Rethinking Honor in the Republican Family: Fin-de-Siècle Divorce Suits
Despite Ly’s failure to convince the French public of the virtues of political spinsterhood, her self-portrayal as an “honest woman” whom Casalé and Massat had wrongfully insulted won her a great deal of acclaim. As discussed in Chapter 1, this was partly due to the more positive reception of the “new woman” and the feminist movement after the turn of the century. But many of the heightened national anxieties analyzed in Chapter 2 played a critical role in allowing women to co-opt the sexual insult and turn it back onto their attackers. The widely perceived demographic crises of the fin de siècle led medical authorities and popular commentators to invest new fears in the vieille fille stereotype, but they also raised suspicion over sterile or “degenerate” forms of male behavior. As a study of prewar divorce suits demonstrates, female litigants and male judges used honor in the courtroom to censure men for neglecting their emotional and personal obligations to the family as well as their reproductive duties to the nation. Just as numerous commentators defended Ly as an honorable jeune fille who meted out public justice to a man who had failed in his professional responsibilities, divorce petitioners and republican magistrates after 1884 seized on the stereotype of the “wronged wife” to punish men publicly for ignoring their private duties in the family. This chapter and the following one explore how potential divorcées and separated women deployed strategies of familial honor in the civil courts and in the civic forum of the National Assembly. They attempted to redefine the public and private relations between the sexes and to enact new forms of symbolic citizenship. Like Ly, these individuals chose the malleable economy of honor and shame as the best framework within which they could dispute women’s lack of autonomy in the Republic.
KeywordsVenereal Disease Civil Code Civil Court Divorce Proceeding Separation Suit
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