“Women are nothing but machines for producing children.” These outrageous words are from French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Even though the 1789 French Revolution was clearly against discrimination, demanding abolition of the father and husband’s power, the Napoleonic laws during his reign (1804-1815) were very powerful. In fact, many countries, including India, still use sections of the Napoleonic Civil Code. His repressive laws on women continued for more than 150 years in patriarchal French society.
I learnt more about this society since 1974 from Jacqueline, a well-educated and friendly classmate who spoke English as I didn’t know French yet. To attend my art college Ecole des Beaux-Arts on 14 rue Bonaparte, Paris 6, I had to get to the Boulevard St Germain metro station where there’s a café called Café de Flore. Jacqueline would take me to Café de Flore and I’d listen to her fairytale-like stories as she helped me understand French culture. This café was where I discovered existential feminist philosopher, political activist and author of The Second Sex. She’d come with her companion, Jean Paul Sartre, the existential philosopher, they’d sit and write for days on end, have heated discussions together or with other friends and intellectuals. As I’d just come from a patriarchal society, it was difficult for me to understand the concept of feminism then. My deep-dose learning about famous feminists becoming “sluts”, and existential philosophy that was in the making in Paris, began in Café de Flore.
From mid-20th century, French writer Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist writings set the tone for Women’s Lib later. In what came to be known as “The Manifesto of 343 Sluts”, she wrote that a million French abortions every year are condemned to secrecy under dangerous conditions. To protest France’s anti-abortion law she got 343 notable women to declare they’d had an abortion, making them susceptible to prosecution. When a French magazine printed that on April 5, 1971, it shook the Catholic world. Society was so sensitised that in 1975 abortion was legalised in France. Their health minister, who repealed the penalty for voluntarily terminating a pregnancy, was Simone Veil,