Skip to content Skip to navigation

Unruly Women and the State of the State

Monday, November 26, 2018 - 10:00

As the 18th century progressed toward the "sex panic" that presaged a massive shift in attitudes towards women's sexuality, we see how images of sexual license--both heterosexual and homosexual--came to be viewed as signs of the decay and collapse of civil society itself. In France, these images got caught up in the larger upheavals that led to the Revolution. It becomes difficult to decipher exactly what the women of the French court were actually doing with each other, as opposed to what they were accused of doing as a symbolic displacement of hostility about other aspects of society and politics. The more I read about this era, the less I'm certain that I know. In some ways, the image of sapphic chaos in the later 18th century French court feels like a preview of the image of lesbian decadence that would bloom a century later. While attitudes towards relationships between women in western Europe share some trends and similarities, the specific form they take in particular countries is often shaped by local politics and anxieties. The Revolution not only employed the image of lesbian relations as an example of the destructive nature of uncontrolled women (whether in the aristocracy, or later among revolutionaries), but reaction to those images then shaped attitudes in England and elsewhere as we've seen in this current series of articles.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Merrick, Jeffry. 1990. “Sexual Politics and Public Order in Late Eighteenth-Century France: the Mémoires secrets and the Correspondance secrète” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, 68-84.

This article is an examination of the intersection of private and public morality within the ancien régime of France (i.e., the monarchy prior to the Revolution), and how the image of the family as a “miniature kingdom” created parallels such that transgressions against the state and transgressions against family members could be considered parallel. In turn, legal structures viewed the state (as embodied in the monarch and the legal system) as backing up paternal authority over family members with regard to clandestine marriages, female adultery, and the misbehavior of wives and children.

But this understanding can be seen most clearly when it is perceived as a failed system: in the later 18th century, patriarchalism (in both the state and family) was replaced by paternalism as secular authorities withdrew from the enforcement of morality. The perception of this as failure is woven throughout two collections of reports about moral transgressions and sexual scandals of the French court known as the Mémoires secrets and the Correspondance secrète, covering events of 1762-1787. Neither objective news reports nor simple personal memoirs, these documents assembled information about personal behavior from many sources but were selective and sensational in what they chose to include.

The collections are of interest to the Project due to a significant focus on sexual misconduct: “reports about homosexuality, unmanly men and unwomanly women, unruly and unchaste wives, marital separations, and misconduct involving members of the royal family." The conflation of private and state matters meant that these behaviors were seen as failures of the state itself.

Homosexuality, in particular, was seen as an index of the moral state and the references provide a view of the French vocabulary of the era regarding sexual preferences. The authors “recognized that pederasty and tribadism had always been popular among men and women respectively” but framed such practices as being newly popular and more open. The extensive anecdotes about male homosexuals provide evidence of something resembling an organized subculture, cutting across class backgrounds.

References to tribades, however, associated them more narrowly with theatrical performers and the associated fields of prostitution and pornography. Among the featured subjects were actress Françoise-Marie-Antoinette-Joseph Saucerotte, known as Mademoiselle de Raucourt, who enjoyed the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette. She was said to dress like a man when sexually involved with women, and like a woman when involved with men. She was said to have “married” the singer Sophie Arnould.

The editorializing on lesbian inclinations (and the specific word “lesbian” is used at least once) asserted their essential bisexuality, but also noted that men sometimes acknowledged that a man was not capable of retrieving the affections of a lover who had turned to other women. Sex between women was not viewed as criminal (since the law didn’t recognize the possibility of sex with no man involved) but rather as “vice”. Sexual relationships between women disrupted the patriarchal social order by removing women from the marriage economy.

The vast majority of this article is concerned with topics unrelated to lesbianism, so the following is a very small item from a much longer discussion.

While the Mémoires secrets were preoccupied with sexual indiscretions, the authors also traced shifts in the part sex played in public opinion about various members of the court. Entries in 1776 condemned scurrilous verses that questioned Louis XVI’s virility and that “criminally” misrepresented the friendship between Queen Marie Antoinette and the princesse de Lamballe (they were rumored to be lovers). Public opinion attacked the queen from a number of angles, including her participation in the government, but a running them was sexual voracity with both men and women and with persons of all classes. She came to represent the archetype of the “disorderly female” who symbolized the ruin of society.

Time period: