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  • Women’s Empire and the Sovereignty of Man in La Décade philosophique, 1794–1807
  • Elizabeth Colwill (bio)

In 1791, from the crucible of the French Revolution, Louise de Kéralio advised French citizens to beware the social, political, and sexual “empire” of the queen. “People!” she warned in Les Crimes des Reines de France, “Do you know what a queen is? Sovereign of the king in the conjugal bed,” the queen will cunningly extend her “empire” to command armies and to administer colonies “from the recesses of her boudoir.” 1 Just five years later, as revolutionary passions cooled in the wake of Thermidor, the eminent poet Pindare LeBrun ascribed to “women’s empire” a sharply different content. “Let the rattle silence the lyre,” he advised, prescribing an empire in maternity as substitute for female literary ambition. “In posterity begins your empire.” 2

The shifting boundaries of “women’s empire” in these texts expose the French Revolution as a watershed in the multiple discourses of womanhood of the eighteenth century. In the last decade, pathbreaking feminist scholarship has highlighted the Revolution as a key transitional moment in gender relations, notions of womanhood, and the nature of the public sphere. 3 The power of women during the Enlightenment, the exclusions inherent in the revolutionary process, and the gendered boundaries of republican and liberal theory have all become subjects of heated debate. 4 [End Page 265] During the early years of Revolution, as we now know, revolutionaries found a prime target for their political fervor in an aristocratic female empire, equated with luxury, intrigue, and “hideous moral license.” 5 But, as I will argue here, the problem of defining women’s empire remained a preoccupation in moderate republican circles well after the execution of Marie-Antoinette. 6 In the pages of La Décade philosophique, littéraire et politique, an influential scholarly revue published between 1794 and 1807, the same phrase—the empire of woman—reemerged as the centerpiece of a positive, and purportedly universal, notion of woman defined as the self-effacing mère-ménagère.

The first task of this article is to question this discursive triumph of domesticity and, by extension, any neat transition from one model of womanhood to the next. The Décade provides a veritable treasure trove of political, literary, and scientific constructions of women’s empire, which complicate our understanding of the post-Revolutionary triumph of domesticity by exposing the tensions and points of rupture within what scholars have tended to represent as an ideological consensus. This article, like the Décade itself, ranges broadly across themes and genres because in that compendium of discourses lay the rhetorical force and the political impact of “women’s empire.”

The Décade also provides a window on the complex cultural processes through which the “individual” was reshaped during this understudied period, for the boundaries of the male subject evolved in conjunction with revolutionary concepts of woman. This article highlights the dual nature of the transition whereby men attempted to negotiate their relationship to the public through an individualism defined against a reconstituted empire for women. Yet, despite the scientific faith in rigid gender boundaries that pervades the revue, the construction of the male, like the female, self was not unproblematic. Inextricably entangled in the shifting meanings and internal contradictions of “women’s empire,” the male individual was ensnared in the terms of a dichotomy that defined him.

Heirs of the Enlightenment, sympathizers with the Girondins, liberal republicans under Napoleon, the men of the Décade constituted what Habermas famously christened the “bourgeois public sphere” in the very moment of its redefinition. Shapers of public opinion, they participated in the major intellectual and political battles of their time. In their journal they left a record of those conflicts that provides a compelling opportunity to test contemporary scholarship concerning the exclusion of women from the public sphere with a microstudy of the public sphere in action. After founding their revue in 1794, the year in which slavery was abolished in the French colonies, the editors of the Décade endured the Terror, only to bid successfully for power on their own terms, before succumbing to Napoleonic censorship. The...

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pp. 265-289
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