Pioneering women’s rights during the French Revolution: Marie-Madeleine Jodin

Marie-Madeleine Jodin is surely amongst the most neglected figures in the history of eighteenth-century political thought. Primarily considered as a correspondent of the philosopher Denis Diderot, of whom her father had been a collaborator, her biographical profile and the prominence of her intellectual contribution have only been rediscovered by historians over the past twenty years. In 1790, Jodin addressed to the French National Assembly a legislative proposal to ensure women’s political rights. My book, Donne in Rivoluzione. Marie-Madeleine Jodin e i diritti della citoyenne provides the first critical edition of Jodin’s Legislative Views for Women (Vues législatives pour les femmes) and frames her political contribution to the history of women’s rights and the participation of women in the French Revolution.

Title page, Marie-Madeleine Jodin, Vues législatives pour les femmes adressées à l’Assemblée nationale, Angers, Chez Mame, 1790.

But first, who was Marie-Madeleine Jodin?

She was born in 1741 in Paris, where her family had moved so that her father could further his watchmaking studies, which, in 1754, resulted in his presentation of a project for a two-pendulum clock at the Académie des sciences. In 1761 Marie-Madeleine’s life was thrown into turmoil when after her father’s death, her paternal uncle accused her mother of prostituting her daughter and had the two women locked up at the Salpêtrière. This institution, part of the Hôpital général de Paris, had been in operation since the late seventeenth century, and was intended to hold women accused of prostitution or scandalous behaviour. We do not know much about the time that Marie-Madeleine spent at the Salpêtrière but it was certainly an experience that deeply affected her life and the development of her political thought.

In the aftermath of her liberation from the Salpêtrière, presumably between 1763 and 1764, Marie-Madeleine embarked on a career as an actress outside the borders of France, in Warsaw and Dresden, perhaps to escape the stigma that marked the women who had been interned in the hospital-prison. After a somewhat bumpy career – which was followed by Diderot, who regarded her with paternal esteem – she moved to Bordeaux, where she met the magistrate Jean-Baptiste Lynch, to whom she would later send her legislative opinions, and thence to Paris, where she was present at the outbreak of the French Revolution. When the Estates General opened, and, later, the Constituent Assembly met, Jodin invoked the need to also call French women citizens to reform society with her Legislative Views for Women. This 86-page text was addressed to the deputies of the National Assembly and to the whole French nation, and outlined the characteristics of a new legislative plan that would restore ‘the rights which are ours by Nature and by the social compact’ to women.

Significantly, the text opened with the dedication ‘To my sex’, followed by the eloquent statement ‘And we too are Citizens’. At a time when the French people were committed to regenerating society and founding the future happiness and glory of the nation, Jodin claimed for women the honour and the right to contribute to public prosperity by breaking the silence to which politics seemed to have condemned them. Jodin called for ‘an independent legislative code’ that would eliminate the source of the excesses that had tainted the glory and virtues of women and called for a new political organisation that would free Frenchwomen ‘from that kind of protection’ that had kept them out of public interest.

Jodin remarked that the state of degradation in which her sex found itself did not derive from any imperfection of the female nature, but from the neglect of laws that had allowed a scandalous licence to be introduced into customs. The first point of Jodin’s reform was the abolition of prostitution. Beyond the current of reformists and punitives, she, who had known very closely the reality of the femmes publiques locked up in the Salpêtrière, observed that ‘the ignominy to which your police seem to devote part of our sex to the incontinence of yours, outrages the Laws and destroys the respect belonging to the sacred titles of citizenesses, wives and mothers’. While claiming equality between men and women – underlining, as François Poulain de La Barre had already done a century earlier, that ‘the mind has no sex, any more than virtues do’ – Jodin argued, from the point of view of complementarity between the sexes, the need for ‘a jurisdiction of women’ which would contribute to the restoration of the public good, starting from a reform of morals. For this reason, the plan included, in addition to the abolition of prostitution, the closure of gambling houses and the censorship of obscene prints. For the realisation of her proposal, Jodin therefore envisaged the creation of a national tribunal ‘concerned exclusively with, and presided over, by women’ consisting of a chamber of conciliation and a civil chamber. Cases of marital separation, family disputes regarding inheritance and any other discussion involving both sexes would be examined in the chamber of conciliation, while the civil chamber would deal only with matters of public scandal.

Chérieux, Club des femmes patriotes dans une église, 1793.

Following the example of the National Constituent Assembly, Jodin proposed a national women’s assembly. She stated that ‘we must proceed to establish our Laws, as the nation proceeds to reform its own. The King, who summoned in his paternal goodness the enlightened men who are now carrying out this great task, cannot forget that we women are part of his great family. He cannot ignore the fact that fathers take charge of the education of their sons and leave that of their daughters to the mother. We demand, with the confidence that his justice inspires in us, to be subjected to the same maternal authority, the one assigned to us by Nature and implicit in the relations of the sexes’.

Jodin did not live to see the publication of the French Constitution in September 1791, nor could she applaud the institution of divorce in 1792. She died in 1790, at the age of 49, shortly after publishing her Legislative Views for Women.

– Valentina Altopiedi

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