French feminism and American feminism would thus remain national "artifacts". And whereas feminist movements gradually developed in the Western world during the latter half of the 19th century, this extension, and internationalization, occurred in parallel with the triumph of national values.


Merci à Anne Verjus pour ses lumineux travaux sur l'histoire des femmes en France, que j'ai largement utilisés ici, et à mes relecteurs attentifs.

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