By Lucy Wadham

Publish yr note: First released in 2009

At the age of eighteen Lucy Wadham ran clear of English boys and into the fingers of a Frenchman. Twenty-five years later, having married in a French Catholic Church, positioned her young children throughout the French academic approach and divorced in a French courtroom of legislations, Wadham is completely put to discover the variations among Britain and France.

Using either her own reports and the teachings of French background and tradition, she examines each element of French lifestyles - from intercourse and adultery to cash, happiness, race and politics - during this humorous and engrossing account of our so much interesting neighbour.

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Each sex is called to the kind of occupation which is fitting for it; its action is circumscribed within this circle which it cannot break through, because nature, which has imposed these limits on man, commands imperiously and receives no law. Whereas man was fit for all the tasks of public life which demanded strength, intelligence and character, women had other functions to fulfil: ‘To begin educating men, to prepare children’s minds and hearts for public virtues, to direct them early in life towards the good, to elevate their souls, to educate them in the political cult of liberty: such are their functions, after household cares.

In the words of Article 10: ‘Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum’. 7 Though intended primarily to be a statement of abstract principles, de Gouges’s text was not free from special pleading for women qua women. When it suited her purpose, she was ready both to strike a personal note and to invoke feminine stereotypes as elements in her rhetorical strategy. In her Preamble, for instance, she refers to ‘the sex that is as superior in beauty as it is in courage during the sufferings of maternity’, and in Article 11, which affirmed the right to free speech, she makes the point that such a right is of particular concern to abandoned mothers seeking support from the fathers of their illegitimate children.

The divorce law of 1792 was not feminist in inspiration, but rather an element integral to the revolutionaries’ vision of a new and regenerated secular society. Nevertheless, it was an extremely liberal measure and was made even more liberal by the law of 4 floréal, Year II, which permitted divorce to a husband or wife who could produce evidence of the absence of the other spouse over a period of six months. Many women seized the opportunity to rid themselves of unsatisfactory husbands. Some 30,000 divorces were granted between 1792 and 1803, the great majority of them affecting urban rather than rural couples (with Paris alone responsible for some 13,200 divorces, compared with 1049 in Lyon and 1046 in Rouen).

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