We’re now into the second series of the BBC’s block buster drama Versailles and it’s hot stuff. The court which is so glamours from the outside is imploding with the intrigue and corruption that will see its end a century later in the Revolution where Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité will replace the divine right of kings.
Whilst the Revolution created modern France little is spoken of in terms of its effects on women. Shockingly women were barred from political rights even as they were being proclaimed to be universal and inalienable and in 1793 because they were deemed to lack sufficient education to participate in the nation’s political life and by the autumn of that year women were also barred from participating in clubs and societies.
But not all Frenchmen and revolutionaries were against women’s rights. Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (September 17, 1743–March 28, 1794) was one such man. In 1786 at the age forty-two, he married the twenty-two year old Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822), with whom he forged a loving relationship. The pair shared similar political convictions and developed a solid intellectual partnership.
Like her husband, de Grouchy was committed to bringing about major judicial and political reforms in France; and her own experiences of convent schooling had left her with fierce dislike of the Church and a commitment to secular values. They both dreamed and worked towards a liberal, rational and democratic France.
In 1790 as the French Revolution was well under way her husband called for “the admission of women to the rights of citizenship” but he was widely opposed on the grounds that women were innately inferior and destined to only to be wives and mothers.
In 1791, along with Thomas Paine, the Condorcets founded la Société républicaine [the Republican Society], sometimes credited as the first republican society in France; and Mme de Condorcet translated Paine’s writings for the journal of the Society, La Républicain ou défenseur du gouvernement représentatif [The Republican or defender of representative government].
In the autumn of 1792, the Marquis was elected to the National Convention of the newly constituted first French Republic, and became chairman of the Committee on a Constitution. He proposed what became known as, “La Girondine” a constitution that was rejected in favour of the Jacobin Constitution, in June 1793 and his impassioned defence of La Girondine led to an order for his arrest and he was forced to flee from his beloved France.Separated from one another de Condorcet wrote until he was found dead in prison cell under suspicious circumstances while his wife worked on her own text known as Lettres à Cabanis sur la sympathie [Letters to Cabanis on Sympathy], in which she sets forth her own ideas on achieving “a society of happiness” and struggles with the question of what holds society together while her own life and the life of the nation was being rent asunder under in the Terror.
Rendered penniless by her husband’s proscription then death Sophie needed to work to support herself, her child and her sister so she opened a shop and put aside her writing and translation work for years until she eventually published a translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in 1798, adding eight letters, Lettres sur la Sympathie, commenting upon this work. This became the standard French translation for the next two centuries. Her eight letters on sympathy were however ignored by historians of economic thought, and were only recently (2008) translated into English.
In the French Revolution gender becomes a condition for the possession of political rights for the first time and it is a sad irony that it was used to bar the women of France from the ballot until 1944. During the revolution which was supposed to free the French people men used their power to take what power women had gained in its early days away from them as well as many of the advancements in civil law passed in the euphoria of the 1790s which were withdrawn by Napoleon, and not again fully secured until the latter half of the twentieth century.
The Marquis de Condorcet was symbolically re- interred in the Panthéon in 1989, in honour of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and Condorcet’s role as a central figure in the Enlightenment. He started his academic life as a mathematician then transferred those skills into social and political affairs developing a model he called “social arithmetic”. He could be called the ‘father of statistics’ because he advocated the use of statistics and probability theory, to the financial reforms, the reform of hospital care, jury decision-making and voting procedures.
Sophie’s contribution to modern political and economic thought is now being properly evaluated and recognised particularly in the United States where her contribution to the discussion on the nature of liberty is now being widely acknowledged. In a world of political and social turmoil she advocates that educators and social reformers should nurture ‘sympathy’ the feeling for others induced by imagining yourself in another’s place and imagining how you would feel. In this way, people would be led to strive to maintain good relations with their fellows and provide the basis both for specific benevolent acts and for the general social order. Sympathy may be an old idea but I think its a good one and many of our politicians and economists would do well to consider it once more.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
Illustrations: Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822)
The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought edited by Robert William Dimand, Chris Nyland