The Imperial Foundations of Women's Political Disempowerment

Carissa Tudor, Brown University

Reforms of civil institutions which govern the relations of citizens or subjects within a polity have long been recognized as a central component of Western political, economic, and state development. These legal changes are often celebrated as a progressive step along the way to democracy and greater social equality and are largely studied as domestic processes. This paper argues that the same reforms often glorified for their progressive effects, were deleterious to women's political empowerment. In many European contexts, moreover, reforms were tied to imperial intervention and not the result of purely domestic factors. The paper additionally advances a theoretical argument suggesting that the form of family hierarchy instantiated by civil law shapes patterns of women's political empowerment, especially the strength of suffrage mobilization. Empirically, this paper traces the diffusion of the French Civil Code across much of Europe through its forced imposition during the Napoleonic wars and voluntary legal mimicry after. It further shows the long legacy of French imperial intervention by examining the effects of legal intervention on women’s political disempowerment over a century later. I provide evidence for the relationship between French civil law and low women's political participation from two perspectives. I first consider a cross-national perspective, finding that countries with civil laws similar to the French Civil Code had on average lower levels of political participation than other European countries in the early 20th century. In Germany, I use original data collected from primary sources on women's organizations to show that areas subject to the imposition of French civil laws during the revolutionary and imperial wars (1792-1815) were less likely to have suffrage organizations in the early 20th century. The relationship is strongest in areas that had prolonged use of the French Civil Code and for suffrage organizing conducted by married women.

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 Presented in Session 159. Gender: Work in Progress